When the town of Fairhaven was incorporated in 1812, it was divided into 19 school districts, each of which was responsible for building its own schoolhouse and hiring a teacher. The first district to build a school was Oxford Village, where this stone schoolhouse was constructed in 1828 upon land owned by John Taber. It measures 20 ½ by 36 feet and accommodated 64 pupils.
The school desks were originally long planks set on empty flour barrels and the seats were boards on crates or wood blocks. A school report from the early 1840s says, “scholars are arranged on the outside of the room…on roosts (for such seats deserve no better name) from 20 to 22 inches high-five inches higher than a common chair made for adults. There was no such thing as sitting on the seat and touching the floor with the feet at the same time.” The seating was arranged in a horseshoe shape around a smoky wood stove set in the center of the room. Existing photographs from about 1895 show the later use of wide “double form” desks on cast iron legs, each desk having seats for two children side by side. These were arranged facing the front of the room.
Schools of the time were poorly outfitted and badly maintained; the general philosophy was to spend as little as possible on education. The school buildings were either too hot or too cold, depending on the season. On dark, cloudy days only an oil lamp on the teachers’ desk provided some additional light. Four of the early district schools in Fairhaven did not even have outhouses, though the Oxford Village school did. Many schools had no maps or globes and few books. The educational situation in Massachusetts was not rectified until 1883 when the district school system was abolished and replaced with townwide school boards.
Children form 4 to 16 attended class at the Oxford Village School for 10 ¼ months a year, with breaks in the spring and fall during planting and harvesting time. The school day was long, usually form 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 or 5:00 p.m., with an hour off for lunch at midday.
Teachers: no experience necessary
Teachers were usually young females in the summer term. Males, often whalemen at home for the winter, taught during the winter term. Men were paid $35 a month, including board, or $23 without. Teachers required no formal education beyond having graduated themselves from a district school. Because teachers were often only a year or tow older than their oldest pupils, they taught outside their own home districts, usually boarding with a neighborhood family.
Not until 1843 were students reading from a prescribed list of school books. Before then, the children brought whatever they had from home, which generally included the Bible. Teachers did not present formal lessons in the manner done today, since pupils of different ages and learning levels were all together in one room. Learning was accomplished by memorization and individual recitation-teachers often heard 40 or 50 recitations a day. In this manner reading, spelling, arithmetic, religion, history and geography were taught. Between recitations, teachers would occupy their time with reading, writing, stitchery or knitting, whittling or other recreations.
Slates and slate pencils were used for writing and penmanship practice because paper was expensive. When paper was available it was bound into small booklets which the children filled with their writing lessons. The steel pen didn’t come into use until the 1850s. before then, writing was done using a sharpened goose quill as a pen. Ink was made at home from dyes, berries or the steeped bark of swamp maple trees. In winter, a few drops of brandy were added to the ink to keep it from freezing.
Respect for authority was taught by having each student bow or curtsy to the teacher upon entering the school room and before each recitation. Discipline was harsh, including physical punishment such as a lashing with a wooden switch, paddling or having an offender hold a heavy piece of firewood or a bucket of water at arm’s length. Students kept after school hours might be made to wash windows, scrub the floors or clean the stove.
Manjiro Nakahama attended school here
In 1841, Captain William H. Whitfield on the whaleship John Howland rescued fourteen-year-old Japanese youth Manjiro Nakahama from a small island in the Pacific Ocean, on which Manjiro and four other fishermen had been stranded for nearly six months. Manjiro returned to Capt. Whitfield’s Fairhaven home, becoming the first Japanese to live in American.
Manjiro was tutored in English by Miss Jane Allen from Oxford Street, next door to the home of Ebenezer Akin where Manjiro boarded. He also attended classes at the Old Stone Schoolhouse.
After learning American customs and studying navigation in Fairhaven, Manjiro eventually returned to Japan. Back in his native country he became a prominent figure during the opening of Japan to western trade. Manjiro became a professor of navigation and ship engineering at the Naval Training School in Tokyo. He also compiled a short cut to English conversation, which became a standard book on practical English. Twice Manjiro returned to America on diplomatic missions for the Japanese government.
The story of Manjiro Nakahama’s rescue by Capt. Whitfield and his life in Fairhaven is still taught today to Japanese school children.
Each ear, many Japanese visitors come to Fairhaven to see the Old Stone Schoolhouse and other sites associated with Manjiro. In 1987, Crown Prince Akihito, now Japan’s emperor, visited here the same year a Sister City agreement was signed between Fairhaven/New Bedford and Tosashimizu, Japan, where Manjiro grew up.
The schoolhouse in later years
By the 1890s, the population in North Fairhaven outgrew the Oxford Village schoolhouse. Some students were sent to classes in a room in a local shoe factory while others were transported by horsedrawn bus to Rogers School. In 1896, the new Oxford School was built on Main street, bringing the classes in the small one-room schoolhouse to an end. In later years, the schoolhouse was used as a meeting place for various societies and religious organizations, including the Episcopalians who held regular services here beginning in 1905, before the Church of the Good Shepherd was built in 1922.
The Old Stone Schoolhouse is property of Fairhaven, overseen by the Fairhaven Historical Commission. The North Fairhaven Improvement Association now acts as curator of the building. Your admission fee helps support the civic activities of the NFIA, including the interior maintenance of the schoolhouse and the development and enhancement of its educational displays.
—Christopher J. Richard, Director of Tourism
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