Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Somerset County's Last One-Room Schoolhouse: South Branch

Somerset County's Last One-Room Schoolhouse: South Branch

Schoolhouses built prior to the twentieth century came in many shapes and sizes in New Jersey. Some were square, others rectangular, while some for a short period were octagonal. In 1848, Henry Barnard published School Architecture, which offered designs and ideas for model schoolhouses. If readers followed his advice, schools would be built with rectangular plans on raised foundations, the gable end would serve as the front, the longer side walls would feature multiple double-sash windows, and the classrooms would offer high ceilings. Up until shortly after the Civil War, their style and manner of construction mirrored churches and meetinghouses. Painted red and set back from the road featuring a belvidere, the South Branch Schoolhouse in Branchburg, New Jersey fits the description of what Barnard recommended, but with an architecturally vernacular twist.

The South Branch Schoolhouse was built circa 1874. It is a one-room Italianate-style schoolhouse, which educated children in grades 1 through 8 from the surrounding areas of Branchburg and Hillsborough townships. The village of South Branch is primarily located at the intersection of Studdiford Drive and South Branch Road. In addition to the school house, it contains a number of homes and farmsteads. The village continues across the South Branch of the Raritan River into Hillsborough. Today, the area surrounding the schoolhouse remains largely rural and undeveloped.

Architecturally, the building's front door is on the gable end with flanking six-over-six double-sash windows on each side. The building features three six-over-six double-sash windows on its side walls and a small addition placed on the rear of the building in the twentieth century. Keeping with the Italianate style, the structure is heavily bracketed and the school's belvidere, or bell tower, has a flat roof, rather than being a dome or pyramidal (hipped) roof. It is unusual to see schools built in the Italianate style. This vernacular anomaly makes the building even more unique but also may reflect how the community viewed education and took pride in the appearance of its schoolhouse.

The interior retains many of its original elements, including vertical beaded tongue-and-groove wainscoting on all four interior walls. The front wall of the classroom contains a pot-belly stove and chalkboards are located on three of the four walls.

The school was the first in the area built expressly as a tuition-free public school following the New Jersey 1871 Free School Bill, which abolished the Rate-Bill. Under the old law's provisions, the parents of children attending the district schools were taxed for any deficiency in revenue in the maintenance of the school.

Famed opera star and Edison protégé, Anna Case attended the schoolhouse. Case was born on October 29, 1888, in Clinton, New Jersey. She recorded with Thomas Alva Edison, who used her voice extensively in "tone tests," which determined whether a live audience could tell the difference between the actual singer and a recording. She was a member of the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York City from 1909 to 1920 and appeared in two motion pictures.

The mother of actor Lee Van Cleef, Marion Van Fleet, also attended the school. Lee appeared mostly in Westerns and action movies. He appeared in films such as Kansas City Confidential (1952), High Noon (1952), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).

South Branch Schoolhouse, circa 1905.
South Branch Schoolhouse was the last one-room school in use in Somerset County, closing in 1965. One year prior, in 1964, the school was restored by the Branchburg Township Tercentenary Committee. The building has been "adopted" by the Branchburg Woman's Club, which meets at the school and has worked on a number of projects at the building, including the installation of a historically appropriate driveway lamp and planting of a memorial tree on the property. The group also opens the schoolhouse each year during Somerset County's Weekend Journey through the Past in October. The school was listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places in 2005. In 2007, the Branchburg Township rebuilt the bell tower, which had been removed.

Additional photos of my trip to South Branch Schoolhouse on Pinterest

For More Information
Branchburg Woman's Club

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cool place, hope to visit someday.

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