The First Schoolhouse

The old schoolhouse was burning, leaping flames quickly consuming oak and shingle as sparks lit up the night sky. Osborns, Hands, Strongs and Edwardses, all Wainscott hurried towards the blaze. But in the early 19th century there were no fire hydrants and no Fire Department was at the ready. The hastily organized bucket line would have had little chance of smothering the flames. 

This first schoolhouse at Wainscott seems to have been built about 1730. The best evidence for this is the recollection of Judge Henry Hedges writing in his “Memories of a Long Life,” in 1909. The Judge was born in 1817 and lived for the first fourteen years of his life in the Topping house just across the road from Wainscott School. He writes:

 “In the night about 1826 or 7 the old Wainscott schoolhouse was in a blaze. It must have been nearly a hundred-years old, perhaps more. Full three generations of youth there learned their letters” 

Today’s school stands very near to the site of that first one, a board proudly proclaiming “Est. 1730”: a date which appears to have been taken from the Judge’s writings. Despite a search in the County Record Office, Riverhead, the earliest official written record of Wainscott School so far found comes in a short sentence in the “Journal of the Trustees of the Freeholders & Commonalty of East Hampton Town 1772-1807.” In the year 1796 on June 30th “it was agreed for the town to pay to Wainscott people £12 towards their schoolhouse” – equivalent to approximately $5,000 today. If Judge Hedges is correct, this money was for repair work to a building already there, rather than for a new school. It seems unlikely that we will ever know how this money was spent, or indeed if it was ever spent at all. 

The 1796 date comes just a year after the State legislature passed an experimental act to establish schools with public funding. That may have been the spur to build a “proper” school. Judge Hedges describes the first schoolhouse as a community centre: the village seine net was stored in the loft, and it served as the first church. “Three generations at 5 o’clock meetings had worshipped therein. It was hallowed by the prayers of sincere and humble worshippers. Its walls had echoed and re-echoed with sacred hymn and psalm Centre of primary instruction, centre of seine meetings, centre of religious worship it had been an institution of enduring benefit and blessing.” So this first schoolhouse was church, school and Town hall.

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