Finding the Lost (Brown) Schoolhouse and Trail

by Doug Hardy (republished here, by permission of the Norwich Historical Society)

Our Town 
Expeditions and Explorations
on the trails, street and on the couch
During COVID-19
First published June 20, 2020 on Norwich Lists

One of my favorite class 4 roads in Norwich is a short one. Brown Schoolhouse Road extends just 0.7miles from Beaver Meadow Road and the cool forest along Charles Brown Brook, up to the open fields of Bragg Hill Road.

Brown Schoolhouse Road and trail, showing schoolhouse site

But what about the name–where was that schoolhouse? Never having seen even hints of any structure along what is now essentially a trail, I became curious several years ago about the road’s namesake. How long ago did students travel daily up and down this road, through snow and mud, to attend school?

My initial, casual attempts to learn about the school from long-time residents and books were unsuccessful. When old maps of Norwich maps came to my attention, I was excited to see that the oldest known map (1856) shows both the school, and the road. Within the forest, however, I found no sign of the schoolhouse at the approximate map location. 

Site of schoolhouse (SH), shown on 1856 map

Where else to turn next, but the Norwich Historical Society (NHS)? There, a single, undated photograph of the schoolhouse was quickly located. The schoolhouse setting was starkly different from the area today, with just one large tree visible behind the structure, where a dense forest now stands.

Two parallel stone walls are also prominent in the photo, and looked familiar to me. Equipped with a print of the old photo, I walked back and forth on the road at the approximate map location, until the stone wall patterns matched. The site appeared to be a good location for a school, but how could there not be any evidence, I wondered. Next, I ventured off the road into the ferns and brush, and eventually was able to faintly trace a rectilinear arrangement of rocks – apparently the schoolhouse foundation. The size and shape looked right, as did the road set-back.

Compare the old photo with the same view in April. A green bar marks where the Maple is, and blue arrows point out background and foreground stone walls. The green line on the road coincides with the student’s tracks in the snow. Finally, the white bars mark the approximate location of the schoolhouse’s front corners; two stakes with flagging mark these corners at the site.

Further behind, up the hill, I found an old maple aligned with the tree in the photograph. Seeing barbed wire passing through the center of its 30” diameter was convincing. The Brown Schoolhouse site had been found!

Preliminary investigation of the site reveals that virtually nothing remains of the school, other than the crude rock perimeter foundation. Cursory searches have revealed only fragments of window glass; surely there are nails and hardware items waiting to be discovered in a more-thorough search. Were ruins of the building – reportedly seen in the 1950s – burned, or hauled away? You can help! Visit the site and add your findings to the pile on a big rock.

Norwich’s Town Reports yield all sorts of information about the schoolhouses.  Here’s what I found about the Brown Schoolhouse:

Brown Schoolhouse was the rural school for students residing in District No. 12, which was established by a committee in March 1823. This district drew students from the middle portion of Beaver Meadow Road, the middle portion of Bragg Hill Road, and the northern section of Burton Woods Road.

Land for the schoolhouse was given to the town by John Brown. 

The most recent building at the site probably dates from 1866 when a “new and substantial” schoolhouse was built after District No. 12 was “reorganized” following “four years without a school” (according to the Norwich Town Report for 1867).

Brown Schoolhouse was closed in 1909, since all pupils attending were being transported from West Norwich (Beaver Meadow).
Doug Hardy has lived in the Upper Valley for almost 30 years. He works for UMass Amherst from a home office in Norwich, conducting research on high-elevation glaciers and climate. His local passions include trail running and nordic skiing, as well as clearing and grooming trails for others to enjoy.

See other Norwich Historical Society articles about our trails, here.

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