Bolton’s Best-Kept Secret, the Top 100


by Hans DePold, town historian
(Published in the Bolton Community News, August 2000)

On the Bolton Community News web site history page we can read about some of Bolton's secret pastimes like bundling and promiscuous singing. But our best-kept secrets are our kids and our school system.

The first reference to Bolton schools was in 1731, when it was decided to secure a teacher for Bolton. In 1750 Bolton was divided into four districts, with Vernon being one of them. As late as 1846 Bolton's teachers still roomed with families for time periods proportional to the number of children in the family. The salaries then varied from $5 to $14 per month.

The typical schoolhouse was about 30 feet square, fronting on a country road. There were no trees or walks around it. A large, square stepping stone from the nearby quarries was in front of the door. On the left side of the entry was the wood room for large, 4-foot long, split cordwood. On the right was the door opening into a small room known to the pupils as the dungeon, so called because sometimes smaller children were shut in there for punishment. Restless students had their ears pulled. The dungeon's official use was for hanging coats on nails driven into the walls.

The classroom had three windows on each side and at the back. At the front of the room hung a small blackboard. Near it was a small table. A third of the floor in the center was unoccupied except for a large cast-iron box stove that devoured the wood in the winter. Wood was provided at a cost of $1.50 per cord. Outside that space the floor was raised about 6 inches. On this rise were the benches for the smaller children in one row. All around the sides and rear of the room, under the windows, was one continuous, sloping, bench-like desk for the older students. Underneath it was a narrow shelf for books. The seats were long narrow benches. When seated, the students faced the front of the room and could rest their backs against the edge of the desk. When it was time to study the older students would throw up their heels and swivel around to face their desks.

At the age of 82, Joseph W. Talcott recalled Bolton classes in the 1830s. "Exercises began with the first class standing up and reading, in rotation, verses from the New Testament. We knew nothing of "grades." There were the 1st class, 2nd class, and 3rd class and the ABC classes. Then came studies, reading and recitations, with spelling in the afternoon. There were short recesses twice a day and one hour's intermission at noon. "Our noon hour was largely taken up in munching our dinners. Only a few scholars lived near enough to go home for theirs. The others came with baskets or pails filled with bread and butter "nut cakes" (fried doughnuts), gingerbread, cookies, pie, fried turnovers, and, occasionally, a real frosted cake, cheese and pickles, but nothing to drink. The small children would crowd around the one drinking pail, half choked, all drinking from the same dipper.

"I should not forget that the teachers often presented us with awards of merit for things well done; sometimes a written note to show our parents. I remember a badge or kind of epaulet the teacher pinned on my shoulder. I had remained at the head of my class for three days in succession. I proudly wore it home and back to school again, where it later did duty for other pupils. As a rule we liked our teachers."

The previous owner of the Rose Farm was Dr. Charles F. Sumner, a doctor from a prominent Connecticut family who served over 20 years on the school board. In 1882 Dr. Sumner wrote, "There is no excuse for us, if we neglect the education of our children." Defending the cost of Bolton's educational system in 1899 he said, "If our children can be well educated in our Town Schools for any common business we ought to be satisfied with the expenses."

In 1899 the first discussion of a high school is recorded in the school board minutes. The first student approved by the town to attend Manchester High School was Lewis Fox in 1903, for an annual tuition of 30 dollars. Bolton continued sending students out of town to high school until 1964, when Bolton High was opened.

Recently we have read how much larger school systems than Bolton are considering lowering grade standards to improve their student grades in the belief that it would make it possible for more of their students to be accepted to the best universities. That has not been a problem in Bolton.

I remember three unusual things that caught my family's attention when we decided to purchase property in Bolton in 1973. First was the high school, where it appeared half the student body took Latin. Then there was the student who entered the Westinghouse Science Talent Search with radio-controlled fish. And finally, two seniors the next year were accepted at Harvard. The odds of finding this unusual behavior in such a small town seemed remote, and it certainly wasn't happening in any of the surrounding towns. NASA had completed a study and they were surprised to discover that almost all their early astronauts came from towns the size of Bolton, not the mega-school systems. What was it that produced the "right stuff"?

In 1990 a group in town claimed that our students would be better off if Bolton High was closed and our students were sent to large, out-of-town schools. They said our students would be overwhelmed when they went to college. They were wrong. This is what happened to some of our "unprepared" students who graduated in 1991, the would-be "last" year for Bolton High.

Student 1 attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on a full scholarship and received straight As in engineering. She then went on to earn a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she perfected a process of cloning heart cells in a laboratory so that one day we won't need organ donors. We will grow a new heart from a few cells and replace a diseased heart with no rejection risk.

Student 2 graduated from Yale and is now doing her Ph.D. work in American Studies at New York University.

Student 3 entered the accelerated medical program at Boston University and finished her undergraduate work cum laude in three years. She then finished medical school and has been a practicing neurologist for two years. These are just three students from the year they proposed to shut down Bolton High.

Bolton schools produce tough girls that shine and guys made of the right stuff. In Bolton, every student is special and so far every student has been in the top 100.