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Repairing A Piece Of Newtown History

Published: October 8, 2016

A large hole in the roof of an old one-room schoolhouse on the corner of Gray’s Plain Road and Berkshire Road has been letting in the rain, snow, and autumn leaves for many years. In early spring the building owner, John Gillis of Trumbull, began making repairs to the roof and other structural features, prompted by a blight notice issued by Newtown’s Land Use Department.

Land Use Enforcement Officer Steve Maguire said, “In April 2016 Land Use issued a blight notice saying it had to be repaired or demolished.”

Mr Gillis’s response? “It’s beautiful post and beam construction and there are wood pegs that hold the posts together; I couldn’t see demolishing a building with that much history and character,” he said. He also noted the “beautiful ceiling” in the classroom.

“The goal now is to stabilize the property from deterioration,” he added.

A branch fell from a tree at least ten years ago, Mr Gillis said, initially damaging the roof’s back corner and letting in the elements.

Mr Gillis had patched the hole temporarily, soon seeing the extent of work he would need to do.

“When we went to fix the roof, there were no walls. There were no floors to fix the walls. Everything was extremely deteriorated and when we got to the foundation, that was falling apart too, and to fix the roof you had to fix the foundation,” he said.

A temporary roof is now in place, “basically to keep the building dry.” He will next use plastic to wrap the building, which is open at the back, to keep it protected from the weather as he goes through the Land Use process.

Mr Gillis bought the building in 1990, and had hoped “to make a small residence out of it,” he said. At the time he recalls “there was a letter saying that if I bought excess property from the state” and enlarged the schoolhouse parcel slightly, he would have enough room to make the building into a residence.

Land Use Director George Benson said the structure cannot be inhabited, however.

“Knock it down or save it, but it can’t be a residence,” he said.

As plywood replaced the gaping roof and Mr Gillis began sitework to clear the small one-quarter-acre parcel where the schoolhouse stands, he said that the Land Use staff had “been very helpful.”

By late spring he had removed some of the outer walls and siding and used heavy machinery to dig beneath the house and redo the foundation. He then encountered a hurdle.

“He got to the point where he poured a new foundation and that was a larger footprint — we issued a stop work order on September 7,” Mr Maguire said. Mr Gillis will have to apply to the Zoning Board of Appeals to have the decision overruled, Mr Maguire said. In the future, in order to inhabit the building, Mr Gillis can also apply for a variance, “but the lot right now is not big enough and there is no suitable septic,” Mr Maguire said.

Despite the stop work order, Mr Gillis in past weeks said he needed to secure the property. The area around the foundation is now backfilled, he said. The property was in an unstable state when the stop work order was issued, he said.

His next step? “To resolve some zoning issues with the town,” he said, and “proceed with reconstructing the roof.”

The tree from which the branch fell initially is also of concern. Standing just a few feet from the building, it poses another potential threat. The tree is “split down the middle,” Mr Gillis said. Regretting that he will need to take it down, he said, “Losing that tree is like losing a relative. It’s part of the history of the house with the tree there.”

This week Mr Gillis received a surprise in the mail from a man he had spoken to in past weeks.

“Yesterday I got my first check in the mail from a gentleman who lives in Europe … from someone who wanted to know who was paying for this.” Mr Gillis is doing all the work himself, he said. “People have stopped by and they are positive and happy that it’s being rebuilt. Some are family members of people who used to go to school there. Their families are happy that it will remain there and stay there.”

“At least he is saving a landmark,” said Town Historian Dan Cruson.


Schoolhouse War Zone

The Gray’s Plain schoolhouse is not protected historically, but is possibly the oldest schoolhouse in town, said Mr Cruson, estimating that it was built in the late 18th Century. He believes it is “definitely worth saving,” which he had told town officials in the past. Neither the town nor the historical society was inclined to purchase the property from Mr Gillis.

Historically it is “highly desirable,” Mr Cruson said. It is old post and beam construction, “so it held up better than more modern structures,” he said.

Once the building closed as a school, it was purchased by a woman who “used to write essays,” according to the historian. She wrote The Jonathan Papers, a collection of essays. “She used the schoolhouse as her retreat to write in the afternoon,” Mr Cruson said. The house is therefore connected to early Newtown literature.

The house is also the location of a school war, noted in history papers by both Mr Cruson and Mortimer Smith. Mr Cruson mentioned that two factions were fighting.

“One faction had hired his daughter as a teacher, which struck another faction as unfair, and they pulled her out [of the schoolhouse] and threw her things out.” The war “was quite something,” he said.

“At the time period in the 1890s it had shock value, the fact that they threw her out prompted accusations that they should be arrested for assault,” Mr Cruson said. “Things eventually smoothed over.”

In Mr Smith’s booklet, “One Hundred Years of Schools In Newtown,” he wrote: “In 1845 each section of town constituted a little village that was in many respects independent of the town … the school in each of these villages was exclusively controlled by a committee of men from the district.”

District voters met in September to elect the year’s committee, the booklet explains. The committee served as the “head of the school with complete supervision over the school and with power to hire a teacher.”

While winter sessions were often taught by a farmer who could afford to take time off then to teach, the summer term was often taught by “a young girl, sometimes only fifteen or sixteen years of age … but happened to be related to the committeeman.”

Several pages later Mr Smith heads a chapter, “The Town Changes and School Feuds Arise.”

One paragraph begins: “Perhaps the bitterest school quarrel ever staged … took place in the Gray’s Plain district.” Mr Smith states that he had spoken with “survivors of that war” and read accounts.

“On whose side justice lay is hard to determine,” he wrote. “But certain it is that the conviction of righteousness lay heavy on both sides.”

In 1893, Gray’s Plain school committeeman Mr Ryan had appointed his young daughter, Agnes, as teacher for the year. Resident George Winton defeated him the next year as committeeman, “But at the election meeting he informed the district that he had already reappointed his daughter for the coming year.”

The new committee took exception “and immediately closed and locked the school against Miss Ryan who, convinced of her legal right to teach the school, promptly opened class on the schoolhouse steps.” Only her brothers and sisters attended, while other district children attended a private school opened at George Winton’s house.

“This stalemate was broken in a few days when Mr Ryan forced the schoolroom door and installed his daughter inside. While this was going on several members of the committee appeared and ousted the Ryans and again locked the building.”

Several lawsuits ensued. According to one committee member, Mr Ryan had threatened him with an axe.

According to Mr Ryan, a committee member had struck his daughter. And a witness claims that the hallway was congested as they “tried to put her outside,” and although he did not see her being struck, “she might have got squeezed a little.” The lawsuit eventually favored the committee, but caused the school to close for seven months.

The story is also told in Mr Cruson’s booklet, “Educating Newtown’s Children: A History Of Its Schools.” He indicates that Mr Winton took offense that Mr Ryan had appointed his daughter, and with the Winton faction in control, they chose to discharge Miss Ryan “without any claim on the district.” Agnes Ryan had already begun to teach, his story states. On the opening day of school she had asked Mr Winton for the keys and he told her that he vowed that “she would never get to teach school there as long as he could keep her out.”

After Miss Ryan had gained entrance to the school and Mr Winton and others arrived, Mr Ryan, who had been nearby chopping wood, “raised his axe and threatened to split their heads open,” prompting a scuffle as the axe was wrested from him. In a trial that followed, one of Winton’s committeemen had taken Miss Ryan’s “wrap, register and some books … tossing them out a window.” The story states, “He then approached her … and slapped her twice across the face.”

Despite conflicting accounts, Mr Cruson wrote, “all seemed to agree” that two committeemen took her by the arm “to eject her forcibly from the building. The door was then locked up … with that the battle came to an end.”

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