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Old School House Memories

Early school class in Portsmouth, NH ? archive

Back to school tales. Charles Brewster remembers his early days in Portsmouth schools when textbooks were left over from the 1700s. In this surprisingly readable essay, he recalls playing games, the old neighborhood store, a crashed carriage and a lost meetinghouse.




Early School Days in Portsmouth

School House Hill -- School Books – Amusements – Slides -- Mrs. Maloon's Shop -- The Catastrophe -- Parson Walton's Meeting-House – Services --The Beloved Disciple.

Editors Note: This can be confusing stuff even for local historians. C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth, New Hampshire columnist and editor in the early to mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values. From Brewster’s Rambles About Portsmouth, 1859 exclusively on – JDR

BrewsterIF the Brick School House has its agreeable associations to the school-boys of past and present generations, School House Hill, the scene of their pastimes in recess hours, is not forgotten. Pleasant memories of the old play-ground have been borne away to every spot on the globe where the homes of civilization are seen, or commerce has extended its enterprise. We have recently seen a venerable copy of the "American Preceptor," one of the reading books used in conjunction with "Aesop's Fables," by a school-boy of the time of President Madison.

It is printed with the long s, that must have caused much perplexity to young beginners in distinguishing it from an f, I can fancy one of them just fledged from "b-a ba, k-e-r ker, baker," puzzling over the following extract from Dr. Franklin's story of "The Whistle," half oblivious whether the boy found the whistle, or if it was the sound that attracted him. "I went directly to a fhop where they fold toys for children; and being charmed with the found of a whiftle, which I met by the way, in the hands of another boy, I voluntarily offered, and gave all my money for it."

A later day than this, however, is embraced in the writer's memories of the old locality, but within the period that the avenue remained unclosed, between Pitt and State streets. While groups of boys could then be seen engaged in various sports on the southern side of the hill, others never tired of playing among the ruins on State street; standing the bricks on end in rows or circles, to see them fall again in quick succession, or forming them into forts, and storming out imaginary foes with missiles of the same hard material--illustrating one of Mr. Punch's "Facts in Natural History," that "among bats, the brickbat flies with the greatest force, if not with the greatest velocity."

An exciting scene was visible on a winter's day, when scores of boys could be seen enjoying the fine slides the hill afforded. Although the boys who lived in the neighborhood, as they worked out the slide after each fresh fall of snow, regarded it as their especial domain, they never quarelled with any others who came to share it with them. It was the resort of youngsters from all quarters; a neutral ground, from its central location, where the hatchet was buried by "Northenders" and "Southenders," who seemed to forget the feuds existing between them, which ran so high in hoop-time, as they went down the declivity upon their sleds, side by side, together.

At the foot of the hill, in the old building demolished ten or a dozen years since, a widow lady kept one of those little shops so numerous at Portsmouth in former years. On the outer shelves was an array of crockery and earthern ware, the latter with an especial eye to country trade, embracing, (from Dodge's pottery,) capacious milk-pans, pots for beans or brown bread, jugs and pitchers for the haying-field, and white mugs that would hold a full quart of cider. Among the older stock, were relics of a former day, mugs and pitchers adorned with Porter, Perry, Bainbridge, Hull and other heroes of the war of 1812, and that now almost forgotten personage "Toby Philpot."

Behind the counter were barrels and boxes of groceries, and upon the shelves above, pins, needles, thread, and other notions, with slate pencils, nuts and apples for the school-boys. A cheese, whose excellence could always be relied on, occupied a particular spot on the counter, and near by, arranged upon a line, were skeins of yarn, stockings, gloves, and mittens, taken in trade from country customers. There was one peculiarity about the mittens, that, among the reminisences of their boyhood, is not forgotten by some of the wearers to this day. No matter how high upon the wrist they came when first put on, after an afternoon's service in snow-balling, they could rarely be induced again to reach above the thumb.The sun was not more regular in its course than the proprietor of this establishment. If a neighbor's time-piece stopped, it could be set from her movements, about as correctly as by the Old North clock. Adjoining the shop was a cosy little sitting-room, with its antique furniture--the walls adorned with engravings of so old a date they would be a rare prize, now-a-days, to collectors of such curiosties--and there she could be found, when not called to wait upon a customer, sitting upon the same spot, year in and year out, engaged in knitting; her favorite cat "Tibby" lying upon the rug at her side. It was a cheerful scene of domestic comfort when a bright wood fire was burning upon the hearth, for she eschewed stoves, and would admit no such modern innovations upon her premises. She had long occupied her mansion, and could remember a time when a ten-foot building stood upon the site of Mrs. Abbott's dwelling, and a blacksmith's shop was on the garden in the rear.

One evening, while engaged in her occupation of knitting, thinking of the days that were gone, and of her youth that would return no more, her meditations were suddenly disturbed by the bursting in of the door of her shop with a crash that shook the house to its foundation. On opening the door to learn the cause, she discovered to her astonishment, as much of a horse-sled projecting inside the shop as its huge dimensions would allow to enter, a boy of some six years old clinging to it through the aid of a hole in the centre, and no one else to be seen, far or near, in the bright moonlight.

The tale he had to tell, related with much fear and trembling, while assisting to remove the unwieldy obstruction, bore sufficient evidence of its truthfulness, as it was very clear that he, unaided, could never have used so ponderous a conveyance. While some of the smaller boys of the neighborhood were engaged in sliding, two of the largest and roughest specimens of "Southenders" made their appearance among them, and after amusing themselves for a while with borrowed sleds, started off in pursuit of something more exciting. A few rods distant on the northern side of Pitt street, was a depot of old gigs, carts and other vehicles that would have done honor to Shepherd Ham's collection of sadlery articles mentioned in Rambles 41. Selecting from among them a dilapidated horse-sled, they dragged it to the summit of the hill, and getting on themselves, and inducing the smaller youngsters to follow their example, they started for a slide. When once underway, it went with locomotive speed, and as there was no such thing possible as guiding so clumsy an affair, it finally brought up at the point mentioned above--all the others making their escape, with the exception of one small specimen of young Portsmouth, before the final catastrophe occurred.


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