Early School Days of Westport by Gladys Kirby

Westport’s school system really began when the town was a part of Dartmouth.  On March 23, 1733, the state Legislature passed a law requiring each village to have “free toleration to elect a schoolmaster for each village, to be paid by a rate upon each village; and that village which shall clear the town of being fined for want of a grammar schoolmaster by procuring a lawful one shall receive l,000  pounds to be paid by the whole town in general.”

There are no records of the size or location of the colonial schoolhouse which resulted, but from scattered information here and there it is assumed many of them were established in private homes, particularly those in which there were several children of school age.

The records of the town for 1704 and 1705 show the choice of one Daniel Shepherd as village schoolmaster at a salary of 18 pounds and his debt, and 20 years later a second master was hired, while in 1733-34 the salary had increased too 45 pounds per year –about $260.

Persons whose children went to school were expected to do their share toward keeping the master in food, clothing and lodging.  This was a practice which was continued until a comparatively recent date.  Also in 1733-34 the Rev. Thomas Palmer, who was born at Hingham in 1685, made a contract with the selectmen to teach Latin, Greek, English, writing and arithmetic for from 10 to 20 pounds per year in sterling and 10 pounds of corn.  Later, by the way, he became pastor of a church in Middleboro.

In 1770, the town reduced the number of schoolmasters to one again.  All this time Westport was a part of Dartmouth.  It separated in 1787.

“When the school year began,” Mr. Brownell explained, “the proportionate share of each family toward keeping the schoolmaster was figured.  Of course, it was known just how many weeks the term would run.  It was short – usually around 30 or 40 weeks.


There were no such things as examination for teachers.  The town hired them out to see if they would last.  If they did – all right. If they didn’t they got someone else.

“Thus, a family with one child of school age might have to give the teacher his board and room for, say four days; while a family with six children would have to keep him 24 days.

“In those days children lived on the town farm the same as their elders.  The town placed them with good families as quickly as they could; but at times there were as many as a dozen in the home.  That meant the master had to live at the town farm longer than anywhere else, and he usually split up the period, living there for a week or two, then going somewhere else, then coming back to the town farm.

“Once the list was made up he could take the rotation in anyway he pleased.  Generally he began at the most distant point and worked toward the school so as to have the shortest distance to go when the worst of the weather came.  It wasn’t at all uncommon in the midst of the winter for children to start off to classes and get stuck in the snow and not get there.  Sleighs would come past, and pungs, and gave them a lift if they saw them.

“Classes numbered about 30 children.  The school hours were not much different from those of today.”

After Westport became a town in its own right, the second town meeting, April 7, 1788, at Joseph Gifford’s house, took up the question of establishing a modern school system.  It was referred to the selectmen.  A month later, at a special meeting the selectmen were authorized to provide schools to meet the requirement of the state law.



The next year a town schoolmaster was hired, and the next year the town hired more.  In 1800, the town fathers decided to divide Westport in to districts, and several of these were formed.

The first regular appropriation for Westport schools was $120 set aside for the purpose in 1801.  Four years later, the selectmen were found dividing this sum among the districts, and requiring each to return to the board an itemized account of school activities.  Pupils bought their own books.  The appropriation went for the physical upkeep of settees, buildings, fireplaces and what-not.

Businesses of the day had a lot to do with deciding what sort of  studies were taught.  “Counting houses” in Boston, Newburyport and Salem recommended Walsh’s new system of mercantile arithmetic, and this was chosen for Westport’s students.

Arithmetic included such subjects as rates of exchange all over the world, even to the West Indies and the Pacific islands; to tonnage of imports from England, East India and China, and problems in calculating a ship’s tonnage by carpenter’s measure, and for estimating the contents of grindstones by long measure.

Mariners might remember this one; To  find the tonnage of a single-decked vessel, students multiplied the length, breadth at the main beam and depth of the hold together, and divided the product by 95.



The first teachers were all men.  In 1807, somebody thought of hiring women at half the salary given the men.

The women, however, were troublesome.  They were reluctant to report the number of school days in session – which might or might not be taken to mean that women teachers in those days played hooky with their pupils.  Finally, the town adopted a rule requiring forfeiture of the district’s appropriation unless the school report was in by April 1.

In 1816, the number of districts had to be increased to keep pace with increasing population, and 18 were formed.  A few years later the study of Latin and Greek was dropped as scant value to a farm boy or a sailor.

The first kindergarten in Westport, called the “Old Maid’s School”, was conducted around 1809 by Ruth Cadman in Westport Village.  The school was held in various homes upon successive years, and was really more of a nursemaid’s affair than a teacher’s.  Small children by this means were kept out of their mother’s way.  When they became tired, teacher undressed them and put them to bed.



Squabbling over district boundaries was an ever present source of trouble.  It became so acute in 1826 that a committee composed of William White 2nd and Stephen Howland was chosen to inspect the districts and make a report on conditions.  A couple of years later, the citizens apparently satisfied, raised the annual appropriation to $700 and it steadily grew.

Each district was put in control of a “prudential committee” of one man in 1828, and the same year a 19th district was added.  School business by this time was getting to be something of a task, and the selectmen began shifting responsibilities onto the shoulders of the prudential committeemen.

Westport was probably as jealous of its rights as any lively town, and in 1829, it got into a tangle with the state over a statute providing that each town must maintain 10 months of school each year.  Anselm Bassett was hired as town counsel that year and he fought the case.  The records do not show the outcome.

A state Boar of Education was appointed by the governor in 1837 and Horace Mann, its secretary, started on a tour from Nantucket to Pittsfield making speeches on educational needs of the day.

When he arrived at Westport to tell his story, folks were so interested that 100 people came over from New Bedford to listen.

A few days later he stopped at Westport again to make a few verbal additions, and he spoke to almost an empty hall.  Just what the trouble was is not clear, but from observations here and there it might be assumed the townspeople preferred to run their schools in their own way.

It was 1838 before the idea of providing good teachers with qualifying certificates was adopted.  By that time men were getting $8 a month for their services and women $6.

A general School Committee was formed in 1841 and two years later its first printed report was issued – 700 copies.

The earliest school library started in 1841 or 1842 when Dr. George White gave 85 books to Westport Point School for a collection which is still in existence.  It went to the Westport Point Public Library in 1905 as a gift by Miss Druscilla Cory.

Jealousy did exist then, as evidenced by the remark of a townsman when Alumni Hall was built for district No. 14 in 1841.  The building followed a new style of architecture and had a cupola on it.

“Them folks to the Head, “growled the malcontent, “Is gittin’ mighty high toned, building a school with a bellcony on it!”



Conditions in the schoolhouses then were poor.  They were mostly one-roomed little shacks with perhaps a shed in which wood was kept for the fireplaces or – for the fortunate schools – stoves.

“The children used to saw and split the wood,” Mr. Brownell said.  “Sometimes they refused to do it, and then the town had to hire it done.

Double benches, the stove or fireplace, a table for the master and a chair constituted the furniture.  Blackboards, of course, were around the walls.  One can imagine the use to which the fearless farm lads put them on days of merriment.

Most of these old buildings are gone.  That at the foot of Wolf Pit Hill at the Head of Westport, which was district No. 19, is the oldest still standing.  It was being used for storehouse and paint shop a few days ago.



The prudential committee grew to 20 members in 1843, and three years later each district was allowed to name its own committeeman.  School records became compulsory, but that didn’t mean they were in on time.  To town found it necessary to pass a rule providing that teachers didn’t get paid until the report was not only in but approve

In 1856, the records have it that E. P. Brownell, G. E. Brownell and Charles H. Macomber were the members of the School Committee.  These men the following year started to get uniformity of textbooks, and after investigation the question, they recommended Colburn’s Intellectual Arithmetic, Smith’s Arithmetic, Webster’s Elementary Spelling Book, Worchester’s Second and Third Book for Reading and Spelling and Fourth for Reading only, Smith’s Geography and Grammar, and Worchester’s Dictionary.

That special taxes were levied for the schools is shown in a tax receipt of  $2.49dated 1850. 

The question of having a high school first came up in 1866, and E. T. Brownell, Henry Smith and Cortez Allen were named to investigate it.  They turned in a report at the next town meeting, and for sometime the matter was handed back and forth until in April, 1868, the committee of three recommended establishment of a building at the Head of the East River for 18 weeks of the term, with a tax levy of $1,000 for their support.  This recommendation was adopted with the provision that the school should be maintained at the Head of the River all the time unless a good place was found at the Point.



The high school proved popular from the start under the superintendency of Jonas P. Haywood, and many of the town’s future teachers were educated there.  Report cards were issued in the form of a “model school diary”, in which daily marks were entered.  This soon became too much of a job and the report cards were shortened.

The entire school property of Westport was appraised at $6,497 in 1869.  The same year a state law was passed necessitating the abolishment of districts.

Truancy was the problem then as always.  Children between the ages of seven and 16 were required to attend at least 12 weeks in the year, and habitual truants were sentenced to live at the almshouse for not more than two years and fined not more than $20.  A habitual truant was defined as one who incurred six absences in one term.

A Union School at Westport Factory was authorized in 1872, with Dartmouth paying three-eights of the cost.  In 1874, 1875 and 1876, new school buildings were erected, the committee began keeping permanent records, and teachers were getting from $22.50 to $35.00 per month.  The town was divided into three districts and each of the three committeemen was placed in charge of one.

A school census was made compulsory in 1874.



Westport held its first teachers’ institute in 1883, and parents and teachers from Dartmouth joined the meeting.  Three years later the School Committee provided for written examination of pupils at the end of the autumn terms in arithmetic, geography, grammar and spelling.  By this time, the town was buying books for the children.

Employment tickets were issued to minors in 1888 and the first course of study for the High School was drawn up.  This was a two-year course.  It was not until 30 years later, in 1922-23, that the four-year course was adopted.

Wall maps and janitors came in 1889.  In 1890, Charles Fisher became purchasing agent for the schools, and in 1892, Seth A. Crocker was made superintendent of schools.  Mr. Crocker reorganized the system in 1893, recommending new textbooks and other changes.

It was not until 1920 that the first school nurse was appointed to work with a school physician, but the plan evidently worked well, because in 1923 two nurses were chosen.

The same year a dental clinic was established to be held twice a week at North Westport School.

The first junior high school was started in 1922, and John Remick was made principal of that and the senior high school at Central Village.  Domestic science courses were also started that year.



In June, 1923, the first graduating class, seven pupils left the High School.  The school by that time was rated by the state educational board as a Class B.  One member of this class entered Fitchburg Normal School.

In 1923, appropriations were made for three new school buildings; one at Brownell’s Corner, one at Booth’s Corner, and one at Greenwood Park.  These are the most recent ones in Westport.

In 1924, classes in millinery and home nursing were added at the High School, and a second junior high school was established at Westport Factory in a leased building.

Now the town has 12 schools, and the studies taught include, besides the basic subjects, handwork and household arts for girls, manual training for boys, agriculture and academic courses.  The Westport Factory Junior High School, meanwhile, is now rated as Class A.

Adult alien education is a modern feature, and a weekly check on the health of the pupils demonstrated its usefulness only this week when it kept health authorities fully informed regarding possible outbreaks of disease in connection with the smallpox scare at Middleboro.

The appropriation has risen to almost $80,000 with practically $50,000 for salaries and more than  $l,000 for medical care; $2,400 for books and supplies and nearly $14,000 for transportation.

Two attendance officers, two school physicians and two school nurses are carried on the rolls with 62 teachers and 15 janitors.

The town is linked with vocational schools in New Bedford and Fall River, while evening schools let the older students study while they work.

But still the theory of Westport’s education is the same – to fit the children of the town for the jobs which they will assume.  It is the jobs which have changed and caused education to follow suit.”