Heating a One-Room Schoolhouse

by on November 18, 2012 in Rick Church


The subject of heating the building consumed approximately one third of the written record of early school district meetings. In 1820 men bid to keep the fire at the school at $1.00 per week.  Five different men supplied both wood and fire lighting for that 8-week winter school session. It is quite a modern idea: subcontract a whole function. In this case heat.

In 1823 the procurement method changed and the district started buying wood. Wood was bid off by individuals and often each cord supplied by a different bidder.

School Number Seven burned 4 cords in a winter school session lasting twelve weeks. Buying their heat this way dropped the cost to $4.99.

Firewood BillThis record shows the result of the bidding to supply 4 cords of wood for a total of $4.35. You can imagine the moderator holding a reverse auction starting at $1 per cord and raising the bid until all four cords were spoken for.

By 1825 they had tightened up their procedures. They specified the wood be all hardwood and sound and that it not be paid for until it had been measured. Further specifications were added two years later; wood was bought 4’ long and cut in three pieces after it had been delivered at the school.  The wood itself was to be maple, beech or birch and cut before June 1st.  Apparently that wasn’t dry enough and they moved the cutting date to March 1st.

During the period 1823 to 1858 the heating efficiency of doubled and the price of wood accelerated remarkably toward the end of the period.  Though it is clear a stove was used to heat the place. (There are records of repairs and one replacement.)  Efficiency was gained over the period of the record.  Four cords were consistently used in the period 1823- 1828; three cords from 1829 to 1836 and only two cords from 1837 to 1858.

The price of a cord of wood changed during the period starting at  $1.25 in 1823. It stayed at that price or lower until it jumped abruptly to $1.70 in 1848 and, again, to $2.37 in 1854 and $2.52 in 1856.  What caused the price jump? Was burning wood to produce steam at the Harrisville mills increasing demand and raising the price of cordwood?  We know they used thousands of cords. The first deeds according stumpage rights to the mills in Harrisville on land in the southeast quarter were written starting in 1851. The operation of brick kilns to produce the brick for these mills would have been a significant use of cordwood also. Whatever the cause, wood was suddenly more valuable.

This is the third installment of a long article on the operation of one of Nelson’s early schools.  The main source for the series is the seventy page record of School Number Seven from 1820 to 1858 which was generously donated to the town archives with many other valuable historical papers by Ethan Tolman. Thanks to a grant secured by Susan Hansel, the record of School Number Seven is preserved and available to the public on a CD at the Olivia Rodham Memorial Library.  The balance of the source documents are the Nelson Town Records preserved in the Town Archives and material on the Woodcock Patent located at the Cheshire County Historical Society. Click here to read the previous article in this series.

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