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The first public provision for the schools of this town of which we have any record was made in December, 1707, when ” part of the country land was allowed for the encouragement of a school,” and Lieutenant Williams, Joseph Spalding and Deacon Douglas were directed ” to take care that there be one.” A year later the town voted to send to Mr. James Deane to come and be their schoolmaster, and he agreed to undertake the work for what could be made out of it for half a year. At that time the school was supported by its patrons rather than by a general tax. In 1716 John Watson was ” improved to keep school the deacons and selectmen to order the school and receive the money.” It was next agreed that the school should be kept in three places, a suitable place provided for the schoolmaster to quarter at, and a house suitable to accommodate each part during the time of the school being continued in that part, to be provided at the charge of each part, and if any neglect to provide such place, the committee to order the schoolmaster to go to the next part; school to be kept first over Moosup river; next in the middle; next in south part.
In 1717-18 John Stoyell, one of the most noted schoolmasters of the day, was employed by several persons in the middle of the town to instruct their own children and others for twelve months. The town accordingly ordered all the school money for the year to be delivered to these persons and made it the public school for the whole town, the cost to each child being fourpence a week besides the public money. In 1719 Henry Wake was schoolmaster three months at Edward Spalding’s quarter, receiving for service his “diet ” and five pounds. In 1721 Mr, Walton maintained perambulatory schools in the different neighborhoods, the town paying him twelve pounds, finding board and keeping a horse for him. In 1720 the town was divided into school districts, north and south of the meeting house, each to order its own schools. In May, 1722, the first school house was ordered, forty or fifty rods from the meeting house on the country road, and in 1725 two others were completed-one at the south end, between James. Deane’s and Thomas Smith’s; one at the north, near Joseph Shepard’s. In 1740 ten shillings a week was deemed a reasonable recompense for the master’s ” diet and horse-keeping.” In 1766 a committee was appointed to lay out school districts, which thus reported:
” 1, Flat Rock district, bounded south on Preston, east on Voluntown; 2, Stone Hill district, north of Flat Rock; 3, Goshen, bounded north by Moosup River, south by Stone Hill; 4, South, bordering south on Preston, west on Canterbury; 5, Middle, extending from Mill Brook up Main Street, butting east on Stone Hill; 6, Black Hill; 7, Moosup Pond, northeast corner; 8, Moosup River; 9, Shepard Hill; 10, Green Hollow, beginning at Snake Meadow Brook or Killingly line.”
Doctor Perkins, Daniel Clark, Stephen Kingsbury, Andrew Backus, John Howe, Jonathan Woodward, Philip Spalding, Samuel Warren, Samuel Hall and Isaac Allerton were appointed a committee, one for each district, to see that the schools were kept. Although the number of teachers and schools was increased by this arrangement, the leading men of the town were not yet satisfied with their attainments, and in 1770 proceeded to form an association ” for the purpose of providing improved facilities for the more complete education of the youth of the vicinity.” They erected a brick school house of respectable size, procured teachers of a higher grade, and established a more thorough system of instruction in common English branches, but were unable to organize a classical department.
Stimulated by a legacy left by Isaac Coit, Esq., at his decease in 1776, the annual interest of which was to be applied to the maintenance of a Latin or grammar school in the new brick house in Plainfield, the associated friends of education proceeded in 1778 to organize a classical department, securing for rector Mr. Ebenezer Pemberton, of Newport, a gentleman of high scholarship and accomplishments, and unusual aptitude for teaching. His reputation and the favorable location of the school attracted at once a large number of pupils. Colleges and academies had been generally suspended. Seaboard towns were exposed to invasion, but this remote inland village offered a safe and pleasant refuge. Gentlemen in Providence, New London, and even New York, gladly availed themselves of its advantages, and many promising lads from the best families in the states were sent to Plainfield Academy. The good people of the town welcomed these students to their homes and firesides. More teachers were demanded, and the popularity of the school increased until it numbered more than a hundred foreign pupils, besides a large number from Plainfield and neighboring towns.
In 1784 Ebenezer Pemberton, Hon. Samuel Huntington, Hon. Eliphalet Dyer, Reverend Levi Hart, Preston; Reverend Joseph Huntington, Coventry; and General John Douglass, Major Andrew Backus, Doctor Elisha Perkins, Captain Joseph Dunlap, William Robinson, Samuel Fox, Ebenezer Eaton and Hezekiah Spalding, of Plainfield, with such others as the proprietors should elect (not exceeding thirteen in the whole), were made a body corporate and politic by the name of ” The Trustees of the Academic School in Plainfield,” and invested with ample powers for managing the affairs of the school. Plainfield Academy held a high position in popular favor. Its rector was one of the most accomplished teachers of the day, and its patrons and directors were among the leading men of the state. The village was pleasant and healthful, and its most respectable residents were proud of the school, and ready to open their homes and hearts to the stranger students. Doctor Perkins, though now so much engrossed with the duties of his profession, was alive to the interests of the academy, receiving even scores of lads into his own family when boarding places were scanty. A prudential committee of three was chosen annually from the directors, who had charge of the buildings and supervision of the financial department, while a stringent code of by-laws regulated the deportment of the pupils.
The third academic building known as “The White Hall,” about a mile south of the others, was soon completed and occupied by the English department under the charge of Mr. Alpheus Hatch, a faithful and competent instructor. The mathematical department in the brick school house was assigned to Mr. Nathan Daboll, the author of “The Schoolmaster’s Assistant.” The principal academic building, known as ” The New Hall,” was devoted to classical instruction under the immediate charge of Doctor Pemberton. Many aspiring youth were here fitted for a longer residence in wider and more famous halls of learning.
A handsome stone edifice replaced the old academy building, erected in 1825, on a beautiful and commanding site given by Mrs. Lydia Farlan, other public spirited residents subscribing funds for the building. About a hundred students were usually connected with the school, of whom nearly one-half pursued classical studies, fitting for college or professional life. At the beginning of this century it usually had, for years, about 100 pupils, diminishing in later years, by reason of high schools in adjoining towns; the attendance in 1845 being about 75, in 1860 about 50, and recently from 30 to 40.
Among the many eminent men who have been connected with the Plainfield Academy, as pupils or teachers, a few may be mentioned a follows: Nathan F. Dixon, eminent lawyer of Westerly, R. I., and M. C.: Hon. Edward A. Bradford, foreign minister; Joseph Eaton, judge of county court and state senator Abraham Payne, prominent lawyer, of Providence; Rinaldo Burleigh, for many years principal; Calvin Goddard, an able lawyer; John Adams, an educator of great talent; Nathan Daboll, teacher, and author of arithmetic and almanack; Sylvanus Backus, speaker of the house of representatives many times; Reverend Joel Benedict, D. D., eminent divine; Hon. James Humphrey; Reverend Edward Humphrey; Hon. James Munroe, member of congress from Ohio. The list might be extended indefinitely, but this indicates a vast blessing conferred on our country by Plainfield Academy. Among the many who went out from Plainfield homes, and the instruction of Plainfield Academy, none achieved a more useful life-work than George Shepard, D. D., Bangor, Me., professor of Sacred Rhetoric, stamping upon many minds the impress of his own high character and deep spiritual consecration. The Hon. Edward A. Bradford won much success at the bar in New Orleans, and was honored by an appointment as judge of the supreme court of the United States. Connection with the great anti-slavery conflict, as well as their own genius, have made the Burleigh brothers very widely noted.
The union of three school districts, and the erection of the fine building in Moosup, for the graded schools. at a cost of $10,000, was a long step in the right direction, and marks an epoch in the progress of the town. The ample school buildings at Central Village and at Wauregan, indicate the public spirit and wisdom of the people.
Source: History of Windham County, Connecticut, Bayles, Richard M.; New York: W.W. Preston, 1889