From near-ruin to near-veneration. Such is the story of the Cataumet Schoolhouse. Visitors to the historic structure at 1200 County Road in Cataumet can step back in time to the turn of the 19th century and the early 20th century, to see what going to school was like for children of that era. Neglected for more than 50 years following its closure in 1930, and listed at one time as one of the state’s top 10 most endangered historic resources, it now stands on the brink of placement on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Cataumet Schoolhouse was built in 1894. James H. West, a local carpenter, has been credited as the builder, and Moses C. Waterhouse, a carpenter, builder, and member of the Bourne School Committee, has been identified as the designer. Mr. Waterhouse was also the architect of the Bournedale Village School, which, built in 1897, was very similar in appearance to the Cataumet Schoolhouse.

Cataumet resident John E. York was a founding member of the Cataumet Schoolhouse Preservation Group. In a telephone interview, Mr. York noted that the Cataumet Schoolhouse took only eight weeks to build at a cost of less than $2,000. He added that, more than a century later, it is taking more than $40 million and several years to build a new school in town.

For its first 10 years, the Cataumet Schoolhouse housed students in grades 1 through 8. For the ensuing 20 years it housed students in grades 1 through 6. The schoolhouse closed in 1930, and in its last five years it taught students in grades 1 through 4. The single classroom held 36 desks, and over the years, class size fluctuated from as few as 12 to as many as 30 to 35.

The preservation group’s website notes that the student population was composed of a considerable number of minority students, representing Native Americans, African-Americans and Portuguese immigrants. The wide range of races and nationalities “contributed to the diverse ethnic and religious character of Bourne’s population in the 19th and 20th centuries,” the preservation group wrote.

Throughout its history, one teacher at a time educated all the students who attended the Cataumet Schoolhouse. A total of 14 teachers taught there, and the schoolhouse was her domain, Mr. York said. She was not only teacher, but nurse and property manager. She occasionally cooked pot lunches for the students, too. She reported to a school superintendent but not a principal, and several times a year the school committee would pay a visit, he said.

Teachers were also not allowed to be married. In many instances, young women would come from out of town, unknown to the locals, unmarried and teach school. Not long after, they would meet a man and get married, and that would create a need for a new teacher, he said.

A Rich History Of Teachers

The first teacher was a woman by the name of Mary P. Hill, known locally as Molly Hill, Mr. York said. Ms. Hill taught in Cataumet for just the first year the school opened before moving on to Head of the Bay schoolhouse in Buzzards Bay, he said.

Ms. Hill was born in Bourne, but at the age of 10 her family moved to Madagascar. Her father was a sea captain who worked in the Indian Ocean trading business. Her mother taught school in Madagascar, and years later, Ms. Hill returned to Bourne and decided to follow her mother’s lead and become a teacher. Rather than attend college in Massachusetts, however, she went cross country with a cousin to attend a teacher’s college in Los Angeles, Mr. York said.

“She decided she wanted to go on an adventure,” he said.

The last teacher at the Cataumet Schoolhouse was a woman by the name of Myrta Gladwyn. Ms. Gladwyn was from Connecticut and started at the schoolhouse in 1913, Mr. York said. He said that when the preservation group starting restoration work on the schoolhouse around 2000, it heard from people in town who remembered Ms. Gladwyn as their teacher.

In August 2003 the preservation group was able to acquire a new 1,400-pound belfry for the schoolhouse. A celebration was held when the belfry was installed, and 13 students who attended the Cataumet Schoolhouse and were still alive came to the event, Mr. York said. He also noted that the last three surviving students of the Cataumet Schoolhouse died within the past year. Wilhemina “Billie” Coombs died in August, Franklin E. “Bucky” Barlow died in July, and Priscilla Gibbs Swift died in November.

A Basic Learning Plan

Curriculum at the Cataumet Schoolhouse included such necessities as reading, writing and arithmetic. There was art and music, too, and often subjects would be combined. Students would have a lesson in art and science by going outside to learn about local vegetation while drawing the leaves on a tree, he said. The day would start with the Pledge of Allegiance and a song, sometimes a patriotic song. There were two recesses a day, one at mid-morning and another for an hour to have lunch, Mr. York said.

A typical school year was similar to what students have now; start in the fall and finish in the spring. Sometimes there were two semesters, sometimes three. In Cataumet the school year started later than other areas of town because of the cranberry bogs. Early September was cranberry picking time, so Cataumet and Sagamore Beach typically started school around the third week of September because children helped pick the berries, Mr. York said.

“If they started school earlier, half the kids would not attend anyway,” he said.

From the Cataumet Schoolhouse, students would move on to the high school, which was the Coady School on Cotuit Street in Bourne Village, Mr. York said. He noted that better than 50 percent of students graduated from high school. Many would go on to the whaling or merchant industry with aspirations to become a sea captain. To do so they needed to know mapping and physics, so a sound education was essential, he said. Ship captains often became wealthy and considered themselves part of the aristocracy, Mr. York said.

The Cataumet Schoolhouse closed on Friday, June 20, 1930. It fell victim to better transportation that led to centralization of the town’s school districts. In 1999 Historic Massachusetts, Inc.. declared the Cataumet Schoolhouse one of the state’s top 10 most endangered historic resources. The group’s annual list called attention to landmarks representing the historic culture of the state, but that were threatened by neglect, insufficient funding, community development, public policy or vandalism.

Preserving History

The declaration came just days ahead of an expected vote by the Bourne Board of Selectmen on the Bourne Historic Commission’s plan to move the building. The commission suggested that the town spend $35,000 to truck the schoolhouse up Route 28 to Bourne Village. The group argued that it would make the schoolhouse more accessible as an educational resource and museum for Bourne’s schoolchildren.

The plan, however, inspired protest in Cataumet, where a group of residents formed the Cataumet Schoolhouse Preservation Group. Group members agreed the building should be restored and revitalized, but they insisted it should be done in Cataumet. They said the plan to move the structure would demean it as a historic landmark, and pluck from Cataumet one of the village’s oldest jewels.

The Massachusetts Historical Commission, the Cape Cod Commission and the Bourne Society for Historic Preservation all supported the preservation group’s idea that the schoolhouse should remain in place. In 2000, the board of selectmen voted to keep the schoolhouse at its original site.

Over the years, the preservation group has accumulated period items to assist in the school’s restoration. They hunted down Southern yellow pine which was used in the original doors, found the same school bell the town bought in the early 1920s, and replaced more than half of the building’s windows.

Visitors to the schoolhouse see antique desks arranged in rows for each grade, a 19th century US map hanging on a back wall, and portraits of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln poised above the original blackboards. The teacher’s desk holds an inkwell and an old hand bell, used to call the class to order.

Last week, Mr. York went before the Bourne Board of Selectmen and requested its support in getting the 123-year-old building recognized by the Massachusetts Historic Commission. Recognition by the state commission is the first step in having the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mr. York asked that the board sign a letter of support to accompany the application to the state historic commission. The board voted unanimously to sign the letter of support to the Massachusetts Historic Commission.

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