26 August 2016

South Branch Schoolhouse

By 1872 the South Branch School - located in Branchburg Township, but also serving students across the river in Hillsborough - was in poor condition. Years of inadequate state and local funding, and moderate tuition fees, led to no money being left for repairs. In 1868, for instance, the school received $22.80 from the state, $161.21 from the township, and $146 in tuition. To put that in perspective, the teacher salary for that year was $500 - leaving a deficit of $169.99 before any other expenses!

The South Branch Schoolhouse in 2013

In 1871, the Free School Act allowed for greater distribution of state aid based on population. Of the 96 school-aged children in the district that year, 76 were enrolled at some point during the eleven month term, with the average attendance for the 50-seat classroom being 32. In 1872, despite an increase in the school-aged population to 108, average attendance dropped to just 28.



The South Branch Schoolhouse, Branchburg Township, postcard circa 1907

Construction began on the current schoolhouse in the spring of 1873. The lot was purchased for $1000, and $3700 was raised in taxes to cover building costs. Many of the progressive elements of school design circulating in 1873 were fully endorsed by the State Superintendent of Education Ellis Apgar, and were incorporated into the new school. High ceilings, adequate light, heat and ventilation, and a floor plan where students faced a windowless wall were all recommended by Apgar and used in the design of the South Branch School.


Ellis Apgar, NJ State Superintendent of Education in the 1870s

He also recommended a room size of about 24 or 25 feet square, which could seat at least 50 students (the maximum he felt could be supervised by one teacher), a raised platform at one end if the classroom were to be used for assemblies, and of course a bell, Here's what Apgar had to say about furnishings in the 1874 Annual Report of the Department of Education:

Every school should be well furnished. Everything added to make the school room comfortable, convenient, and attractive, facilitates the work of education. A teacher cannot be expected to do good work without the proper tools. The desks furnished the children should be of the most approved style; they should have folding seats, so as to allow of freedom of motion in marching, calisthenics, and general exercises. Settees placed in front of the teacher's desk are convenient for recitation purposes. The teacher's desk should be neat and substantial, having at least six drawers in it. There should be three or four chairs, a thermometer, an eight day clock, a small globe, a call bell, and other conveniences for teaching.

Students at the South Branch Schoolhouse in 1924
Enrollment in the South Branch district peaked at 95 in 1875 and then began declining along with average attendance. The school remained active until Branchburg built a consolidated elementary school in 1950 - the same year Hillsborough opened their consolidated school on the corner of Amwell Road and Route 206.

South Branch Schoolhouse interior circa 2005
In 1963, the Branchburg Board of Education sold the schoolhouse to Branchburg Township, and work was begun on a restoration project to coincide with the township's tercentenary.


1964 plaque on the front of the building
The 1964 restoration was timely, as a classroom shortage required the school to be reopened for one year in 1965 for sixth-graders.

South Branch Schoolhouse interior circa 2005
The school was placed on the state and national registers of historic places in 2005, and has subsequently undergone additional restoration. And, of course, you wouldn't expect me to finish this post without reminding you that the South Branch Schoolhouse's most famous student was Hillsborough's own Anna Case. The opera singer attended the school in the late 1890s.



South Branch School's most famous pupil, opera singer Anna Case, as a teenager circa 1905.




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