In recent years I’ve written several articles about comic book history. You can find them on the COMICS CREATION page of my blog. Now I’m trying something different, a series on the elementary school I attended in the 1960s, from grades 3 to 8, in a small New Jersey town. There will be a history of the school, lots of personal remembrances of my years there, and some from other schoolmates. If you’re only here for comics stuff, you might want to skip these, or have a look and see what grade school life was like about fifty years ago.
Bedminster Township is an area in the northwest corner of Somerset County in north-central New Jersey. The name Bedminster was first used for a small town in England, now part of the city of Bristol. It was settled by Dutch, German, and Scots-Irish immigrant farmers in the early 1700s. It contained several small villages, including Pluckemin, Pottersville, Lamington, Larger Crossroads, Lesser Crossroads (the current Bedminster), Peapack, Gladstone and Burnt Mills. Because transportation was slow and difficult, small local schools sprang up in many areas, with a total of twelve in 1867. These were one-room schoolhouses. As roads and transportation improved, schools were consolidated, and by the early 1900s, three larger new schools had been built in Bedminster, Pluckemin and Pottersville for most of the township’s students. Peapack and Gladstone were split off into their own borough in the early 1900s, and had their own school. Far Hills, just east of Bedminster, was part of Bernards Township, then made an independent borough, but because it’s so close to Bedminster, students from there also entered the Bedminster schools.
In 1890 a railroad line was extended from Bernardsville (to the east) into neighboring Far Hills and Peapack-Gladstone. Wealthy businessmen from New York City, who had been colonizing the Bernardsville area, began moving west into Bedminster Township, buying up the small farms and converting them into large estates, where the social scene could include things like fox hunting, horse racing and horse shows. The area remained rural, with very few businesses, but after World War Two the baby boom brought more housing development, and soon more children for the schools. Even with that, the area was lightly populated, partly due to restrictive zoning laws. The 1950 census had 1,613 residents in Bedminster Township, and a 1955 study estimated population at just over 2,000. Compare this to the 2010 census population of 8,165 people. A study of births to residents in the 1950s puts the average at 28 per year. This fits with what I recall as class sizes being 28 to 30 students. If we assume 30 students per class, eight grades plus kindergarten would be 270 students. That seems about right to me, but some classes got a little larger by the time I reached the upper grades.
The first one-room schoolhouse in Bedminster at the corner of Main Street (Route 202) and Elm Street is seen above. It was close to Route 202.
It was replaced in 1914 by a larger two-story building holding four classrooms, two on each floor, set much further back from Route 202. The lower floor was partly recessed into a sloping hillside, and in the photo above you can see that the windows on the lower floor were small. Steps from the front door led down to the ground floor, and the windows were high on the walls there. The upper floors had much larger windows. Color has been added to a black and white photo for this postcard. Note the tall facade above the front doors. It’s hard to see them, but there are two chimneys near the center of the roof that probably serviced coal or wood stoves. The outside walls are of brick, here apparently painted white. In the distance behind is the north side of Schley Mountain, really a wide hill at the western end of the Watchung Mountains.
Another view of the schoolhouse from the early 1920s includes the World War One monument on the front lawn, and shows a little of the side of the school. According to Fred H.L. Field, “The big elm tree on the right was there when I attended the one room school before 1914. Mike King, Liberty Corner NJ. built the new school of two class rooms on the second level and two basement rooms – which did not include inside toilets.”
In 1933 the original school was renovated and a new section was added behind the building increasing the classrooms to four on the upper floor and two larger ones below, with bathrooms and a boiler room, as well as storage areas. The photo above is probably from the 1950s, as it includes the World War Two war monument out front, and looks much as I remember this view of the school in the 1960s. Note the roof line has been changed to remove the facade over the doorway, but that doorway and all the windows match the earlier building exactly. This building was still in use when I began at the school in 1960, but was mainly used by the older students in grades 6-8 except for the library in the downstairs room on the east or driveway side. We called it the “old building,” as opposed to the 1958 addition, or “new building.”
My youngest brother Russ attended the school from Kindergarten through grade 8, and also did maintenance work there as a summer job for at least two years, so he remembers it well, and he’s drawn up a plan of the old building for me.
Here’s the first or ground floor. The top of the drawings is north, facing Route 202. Elm Street is to the right, mainly a wide driveway to the school parking lot and some neighboring houses. There are some areas he’s not sure of, but we all remember the library on the east or driveway side with its own entrance on the south side. The classroom on the west side, opposite, is described in a 1950s report as a “multi-purpose room the size of two classrooms used for program presentations, physical education, vocal and instrumental music, and sewing.” I don’t remember this room clearly, it may still have been used as a music room and/or sewing room when I was there, among other things. The heating system is described in the report as a “coal-fired steam boiler installed in 1933 with no automatic controls.”
The second floor is as we remember it, with five classrooms, storage room and a teacher’s lounge. The “open area” next to the east stairwell had shelves with some old books, possibly an earlier version of the library. I’ll write about the teachers in these classrooms later.
This lot plan from around 1961 places the building in context. You can see the old and new buildings, and the connecting enclosed hallway. Not sure what the square between them represents, there was nothing there that we can remember. The lot was about 6.5 acres.
Here’s an architect’s proposed plan for the “new building” added in 1958, which my brothers and I think matches the building we knew. I’ve added the grades as we think they were set up in 1959-60, when the school opened. NOTE: the rooms for grades 1-3 and “Arts and Crafts” have been repositioned based on information from Roxie Blazure and Robert Schork. I don’t recall the area marked for “Arts and Crafts,” though Tim Walker took penmanship lessons there from Mrs. Westervelt and says it was a spacious room with a long table. My brothers remember it later as just another classroom, perhaps two. Two additional classrooms were added in the early 1970s where it says “future C.R. as needed,” with a music room below them. The top of the drawing faces west, the right side shows the beginning of the enclosed hallway to the old building to the north. The lower grades were in the upper part of the drawing. S is for Storage, G. and B. are Girls and Boys bathrooms, with changing rooms for gym nearby. The Multipurpose Room served as a gym most of the day, as well as a lunchroom, and the stage at one end was for concerts, plays, films, meetings and so forth. Tables and benches built into the walls folded out for seating (benches only) or lunch (benches and tables). At the bottom of the drawing, facing the driveway, were the grade 5 and 6 classrooms, the Janitor’s room, and a small kitchen for things like milk (no hot lunches). In corners of the Janitor’s room were tiny offices for the music teacher and the physical education teacher. At lower right we have the administrative offices: Secretary, Nurse and Principal. I’m not sure what W.R. stands for. Wash Room or private bathroom perhaps?
Here’s the only full photo I’ve found of the new building, looking north from the parking lot, with the taller multipurpose room at left, and the old building in the background at the right. The photo is from the early 60s, and is taken from “The Township of Bedminster” by Frederick Walter, published in 1964, as are some other photos I’ve used.
A closer look at the left half of the picture. You can see a fragment of the west wing at left. We think the sports car belonged to music teacher Mr. Ragno, who had a small office next to the Janitor’s room at the time. The tall multipurpose room had high windows covered with curtains, and could be darkened with shades if needed for films.
The right side of the picture shows the canopied entrance to the new building, where school buses would drop off students. Behind is the covered hallway to the old building. Above is the double window of the “small classroom,” and at right the outside doorway to the library, and a window for it. At far right you can just make out the hitch in the roof line where the 1933 addition was added to the old building. My brother Russ recalls, “There was a big display case on the wall to the right of the Principal’s office door. One year (in the later 1960s) Doug and I got to put our old bottle collection in it.”
The only other exterior photo of the new building I’ve found that shows some of the structure is this one from the 1970s of an Arbor Day tree being planted outside the connecting hallway between the new and old buildings. You can see it took an upward jog to accommodate the slope of the hill.
Here’s the interior of that hall showing the stairs and the doors into the old building, which had once been exterior doors. This is Mrs. Barlow’s grade 4 class from the 1972 Bedminster yearbook, “The Spectrum.” Jody Millard has been kind enough to lend me the 1972 and 1973 yearbooks, and I’ve scanned many photos from them, and gathered information there as well. Sadly, there are few exterior school pictures I can use. 1972 was the first such yearbook, we had nothing like that when I was there.
Before the 1958 addition was completed, the township’s three schools had consolidated classes so that all students for Kindergarten through grade 2 were at Pluckemin, grades 3 and 4 were at Pottersville, and grades 5-8 were at Bedminster. After the addition opened in time for the 1959-60 school year, the Pluckemin and Pottersville schools (above) were closed, and all students through grade 8 were bussed to Bedminster, and then on to Bernards High School for grades 9 to 12. The Pluckemin and Pottersville schools probably deserve more attention, but I don’t have room here, but Roxie Blazure reminded me that the Pluckemin School is now the Center for Contemporary Art (formerly the Somerset Art Association).
To finish up this section about school history, here’s an essay by Audell Ray, a Pluckemin neighbor three years older than I, from the Bedminster School magazine, “The Bed-Post” in 1962. It’s well researched, and it includes the school enrollment for that year, 278 children. I found a different year for the building of the early 1900s school, 1914 rather than her 1918, but Audell was a smart student, and I learned some new things from this essay.
Next time I’ll continue with more personal memories of the area and school. Other articles of personal history that might interest you can be found on the REMEMBERED page of my blog.
If you’re on Facebook, I’ve also set up a Facebook page for the school where you can comment and perhaps connect with former classmates. There will be additional photos and documents there that I didn’t have room for here. Please “Like” it and add to your Favorites to keep up with the latest posts.