The Trail of Norwood’s School System from 1738 to the Revolution


Eight years after the original Proprietors of Dedham pushed their canoes ashore on the bank of the Charles opposite the present boathouse of the Dedham Canoe Club, the citizens voted to set up a free public school to be maintained by the taxpayers. This was on Nov. 1st, 1644. The writer is proud that his forbear, listed in the unanimous vote of “yea” as “Rich. Evered,” was among those present. From that day to this there has been a functioning public school system in Dedham, which Norwood profited by as soon as it was humanly possible to do so.

Early Records Are Few

The only records we have of this primitive, colonial school system .are in the Dedham town-meeting reports and the South Parish Church records. They are sometimes vague, frequently ridiculously explicit, and always illiterate. The Fathers did not require the teaching of spelling, regarding it as sissy. How happy Frank Dunn would have been in editing “Ye Deadhamm Mesinger”! It is necessary, therefore, to steer our way through the beginning of education in Norwood by a sort of blind reckoning.

Farmers Kick at School Tax

The first sign we find that the Indian war-whoops and the nightly howl of the great, grey timber wolves are gone forever in South Dedham and that little children are living in the wilderness so far away from the first rude school house on Dedham Green, next to the meeting house, is a town report of 1684-5. It shows that the farmers were kicking about the school taxes. It was voted, “that those inhabitants that dwell more than two miles and a half from the schools shall be free from all charge of rates upon their children’s heads for the school until they shall receive benefit thereby; and shall be rated and pay as those within a mile and a quarter; Always provided that such children be taken care of, so as they be sufficiently taught to read and wright.” That two-and-a-half mile zone would cut a circle through Westwood and the Ellis neighborhood. So we can figure that in 1685 the remainder of Norwood was practically unsettled.

First Evidence of Norwood School

The 53 years between 1685 and 1738 are dim and foggy as far as Norwood’s School records are concerned. It is, I believe, safe to say that a few of our hardy South Dedham lads managed to get a little schooling in the latter part of this period by the germ of the future district school system. The Clapboardtrees (Westwood) and East street were holding school in private homes, the Dedham school master coming on horseback for a short term. Probably he came to Norwood. Possibly no further than the Ellis section.

But in 1738 the light breaks through clearly! And for good reason. Two years before, the South Parish had been given their own church organization by the General Court. Norwood, at last, was officially organized as a definite community. They had some power and were ready to go places. One of the first places on the route of civilization was a local schoolhouse. They put it over in 1738.

“A Long Debate Thereon”

In the records of the May town meeting in 1738 we read: “After a Reading of a petition from some of ye Inhabitants of the Southerly Parish in Dedham and a long debate thereon;

“Voted that the said Southerly Parish in Dedham and Springfield Precinct (Ed. now Dover) have granted unto them ten pounds each. Part of the before Granted Eighty Pounds to be improved for ye schooling of ye children in those two parts of ye town.”

How clearly the birth of that ancient feud between Dedham Village and Norwood shows out in that simple item! You can bet there was “a long, debate thereon” when Dedham first voted South Dedham $50 a year as a school appropriation!

School Built in 1740

The South Parish church let no grass grow under its feet in building its first schoolhouse. It took them two years to decide to build. But that was almost a snap judgment in the calmly deliberative days of the colonies. At the annual meeting in 1740 it was voted to build a schoolhouse which was to be 20 feet in length and 17 feet in breadth, to be erected near “the house, or frame” of James Thorp, on the southwesterly side of same. Forty pounds were appropriated to build the schoolhouse. How delightful our school problem would be today if we could build a new schoolhouse for approximately $200.00!

Where Was James Thorp’s?

As a historian, I should not confess that at this writing I have not yet located the site of James Thorp’s house. It may be hard to find it, but probably not impossible. If Fred Day’s records were available it would be easy. Sometimes I intend to start to dig it out, unless some kind friend comes across with the evidence. Because it is important to settle this point, and for this reason:

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Another “Little Lost School”

If you ask any old-timer where Norwood’s first schoolhouse stood they will instantly answer, “The old brick school, which was at the corner of Guild street and what is now Cross street. The site is now inside the fence of the car-shop property.” Now it stands to reason that there must be an error in calling this the very first schoolhouse built. Consider these three known facts: First, it would have been impossible even in those days, to have built a brick school, 20 by 17 feet, for $200. Secondly, we know on April 1. 1766 Norwood had “between 90 and 100 scholars.” That’s from the schoolmaster’s own private diary. And thirdly, the church records show that in 1779 it was voted to build “a school house in the center of the precinct.” The precinct’s center was then the site of the Second Cong, church building which was on present Lenox street, east of our Central depot.

John Gillooly’s Theory

So isn’t it a fair assumption to say that our first 1740 school was a small frame building which was replaced by a larger brick house in 1779? When we find where James Thorp lived we can exactly place the little “frame.” John Gillooly has a theory about this matter which is worth considering. He believes that the famous old “Noon House” of the Congregational church, which originally stood opposite the church was built early in 1768. Then in 1779 when the Brick School was put up near the little “frame” the church quite naturally took over the old school house for a “Noon House” where they ate their lunches between the morning and afternoon services in front of the great fireplace. And the photographs which we still have of this noon-house Curtis Fisher farm and burned down a few years ago) show it as a little wooden-frame building just about 20 by 17 feet. John’s theories regarding historical matters I have usually found to pan-out as facts. Anyway—there is the theory.

First Teachers Are Known

So let us tentatively put the first Norwood school in the old “noon house” down on old Guild street. The location of the Thorp house will settle this point pretty conclusively. Bu,t even if the first schoolhouse site is in doubt, we are sure that Dedham was sending school-masters to the South Parish from 1738, onward. They probably held a short school session for a few weeks or months during the year. At first, only boys were enrolled. Then, according to the church records, we know that in 1758 girls were admitted to the sacred portals of learning in Norwood. These first, part-time Norwood schoolmasters were the following:

The Pioneers

  • Mr. Jonathan Winchester, Harvard 1737, appointed Oct. 30, 1738;
  • Mr. John Carns, Harvard 1742, appointed March 2, 1740-41;
  • Mr. John Wight, Harvard 1721, appointed in 1741;
  • Mr. Daniel Dwight, Harvard 1726, appointed in 1742;
  • Mr. Josiah Torrey, Harvard 1741;
  • Mr. William Kneeland, Harvard 1744;
  • Mr. Benjamin White, Harvard 1744;
  • Mr. Samuel Huntington, Yale 1746, appointed Oct. 10, 1746;
  • Timothy Pond Harvard 1749;
  • John Wiswall, Harvard 1749;
  • Elizur Holyoke, Harvard 1750, nephew of Edward Holyoke, President of Harvard College;
  • Joseph Perry, Harvard 1752.

79 School Days for Tiot

Holyoke began to teach Sept. 18, 1751 and during the next year this item bobs up which is significant of the growth of school attendance in Norwood: “1752. Agreeable to vote of town at May meeting that the School should be kept in proportion to the tax in cach precinct :

First Precinct I66 days
(Dedham Town school)

The South (Norwood)….79 days
Clapboardtrees….67 days
West Precinct (Dover)….52 days
364 days

The grangers did not give their $300- a-year schoolmaster much of a vacation, did they? And tho’ I am not much good at arithmetic, I seem to detect Sabbath-breaking in those figures.

But if those official statistics were correct, it would seem that Norwood had, in 1752, about one-quarter of the year’s schooling?.That indicates quite a few pupils and beaus out School Master Manasseh Cutler’s diary-notation in 1766 that he had “between 90 and 100 scholars” in his Norwood school.

1754—Our First Resident Teacher Arrives!

The year 1754 is an important date for the schools of Norwood. It marks two things: The coming of Nathaniel Sherman, Princeton College 1753, who was the first teacher hired to teach exclusively in the South Parish. Also, it was the beginning of the Dedham district school system, of which our present system is. the immediate, offspring. In 1754 Dedham hired three teachers all at once and all noteworthy men: Jonas Clark. William Symmes and Nathaniel Sherman. A new policy from this time on was adopted. Instead of one master, continuing through the year, but teaching in different parts of the town, competent men were employed to teach short-term schools in the several districts.

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Nathaniel Sherman

Norwood s first full-time and resident schoolmaster, Nathaniel Sherman, stayed with us two years—1751 and ’55. 1755 and ’56. He was born in Newton, March 5, 1724 and graduated from Princeton College with the class of 1753. Like most of these young college men who left the campus to teach district school because there were few other kinds to teach, Nat Sherman left Norwood in 1756 to be installed as a minister. In his case, it was at Bedford. Mass. He was dismissed in 1767 and installed at Mt. Carmel, Conn. May 18. 1768. He died at the close of a successful ministry on July 18. 1797.

Girls Admitted to School

Our first regular school master must have had an excellent influence upon both the children and their elders. That this was carried forward by his successor. Nathan Kidder, a Harvard man, who taught during the winters from 1755 through 1761, is evident from the introduction of female education into our schools in 1753. Widder was a classmate at Harvard of the first President Adams (U. S. Pres.). Benjamin Bacon also taught in Norwood in the winter of 1755-56. He was the fifth descendant of Michael Bacon of Dedham.

Ebenezer Bacon

Ebenezer Bacon taught in the winter of 1756-7 and probably continued until 1759-60. On Feb. 6, 1745-6. hr and his wife Rebecca were received into the South church.

Oakes Shaw

Oakes Shaw, Harvard 1758 was the next teacher. He joined the South church 1759. Was born in Bridgewater in 1736, married Susanna Hayword of Braintree and their son. Lemuel Shaw, became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Mass.

Our First School-Marm

Norwood’s first woman teacher appeared in 1759. She was Elizabeth Holmes. I suspect Elizabeth was a mighty pretty little school marm and couldn’t stand the lures of matrimony. Because we had a man school teacher that same year, one Zeruiah Crane of whose memory nothing remains except his quaint name. In the South Parish church records we find that the Rev. Dexter baptized a child of Mrs. Elizabeth Holmes as “Elizabeth” on May 14, 1738. And the Rev. Thomas Balch married a “Mr. Jacob Fisher and Mrs. Elizabeth Holmes of Dedham. Sept. 9, 1762.” That the maiden was styled “Mrs.” was according to the custom of the times.

Jonathan Craft

Jonathan Craft, Harvard 1761, followed Elizabeth and Zeruiah as our South Dedham pedagogue in 1759-60.

Summer School Arrives

It should be explained here that by this time we were having both summer and winter schools and it was often impossible to get teachers to cover both. Elizabeth Holmes had the summer school.

Dr. David Fales

From 1760 to ’65 our teacher was Dr. David Fales. He also taught at the East street school in Dedham, dividing his time somehow between the two precincts. He married Hannah Thorp on March 9, 1762.

Phebe Willett

For three long summers, beginning in 1761, Phebe Willett held down the Norwood teaching job. On Jan.. 3, 1756 Phebe married Joseph Kingsbury of South Dedham. She taught in the third parish in 1766.

“Home Town Boy Makes Good”

In the winter of 1762-3 a “home-town boy makes good.” The South Precinct employed as its teacher Benjamin Balch, Harvard 1763, son of Parson Thomas Balch. And our second woman teacher was his sister, Elizabeth, who had the summer school of 1763. There must have been something catching about that name, because she too, quickly swapped birch for orange- blossoms, marrying Jonathan Dean of South Dedham on May 8, 1766, thus becoming the writer’s ancestress.

Seth Bullard

The South Precinct, 1763-4, employed Seth Bullard of Walpole as schoolmaster. He had married Joanna Lewis of Dedham on Nov. 3. 1761. We find him running our school again in 1769-70. Bullard was a Walpole patriot being a member of a committee to prepare resolutions on public affairs in 1773, Captain of militia in 1775, and town representative to the Legislature for 11 years, his last term being in 1800.

First Marriage of Teachers

Next we have the first recorded marriage of two Norwood school teachers, Mary Balch, Rev. Thom. Balch’s second daughter, was the summer school teacher in 1764. Her dad made two interesting records about her in the church reports: “Nov. 16, 1740; Baptized my dear daughter- named Mary same day she was born.” And again: “Oct. 8, 1766, Mr. Manassah Cutler and Miss Mary Balch Dedham were married.”

Our Most Famous Teacher

You may be surprised to learn that Manasseh Cutler, Yale 1765, was one of the most illustrious citizens of Norwood who ever brought distinction to the town. His story is too long and interesting to dwell on in this space. Suffice to say he came here immediately after graduating to visit his mother’s relations, and taught our district school from Dec. 1765 to April 1, 1766. His charm, ability, and efficiency are proven by his fast work in marrying the eldest daughter of the most important man in the village 6 months after he quit teaching here. He studied law. Then spent two years with his father-in-law in Norwood studying theology and was ordained in Ipswich Hamlet in 1771. He served as a chaplain in the Revolution and became a noted scientist, businessman and private school teacher during the early days of the young republic.

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Jonathan Felt

Jonathan Felt followed Cutler as South Dedham teacher in 1766.

First Foreign-Born Teacher

The first foreign-born teacher of whom I find any record in the South Dedham list is William Keous. In the parish records we find: “Dec. 3, 1758. William Keous, Born in Kirkolm parish in the County of Galloway in Scotland belonging to the church in said Kirkolm of which Mr. James McCulloch is pastor, was by vote of the church received to occasional communion with the church.” Mr. Keous graduated at Harvard in 1768, A. M. 1775.

Jeremiah Kingsbury

The last teacher recorded for South Dedham before the Revolution broke is Jeremiah Kingsbury, who bossed the little school house for two winters, 1768-9 and 1769-70. He and his wife Abigail joined the church in 1759. It may be that our school was not interrupted during the war, in spite of the lack of recorded teachers. We do know that during the war, from 1775 to 1783, nine graduates of Harvard taught from one to four terms each in Dedham. So evidently the mother-town carried on efficiently, even if she had to close her South Parish school For money was scarce and terribly inflated. Gunpowder was more important than ’rithmetics at this point.

(Memo: Data for above sketch was obtained from the Dedham town records, the South Parish church records and from “The Schools and Teachers of Dedham, Mass,” by Carlos Slafter, 1905.)

(Originally Published in the Norwood Messenger, February 12, 1935)

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