In 1923, Manchester celebrated its 100th anniversary in grand style with parades, exhibits, speeches, concerts,
and the proposed construction of a brand-new school, known as the Centennial or Harding School. When scandal tainted the
presidency of Warren Harding (1865-1923), the school was renamed Hollister School, referring to the street where it was
located. This charming Colonial-Revival style school building opened in 1924 and served variously as an elementary, junior
high, and special education school. What a wonderful way to celebrate our incorporation as a separate town!
In 1961, the Town renamed the school to honor Thomas Bentley (1892-1971), long-time principal of the school. I remember Mr. Bentley, for he came into our classrooms at Robertson School and spoke to our teachers and to us in a kindly manner. He asked what we ate for breakfast, and checked to see that we each had a handkerchief – this was in the days before ubiquitous hand-sanitizer and disposable facial tissues. I also knew Mr. Bentley from his "summer job," growing strawberries in Bolton, where many of the women in the North End neighborhood where I lived drove out to the wilds of Bolton to pick quarts and quarts of strawberries. Mr. Bentley farmed both on his own land, behind his house on Route 85 (Bolton Center Road), and on land that he rented from neighbors. He rotated the strawberry crops for optimal soil nutrition, and he seemed to love the work of planting and plowing and dealing with kids in the fields who were probably eating more strawberries than they put in the wooden baskets. The women would make a day of it, out in the country, bringing lunch for the kids.
In his 1973 history of Manchester, William E. Buckley (1891-1987), himself an educator, says, "Thomas Bentley, born and bred on a hill farm in central New York where he acquired the habit of industry and the love of outdoor life and of animals, radiated the wholesomeness which we like to associate with country living. He was no office principal, overwhelmed by...paper work...He loved young people and tried to know all the children under his supervision. His teachers were also his friends."
But Bentley School, with its classical motif and old-fashioned charm, was under-utilized, under-maintained, and in 2008 it was demolished, replaced by new construction along Hollister, Summit and Washington Streets.
The Ninth District School and "Educational Square"
Like Bentley School with its four names, Educational Square became Barnard (and then Bennet) Junior High School, and
now Bennet Academy. But, despite its age (opening in 1915), this large school complex is not the first one on the site. That
distinction goes to the huge Victorian-style wooden building known as the Ninth District School, built beginning in 1870 by
the Cheney brothers, of silk mill fame. At that time, the Eighth District (northern part of town) had the largest
population of students, due to its busy cotton and paper mills and its proximity to the railroad. But the increasing need
for workers for the silk business in the South End brought a need for more school facilities. Cheneys built a four-room
wooden schoolhouse at an estimated cost of $15,000 and gave free use of it to the District. In 1881, the building was
raised and four more rooms were constructed under it. In 1887 and 1893, paralleling the boom in the silk industry, more
additions were built, making the building large enough to accommodate over a thousand students.
In collaboration with the New Britain State Normal School, kindergarteners through sixth-graders were taught by student teachers, supervised by the staff of the Ninth District School. Many teachers got their start in this way – learning to teach by teaching right in the classroom. A benefit for Manchester was that we could pick the best of these teachers and hire them for our own schools.
In a horrifying fire, the Ninth District School burned to the ground in October 1913. Hartford Courant bold sub-headlines said, "Ninth District’s Big Wooden School Building Emptied in 58 Seconds and in Five Minutes Was a Sea of Fire • Young Normal School Teachers Prove Themselves Heroines • One Burned in Saving Child that Fainted • Children Barely Prevented From Rushing Back Into the Building To Get Their Wraps • Class In Gymnasium Saved by Cool Headed Teacher • Pine Building Burned Like Tinder • Total Loss $200,000 • Hartford [fire department] Helps • Public Library Burned, But the Books Saved • No. 4 Hose House and Five Dwellings Burned • Watkins Building [where Pinewood Furniture is located now] Barely Saved • Hartford Help Saves Much Greater Fire • Quick Run By Auto Engine and Hose Wagon • Praise for the School Teachers…"
Regular fire drills were praised as the reason that the school emptied quickly and not a single child was killed. About 1,100 children were in the building that afternoon.
The nearby library’s books were saved by a quick-witted Police Captain, William F. Madden, who, according to The Courant, "seeing the library building was sure to burn, and noticing a crowd around the place, called upon volunteers to remove the books. A line was soon formed and they worked in an endless chain. Books were taken from the shelves and carried out across the street to a lawn where they were deposited. Captain Madden remained in charge and kept the line working free, not allowing any congestion on the stairs or doors and before the flames had broken through to the library not a book was left on the shelves." Cheney brothers sent over trucks to bring the books to one of their warehouses.
After this terrible fire, a new school complex was built – the one we see today gracing the southern end of Downtown Main Street. This school came close to abandonment or demolition, and that would have been a shameful event for our town. The school, designed by architects Carrère and Hastings, who also designed the New York Public Library, has been saved, somewhat altered, but still solidly built of brick.
Educational Square’s current name honors Miss Elizabeth Bennet (1881-1959), who taught at the Ninth District School beginning in 1909. She was one of the teachers credited with saving lives in the 1913 fire. She became principal in 1917, and continued her work in Manchester’s public schools until her 1951 retirement. Superintendent of Schools, Arthur H. Illing, when notified of her death, paid tribute to "the breadth of her vision, her personal interest in the welfare of her pupils and her tireless devotion to the field of education." She served for 42 years in Manchester’s public schools. She was a great believer in education and had herself attended Vassar College, Danbury Normal School, New Britain Teacher’s College (B.S. degree), and Massachusetts State Teachers College (Masters degree).
For more information on the Ninth District School Fire, please click Ninth District Fire in this web site.
Another dedicated teacher: Mrs. Maher (1907-2007)
In a 2003 interview with me, retired teacher Bernice (née Weiant) Maher Strant – whom I knew as Mrs. Maher – talked
about teacher education and the New Britain Normal School, the "most difficult school I ever encountered…a good education,
an excellent school. The two years I spent there would certainly be equal to any four in college. They piled on the work.
They had no pity! If you couldn’t make it by November, you were let go…You really studied, I can tell you that!"
After graduating in 1926 from the Normal School, she spoke with Miss Porter, the Normal School administrator, who thought that Miss Weiant would want to stay in New Britain, where her parents lived, but when she found out that wasn’t the case, she said, "I think I have just the plum for you." Mrs. Maher said, "That’s what a teaching job in Manchester was called – a plum. Miss Porter said, ‘There are several jobs you could try out for. I’ll have the principal come down, and you’ll teach a lesson for her.’ The principal was Miss Bennet. I didn’t have any idea what Miss Bennet looked like, but when I saw her, she was a scary person, I’ll tell you. She came into the classroom, and she had this great big black hat on – a straw hat – and a figured dress. She was a big woman. She sat there at the desk, and listened to me teach the lesson, a literature lesson. I didn’t think I did a good job, but she thought I did well, and she hired me on the spot." Mrs. Maher, like Miss Bennet, spent the rest of her career teaching in Manchester.
To read a summary of the interview with Mrs. Maher, click: Bernice Maher Strant; and click here for pictures and a story about how your school got its name.
East and Center Academies
Manchester also had several private academies for high-school-age children, including the East Academy, on Parker near
East Center Street, in the area of Academy Street. The East Academy opened about 1846, educating "pupils of both sexes, in
a wide range of studies, a thorough and systematic course of mental and moral discipline." In their 1923 "History of
Manchester, Connecticut," Spiess and Bidwell say that, "Instruction at the East Academy was discontinued during the Civil
War. The building stood vacant for a number of years and was then torn down and the material used for a dwelling house."
Center Academy, approved for construction by a Town Meeting in 1847, was located less than a mile away on East Center Street, about where the Masonic Hall is today. It closed some time after the Civil War, and its building was also reused. According to the late Herb Bengtson, former Town Historian, "After a fire damaged the Center Academy, a portion of the building was re-used in the commercial building at 22-26 Birch Street, just off Downtown Main Street." The Center Academy had also served as a Masonic Hall, before the current Hall opened in 1926.
Other schools of the past
A large Eighth District School, close to Robertson School, was demolished in the 1960s, but had been under-used for
some time before it met its end. I remember it from when I attended Robertson in the 1950s, and it was not an
There were Cheney schools, one of which remains as the Old Manchester Museum* at 126 Cedar Street. And there were many one-room school houses in the very early days, before Manchester became a town separate from East Hartford. One of those was the Keeney Schoolhouse, now reconstructed and located on the grounds of the Cheney Homestead at 106 Hartford Road. You can visit this building on the second Sunday of the month from 1 to 4 p.m. (For information on the reconstructed Keeney Schoolhouse, please click Keeney Schoolhouse.)
Another was the Oakland School, acquired from the town of South Windsor when that triangular sliver of land was added to Manchester in 1849. It closed in 1932.
*Ed. Note: Click here to see a 1948 photo of the old Cheney School and read about the students and adults in the picture. Thanks to Alayne Murphy Gelletly for sending this photo and to her, Dick Jenkins, and others for naming most of the people in the photo. The Cheney School has since become the Old Manchester Museum.
Susan Barlow serves on the Board of Directors of the Manchester Historical Society, and also as its webmaster.