Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Breathing New Life into Haddon Township's Champion School

Breathing New Life into Haddon Township's Champion School

I've focused on a few one-room schoolhouses across New Jersey these past few months. Although there are still many one-room schoolhouses left, the number remaining compared to the number that once existed is quite small. In Haddon Township, Camden County, the 1821 Champion School is another example of a historic one-room school building saved by local residents concerned about losing community identity. Historic school buildings, just like churches and town meeting halls, are public buildings that served as gathering places for the community and their continued relevance and preservation across America needs to be addressed.

The area around Haddon Township was originally settled by Quakers in what was then called Newton Colony as early as 1683. In 1821, a committee was formed and land was purchased from the Quaker Meeting for a school to serve Newton and Union Townships. The land was purchased for $75.00 and the trustees of this new school organized "The Newton Union Society" with the goal to educate the area's youth to enable them to become "useful members of society." A rectangular red brick one-room schoolhouse was built, measuring approximately 20 feet by 30 feet. A date stone was set into the gable end. This new building, which opened that same year, was called “The Newton Union School.” Ten years later, in 1831, the Meeting realized that the lot had never been paid for and no title had been conveyed. Samuel C. Champion, who served as Freeholder of Newton Township, stepped forward to pay for the lot and receive the deed. Champion owned considerable amounts of land adjacent to the school.

In 1838, the New Jersey Public School Act was passed and the Champion School was named first free school in Old Gloucester County. One of the first acts of the Board of Education was to raise $110 to pay Samuel Champion for the land and transfer the deed to the school district. The school served students from Collingswood, Woodlynne, Haddon Township, Gloucester Heights, Camden, and Oaklyn.

The Champion School, circa 1906 in the left-hand side of the photo. Notice the rear addition and vestibule.
Photo courtesy of the Friends of the Champion School.
Although the building was constructed at ground level, the entire structure was raised about three feet in 1855 to possibly accommodate a coal furnace. Around the same time, a ten foot by seven foot vestibule, or cloakroom, was added to the side facing what is now Collings Avenue.

Due to increasing enrollment, an addition was built onto the back of the school building in 1895. The entire back wall of the school was removed to create one large classroom. At the same time, a second vestibule was added to the side facing what is now Champion Avenue. The building continued to serve students as a schoolhouse until 1906. After its closure, the building was used for a variety of civic, religious, and social activities.

From 1907 - 1911, the building served as Christ Chapel Protestant Episcopal Church. In 1913, the vestibule on the Champion Avenue side was removed when the grade was lowered considerably. Around that time, the whole building was stuccoed. Between 1915 and 1918, West Collingswood Presbyterian Church occupied the building. In 1939, the building was home to the First Children's Church of South Jersey, the only chartered children's church in existence. Throughout the 1950s, Boy Scout Troop 112 and the Collingswood Women's Club met at the school.

In 1965, the Township closed the building. There was a plan to demolish it and place a 7-11 store on the property. Local residents, led by Alfred Litwak, protested. He researched the property deeds and found that the property was to only to be used for educational purposes. This derailed the plans for a commercial property and the building sat vacant. In 1986, vandals tried to break in, causing the back wall of the addition to partially collapse. The Township swept in to demolish the building but only got as far as the back addition before a concerned former Township Commissioner stepped in to stop it. A new committee, "The Newton Union School Society," under the leadership of Litwak, rallied to save the school. In 1988, the schoolhouse was successfully added to the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Between 1988 and 1996, renovations were made to the school building, which included a new rear wall. During renovations, an original blackboard surface dating to circa 1855 was uncovered beneath a layer of paint on three walls. It was made by adding carbon into the final coat of plaster.

In early 2015, Alfred Litwak, who had maintained the school for so many years as its official caretaker, stepped down to allow a younger generation to care for this lovely public building. Doug Kelly, a local resident and business owner, has taken the reigns. In just a few short months, he has mobilized a new core of volunteers, began cleaning the building and the grounds, inventorying artifacts and furniture, and once again opening the schoolhouse to the public for tours on the weekend. There is already talks of new signage, weekend programming, and other events at the school. Kelly hopes to soon establish a non-profit 501(c)3 organization called "The Friends of Champion School" so that future generations may enjoy, benefit from, and learn about what school life was like in this Camden County town in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Additional photos of my trip to the 1821 Champion School on Pinterest

For More Information
Friends of the Champion School

Do you enjoy the articles and features that The History Girl produces each week? 
If so, consider a donation to keep the movement going!


Post a Comment

Thanks for the comments!