Fred Ayer Verplanck: From One-Room Schools to All the Schools

by Harold E. Turkington (written 1953-1954)
excerpt from Old Manchester II ... The Storytellers, published 1995 by the Manchester Historical Society
excerpted by Jim Hall

In reviewing his life, Fred Veplanck said, "I would say as did the late T.R. (Theodore Roosevelt), I have had a 'bully time.' If I had my life to live over, I would teach school."

Three score years [60 years] ago, Manchester noted the birth of its first high school. Sixty years later, at the age of 93, Fred Ayer Verplanck vividly recalls the meager beginning of the system that had outlived two buildings and will have new quarters within a four year period.

"It was 60 years ago that I first came to Manchester" he said. "I don't recall the exact date, but it was on a Thursday, sometime around the 20th of August. Charles D. Hine, who was secretary of the State Board of Education, reached me by telegraph on the Massachusetts shore and told me he wanted me to go down to Manchester and look over a position that was open in the school system.

"I did. Mrs. Verplanck and I hitched our roan mare to the buggy. When we arrived in Manchester, I went to Cheney Bros. to see about the new post. It was vacation time and I returned here the following Monday and set to work preparing the foundation for a high school that opened two weeks later."

The first high school class contained 38 students, Verplanck recalled. Classes were held in the old 300-foot long wooden building, the Ninth District School, that housed 30 classrooms and school activities on four floors. The school burned in the great fire of October 23, 1913. It was located on School Street and reached from Vine Street almost to Main Street.

In 1894 when the first senior class received their diplomas, there were six graduates.

Verplanck laid the foundation for a trade school here with the cooperation of Cheney Bros. The class was a course in silk. The school was limited to the work of the weaving department. Two practical workers from the silk mill did the teaching. It was the only trade school in silk in the country, Verplanck said.

In 1902, Cheney Bros. built a new and up-to-date high school building. Verplanck told the Cheneys what he wanted for his school and he got it. The school was completed for occupancy in 1904. There were 16 classrooms, laboratories, and rooms for art and drawing. The assembly hall seated about 900.

With the high school well established by 1905, Verplanck was made superintendent of the South Manchester Public School System. In 1932, when the schools of the town were consolidated, he was made first superintendent of schools in Manchester. He held this post until retiring in 1935 after 53 years in Connecticut schools, 42 of them in Manchester.

Verplanck was an 1888 graduate of Yale. His first teaching job, however, was at the age of 17 when he taught in the one room school in Franklin. He had received his elementary education in a school of similar type and had one year of freshman grade at Natchaug High School in Willimantic.

In the summer of 1878, Verplanck "hired out" to a neighboring farmer and worked the prevailing seven hours, that is, seven hours before dinner and seven hours after. The farmer left on an unexpected business trip and Verplanck was left in charge for the remainder of the summer. He had to plan and carry out the work. Looking back, Veplanck says he laid a successful foundation in two esential trades -- school teaching and farming.

After a year in an elementary school in Lebanon, Verplanck opened a private "select" school in Lebanon, organized by parents who wanted their childres to have something more of education than could be obtained in the elementary school.

A year later, he taught upper grades of a two-room school in Hanover, a village in the Town of Sprague. Having now taught for six yers, Verplanck clearly realized if he were to continue to teach, he needed a college education. He spent a year preparing for entrance to Yale at Norwich Free Academy and graduated from the New Haven college with a BA degree in 1888. Following a year teaching in Colchester at Bacon Academy, and three years as principal of the high school in Thomaston, he came to Manchester.

He considers the highlight of his life the naming of the Olcott Street School in his honor.

Other memorable occasions include the school fire of 1913" "For 17 years we had been conducting fire drills. In addition to the classrooms, we had a system to check lavatories. I'll never forget the relief when I arived at the scene of the fire, which I heard about over in the North End, and saw on my way back, and learned that all the children had been directed to safety. We were prepared."

The Verplanck School opened in September, 1950.

To view an expanded version of this article, as well as an excerpt from A New England Pattern: The History of Manchester, Connecticut by Dr. William E. Buckley in the "Reprints" section of this web page, please click The Verplanck Story.