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The early schools

South School Burlington MA
If you can find yourself in this picture, you’re dating yourself! Taken in 1894, this well-preserved photo of the South School and its class contains all of the school’s students from grades one through eight. In the first row, left to right, are Sarah Pattison, James Lynn, Fred Graham, Helen Keating, Alice Lynn, Lilie Pattison, Christie Johnson, James Pattison, Selwyn Graham, Robert Bustead, Thomas Keating, William Bustead, and Edward Foley. In the second row, from the left, Esther Bustead, Addie Blodgett, Annie Bustead, Nellie Lynn, and the school’s teacher, Miss Putnam. The South School was in operation from 1794 until 1897, when the town’s five grammar schools were consolidated into the Union School.


The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, May 13, 1980

Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg
(Article # 047)

The Early Schools

As early as 1642, the year Woburn was born, the Great and General Court declared that when a town hits a population of 50 families, someone shall be appointed, “to teach all children to write and read,” and when it hits 100 families, “they shall set up a grammar school.”

Thus in 1673 the wife of Allan Converse and the wife of Joseph Wright were engaged to teach those youngsters who could come to school. The pay? Ten shillings. They no doubt used the kitchens of their homes as classrooms. Other women may have been paid directly by farmers to teach children in the outlying districts now known as Burlington and Wilmington.

In 1685, the town had grown enough to require a grammar school. Samuel Carter, Harvard 1660, was hired to teach school for an annual salary of five pounds. But no students showed up that first year. Although Carter received his salary for that year, the selectmen were not about to repeat that mistake. However, the state would fine the town 10 pounds for not keeping a school. So the selectmen offered Carter 30 shillings as salary, but 5 pounds if he actually had a student body. No students showed up that second year either, but at least the town only wasted 30 shillings instead of five pounds.

Woburn built its first schoolhouse in 1713 in the center of town about where the Unitarian Church now stands. But it was not until some years later that a school was a real thing, not just a gesture. Teachers were hired, usually at “time of court,” so that the law might be satisfied while the court was in session. To accommodate the scattered population, the school was mobile. Teachers moved around. The schedule for 1741-42 was as follows:

  • Kendall’s Mill (Four Corners) from March 22 until May 9.
  • The schoolhouse in the Center till July 11.
  • The house of Martha Tidd in Newbridge (North Woburn) until August 8.
  • The home of Lt. Joseph Richardson until September 19.
  • The Precinct (Burlington) until December 31.
  • The home of Mr. Ebenezer Cummings in South Village (Winchester) until March 31.

From 1760 until 1775, with a few exceptions, this roving habit was stopped. A stationary school was kept only in the Precinct and the Center. Then in 1775, the first steps were taken to operate schools in various parts of the town at the same time. These outlying schools were established and kept in private houses. Here in Burlington, one of the Skelton houses still standing on the corner of Bedford Street and the Turnpike was one of these. During the Revolution and for a number of years thereafter, little attention was paid to the problems of education.

A grammar school was kept in each parish for nine months of the year. Special committees were appointed each year to divide funds. Then it was left up to the Precinct and the First Parish to hire as teachers whom they pleased and “at any season of the year when they please.”The most noted schoolmaster of the time was Mr. John Fowle, who taught from 1758 through 1769. He was known as Master Fowle, was a native of Woburn and a graduate of Harvard, 1763.

His annual salary was 40 pounds. Benjamin Thompson and Loammi Baldwin were students of his. In 1792, the Town of Woburn became quite concerned about school facilities. A committee of seven men was appointed to examine the school system and to make recommendations for improvements. Four were from the First Parish: Rev. Mr. Sargent, Loammi Baldwin, Joseph Bartlett and Zebediah Wyman. This parish was represented by the Rev. Mr. Marrett, Reuben Kimball and John Walker.

Their report is interesting. It urged the highest morality as a qualification for teachers, care in the choice of school committees, prescribed opening every day with prayer, described a course of study which included Latin and Greek, disapproved of corporal punishment, urged Bible study, and recommended that scholars or families too poor to provide should be given “paper, pens, ink and books” at the town’s expense so that “each child may have the advantage of a free school.”

Woburn was divided into nine districts. When Burlington broke off as a separate town in 1799, it took three of those districts with it:

  • The North School on Chestnut Avenue.
  • The Center School, which stood on Simonds Park before it was a park. It moved to Bedford Street and became the West School in 1939.
  • The South School on Blanchard Road.
  • A fourth school close to the Woburn/Burlington line was built in 1802 for $275, in  Lt. Joseph Winn’s district, it was known as the Mountain School or the East School, and stood on today’s Mountain Road.

These four one-room schools served the Town of Burlington for over 100 years, from 1794 to 1897. A fifth one-room schoolhouse was built on the corner of Bedford Street and Cambridge Street in 1855. Those five neighborhood schools became excess property in 1897 when consolidation was finally approved and the Union School built. Neighborhood schools were not to appear again until the school building boom of the 50’s and 60’s was inaugurated with the opening of the Memorial School in 1954.

Only one of Burlington’s five early schools has completely disappeared. The South School was sold to a Mr. Johnson who had it moved further south on Blanchard Road where it became a home for him and his family until it was demolished to make way for industry. The Mountain School also became a home and still is, for many years occupied by the Fontaine family. The West School
became a garage in later years and was only saved from destruction through the efforts of Charlie Casassa and a few others who formed the Burlington Historical Society for its preservation. Today, restored to its original form, it is visited by many school children each year.

The North School, like the West School, does not sit on its original foundations. It was erected on Reed property. When Reed and the town fathers had a violent difference of opinion, Reed simply picked up the little building and deposited it on the nearest town property, Wilmington Road, where it sits to this day. It became the home of George Beard for many years. And the newer school in the center of town is today’s historical museum.

The first Burlington town meeting, which raised and appropriated funds, was held in April of 1799. As soon as the salary of the local minister was decided the town meeting members voted to raise $150 for schooling. Down through the years Burlington residents have fought consistently over schools and school budgets, but just as consistently, have they supported good schools and sound educational programs. As Master Fowle may have said, “Mens sana in capore sano.”