Southemost School before restoration

There is a little schoolhouse on the grounds of the Portsmouth Historical Society. We call it the “Southermost School” and we believe it may be the oldest school in Rhode Island.

In the early days of Portsmouth, children probably were taught to read and write at home if their parents had those skills. Education was important to the townspeople of Portsmouth. In 1716, while considering how to divide land in the southern part of town, the freemen of Portsmouth were planning for public education in town. “Having considered how excellent an ornament learning is to mankind and the great necessity there is in building a public school house on said south side” of Portsmouth, the freemen put aside money to build a school and and chose a committee to raise money to build it. It must have taken a long time to collect the money needed because it took nine years for that school – Southermost School – to open its doors.

Land was donated on the corner of East Main Road and Union Street. Town citizens authorized 20 pounds (English money) for construction but it actually cost 23 pounds or about a hundred dollars in today’s money. We can understand how the school was built from reading the bill presented to the town by the builder, Captain Adam Lawton. The building is fourteen feet by twenty-six feet. It took eight days for Lawton and his “negro” to build it. Slaves and indentured servants (who had agreements to work for a specific time) were part of the community in early Portsmouth. The town was billed for 2000 feet of boards, 200 shingle nails and 200 clapboard nails. There were hearth stones for a fireplace for warmth and 200 bricks for an oven in the cellar so that cooking could be done. It has a simple “post and beam” construction which uses heavy timbers as supports. Even though it is an old way to build, the original wood frame has lasted all these years. To save costs it had a “pony chimney” which is supported by just the roof and extends down part way into the building. It has an arched and plastered ceiling that was unusual for a school in those days. It was a type of construction used in finer homes.

In colonial days the school teachers were all men. The families of the students in the school were responsible for providing a home and food for the schoolmaster and his family. Early records of the town tell us about the first schoolmaster, James Preston, and how his family ending up living in the cellar of Southermost School. The school opened in 1725, but by 1727 Preston was reported to be sick and unable to work. The Preston family had been living at the home of James Strange. Town records from 1727 mention that “James Strange refuses to entertain James Preston and his family any longer in his dwelling house. It is is agreed by this council that said Preston and his family be settled in the Southermost School house in town for the present, that is in the cellar part…” The town tried to take care of families in need and the school was one of the few public buildings that could house a family. By 1730 they family was ordered out of the schoolhouse. Interestingly, the widow of James Strange, Sarah Strange, ended up needing to use Southermost School as her home, too. In a town meeting in 1746 she and her family were ordered out so that the “school house might be improved in the use for which it was built..”

Sometime before 1800 the school was moved to the corner of West Main Road and Union Street. The entry way (as you see it now) was added at this time. A stove was used for heat.

Southermost School on the grounds of the Portsmouth Historical Society.

Around the time of the Civil War the Gibbs School was built and the Almy family bought the school at auction. It took eight teams of Oxen to move the school building to the Almy Farm. The school spent 90 years at the Almy/Hall Farm (Lakeside) at 559 East Main Road where it served as a storage and harness shed. In 1952 the Hall family gave it to the Portsmouth Historical Society and once again it returned to the corner of Union Street and East Main Road, but this time across the street on the grounds of the Portsmouth Historical Society. The society worked to restore the school house through grants, house tours and yard sales.

Inside the school house today you can sit in one of the original student desks and view the top of the original schoolmaster’s desk. There are also examples of the primers, copy books and textbooks students would have used in one room schools in Portsmouth. The entrance way has lunch pails and pegs to hang coats.

Posted on the wall is a 200 year old list of Rules and Punishment posted at Southernmost School.
• Boys and girls playing together – 1 lash
• Fighting at School – 5 lashes
• Quarreling at school – 3 lashes
• Climbing for every foot over 3ft up a tree – 1 lash
• Telling tales out of school – 8 lashes
• Giving each other ill names – 3 lashes
• Misbehaving to girls – 10 lashes
• Leaving school without leave of the teacher – 4 lashes
• Wearing long fingernails – 2 lashes
• Boys going to the girls’ play place – 3 lashes
• Girls going to the boys’ play place – 2 lashes
• For every word you miss on your heart lessons without a good excuse – 1 lash
• For not saying yes or no sir or yes or no marm – 2 lashes
• Telling lies – 7 lashes
• Swearing at school – 9 lashes.