Thursday, August 9, 2012

A one-room revolution: Clara Barton in Bordentown

Having checked out the wonders of Mount Holly and done some reconnaissance on potential nearby birding sites, we decided that maybe it was time to head back home. That, however, was a short-lived plan. We'd just made it onto the Turnpike from the Pennsy Pike extension when we ran into a massive traffic jam. Rather than sitting there, we decided to exit at Interchange 7 and take our chances with Route 206.

"I have a feeling we'll run into something really good," Ivan said, confidently. If past experience could be our guide, he'd be completely correct. Exit 7, of course, serves Bordentown, a place I'd long wanted to check out. The closest I'd gotten was finding out the Bonaparte connection... but never knew quite why the town would hold any interest for an exiled 'royal' family. 

Per Ivan's prediction, it didn't take long for us to find something interesting. As we drove down Crosswicks Street, we came upon a small building with one of those glorious blue historic markers. "Clara Barton School."

Many don't know this, but before she became known as a leading health advocate and founded the American Red Cross, Barton was a schoolteacher. She was a Massachusetts native but came to teach in Bordentown after a visit to a friend in Hightstown. At the time, the custom was for teachers to bill students at the end of each term, a practice she sought to change in favor of a free public school supported by funding from the town. In her estimation, far too many children weren't getting an education because they couldn't afford private school tuition.

Her popularity with students and parents helped to push the idea forward, and in 1852 the town allowed her to start her new school in a one-room building that predated the Revolution. As more and more children learned about the availability of free education, the school quickly swelled to a student body of 600. More teachers and more buildings were pressed into service to manage the demand.

Unfortunately, it appears that Barton's success planted the seeds of her undoing in Bordentown. According to the Bordentown Historical Society website, a lengthy bout with laryngitis caused her to miss a few months of school, and in that time, local officials replaced her with a male principal at a salary reported to be twice what she was being paid. She was also deemed to be his assistant, a position she found distasteful. She resigned her position and moved to Washington D.C. for higher-paid employment.

Barton made an indelible impact on Bordentown and New Jersey in just over two years. She'd founded one of the first free schools in the state at a time when free education, while provided by statute, was rarely provided to any but the indigent. Children all over the state joined forces in the early 1920s to honor her work by restoring the one-room schoolhouse, and today it stands as a picturesque reminder of the dynamic woman who brought knowledge to those who might not ordinarily have had the chance to study.                                                      

1 comment:

  1. Just came across your blog.. I love your curiosity. I grew up in Bordentown City, lived about 10 different places throughout the 1 square mile wonderland … such a great place filled with history. It's truly a hidden gem not only in NJ but in America. Happy Summer! - Ashley


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