South Berwick’s many one-room schoolhouses scattered among 14 school districts were consolidated in 1925 into the South Berwick Central School. A 125-year old mansion called the Cushing House was removed to make way for the new facility. Today Central School serves over 500 South Berwick students from pre-kindergarten through grade 3. This building is part of the South Berwick Village District on the National Register of Historic Places.
Before the 1920s, over 300 South Berwick elementary pupils studied at 14 tiny rural schoolhouses scattered all around town. Like Schoolhouse No. 5 on Portland Street, most were traditional one-room schools with a single teacher for all grade levels, and no plumbing or central heating.
Faced with implementing new state-imposed building standards, a special town meeting in May 1924 voted to consolidate all pupils in a modern “Central School” on Main Street in the village. The school committee was made up of William I. Cummings, owner of the shoe factory, Ben F. Davis, Michael B. Harrity, George E. Hobbs, William C. McCue, Jeremiah Minahane and Ruel B. Rideout. Together with the construction of St. Michael’s Catholic School across the street (now South Berwick Town Hall), this was one of the biggest changes in the history of education in South Berwick.
The site chosen was that of the historic Cushing Mansion, built c. 1800 by the daughter of one of the area’s sea captains, and remembered for the visit in 1825 of General Lafayette, who also visited the Frost Tavern. Occupied through the 1800s by the Hobbs family, who were Cushing descendants, the mansion was almost as famous as the Jewett House and decorated Maine postcards. It was removed in late 1924.
The new school, a brick building of 65 x 110 feet with trimmings of limestone and wood, was designed by the Boston architectural firm Hutchins and French and built by F. A. Rumery of Portsmouth at a cost of about $82,000. It contained ten classrooms of 40 pupils each and an assembly hall for 350, as well as offices for the principal and superintendent.
It was several years before all the little rural schoolhouses closed, but by the 1926 town report, the Central School was in full operation. “Improved sanitary condition and environment,” the school committee reported with satisfaction, “... are cause for a noticeable pride in the pupils, revealed by a more dignified and refined bearing. With the larger number of pupils and the exceptionally fine environment, this changed attitude in the village is causing favorable comment.”
South Berwick education was now meeting challenges of the 20th century, juggling such new complications as transporting students, hiring drivers, managing behavior on the road, and serving lunch. The 1926 report included a timeless refrain: “The influence of the teachers on the lives of the pupils is not sufficiently appreciated by the public. To guide the lives of these boys and girls toward manly and womanly virtues is a service of the teacher which cannot be measured. No matter how great the number of facts or the accuracy and rapidity of mental skill acquired by the child, these are insignificant in comparison with the soul culture acquired from the spiritual, often called the personal touch, of its teacher…
“Teachers of maturity, with nobility of character, not frivolous, but whose buoyant spirits are often expressed in joyous laughter; familiar with the path over which the child must travel, knowing its sorrows as well as its joys, but still keeping a bright outlook upon life, exert an influence upon the character of the child more far reaching than anything gleaned from text.”
In the early 1950s, an addition, the Memorial Civic Center, was built to contain the South Berwick municipal offices including the town manager. Later the town bought St. Michael’s School, and it became Town Hall, with the school addition reverting to educational use.
Genine Boggiano and Chris Clauson of Marshwood High School greet the 2004 Central School Hike Through History at the Counting House Museum.
Today Central School serves over 500 South Berwick students from pre-kindergarten through grade 3. Each May, students, parents and teachers, in conjunction with Marshwood High School and the Old Berwick Historical Society, explore and enjoy the past through their day-long Central School Hike through History.
--written by Wendy Pirsig, Old Berwick Historical Society, 2003, from South Berwick town reports. Revised in 2010.