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Date: Fri 15-Jan-1999



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Date: Fri 15-Jan-1999

Publication: Bee

Author: JAN

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Newtown's Schoolhouses Once Were Places Where Battle Lines Were Drawn

(with photos)


Little one-room schoolhouses are often remembered with nostalgia. But those

very same schools that raise such a charming picture of the "good old days"

sometimes became the center of feuds between families or conflicts that

brought out deeper splits that existed in the town as a whole.

Town Historian Dan Cruson gave about 40 attendees a look at the schoolhouses

and their sometimes lively history in the late 19th and early 20th Century

during a lecture and slides presentation January 11 at the Booth Library. The

program sponsored by the Newtown Historical Society.

His talk centered mostly on the Gray's Plain School War and the rivalries that

surrounded Newtown High School, which was housed in 1902 in the former Newtown

Academy building.

In 1839 the local school districts were corporate bodies that had the power to

elect their own committees for hiring teachers and levying taxes to support

the schools.

The School Board of Visitors had jurisdiction over all the districts. The

committees and the Board of Visitors worked smoothly together until the state

moved to centralize education by giving all powers to the Board of Visitors.

In Newtown, this polarization was mostly verbal, except at Gray's Plain.

The Gray's Plain dispute began as a minor conflict, but before it was over

education in that school had come to a halt for several months, two court

injunctions had been issued, and there were trials for assault and misuse of


Mr Cruson said during this period The Newtown Bee received impassioned

letters, a war of words, from both sides of the dispute.

In the summer of 1893, Martin Ryan, the chairman of the Gray's Plain district

committee, hired his daughter, Agnes, as the teacher. When he lost the

position the next year to George Winton, Mr Ryan announced he had again hired

his daughter to teach, Mr Cruson said. Since he hired her while he was still

committeeman, the hiring was legal, Mr Ryan argued.

During a special meeting of the district called by Mr Winton, the hiring of

Miss Ryan was rescinded. In September, an attempt to rescind that decision and

to allow her to teach failed.

However, Miss Ryan was trying to teach. In September, when she found the

school locked, she went to Mr Winton and asked for the keys. He refused and

told her she had been fired.

On the second day, she went to the school, again found the door locked, and

started teaching her sisters outside.

Special meetings continued, with allies of Mr Ryan trying to have the Board of

Visitors take control of the school and hire a teacher. On November 18, they

were successful.

The lock was removed, and Miss Ryan began to teach. That afternoon, Mr Winton

changed the lock again.

Two days later, the school was broken into and Miss Ryan again began to teach.

Her father was present, chopping some firewood, when Mr Winton and others

approached. He raised his axe and threatened them if they entered the school.

During the ensuing scuffle, two of the men received several minor cuts before

getting the axe away from him.

They then tossed Miss Ryan's belongings outside and removed her from the

school, locking the door and nailing rails across the opening.

Miss Ryan said she had been slapped twice in the face, but a later court case

was thrown out because there was a question of whether she was really struck.

While there were conflicting accounts about that, there is agreement the men

forcibly removed her from the building.

"A series of court cases got very nasty," Mr Cruson said.

A Case Of Arson

In 1902, the Newtown Academy building, originally located on Sunset Hill but

moved in 1892 to Church Hill Road, was sold to the town to be its high school.

It continued to function in that capacity until a fire destroyed it in 1920.

In 1919, a squabble erupted between two town factions over the dismissal of a

teacher. One large faction formed its own school, the Newtown Community

School. The children of the other faction continued to meet in the high school

until the fire.

The fire was determined to be arson, and accusations over who was responsible

split the town so much that one faction sent their children by train to school

in New Milford and others sent theirs to the Newtown Community School, which

was formed in 1919.

"A lot of people in the community accused the Catholics of setting the fire,"

Mr Cruson said. "It separated the town. The town was split wide open on this."

The 1920s was an anti-Irish, anti-Catholic period, he noted, across the nation

and in Newtown. "It was more acrimonious than between the blacks and whites in

the south. The memory of it is still there."

To reunify the town's school system, Mary Hawley stepped in.

"It was clearly implied she could smooth over the split and bring everyone

back," Mr Cruson said. "The high school and the elementary schools were

brought together in Hawley School."

Comments are open. Be civil.

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