State-of-the-art 1895 school incinerated restroom waste


The weather was unkind on the afternoon of March 23, 1894 but it didn’t impede the dedication exercises planned at Johnston’s new Plain Farm School which fronted Johnston and Concord Streets. Speeches and song inspired and entertained the large crowd that gathered before the keys to the building were presented to the trustees. 

The old Plain Farm School had been outgrown by the number of students in District 15 needing an education. In addition, the building itself was outdated and unhealthy. During the late 1880s, several students were sent home sick after inhaling coal gas which had escaped from stove used to heat the building. Conversations regarding the erection of a new school didn’t come until 1892, however. Overcrowding had necessitated that many district 15 students had to attend classes in one of three different church rooms being borrowed for the purpose.

The new school, which had been completed at a cost $30,000, had officially opened for classes in Feb. of that year. The architect, 24-year-old Daniel Howard Thornton, who also designed the wood-shingled Gothic-style St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Centerdale, had the exterior completed in brick with dark brown trim. The interior was ash and hard pine and an elegant portico announced the front entrance.

Standing at 77 feet wide and 108 feet long, the school consisted of three floors with two wide stairways at each end of the building. The top floor was almost entirely claimed by an assembly room built to comfortably seat up to 800 students, with windows running along both sides. A stage and a small lobby at each end of the assembly room finished out the third story.

The first and second floors of the school were constructed exactly the same. A wide hall ran the length of each floor, outfitted with sinks and running water at specific intervals. Modern faucets contained self-closing mechanisms which insured that water would never accidentally be left running.

On each side of the first and second floors were two classrooms and two recitation rooms. The 32-square-foot classrooms were bright and airy thanks to ventilators, which were installed by the Fuller & Warren Ventilating Company of Boston, to allow the teachers to control the temperature in each class room. Slate blackboards were affixed to the walls of each classroom, circling the room while desks, provided by the new United States School Furniture Company in New York, were set out in an orderly fashion. Each of the first two floors also contained a cloakroom where students could leave their coats.

The large cement-floor basement was divided into separate bathroom facilities for boys and girls. On the boys side were urinals attached to the walls and closeted toilets. Closeted toilets were also on the girls side. The bathrooms were designed so that, each night, iron covers had to be put over the toilets and a fire ignited in the furnace. The heat from the fire passed under a grate which contained the collected excrement and destroyed it, sending the fumes swiftly out through a chimney. The recent invention was another modern addition to the school, negating any need for installing a septic system. 

Two additional furnaces heated the halls and the top floor of the building while two others warmed the classrooms. Two smaller sized furnaces heated the closets containing the toilets. The trustees expected to go through about 80 tons of coal over the winter to heat the school.

The carpentry for the new building was provided by Sweet & Winsor of Smithfield, while masonry was done by 42-year-old William Elton Waterman and painting by J. T. Cullison. Teachers at the new school included Mattie Williams, Phebe King, Anna Matteson and Ruth Hayes. The principal was William Steere and his office could be found on the first floor near the main entrance.

One month after the school’s dedication, the school committee voted to change its name from Plain Farm School to Concord School. It was also voted to erect a flag pole in the school yard with which to raise the American flag which was going to be presented by the Washington Council of American Mechanics on Memorial Day. The students registered at the school numbered 864.

The following year, it was proposed that a public street be built midway between Laurel Hill Avenue and Webster Avenue so that Concord School students could reach the facility easier. Proposals were also made for a retaining wall and granite steps on the property.

The first month of 1898, several parents contacted Johnston town officials concerning alleged abuse taking place at Concord School. Student Henry McLaughlin had entered the school after recess, chewing a peanut that another boy had given him. He was whipped by a teacher so badly that he was unable to use his blistered and bruised right hand. Twelve-year-old Dennis Kelly had been locked into a room as punishment until he lost control of his bladder. Student Philip Clarke was violently kicked by a teacher. John McLaughlin was also whipped ferociously while Harry Lovegrove and Hiram Thornton were confined in a clothespress until both had nearly suffocated.

Later that year, it was voted to rename Concord Street. It would now be known as Roosevelt Street, and Concord School would become Roosevelt Street School. By the end of the 1960s, the school was no longer being used and, in 1971, the structure was removed.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.


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