BROOKLINE—The town’s historic Round Schoolhouse received extensive renovations during the last decade, but more work is needed.
According to Cynthia Nau, chair of the Brookline Round Schoolhouse Historical Committee, the committee seeks volunteers to continue the work.
The Round Schoolhouse, built in 1822, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building and property in Brookline Center is owned by the town.
Nau says that the schoolhouse, near the town offices and the Baptist church, is not easily accessible until the snow melts, but interested parties can get to it by taking the Brookline turn off Route 30.
While its status as the only round schoolhouse in Vermont is noteworthy, local intrigue is mostly centered on the building’s designer — Dr. John Wilson — and his rumored former life of crime.
Legend has it that Wilson was the assumed name of John Doherty, a.k.a. Captain Thunderbolt, who, along with his partner-in-crime, Michael Martin, a.k.a. Captain Lightfoot, were wanted for the theft of 500 pounds British sterling, and both had escaped justice in the United Kingdom.
Wilson arrived in Brookline in 1820 seeking employment as a teacher, but, according to the Brattleboro History website, “Dr. Wilson had insisted upon his own [schoolhouse] design as a condition for his hire by Brookline to teach the first term there.”
Some speculate Wilson’s design was meant to provide him a pan-optical view of the building surroundings, ensuring that he could see people approaching before they could see him.
This concern stems from Wilson’s purported former career as a highwayman.
The Brattleboro History website posits a more altruistic motivation for the schoolhouse’s circular design: “Dr. Wilson was probably less concerned with ambush, and more concerned for the health and comfort of his students — and he knew that a round room uses the stove’s central heating most efficiently for everyone — not just for those nearest to the stove.”
Long road to repairs
The Round Schoolhouse served as Brookline’s public school until 1929 and, since the late 1980s, the town has maintained the building as a schoolhouse museum.
In 2006, the town voted to allocate $12,000 toward repairs, and an additional $25,000 came from the Preservation Trust of Vermont.
Nau describes the extensive renovations: “We had to tear up the floor to replace the beam, and each floor board was numbered to put it back in the proper place. The wainscoting was pulled away. On the circular roof, the shakes were rotting, and there was a lot of moss.”
She says the workers who performed the roofing and flooring repairs initially thought “this will be easy,” but once renovations began, they learned the hard way how complicated it would be.
“Each individual piece of wood on the floor and roof had to be cut and measured. It took forever,” Nau recalls.
To lay claim to their hard work, Nau says that during the original, and the more recent, renovations, the workers “signed their names on the shakes and boards” on the reverse side of the pieces of wood, away from visitors’ eyes, but recorded for as long as the wood remains.
When asked how the Historical Committee and the construction people knew how to renovate the Round Schoolhouse, Nau says they consulted the lone original print of the structure and the roof, and “the rest was very easy to determine and see what needed to be done because the workers are professionals.”
Nau offered high praise for the craftspeople involved in the renovations, and the work they completed, noting the many local contractors involved.
“They were Vermont people, from Bellows Falls, Westminster, and Wilmington,” and all were approved by the Vermont Historical Society, she notes.
Nau specifically mentioned the fine work on the chimney, performed by the brick specialists.
The chimney is of particular interest to Nau. She notes “the original bricks in the schoolhouse matched those in many local homes,” likely produced in “the brick kilns that used to be in and around town.”
Although the work was completed on the main schoolhouse, Nau says the exterior shed, which holds the school’s outhouse, still needs work.
The Preservation Trust of Vermont recommended the Historical Committee not do anything to renovate the shed, Nau says, but the committee still wants to move forward.
They received a donation of weathered barn boards to finish the shed, Nau reports, but they need volunteers to install the boards and some flashing.
“The money is there,” Nau says, but they need labor.
Many of the Brookliners whose enthusiasm kept the Round Schoolhouse going have either died or are too ill or busy to help out.
Nau mentioned the Wellman family, descended from early Brookline settlers.
“Arthur is on the Historical Committee,” she says. “So is [Arthur’s son] Doug. Arthur’s grandfather installed the repair beam under the floor in the earlier renovations.”
The committee would also like to find regular volunteers to staff the Round Schoolhouse on summer weekends to accept visitors, but Nau feels less than confident that it will succeed in doing so, noting “we only have so many people” in Brookline.
“Art [Wellman] used to, and Doug can’t. He’s busy,” says Nau, noting the Round Schoolhouse is currently only “open by appointment,” and “we do student field trips.”
Nau would like to staff the schoolhouse herself, but “Sunday is my only day off,” she says.
Nau serves as librarian for three different West River Valley elementary schools, and she also owns and operates Teacher Treasures, an educational supply store in Newfane.
“Lester Allbee passed away this past year,” Nau says, noting Allbee was a student at the Round Schoolhouse, and his father was the teaching principal.
“Lester was wonderful at telling stories to the students who came to visit,” Nau adds, recalling one tale about how the students loved hiding from the teacher in the Round Schoolhouse’s attic, and another story detailing a common chore: fetching water from the brook out back for the teacher and students to drink.
After the townspeople ceased using the Round Schoolhouse for its original purpose, Brookline’s town meetings were held there.
Nau remembers “smoking was still allowed and you’d have to go like this,” she says, demonstrating a wide waving motion, “to push the curtain of smoke away as you entered the schoolhouse.”
She also notes the Town Meeting tradition of “men on one side, women on the other,” since abandoned.
In 1989, Brookline’s needs for Town Meeting outgrew the Round Schoolhouse, and after that, Nau says it “had fallen into somewhat disrepair” until 1994.
The town opened up the schoolhouse during its bicentennial celebration that year, and Nau says the Historical Committee offered “a lot of history to the schoolkids,” including a local student who played “the notorious Captain Thunderbolt.” Nau adds the Captain Thunderbolt portrayal “helped create interest in the renovations.”
After the bicentennial, the Historical Committee started opening every weekend in the summer as a museum.
“Sometimes we had quite a few people,” she says.
Visitors were prohibited from walking through the entire schoolhouse, though, because “the back sill and floor was rotting, and it was caving in,” she notes.
Inscribed in the drawer of a teacher’s desk are the names of every teacher who taught there. The two original wood-stoves, inoperable, also sit inside the schoolhouse.
In October 2013, the Travel Channel filmed a segment on the Round Schoolhouse. A short version of the segment can be found at www.travelchannel.com/shows/monumental-mysteries/video/the-sinister-schoolmaster.
“The town clerk and I were there all day when they filmed in October. It was cold out!” Nau recalls.
“But it was beautifully done,” Nau says. “They were nice, nice people.”
The tone the network took in its film expressed skepticism of the Dr. Wilson/Captain Thunderbolt connection.
But as Nau noted, with a sly smile, “We’ll never really know.”