Johnston Historical Society
Belknap School Student Returns Seventy Years Later

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Belknap School Student Returns Seventy Years Later
by Beth Hurd
Herb Newman in February 2006. Photo by Beth Hurd.

Herb Newman doesn't call himself a graduate of the school he attended from 1929 to about 1933, because the school didn't have an official graduation. In fact, it didn't have but five grades when Herb left for another school, and even fewer grades after he left, when his sister was still a student.

The one-room Belknap school was built in 1790, the oldest known school in the town, and officially closed in 1937, although it closed a few years before that time, reopened, then closed again.

Herb Newman, now 82, was only eleven months old when he moved into the place he still calls home, on Pine Hill Road, in what was known as the Belknap section of Johnston.

"We all went to that school," Herb said of his four siblings and himself, "The Heywoods, the McDuffs, the Holmes, we all went there... We could hear the bell from the house, and then we had five minutes to get to school before the second bell, or we'd be marked late." He continued, "We walked to school everyday—there were no snow days."

"The only days we didn't have school, was if the teacher couldn't make it," added Anne Newman, Herb's wife, who attended a similar school in Foster, Rhode Island.

An image of the Belknap school, from an old, undated photo. Photo by Beth Hurd.

"We only had one teacher all the years I went there," Herb said, "Unless she was sick, then we'd have a substitute." The teacher was Ethel Barnes Fassel. She taught at the Belknap school for twenty-seven years.

Like many old New England school houses, the building had one room, with two entrances on the front facade, one for girls, one for boys. "The outhouses were in the back," laughed Herb.

The school originally had eight grades, but slowly dwindled to but one student in each grade. At the time the school was closed, in 1937, the few remaining students were sent to Calef school.

The building served as American Legion Post 92 until a few years ago, when the building was acquired by the Johnston Historical Society. A grant funded restoration of the exterior of the building to close to original, with much of the work performed by Society member and restoration expert Warren Lampher, of Scituate. Herb shows a photo reprint of the school he purchased from the Providence Journal—it appears exactly the same, with a white picket fence around the yard.

Herb pointed to the fence in the picture, "The fence came down when the WPA widened the road, and removed the fence... That's the first time the town had a snow plow," he added. He points to the Belknap section, "District 8," on an old Atlas map of Johnston—Atwood Avenue hadn't yet been built.

The Belknap name would probably be unknown to most, except for the occurrence of the name on the Belknap Chapel and, once more, the Belknap school. "Belknap Estates" also bears the almost-forgotten name. Old maps of the area show the school, the church, and dairy farms and orchards, and among the few families, a few bearing the Belknap name.

Seventy years later, in 2004, before the exterior restoration started, Herb Newman goes back to school. Photo by Beth Hurd.

When he was still young, Herb recalled fixing a fence near the school, "to keep the cows in," attesting to the rural character of the area. Years later he worked at the Belknap barn, and on one fateful day in 1938, at the age of 15, a student at Calef school, he stepped off the bus, and "the wind just started blowing. We had no warning at all," he said of the infamous Hurricane of 1938. He made it home safely, only to head out again to work, at the Belknap barn. "The only thing that held the barn up was the hay," he said of the winds. He turned out the cows to pasture so they wouldn't get hurt.

The Johnston Historical Society hopes to get further grant money to renovate the interior of the building. "We would like to set up the interior to look like it did in the early twentieth century—with rows of student desks, the teacher's desk, a wood-burning stove, and all the artifacts that you would find in a school, including a wooden pointer, the teacher's hand bell, geographical charts, books," said Johnston Historical Society president Louis McGowan.

The original bell has been returned to its belfry after residing in the Mohr Library for a number of years, and also for a time in the Johnston Historical Society Museum. Herb recalled that many years ago a neighbor, Wally Macomber, had removed the bell and "set it on the ground, where it sat for three weeks. Nobody even touched it," said Herb. Luckily, for all its travels, the original bell found its way back to the Belknap school.

A veteran of World War II, Herb served as an Army medic in New Caladonia. An active member in local veteran affairs, he was instrumental in having memorials designated to two local boys, William Richardson, who served in World War II, and Robert Blake, who served in Vietnam. He and a neighbor take care of the memorial, located at the corner of Atwood and Greenville Avenues.

Each year, Herb attends all the local Veterans and Memorial Day events, and is often asked to read the names of fallen comrades. He read "In Flanders Field" last year at the Graniteville Memorial.

Says Louis McGowan, "Herb is a great guy, always ready with a smile, and has been a wonderful member of the historical society for many years. He related many stories to us of his family and goings-on in the area and kindly donated many Johnston artifacts to us, including the World War II air raid siren that was on his house and a framed photograph of his family dairy."

Like the artifacts planned for the school, Herb is a living artifact, his memories and first hand accounts breathing life into the history of the school, also worthy of preservation.

—Reprinted from the February 16, 2006, issue of the Johnston Sunrise. Used with permission.

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