By Jim Stephens, MA, Deputy Director – Education and Interpretation Coordinator Historic Cold Spring Village
Welcome to the Fishing Creek School!
This is a real one-room school built in 1888 to provide an education for the children of the Fishing Creek section of Lower Township. It served Fishing Creek for 38 years before closing in 1926, at which time it became a private home. Cape May County was a far different place in 1888. The president of the United States was New Jersey-born Grover Cleveland and our nation had just 38 states. Many county residents still worked in agriculture. While the city of Cape May had begun hosting summer visitors in the 1760s, the barrier island communities that are now filled with tourists each summer had only begun to be developed nine years before with the creation of Ocean City in 1879, followed by Sea Isle City in 1882 and Anglesea, now North Wildwood, in 1885. This area was also far more rural and less densely populated. The census done in 1890, two years after this school was built, counted just 11,268 people residing in Cape May County, far fewer than the 96,304 living here in 2014.
The Fishing Creek section of Lower Township is located approximately three miles north of the first European settlement in Cape May County, known variously as Portsmouth, New England Town, Cape May Town or Town Bank, though Town Bank is the name commonly used today. The site of the original Town Bank has long since eroded away and would have been several hundred yards offshore from the site of the present community that bears the name. While the date of the arrival of the first Europeans on the Cape May peninsula is unknown, it was recorded that temporary shelters for men who ventured to the area from New England and eastern Long Island to engage in seasonal whaling on Delaware Bay had been built by 1640. Families from those regions began to settle permanently in this area by the 1680s. Cape May County was created by an act of the general assembly of the province of West Jersey on November 12, 1692.
Education in this region in the colonial era was quite different from what we know today. There were few schools and they were open for just a short term. In 1765, prominent local landowner and politician Aaron Leaming wrote in a diary he kept that his children went to school for one month each year. Wealthy families occasionally hired tutors to instruct their children. Some children received a basic education from their parents, while some attended what were called “dame schools,” where a woman would teach local children in her home. Some got no education at all.
The wave of nationalism that swept the new United States in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War had an effect on American education. Americans were no longer subjects of a king but rather free citizens of a nation in which they chose their leaders through elections. As the choice was in the hands of the people, it was necessary to have a basic education in order to make an informed decision. More children began to attend school though conditions in rural schools were still somewhat primitive. In the early 19th century, no state had a compulsory education law.
The primary reason for this was the prevalence of farming as the most common occupation in the United States. Farm families needed their children to stay at home to help with the many difficult, and occasionally dangerous, tasks necessary for running a family farm.
In the absence of laws requiring children to go to school, there were also no requirements for how long schools had to be open. Each determined the length of their school day and school year. Some were open from September to June as they are today while some were open for just a couple of months of the year. One early 19th century one-room school in the Petersburg section of Upper Township was open for a two and a half month term, from the last week of December to the first week of March. The reason for that unusual time span was most likely to accommodate the area’s farm families as late December to early March was the coldest time of year when there was the least amount of work to do on a farm. Most of the schools were
“subscription schools,” paid for by fees from the parents whose children attended. Rural subscription schools were often underfunded, short on supplies and in poor condition. In that era, those who taught in these schools, known as schoolmasters if they were men or schoolmistresses if they were women, did not need to meet any requirements to teach other than having a basic knowledge of reading, writing and ciphering, as mathematics was known. Most instruction was based on simple rote memorization as schoolmasters and schoolmistresses of that time often had little or no instruction in how to teach effectively. Here is a description of what one of those early 19th century Cape May County one-room schools was like: “The old school places had no desks and hard wooden benches with straight backs, and sometimes no backs at all, were
afforded. The books were such as could be gathered for the scholars by the parents themselves and sometimes there were no books at all. The ‘rule of three’ or reading, writing and arithmetic, were all the studies that were then considered necessary. The men teachers felt it their chief business to be feared for severity and the use of the hickory switch.”
By the mid-19th century, the situation had begun to change. Starting in the 1830s, education reformers such as Horace Mann in Massachusetts, began to push for public funding of education. In 1853, a group of New Jersey schoolmasters and schoolmistresses interested in improving the state’s educational system founded the New Jersey State Teachers Association, which later became the New Jersey Education Association, our state’s teachers union. Through the efforts of Mann, Massachusetts would become the first state to require children to attend school, passing a compulsory education law in 1852. New Jersey began requiring children to get an education in 1875, thirteen years before the construction of the Fishing Creek School. In 1855, New Jersey opened the State Normal School in Trenton, a college specializing in the training of future teachers. (The New Jersey State Normal School still exists today as The College of New Jersey) By the time of the Civil War in the 1860s, New Jersey teachers were required to pass an exam administered by the county superintendent of schools in order to be permitted to teach. In the 1850s, Reverend Moses Williamson, pastor of Cold Spring Presbyterian Church and an education reformer, opened the Cold Spring Academy, regarded as the first high school in Cape May County (Academy Road in Lower Township takes its name from the Cold Spring Academy, which was located along that road). Teaching was on its way to becoming a profession.
At the time of its construction in 1888, the Fishing Creek School was one of five schools operated in Lower Township. It was the third school to be located in that section of Lower Township. The first Fishing Creek School had been built along Fulling Mill Road in the early 19th century. The exact date of construction is not known. That one-room school, described as “little more than a log cabin” with walls and a roof through which “one could see daylight through the cracks and crevices” sat on land owned by the MacKean family. The poor condition of the school meant that it was quite cold in the winter and classes were sometimes cancelled during severe weather.
That school was replaced by the mid-19th century (the exact date is unknown) by another one- room school on Bayshore Road. Though it was the school district with the smallest enrollment in Lower Township, it numbered 55 students from ages four to 18. In 1871, it began a term that ran from September to June. The teacher at that time was a Mr. Hemingway, said to be a strict disciplinarian. Students were expected to provide their own books, slates and pencils.
By the early 1880s, this second Fishing Creek School was rapidly falling into a state of disrepair, an all-to-common fate for rural one-room schools. A local newspaper wrote in 1884 “We badly need a new schoolhouse. The present dilapidated building is a disgrace to our neighborhood.” The teacher at that time, Roxana Corson, told a meeting of the school district trustees “…such is the condition of the building that it is impossible to get the children to take proper interest in their studies. It is at least seventy-five years behind the time…uncomfortable and unfit for the purpose.” She went on to add “even the stove (used for heating the school room) is propped up with bricks and often topples over in their midst.” A replacement was desperately needed.
It took four years but on October 19, 1888, the deed for the third, and final, Fishing Creek School was signed. The land was turned over to Lower Township School District Number 23 for the sum of $60. The new one-room school was a great improvement over its predecessors. Many early and mid-19th century one-room schools were poorly lit with few windows, and those often rather small. The new Fishing Creek School featured numerous large windows to let in plenty of natural light. Slate chalkboards, something often not found in early 19th century one-room schools, were found at the front of the classroom. However, the new school shared one feature with the two schools that came before it. Behind the school were two outhouses, one for the girls and one for the boys. The girl’s outhouse still stands today. A rail fence enclosed the property and according to one account, some of the students would remove one of the rails during recess at lunchtime, put it across another rail and create an improvised see-saw.
The new school also featured a small bell tower over the front door. In the 1890s, ospreys, often known as “fish hawks” at that time, began using the bell tower as a nesting site. The students and their teacher looked forward to the arrival of the ospreys. A photograph of the school with its prominent osprey nest even appeared in a book published by the Smithsonian Institution in the early 1920s.
By 1910, the youngest students were 5 years old and the oldest 17. As was common in American one-room schools, the older students looked after the younger ones and helped them with their lessons. In addition to reading, writing and arithmetic, students also studied geography, history and music, singing along to a used organ that had been purchased for the school in 1900.
Students who exhibited good behavior were permitted to sit with their friends. The wife of a farmer who lived across the road from the school often baked cookies which she shared with the students at recess. While most students walked to school, sometimes as much as two miles each way, one enterprising child spared himself the long walk by hitching a goat to his wagon and letting the goat pull him to and from school.
By the 1920s, one-room schools were increasingly seen as backward holdovers from the past. With the advent of the automobile and the bus, transporting students to a single central school became feasible. Lower Township was part of this trend and made plans to replace its one-room schools with an up to date consolidated school. By 1926, the Fishing Creek School had been closed. In 1928 it was purchased by a Pennsylvania family named Leckey who modified it into a summer home. The Leckeys, however, preserved much of the original structure and it is because of the care that they lavished on this building that the Fishing Creek School exists today to tell people of the 21st century the story of what a rural one-room school was like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.