Written by Grace Allen and submitted by Sheena Clutterbuck.
Once upon a time, there was a little red schoolhouse. Scores of area children passed through its doors to be educated. One hundred and fifty-two years later, the iconic structure is still standing and still educating children today.
The Little Red Schoolhouse, or “Little Red” as it is affectionately known, is now a non-profit cooperative preschool, and its directors, both past and present, view their role not just as educators but as caretakers of history.
Maintaining the school “was a labor of love,” acknowledged Donna Dunn, the school’s former director. Dunn retired in 2007 after nearly two decades at the school’s helm.
Amy Tierney, the current director, said, “The roots of the school are what we are so connected with.”
History of the School
The Little Red Schoolhouse was known as the Sheldonville School when it was built in 1869 to replace several one-room district schools (neighborhood schools) located in private homes throughout the area.
“By the mid-1800s, education in Massachusetts was trying to get away from district schools and the single, multi-grade classroom and move to more centralized schools, but that did not work well for Wrentham because it was such a big town,” explained Greg Stahl, the chairman of the Wrentham Historical Commission.
The building itself gives hints of what schooling was like in the 1800s and early 1900s. There are two front doors, one for the boys to enter and another for the girls, suggesting they were separated for lessons. The second floor of the building, now used for storage, may have been used as an overflow classroom or perhaps a play-space on rainy days. The building has likely always been red, agreed Stahl, the color most schools (and barns) were painted at the time. Red paint was inexpensive because it was made from iron ore, which also acted as a wood preservative.
By the early 1930s, however, the Sheldonville School was the only Wrentham district school still in operation. Other district schools had closed down and students were transported to the newer, much bigger Center School, which was located at the time in the now-empty lot at the intersection of Rt. 140 and 1A, across from the Original Congregational Church.
The Sheldonville School was a primitive and crowded building compared to the Center School, says Stahl. The 1930 town report notes the interior of the Sheldonville School was rehabbed and electric lights were installed in that year, but a request to “replace the sanitary closets” was denied by the town.
While we do not know the names of all the teachers who taught at the Sheldonville School, town records note that Miss Nina B. Sheldon was hired by Wrentham in 1921 to teach at the school, and she remained its head teacher for many years, probably until the school closed. Nina Sheldon was likely a descendent of Rhodes Sheldon, a whaleboat builder who settled in the area and is considered the founder of the Sheldonville section of Wrentham. Records show Nina lived on Arnold Street with her younger brother and his wife before eventually moving to West Street.
By 1951, only grades 1 through 4 were being taught at the school. Miss Sheldon taught grades 3 and 4 and a new teacher, Dora Dalton, taught grades 1 and 2. In 1957, the original King Philip High School was built (it has since been renovated). This freed up space for younger grades in the town’s schools, and in June of 1958, the Sheldonville School closed its doors.
From the Past to the Present
After the school closed, the building was briefly used as a consignment shop. However, several area parents soon decided to reopen the building as the Little Red Schoolhouse, returning the structure to its original purpose of educating children.
Donna Dunn, the former director, says the age of the beloved school demanded support from the preschool staff and the parents, and everyone was glad to help.
“It needed a lot of extra time, a lot of extra ideas, and a lot of extra energy,” Dunn explained. “The building is so old you can’t imagine all the physical things that can go wrong with it, and the town is not responsible for its upkeep.”
During her tenure, parents donated and replaced windows, built tables, installed a playground, and raised $30,000 to delead the structure. Dunn recalled she only had to say the word and parents took on the tasks, motivated by a love of the cooperative program and a respect for the school’s long history.
Dunn and her husband Jim took on maintenance tasks themselves, too. Often after returning home at the end of the day, Dunn would tell her husband about a problem with the school’s plumbing or heating. Jim would finish his dinner and then drive over to the school to fix it.
“Jim used to tell everybody we have two houses,” said Dunn. “Not only did we love the program, we loved the building.”
The cooperative preschool model gives parents a voice in the education of their children. Dunn believes that involvement endears families to Little Red long after their children graduate. She still receives Christmas cards from past students, some of them now married with children of their own. She and her husband have attended Eagle Scout ceremonies and weddings of former students.
“I used to tell parents, this is the beginning, this is the foundation,” said Dunn. “If the beginning starts out on a positive note, a child will love school their entire life. And that’s the crux of Little Red, that every child leaves with a love of school.”
Tierney, the current director, says, “When I walk into Little Red, I always say you feel the warmth and positive energy. It is a place of peace, happiness and kindness.”
The Little Red Schoolhouse is one of only a few remaining one-room schoolhouses in New England, and the only one in the area that has been educating children almost continuously since 1869, notes Stahl of the Historical Commission. As a reminder of what Wrentham once was, it serves as a link to the roots of the community.
Little Red has continued to educate children through two worldwide pandemics now, surely a significant milestone. Perhaps that is the real legacy of Little Red: not just that it has withstood the test of time in Wrentham, but that it has helped children to feel safe and nurtured even in an uncertain world.