A History of Centre School

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(Off The Beaten Track)

By Jeff Cooper, Contributing Writer

Beachcomber -- September 9, 1999

To celebrate Back to School Daze, we are going to have a lesson about the history of Centre School in Hampton. Education has been happening for 350 years in different buildings on the same site where the school is today. A Class from Ca. 1800's
"A picture of the school and the students standing in front of the brick school house was taken. In 1873, the brick school houses at the East End and at the Center were replaced by two-story wooden buildings."
[--Anna May Cole - June 1972]

Here is a true-life story as told by Anna May Cole in Hampton Union, June 1972. It took place in a one-room "Centre School" some number of years ago.

The teacher was Lewis Palmer, A Bates College student spending a long winter vacation as a substitute teacher and probably not enough removed from his own childhood to avoid being challenged. Everett "Gib" Towle was a boy much larger than the others who committed some long forgotten offense. When Mr. Palmer called him to the front of the class for discipline, he refused. Since it was the close of the day, young Lewis decided to handle the problem in the morning. Bright and early, Gib was in his seat looking defiant and self satisfied. He had refused to mind and gotten away with it.

Mr. Palmer arrived armed with a bundle of willow sticks under his arm. He must have gotten a poor night's sleep anticipating the morning's confrontation, tossing and turning, agonizing about how to restore his insulted authority, whatever the cost. He entered the room locking the door behind him and ordering Gib to the front for his punishment. Gib remained defiant, laughing and mocking. The enraged master ran downs the aisle and began whipping the boy in his seat. Gib dodged and feinted, followed by Palmer whacking and striking until the stick broken off in his hand. Taking up another, he continued the chase up and down the aisles -- the little girls screaming in fear and hiding their heads under their desks. Finally the boy gave in and accepted his due, begging for pardon by repeating the words Lewis Palmer dictated to him, like taking a wedding vow. Everyone expected his Dad, John Albert Towle, to be outraged and demand Lewis be fired, but he was much too cool for that. His only comment was "if my boy does not mind, he must expect to be whipped."

The first Centre School in Hampton holds the honor of having been the first public school in the State of New Hampshire. When, in 1647, the Massachusetts General Court passed a law requiring any town with more than 50 families to teach its children reading and writing, this forward thinking town of Hampton was the first in New Hampshire to comply. Remember that in 1647, our neighbor to the south still held claim to our great state. The first Centre School was built in 1649 and opened on May 31 of that same year. The first teacher was a man by the name of John Legat, who had lived in the area since 1640. His job description read "to teach and instruct all the children of or belonging to our Towne, both mayle and femaile, which are capable of learning to write and read and cast accounts."

Casting accounts must mean arithmetic. Once a week he taught the students Orthodox catechism that, in this case, meant Puritan Calvinism. You can safely assume they recited the Lord's Prayer each morning, too. Unfortunately, the selectmen of Hampton fell behind on his salary payments, which amounted to quarterly allotments of corn, or cattle or butter of value equivalent to 5 pounds sterling. Teacher Legat was forced to sue selectmen Anthony Stanian and Robert Tuck to recover his wages. Eventually the parties settled out of court. During the 19th century, several other one room brick schools were built at several sites around the growing Hampton community. These brick school buildings were used until 1873 when the town replaced them all with a two story wooden structure on the Centre School site.

Hampton Grammar School

"This picture post card (at right) taken around 1916 shows the Center Grammar School built in 1873 at a cost of $4,485., comprised of 2 stories, each story had ceilings of 11 feet in height. The building, 47 feet by 32 feet, was originally on the site of the Hampton Centre School on Winnacunnet Road, but when the Centre School was built in 1921-22, it was moved to the corner of Winnacunnet Road and Academy Avenue, and served at one time or another as Hampton's first kindergarten, American Legion Post #35 hall, Fire Station #2 from 1932, until the new station was built, and more recently the Hampton District Court House." [--Anna May Cole, June 1972]

The wooden schoolhouse at Centre School, called the Grammar School is still in use today, but it is now the Hampton District Court building just down the street on the corner of Academy Avenue. It was moved there on skids in March of 1922 and was replaced with the brick building that is today's Centre School.

The Hampton Centre School opened in 1922 and shows how it looked in 1937 when photo was taken.
[Photo was not in original article.]
Those 350 years of teaching on that same site make for an impressive record, and we wish the children of Hampton happy learning and the keeping of great tradition. First Public School historical marker
The State of New Hampshire roadside historical marker #14 is situated on the front lawn of the Hampton Centre School and reads:
In New Hampshire, supported by
taxation, was opened in Hampton
on May 31, 1649. It was presided over
by John Legat for the education of
both sexes. The sole qualification
for admission of the pupils was
that they be 'capable of learning'."
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