The present Witherbee Schoolhouse is the third or fourth schoolhouse situated in the Bailey's Brook Valley, on the northeast corner of Valley Road and Green End Avenue. There is no documentation, though evidence suggests a school in this area about 1819, known as the "Alley' (perhaps a misspelling of "valley") School District. Another schoolhouse was built in 1840 but not well attended; it was "small, old and uncomfortable" and only ten or twelve of the District's twenty-eight school age children attended with any regularity.
The present site was conveyed to Middletown School District No. 2 by the then land-owner, Sophia Witherbee, in 1891. The 1892 "Witherbee" schoolhouse was built by Joseph Coggeshall at a cost of $1,975 and paid for by a special levy on the District Two taxpayers. This building was destroyed by fire in 1907 and immediately rebuilt, on the 1892 foundation, to the same design, by John R. Coggeshall, son of Joseph, at a cost of $3,500: this time paid for by a general levy on all town taxpayers.
The schoolhouse is a one-story, end-gabled, wood balloon-frame structure of modest Queen Anne style, set upon a foundation of rubble-stone and mortar. The exterior is of decoratively patterned and plain wood shingles. A two-story, square bell tower is on the left, complete with its original bell, and a small brick chimney is to the right. It has an arched, recessed central entry with two side-entry doors, a door for boys on the right and a door for girls on the left. Both enter into small vestibules which originally were equipped with benches and coat hooks, later converted to indoor toilet spaces (replacing two outhouses which stood at a discreet distance from the building and from the well which provided fresh drinking water). A door from each vestibule opens to the classroom (24' x 31'), a room which is high-ceilinged, well-lighted and basically plain and unadorned. Original wainscoting of plain, matched and grooved vertical boarding provides a pleasing trim. The original pot-bellied wood/coal stove has been 91 replaced with a modem, oil-fired hot air heating system. The Victorian cast-iron radiators have been retained as a reminder of the later 19th century introduction of circulating hot water heating. The windows are four-over-four, wood sash for three bays of the school's main body with one-pane-surrounded-by-smaller panes sash over two windows used for the forward entrance areas. The exterior window shutters have been carefully reproduced as shown in old photographs.
Witherbee School's significance lies in the fact that it is one of five one-room schoolhouses in Middletown at the turn of the century, of which four survive: Paradise School (1875) has been fully restored and serves as the headquarters of the Middletown Historical Society, and as a small museum. Oliphant School (1823) has been drastically altered from one to three rooms and still serves the Middletown school department as storage space. Peabody School (1794) has been converted to a private dwelling. Wyatt School was demolished and is now the site of the town's police and fire headquarters. The five schoolhouses shared certain physical characteristics but the Witherbee Schoolhouse, architecturally unique in exterior design, was the only one of the original five schoolhouses that was not kept to a minimal, austere design. Its distinctive features are fine examples of skilled craftsmanship of the period.
A typical Middletown one-room schoolhouse was a heavy responsibility for one teacher who may have had as many as 54 students and who was expected to teach all subjects to all ages from 7 to 16, while maintaining discipline. In a 1901 school census, the School Department reported that Witherbee ("Alley") School District had 61 children of school age: 54 attended Witherbee, 2 attended private schools, 5 did not attend any school. Regular studies pursued included: Reading, Writing, Arithmetic (mental and written), Geography, Grammar. History, Physiology, Drawing and Spelling -- almost the same curriculum as a well staffed scholastic institution. The school was in session from 9 a.m. to 12 o'clock and from 1:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. Older pupils regularly helped younger pupils. Discipline was firm; orderliness and efficiency the rule. The first-graders sat in front and worked their way up to the rear desks by the time they reached Grade 8. The room was heated by an old pot bellied, wood burning stove which meant the older you got the farther you moved from the stove and the more uncomfortably cold. The "two" Witherbee schoolhouses were products of the gradually increasing degree of financial responsibility assumed by the citizens of the Town to provide progressive schooling facilities.
Operational until the early 1940's, this one room schoolhouse was preserved for use as an interpretive center on the history of education in Middletown. Hundreds of elementary school children visit the school each year as part of a special history curriculum sponsored by the Middletown Historical Society. The program is entitled, "Those Dear Old Golden Rule Days." In 1988 the Middletown Historical Society acquired the property from the Town of Middletown on a 99-year lease and it has been carefully restored to its original appearance but with some modern amenities The Witherbee School was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on November 27, 1989.
Location Located on the Corner of Green End Ave & Valley Road in Middletown, RI. Witherbee is open seasonally & parking is limited.