Thirty-two-year-old chemist Thomas Henry Hughes settled in Johnston in 1849, established the village of Hughesdale and founded the Hughesdale Dye & Chemical Company. In 1868, he gifted Johnston with the deed to a piece of land to be utilized for erecting a school where the local children could obtain their education. A schoolhouse, measuring 50 by 25 feet, was soon constructed.
During the winter of 1896, the Town approved of funds being used to replace the teacher’s desk. Additionally, it was voted that the school’s janitor would have his weekly salary increased from one dollar to two dollars. Some Johnston residents felt that the school would benefit from having a cellar dug out beneath it and became irritated when conversations about the matter went on without any decisions being made.
Eventually the cellar was installed and, in Feb. of 1900, the school had to close temporarily due to the cellar being flooded with two feet of water. Because the furnace had been located in the cellar, the flooding made it impossible to heat the school. Over the course of the next decade, the issue would be one of constant concern as, throughout most of each year, at least three inches of water were present beneath the building at any given time.
Kathryn Lavalle, who had been employed as a teacher at the school during the early 1890s, was promoted to principal in 1898 and went on to serve in that position for several years. From holiday celebrations to graduation programs, the little building was the site of future memories for hundreds of children.
By 1909, Hughesdale School employed three teachers. The budget was able to support necessities such as repainting the blackboard and getting the school in the best shape possible before it opened its doors each fall. However, it was becoming quite overcrowded. It became a health and safety concern to have so many children crowded into such a small structure. Because the parents of some children could not afford medical attention for their family, the Town directed a physician to visit the school once a year and examine the students. In 1912, the visiting doctor determined that 16 students had not been vaccinated, six were suffering with nasal problems, 10 were need of dental attention, one was deemed to be mentally deficient and two had defective eyesight.
In 1925, the school went through a renovation to bring it more up to date. Beyond cosmetics, the over-crowding situation was growing worse. While nearly all the schools in Johnston had more kids than room, Hughesdale was by far the most desperately outgrown. In the coming years, nothing was done to alleviate the problem and a member of the Johnston Town Council finally spoke up in 1934 and called the situation deplorable. He pointed out that, besides the building have become totally unsuitable, the small lot of land didn’t allow for the students to enjoy any recreational activities while at school. He recommended that a new, bigger school built somewhere else in town. Two years later, the same councilman was recommending the same idea, only he now he was taking the age of the building into account and suggesting that it be razed.
No one listened to the suggestions. In 1937, Hughesdale School went through another total renovation and was brought even more up to date. That year, Miss Irene Jerrett, who had served as math teacher and principal of Graniteville School since 1930, was brought to Hughesdale to teach first, second and third grade. Her salary was cut from $1,600 to $1,300 per year. The following year, a Parent Teacher Association was formed to oversee the school. Mrs. Louis Brown served as president while Miss Alice Edwards filled the role of vice president.
In the fall of 1946, children residing in Hughesdale were transported to Thornton School, it finally being decided that the little old structure couldn’t accommodate the growing classes any longer. On July 2 of the following year, the family of Thomas Hughes had a notice of repossession slapped on the former school’s front door.
Hughes’s deed read, “It being my meaning and intention to convey this lot for educational purposes and none other and when the district ceases to use the same for such purposes, the same to revert to my heirs or assigns."
Mrs. Arthur L. Sheldon, an heir of Hughes, acting on behalf of herself and other heirs, obtained an attorney and filed a repossession notice with the Johnston Town Clerk. As the school had been abandoned by the Johnston School Department the prior year, the heirs wanted the land returned. The Johnston School Department quickly denied that they had abandoned the school.
It took six years for the matter to be settled. In November of 1953, the little school building went up for auction – and the Hughes family were given their land back after it had served its purpose for almost a century.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.