History of Westport Schools

The Consolidation of Westport’s Schools

Westport’s School Districts 1859 – 1917 using information from the school committee reports

Early  Westport School Days Part 1

Early Westport School Days Part 2

Early Westport School Days article by Gladys Kirby

Images from the collection of the Westport Historical Society


Picture 1 of 24


Room to Learn: Westport’s One-Room Schoolhouses

The 19th century witnessed the rise and the fall of the one room school house. Nearly 20 schools once dotted the landscape throughout Westport, from north to south, east to west. Schools such as East side, Stateside, Riverside, Macomber’s Corner, and Kirby’s Corner, are now long forgotten. This is the story of how, over more than a century, these 19 schools flourished and perished one by one. The heyday of the one room school in Westport began in the early 1800s, but by the 1860s the same buildings that had once been a source of pride had become objects of derision. In an effort to provide every child with equal physical access to education, the town had created an unsustainable system that multiplied costs of upkeep, multiplied the number of salaries and the need to equip each school. The struggle to provide an effective public education system is ongoing and many of the concerns voiced in the 19th century are still relevant toady.

Westport has a special place in the history of public education, and there can be no discussion of this topic without mentioning Paul Cuffe’s contribution. Known as a pioneering African American, Cuffe also built one of the earliest school houses in Westport in the 1790s. A memoir of Cuffe’s life, published in the Liverpool Mercury describes how Cuffe,  “knowing the disadvantages of a limited education having himself several sons and there being no school in the neighbourhood he effected a meeting of the inhabitants to establish one but a difference of opinion amongst those convened having raised an obstacle he constructed a suitable house on his own ground which he freely gave up to the use of the public and the school was opened to all who pleased to send their children.” We do not know the location of this school nor do we know how Cuffe himself viewed this community school, however historians credit Cuffe for establishing one of the first racially integrated schools in the nation. It was certainly a reaction to the total lack of any public education system in Westport at that time.

Although school districts were established in the early 1800s, the town continually put off hiring a school master. Debate, discussion and disagreement over district boundaries continued for nearly a decade. By 1832 the town had defined 18 distinct school districts. Although each school had individual needs, each district received an equal amount of funding. For example, the Acoaxet School in District 1 with 15 pupils received the same level of funding as the District 17 school in North Westport which had 42 pupils.

A distinctive architectural style grew out of the need for school houses. One of the earliest depictions of a Westport school is by Joseph Russell Shoemaker. This watercolor, now in the collection of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, shows a schoolhouse in 1814 with three young children waiting at the door while a fashionably dressed couple drive by. Smoke is coming out of the chimney yet the windows with sturdy shutters on the side are open, prompting us to wonder about the efficiency of the fireplace. Certainly the children suffered in smoke filled rooms. On the left-hand side of the painting we can see just a small section of what was probably the outhouse.

Many of Westport’s one room schools reflect a certain degree of community pride and dedication to the value of an education. Typically, the school had two entrances, one for boys and one for girls. Inside, anywhere from 15 to 50 pupils, ranging in age from 5 to 20 years, crowded into a single room.

How many schools were there?

Westport schools c.1870

District 1    Acoaxet School, Cross Road

District 2    Horseneck School

District 3    South Westport School, Horseneck Road

District 4    Eastside School, 308 Pine Hill Road

District 5    Westport Point School, Primary

District 6    Westport Point School, Grammar

District 7    Hicks Corner, 1435 Main Rd.

District 8    Riverside School, 1280 Drift Road

District 9    Macomber’s Corner School, 218 Adamsville Road

District 10  West Side School, 661 Drift Road

District 11  Kirby Corner School, 380 Main Road

District 12  Stateside School, Sodom Road

District 13  Brownell’s Corner School, 508 American Legion Highway

District 14  Bell School, 25 Drift Road

District 15  Sanford Road School, 489 Sanford Road

District 16  Mouse Mill School, 258 Gifford Road

District 17  North Westport School, south side of Old Bedford Road

District 18  Union School, 45 Beeden Road

District 19  Wolf Pit School, Old County Road

Two schools however departed from the typical model, and are distinctive for their elegance and “temple” like quality. Both of these schools are located at the Head of Westport.  One served the east side of the river, the other the west side. Local historians record a certain amount of rivalry between these two communities. The Wolf Pit school, on the east side of the river was built in 1833.  The Wolf Pit School was recently restored — it retains the original blackboards and coat hooks.

The Bell School is one of the grandest school buildings of its era. In fact there was something of a competition between the east and west sides of the river. After the construction of a small but elegant Wolf Pit school on the east side of the river, the west side set out to supersede them, constructing a school that followed the newest form of Greek revival with the addition of a bell tower.

Local legend records the remark of a townsman : “Them folks at the Head is gittin’ mighty high toned, building a school with a bellcony on it.”

All the schools, no matter how elegant on the outside, were equally primitive on the inside. The school committee reports for the 1860s record numerous complaints about the poor conditions:

“Children sit crying with cold feet water stands under the buildings, the stoves heat the front of the room leaving those in the rear to shiver, the outhouses are inexpressibly unfit, blackboards are between windows, ventilation is poor, ceilings are patched with paper and tins like hen houses.”

“During a rainstorm rain runs down the chimney, passes along the stovepipe, mingles with the soot and distributes itself upon the desks and floor, not sparing the luckless child who happens to sit beneath. It may be cold in the room but the pupils may not sit near the stove for fear of being hit by blackened water.”

What was it like to go to school?

Many of the schoolhouses had two entrances, one for girls and one for boys

Pails of water were kept in the entryways for drinking water. The common drinking cup was frequently cited as a cause for the spread of infectious diseases and the cause of epidemics: scarlet fever, measles, whooping cough and small pox. Many children suffered from poor eyesight due to lack of lighting within the schools.

Keeping warm

Parents supplied each school with wood. The students would saw and split the wood, and each morning it was their duty to start the fire in the woodstove or the fireplace.

 “On a cold day when the ink would freeze, the students are compelled to huddle around the stove, for instead of warming the room, the heat passes through the crevices between the laths into the loft.”

 “During a rainstorm rain runs down the chimney, passes along the stovepipe, mingles with the soot and distributes itself upon the desks and floor, not sparing the luckless child who happens to sit beneath. It may be cold in the room but the pupils may not sit near the stove for fear of being hit by blackened water.”


The blackboard revolutionized education in the early part of the 19th century. It was the single most important educational tool, becoming a permanent fixture in schools nationwide. Prior to their existence, teachers had no means of visually presenting information to a roomful of students. Early blackboards were made from pine lumber and painted black.

School desks

In early American schools, children sat on three-legged stools or long benches behind narrow tables, made of pine or oak by the parents of the school children. By the 1880s, children sat at individual desks that were bolted to the floor, with boys on one side of the room and girls on the other. Younger children sat at the front of the room, closest to the teacher. At the Horseneck School “the seats are fastened to the pedestals so that they lean forward at an angle of about 20 to 30 degrees and the children have to hold themselves in the seats by resting their arms upon the desks and pressing their feet against the floor. “


Attendance and discipline were constant concerns for the School Committee.

The quality of teaching varied greatly. First time teacher Rebecca Fisher was described as industrious and energetic, Ellen Gifford was praised for being patient, industrious and faithful.

Melissa Hazard treated her pupils kindly and generally secured their esteem and confidence with the exception of a few boys who had never learned to appreciate kindness, nor respect the authority of a female teacher.

Other teachers were criticized for their failure to maintain order.

What did they teach?

Teachers were charged with “the duty to instruct their pupils the principles of piety and justice and a sacred regard to truth; love of their country, humanity and universal benevolence; sobriety, industry and frugality; chastity, moderation and temperance.”

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.

  • The practical arts included music, drawing, and agriculture to produce well rounded pupils.
  • Latin and Greek were dispensed with in 1825.
  • Physiology and hygiene were made compulsory by 1885.
  • Several schools planted gardens to educate students and to improve the appearance of the school.
  • Gymnastics was introduced in the late 1800s.
  • The second floor of the Bell School was used to train teachers, and became known as the Westport Academy.

At another school “the seats are elevated at such a height from the floor that only two of the pupils are able to rest their feet on the floor. “

The dunce hat

Also known as the dunce cap or fool’s hat, it was used as a form of humiliation for less able pupils. This pointed hat, usually made of paper and often inscribed with a large letter D, or the word “dunce,” was placed on the head of a pupil who was usually ordered to stand facing the corner of the classroom or to sit on a special stool. This punishment would be used for minor misbehavior, but most commonly for slow-working, underachieving pupils.


The first teachers to be officially hired were all male. In 1807, somebody thought of hiring women at half the salary paid to the men! Horace Mann, Secretary of the MA Board of Education, also argued forcefully for the recruitment of women into the ranks of teachers. Normal schools were established in 1838 to train teachers and thus raise the quality of rural schools. Westport teachers trained at Bridgewater Normal School, now Bridgewater State College and at Westport Academy, a private teacher’s academy located on the second floor of the Bell School.


The Spencerian System of Writing emerged in the 1850s as the national handwriting style. It was a significant departure from writing models in England where forms were based on circular shapes, made laboriously with disconnected strokes, and hence, the style was slow and difficult to learn.

By contrast, Spencer’s system encouraged the more natural tendencies of the hand and arm muscles toward elliptical shapes and rapid, fluid lines.  They were easier to produce than circular forms, and far more graceful as well. The original Coca-Cola logo is written in Spencerian style. It was gradually replaced in primary schools with the simpler Palmer Method.

Scholars were ranked for their handwriting skills each week:

  • very handsome
  • painstaking with evident endeavor to carry out instruction
  • middling
  • poor
  • bad

Throughout the second half of the 19th century the School Committee and superintendent argued for the consolidation of the district school system and for the benefits of fewer but larger schools. This received much opposition from parents who had genuine concerns about sending their children across town. Some parents felt that the value of their property would decrease once the neighborhood school had closed.  Parents also expressed a fear that their children would will be more likely to be corrupted” in an environment with larger classes. The School Committee outlined three major concerns voiced by parents:

“The closing of a schoolhouse that stands near my home removes a center of interest in the vicinity of my farm and thus reduces the value of my property.”

“My children are taken in a wagon and driven some distance farther from me and I am afraid they will not have good care.”

“If my children are taken to this distant schoolhouse they will be obliged to associate with a larger number of children and they will be more likely to be corrupted.”

By the early 1900s the School Committee had persuaded the local population of the benefits of consolidation. The committee described the current condition of the schools as being “deplorable, unhealthful, worn out, dismal, repulsive, instead of being a source of pride it is an object of derision.”

The new school at Westport Point was completed in 1904 and was well received and a second building was constructed at the Head of Westport on Reed Road. These were three room buildings, described as first class and modern in every respect, well heated, having a basement admirably arranged for a play room, and having an excellent sanitary system. Similar schools were built at Central Village and Westport Factory. The move was also from district schools to graded schools. These schools sustained the education system in Westport until the 1970s and 1980s.

Although abandoned as educational buildings, the one room schools had many lives. The Bell School for example was used as a library and a dance hall and is now the headquarters of the Westport Historical Society. Many of the schools, one-room and three-room, have survived into the present day, however they have been put to new uses. From private residences, to the town hall annex and the COA, these buildings are still with us. For example, Sanford Road school house is now the American Legion Hall.

The Acoaxet School is a private residence as is Hicks Corner School, the West Side school on Drift Road and the East Side School on Pine Hill Road. Some buildings have disappeared altogether such as the North Westport School, torn down to make way for the Route 195.

Written by Jenny O’Neill

With thanks to the lively record keeping of the Westport School Committee 1850 – 1900



Town Records 1787-1858: Excerpts Regarding Schools


1787-1810 – Little discussion of schools. The town continually put off hiring a school-master for undisclosed reasons. When districts began after 1800, there was much discussion and debate of boundaries.

1811 – Schools received a small fraction of revenue, about $120-125 per year, and that was distributed so that the schools kept by school‑mistresses were paid exactly half what schools with schoolmasters were. The amount given to each school also relied upon the number of days of schooling that occurred at each school for the year.

1816 – The districts laid out in 1798 were found to be highly inefficient due to overlapping districts and a general lack of definition. The ‘undersigned selectmen’ of Westport, therefore, set out to ‘frame and define’ 18 distinct school districts in town.

1817 – Districts 2, 3, 4, and 5 will be ‘altered and relocated’ to create three districts of a more equal size in land and also number of scholars.

1818 – Mention of discussing dividing the 3rd district between the 2nd and 4th. No further mention.

1819 – A mention is made of a lawsuit against the town by the State, who claimed that Westport did not provide schoolmasters ‘agreeable to law.’ It is noted that the $200 dollars appropriated for public schools this year will be used to pay the fine laid upon the town for said offense.

1820 – It is decided that further suits are brought against the town for ‘not having schools agreeable to law,’ that the consequent fine will be paid by using the funds appropriated for schools.

1821 – Construction of a new school house for District 8 is discussed, but no plans made.

1822 – There is a debate in town about the teaching of Greek and Latin in schools.

1823 – There is a discussion of the ‘situation and boundaries of the landing’ at the Head of Westport, although no specific details are given.

1824 – It is voted that District 6 will be divided into 2 districts, with the land north of the divide making up District 19.

1825 – Jonathan Davis is chosen to defend the town against the allegation that its schools are not ‘agreeable to law.’ It is voted in by the Committee that schools in town will from now on be ‘agreeable to law.’ It is also voted that the law requiring schoolmasters to be instructed in Greek and Latin will be dispensed with.

1826 – A new school district is proposed and passed. It will be created by re-drawing districts 10, 11, and 12 to better accommodate the inhabitants therein. There was much debate over this issue and a committee was formed to write a report on the issue. That report was then not accepted, and it is left unclear how this issue was resolved.

1827 – There is discussion of boundary lines between Westport and Dartmouth and district 18, pointing out that inhabitants of both towns are eligible for public school in that district.

1828 – $700 dollars are appropriated for the public schools and will be distributed by the Selectmen among the districts. It is also decided that District 3 will be annexed and divided amongst Districts 2 and 4.

1829 – $850 is appropriated for public schools. The boundaries of District 3 are redefined and District 11 is annexed and divided amongst Districts 10 and 14.

1830 – $850 is appropriated for support of public schools. It is to be divided among the districts according to how many days of school were held in each.

1831 – $850 appropriated for support of public schools. Equal distribution is emphasized since some schools in the previous year may have not received what they were entitled to.

1832 – The districts in town are redefined into 18 distinct districts with clear and defined boundaries.

1833 – $900 appropriated for support of public schools. It is to be divided amongst the districts according to the number of days of school. It is noted that Districts 7 and 13 are owed money, having taught the same number of days as other districts but received less money.

1834 – $900 apportioned for public schools.

1835 – $1000 appropriated for support of public schools. $3.50 to be given to schools that were in session for 5 months or less, and the rest is to be divided among schools with male teachers according to the number of days that school was held.

1836 – Same as previous year with regard to money appropriated and methods of dividing that money. District 14 was divided along the river at the Head, with the east side to become District 19.

1837 – Money appropriations the same as previous years.

1838 – Money appropriations the same as previous years.

1839 – $1200 is appropriated for public schools to be divided equally among the districts according to the number of days school was held.

1840 – $1334 appropriated for public schools. It is noted that male teachers will be employed in the summer and receive $8 per month. Female teachers employed in the winter will receive $6 per month, and any remaining money will be divided amongst the male teachers. The line between Districts 11 and 12 was also redefined.

1841 – $1334 appropriated for public schools to be divided in the same method as previous years.

1842 – $1334 appropriated for public schools to be divided in the same manner as previous years.

1843 – $1400 appropriated for public schools to be divided according to number of school days. 700 copies of the School Committee’s report are to be printed and distributed to each teacher and student in town, and the remainder to be distributed as the School Committee sees fit. Alterations are made to the dividing line between Districts 12 and 13.

1844 – $1400 appropriated for public schools to be divided in the customary manner. It is also requested that at the next meeting, the School Committee give a report of all the schools in town, noting good and bad in each.

1845 – $1400 appropriated for public schools. The School Committee’s report was presented at the Town Meeting.

1846 – $1500 appropriated for public schools. Steps are also to be taken this year to make sure that this money is spent efficiently. There are problems with the School Committee ‘obtaining registers,’ without which they cannot fully account for their expenses. No money from the Treasury will be paid until certificates of accuracy can be filed.

1847 – $1500 appropriated for public schools. It is proposed to divide District 13 because there are too many pupils to be accommodated at the current school house. It is then proposed that rather than divide the district, a new and more accommodating building be constructed. There is much debate over this, with the Committee stating that there is really no way to divide the town into districts in a manner in which all districts will be equal in all respects. As such, the request to divide District 13 is denied. This also met with opposition, and the following agreement was reached: That the Inhabitants of school district No. 13 be permitted to divide said school district, in any manner that two-thirds of the voters of said district may approve. But no more of the Public or Town’s money, appropriated for the support of Public schools, in said Town of Westport, shall be drawn by the said Inhabitants than the proportion they now draw.

1848 – $1500 appropriated for support of public schools. Small changes made to district boundaries to accommodate certain individuals’ needs, mostly having to do with taxing.

1849 – $1500 appropriated for support of public schools.

1850 – $1500 appropriated for support of public schools.

1851 – $2000 appropriated for support of public schools. Also, the ‘surplus revenue loaned to the County of Bristol’ will be added to that $2000. It is proposed to alter the boundary between Districts 18 and 19. Also to be discussed is an alteration in the boundaries between Districts 4 and 19. No decisions are mentioned regarding these boundary issues.

1852 – $2000 appropriated for support of public schools.

1853 – $2000 appropriated for support of public schools. It is voted to abolish the school districts in accordance with a law passed by State legislators on May 3, 1850. A committee is formed to do this. This decision is reconsidered quickly after being passed. No definitive decision is mentioned.

1854 – $2000 appropriated for support of public schools. It is voted to continue the school district system as it has been, with each district choosing its own School Committee. A suit is filed against a teacher in District 8 by a parent for “damage done his son.” Details are not given.

1855 – $2000 appropriated for public schools, to be divided in the same way as previous years.

1856 – $2000 appropriated for support of public schools. 20 “Field Drivers” are chosen, one for each district.

1857 – $2000 appropriated for support of public schools. A ‘Board of School Committee’ of 3 people is voted to be established. It is voted to continue the school district system.

1858 – $2000 appropriated for support of public schools. It is proposed to seek out land on which a new school can be built in District 11. It is voted for each school district to have established a debt and credit account with the treasurer. The new school house in District 11 proposal is denied.