By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER –Virginia Barber Laiho, 84, has fond memories of attending the one-room Woody Hill School off Route 165 in the western part of town.
“It was very interesting,” she says, “because we used to live across the street from the school. I would go over early to get the fire started in the cast-iron stove. The kids would walk or ride in the milk cart and the teachers lived with different families. One lived with us for two years; she had a room and ate with us.”
This weekend marks the sixth annual Exeter One-Room Schoolhouse Reunion. There will be an open house from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at Woody Hill to show off recent restoration work; the gathering of former students who attended any of the town’s many one-room schools, plus friends and family, will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Exeter Public Library.
In Laiho’s day, there were 20 students in grades one through eight, two sitting at each of the tiny desks while the teacher presided from a platform at the front. The school had separate entrances for the girls and boys and separate outhouses.
Once the school is finished, the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, which provided $30,000 for its restoration, wants the outhouses restored, too.
Laiho, who plans to attend the reunion and hopes to bring her sister, Alice Barber Boynton, another Woody Hill alum, says, “I’m glad they’re getting some of the schools back again. So many became dilapidated.”
Stanley Whitford, 70, attended Exeter Hill, the Hall School and the Pine Hill School, which doubled as the town hall. The Exeter Historical Association is hoping to move Pine Hill to the library property where it will be restored and used as a meeting hall, and to relocate the Hall School next to the current town hall for use as a museum.
A devotee of the reunions, Whitford recalls, “We had no indoor plumbing and, at recess during the winter, the students’ job was for each of us to bring a stick of wood and put in the woodbox to keep us warm. At Pine Hill, we all had to take turns going down to get water at
a little stream and carrying it up to the school in buckets.”
The enjoyable part of the get-togethers, he says, is “getting to see the people and remembering who they are. Last year I saw three people I knew in my age range. They were nice kids who cared about other people.”
The driving force behind the Woody Hill project is Sheila Reynolds-Boothroyd, a former city girl who became intrigued by the history of Exeter and Escoheag after befriending Hazel Capwell, a local woman born in 1889.
“We would sit for hours and talk about her family, the area, how the buildings looked.”
When work started on the school, the roof had caved in, there was a resident owl living under the eaves and wasps had built a big nest out front. It had passed through numerous private owners and had been restored twice, only to descend into disrepair again.
“It’s a 20-year-cycle,” Boothroyd observes. “It starts to fall apart without use. In 2004, it was covered with a tarp which made it worse; moisture was sealed in, damaging the classroom.” With the state money and $2,000 from the town, extensive repairs were undertaken.
Half the state’s grant went for a new cedar-shake roof, understructure and ceiling. The original cast-iron stove and many of the six-on-six windows were restored and shutters were added.
“The school didn’t have them,” Boothroyd says, “but we want to prevent window breakage.” The desks, dating to the school’s 1800s opening, had been sold to a Hope Valley antiques dealer but were recovered. New doors were made of vintage materials.
This particular restoration, returning the school to its 1942 appearance, the year it closed, has been under way for two years and work remains to be done. “We do a little bit at a time,” Boothroyd notes. “The goal is to have it as a working school, for kids to spend a half-day in a one-room school. It will be a working museum.”
The Exeter Historic Association is seeking official charitable designation in order to fundraise and apply for grants.
Plans for the remaining schools have gotten up a head of steam since the simultaneous actions of creating an archive at the library, starting the reunions and forming the town’s first historic association.
Boothroyd is enthusiastic about the accuracy of the Wood Hill project.
“The historic setting is still great,” she says. “It’s not much different from the original.”
To learn more about Exeter’s one-room schools, go to www.exetermemoryproject . org.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .