We believe this building is the oldest public school in Rhode Island. It may even be the oldest public school in the country that is still standing.

Southermost on grounds of Portsmouth Historical Society

In the early days of Portsmouth, children were probably taught to read and write at home if their parents had those skills. Now 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 the town.

It took nine years for that school – Southermost School – to open its doors in 1725 on land near the corner of Union Street and the East Path – across from the current location of the Historical Society.

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. We have records that indicate that the first schoolmaster, James Preston, and his family lived in the basement of this building when it was across the street.

The building was used as a school for many years but 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.

Around the time of the Civil War the Gibbs School was built to replace the Southermost School and the Almy family bought this building at auction. It took eight teams of oxen to move the school building to the Almy Farm halfway down Union Street. The school spent 90 years at the Almy/Hall Farm (also known as Lakeside) where it served as a storage and harness shed.

In 1952 the Hall family gave the school 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 Society. Since then the Society worked to restore the school house through grants, house tours and yard sales.

Southermost School on Lakeside Farm

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 two original large school bells from Portsmouth old schools. It also has lunch pails and pegs to hang the student’s coats.

The historical significance or this building can not be overemphasized. It serves as a monument to the desires of early Portsmouth citizens to support education.

Listen to Schoolmaster Preston: