Aug 01, 2019

New Jersey’s Historic Schools

By Lori Draz

middletown lincroft union school house

Union Schoolhouse

It’s back-to-school time, so let’s have a class in some of New Jersey’s historic schools. While New Jersey has a lot of them, many of the original, one-room schoolhouses have been lost to time and demolition. Still, there are some exquisite reminders of time when students of all ages studied together in the ultimate small-class setting. New Jersey is also home to many extraordinary universities including Monmouth County’s gem, Monmouth University, and its central jewel, Wilson Hall. There is the spiritually inspiring Seton Hall University, named after Elizabeth Ann Seton, America’s first saint; the beautiful Georgian Court College, in nearby Lakewood; and the renowned Princeton University, consistently ranked in the top 20 most beautiful American campuses.

This class begins with a lesson on the Union Schoolhouse in Middletown, located on the Middletown Lincroft Road. The land was purchased back in 1842 for the unimaginable sum of $7 as the site for the Union Schoolhouse. The compact school housed 49 students from first grade through high school. Special credit goes to the crafty teacher (there was only one) who received the staggering salary of $30 to $40 per quarter to teach the students. The school operated until 1909, when it became part of a farming complex. In 1954, the Garden Club RFD took over the property. Members performed the necessary repairs, painting and restorations, and it now serves as the home for their meetings. In 1976, the schoolhouse was officially designated as a National Historic Site. It is also a previous recipient of the Monmouth County Historical Commission’s Preservation Award.

Union School, Robbinsville

Union School, Robbinsville

Next, we go a little further west to Robbinsville to the home of the closely named Union School. While records are sketchy, the construction style of a simple rectangle with a few windows and a steeply-pitched roof is seen in buildings built just before the Civil War. The schoolhouse does have an amazingly complete collection of the items used by the students including pencils and writing slates, copies of readers, photos of teachers and antique desks. The details even include a stool and dunce’s cap. The original school burned and was rebuilt in 1873, where it remained the center of education for kindergarteners through eighth grade students until June 1916.

The Robbinsville Historical Society also has detailed records of some of the student’s daily lives in the classroom. Student Alfred Preston wrote that he could not recall any vacation between Christmas and New Year’s Day and that school was never called on account of weather. The school buses were actually horse-drawn wagons. It was required that the horses be “friendly and gentle.” The driver agreed to “refrain from using tobacco or liquor” while driving his charges. Robes and blankets were to be provided to students to keep them warm. All were to be treated “kindly and impartially.” The driver was paid $749 for 10 months of work.

The Little Red Schoolhouse was originally located on West Manor Way. It was moved once to be more centrally located to the core students. It was moved again by farmer Russell Hulse to avoid its demolition when Highway 95 was being built. Hulse’s sweet reason was that he wanted to save the schoolhouse in memory of his wife, Maud Scudder, whom he met on the front steps of the school. You can now find the school at the Robbinsville Municipal Complex.

The influence of early Quaker settlers can be felt all over New Jersey. Though most have vanished, the Quakers did influence the shape of the schoolhouse by introducing the octagon schoolhouse. Octagon schoolhouses were better lit because they had no dark corners and the windows were closer to the student’s desks. They were warmer, too, thanks to a central heating stove. At least 25 octagon schools were built in New Jersey before 1850, but only one survives: the Fairplay School (1835) in Knowlton Township, Warren County.

Ridgewood Historical Society

Ridgewood Historical Society

Now if you’re up for going away to school, the one-room Schoolhouse Museum in Ridgewood was built in 1872 and was an operational school until 1905. It houses a wealth of artifacts, donated over the years by area families that really show what life was like in the historic Saddle River Valley area in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Ridgewood Schoolhouse classroom

Ridgewood Schoolhouse classroom

You’ll see wool and flax wheels, colorful quilts, handcrafted toys, household articles, tools and pre-machine age farm equipment, toilet articles, a home medicine chest, Civil War items, and many other old and interesting objects tell a story of the past. Some of the artifacts date back to the Revolutionary War period. At nearly 2,000 square feet, it was one of the largest, and it has been restored to be essentially as it was more than a century ago. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. To learn more, visit RidgewoodHistoricalSociety.org.