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Now that's old school

A tour of Sturbridge structures with 'class'

The Sturbridge Senior Center on Main Street was built in 1874 as the Snellville School for third- and fourth-graders. Christopher Tanguay. (click for larger version)
July 21, 2009
STURBRIDGE — When standing in front of the massive Tantasqua Regional High School, it is hard to imagine the youth of Sturbridge and the surrounding area ever fitting into a schoolhouse small enough to fit inside a single Tantasqua classroom.

Hidden on back roads and behind the signs of new uses, remain many of the approximately 20 schoolhouses, in their own way documenting the evolution of the town — if you know where to look.

Former selectman and local historian Bob Briere knows where to look.

The schoolhouses — both standing and not — are stops along Briere's Historical Tour of Sturbridge, which he has hosted several times for the Sturbridge Historical Society.

"I think Sturbridge has had 17 schools all together," Briere said during a rainy tour on Tuesday, July 21. "Some are gone," he continued, "Most of them are private residences."

The first schoolhouse on Briere's tour is unmistakable. An unassuming red brick home on Dennison Lane in Southbridge, an area that was once part of Sturbridge, still boasts the original shape of what one would imagine a schoolhouse to be. The home bears a plaque near the front door, identifying it as the Dennison School, circa 1849.

The school was named after James Dennison (or Deneson, as it is spelled on the plaque at Deneson Rock), who first settled the area in 1730.

On nearby Wallace Road, two schoolhouses have weathered the generations, and though they are private homes now, they still bear signs of their lives as places of learning.

In fact, Briere's wife grew up in one of those homes and recalls the screw holes in the living room floor, showing the placement of the desks in what used to be the classroom.

The Wallace Road schools, Briere explained, served the mill village of Westville, which once thrived where the Westville dam and recreation area are today.

The village of Westville was sustained by textiles, and textile making equipment, manufacturing, but was vacated when the Army Corps of Engineers built the dam as part of a water control project after the flood of 1955.

Along the Route 131 section of Main Street, Briere explained that there were once more institutions in that area than the Center School, which is currently undergoing renovations for use as municipal offices.

"Center School was a success out of two other schools," Briere said of the school that educated first and second-graders.

The 1855 building that now stands across the street from the Town Hall is not however the original Center School; that building burned down in 1852.

The two other schools Briere referred to in that neighborhood are now hidden from sight — one literally, and one figuratively.

From Center School, heading toward Southbridge, just a few homes past the Publick House stands a two-story tan house that, underneath the siding and second floor addition, retains the frame of an 1800s schoolhouse.

Traveling in the opposite direction from Center School, the wooded area just before the Route 84 overpass conceals the site of another former schoolhouse.

After its run as a school, the building remained open as the Spruce Tree Tea Room, but was demolished when Route 84 was built.

A few other institutions of a similar scale to the Center School still stand about town as well.

One is the Snellville School, built in 1874, to house second- and third-grade classrooms.

On the corner of Main Street and Arnold Road, the Snellville School is now the home of the Sturbridge Senior Center.

Although the main entrance for the Senior Center is in the rear of the building now, when looking at the original front, the three green doors denote the three sections of the building: third grade was in the left, fourth grade was on the right, and the center door led to a great hall upstairs.

"The Fiskdale Brass Band used to rehearse up there," recalled Briere, who attended the Snellville School as a child.

Near the intersection of Main Street and Brookfield Road, on the aptly named School Street is another historic building, the Fiskdale School.

Built in 1896, the Fiskdale School now houses several apartments. Home to grades five through six, the Fiskdale School, as it can be seen today, was built as a replacement for another school that was built on the same location in 1836.

The oldest of the old schoolhouses though — 19 years the senior of the 1814 Four Corners School, which still stands on River Road — is the Fiske Hill School.

From the corner of Fiske Hill and McGilpin Road, the Fiske Hill School has seen more history and more goings on than any tour or newspaper report can ever convey. The Fiske Hill School opened in 1795, 57 years after the town of Sturbridge was incorporated.

Look for more installments of the summer history series in upcoming editions of the Southbridge Evening News and Sturbridge Villager newspapers.

News staff writer Christopher Tanguay may be reached at (508) 909-4132, or by e-mail at ctanguay@stonebridgepress.com.

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