Education in Calais in the Early Days

By Lura Jackson

The Wilson District School near Red Beach is the last single-room schoolhouse still standing in the Calais area. The School was erected in 1880 and operated for several years until closing in 1916. 

In the early days of Calais, when methods of transportation were limited and the community separated by distances that would take hours to traverse on foot, education was a very different affair than what we experience in modern times. Like most places in the nation, the first form of education in Calais was given at "Dame Schools" run by women who would take neighborhood children into their homes to teach them for a weekly fee. The subjects and proficiency levels of the teachers tended to vary greatly from school to school, with some acting as little more than daycares while others offered specialized subjects such as penmanship, Latin, or Greek history. The first official teacher of Calais is recognized as Stephen Barnard, who in the fall of 1787 had twelve students, according to W. W. Brown in the December 9th, 1914 issue of the Calais Advertiser. There was no schoolhouse as there was no government at the time (Calais was still known as "Township No. 5"). Mr. Barnard taught from the primer spelling book and the New Testament for a fee of $80.

Schools were considered a high priority for the young city. The first regular town meeting was held in the spring of 1810, according to the notes of historian Ned Lamb, and it was during that meeting that $650 was approved to spend on schools. In that sense, the first taxes raised in town were dedicated to education. A school committee was appointed at the same meeting, and by the following year, Calais had four school districts established.

By the 1830s, numerous one- and two-room schoolhouses had cropped up around the community. The land chosen for schoolhouses was generally not fit for anything else (it was often rocky and unfarmable), and the buildings were always cold. Sarah M. Kimball, a schoolteacher that taught in Calais beginning the 1850s, recounted going to one such school (Milltown No. 1) during that timeframe in issues of the Calais Advertiser from 1912. "We did not have receptions and entertainments, nor even dances, in those days, the spelling school being our only dissipation," she recalls. "What orthographical gymnastics were sometimes performed!" With no set curriculum, students were free to study any topic of their interest. Kimball remembers one fellow who was committed to the study of navigation-- he would later disappear at sea (the townsfolk suspected he was captured by Barbary pirates). With no graduating ceremony or formal diploma, students were judged on Examination Day by the full board of the school committee. Each student was rigorously quizzed on a variety of topics (particularly mathematics) to the satisfaction of the board before they could be considered graduates.

In 1852, Calais Academy was opened to offer private instruction for a tuition fee to the youth of the town, though it was a financial failure and the city soon took it over. Kimball recalls attending the Academy in its first years. Mr. Albert Nash of Machias was her teacher, and he was also an accomplished singer, introducing vocal music to the class (which they "greatly enjoyed"). Ned Lamb writes that students studied text books of Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Anatomy, Physiology, Chemistry, Botany, Geography of the Heavens, Geology and Mineralogy, Bookkeeping, Algebra, Geometry and Trigonometry, Surveying, Navigation, Rhetoric, and Mental Philosophy. For the next hundred years, the Calais Academy administered an exemplary array of classical studies to the students of Calais until it burned down in 1945.

Throughout its history, 31 schools have been constructed in Calais, from single-room grammar schools to the towering Academy and the modern college, capable of instructing hundreds of students. Most of them no longer remain, though for many former students, their legacy is an enduring one.