The Westerly Sun
ASHAWAY — Tom Buck acknowledges that the impending demolition of the 1904 Ashaway School is necessary, but that doesn’t mean he will be welcome it.
The former Town Council member, who attended the school, said he voted reluctantly to tear down the building, but he probably won’t be able to witness the demolition.
“I don’t know if I could be there,” he said with a sigh. “When I voted to remove the building, demolish it, I was getting choked up. I was getting teary.”
Unused since 2004, the old school sits on Hillside Avenue, next to the current Ashaway Elementary School. Teachers, parents and emergency responders have expressed concerns that the wooden building is a fire hazard and poses a safety threat to students in the school nearby.
After considering several rehabilitation options for the old school, all of which were determined to be either unworkable or too expensive, the council voted in 2018 to raze the building and authorized the formation of a subcommittee, chaired by Buck, to oversee the salvaging of the building’s more valuable components, as well as the timing of the demolition itself, which is expected to take place in 2020.
Hopkinton once had 12 school districts, each with its own one room elementary school. There were no school buses, so the schools had to be close enough for children to walk to.
Hopkinton historian and author Lauri Arruda explained that when the one room schools became overcrowded, the 1904 school, for children up to grade 9, was built to accommodate the influx of families with children.
“There was a depression in 1889,” she said. “When the depression was over and the mills started back up again, many people moved to Ashaway. So, they decided to build this new school.”
To understand the strong attachment of residents and former students to the school, it is helpful to understand the building’s central role in the community.
“Your friends were there, the people you grew up with all your life,” Buck said. “Back then, people lived in the same house for a lifetime.”
Arruda, who is writing a book entitled “The History of Hopkinton Rhode Island,” has interviewed former students about their experiences at the school.
“Back in 2006, I started interviewing older citizens in town for my book and of course a lot of them were in Ashaway and the school would come up,” she said.
Arruda described the school as having primitive fire escapes.
“When the building was first built, at each end there was a large tube which was used for a fire escape, and during the summer, the kids would use them as slides by climbing up inside them,” Arruda said. “In the early days, you could go to the school playground during the weekends and play on the play equipment.”
Behind the old school, where the current school now stands, there was a large field which the boys cleared themselves and used for baseball and football games.
Arruda said the children also played other, more risky games.
“Across from the schoolyard was a big sand bed and it was surrounded by birch trees,” she said. “They used to tie a rope to the top of the trees to form a catapult and to do this, the boys would pull the tree as near to the ground as they could and another boy would climb to the top and they would let go of the rope and the kid would be catapulted into the air.”
In the early 1900s, the school year was closely tied to farm work and especially, harvest times, because the children were needed to help on their family farms. It was also common for students to leave school before graduation.
“On June 22, 1905, the Ashaway school only had three graduates and this is because most of the kids quit school and went to work,” Arruda said. “They timed their school year by the farming. These kids had to get up in the morning and they had to help out around the farm before they even went to school and then they had to go right home.”
Former students Ralph and Sandy Itchcawich told Arruda that in the early days, lunch at school had cost 10 cents.
“Ralph didn’t have 10 cents because he came from a very poor family, so he used to go in the kitchen after lunch and he used to wash out the glass milk bottles while the other kids were playing ball,” she said.
Lunch was served in the cafeteria, which was located in the basement.
“They called it Welsh rabbit,” Arruda said. “They would crush saltines with tomato soup poured over the top and the portions were small.”
During the 1938 hurricane, the school served as a shelter because the children were unable to get home.
“I just interviewed Elizabeth Cugini and she was telling me about the ’38 hurricane,” Arruda said. “Her uncle came to pick her and her sisters up from school because the storm was getting so bad. A lot of the kids rode buses and the buses couldn’t get through because the trees had fallen in the road. So some of those kids had to stay in the school for two days until the roads could be cleared. There were no chainsaws back then. Everything was done by hand.”
Buck and Ashaway Fire Chief Ronnie Sposato, who was a couple of grades behind him, still remember the good times they had at the school as well as the names of most, if not all their teachers.
“I have only good memories of going to that school,” he said. “Back in them days, the teachers were great. We did have classrooms in the basement of that school all the way to the top floor back then.”
The town has set aside $135,000 for the demolition, but it is expected to cost more than to $200,000. Hopkinton Town Council President Frank Landolfi said he was hoping the school would be gone by the end of 2020.
“It really needs to come down,” he said. “It’s also an issue for the police department. They can’t really see the school behind the 1904 building when they do their building checks and their rounds, so there’s a a lot of reasons why it needs to come down.”
Sposato agreed that the school needed to go.
“It is going to be sad that it’s going…but it is a dangerous building there, next to the other building,” he said. “I wish they could have repurposed the building. I thought it would have made a great place for there Town Hall expansion, but they just saw no interest in doing anything with it.
The subcommittee sent out 15 requests for proposals to salvage valuable elements of the building, such as the large wooden timbers which are believed to be chestnut, but Buck said that to his dismay, not a single reclamation company responded. So far, only the bell and cupola will be preserved.
“Everybody wants to get rid of history and start new,” he said. “Well, this country is a great country because of our history. We’ve learned things in the past. We were very innovative in the past. Now we are nothing but a disposable country.”