EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ -
One major draw for people who want to move to East Brunswick is our top-notch public schools. Speaking personally, it was the main reason my parents decided to move to this town. The school system has a long and extensive history. For this article, I will be addressing the first era of the public schools, followed by additional articles covering its continued history.
The first era of public schools in East Brunswick, as defined by the late Murray A. Chittick, started around the time of the Civil War, not long after the township was formed. During that period, schoolhouses consisted of one or two-rooms. During the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, East Brunswick had about eight schoolhouses in the township, three of which included Washington, Spotswood, and Helmetta Schools. These latter three schools would later be taken out of the East Brunswick district once they broke off into their own towns. The five schools that were in present-day East Brunswick include Dunham’s Corner, Lawrence Brook, Summerhill, Weston’s Mills, and Old Bridge.
Dunham’s Corner School, constructed around the mid-late 19th Century, began as a one-room schoolhouse, located about a block away from the intersection of Ryder’s Lane and Dunham’s Corner. According to school census records in 1872, the school had an overall attendance of 128 children. Women instructors were paid a monthly salary of $25, while their male counterparts were paid $30. The school day lasted from 9:00am-3:30pm, roughly the same length of time of a typical elementary school day today. In 1879, John Warnsdorfer, an area resident and one of Middlesex County’s wealthiest individuals, donated individual desks to the school, replacing the benches that had been initially installed (Warnsdorfer would be tragically killed seven years later from a lightning strike). The schoolhouse also served as the primary site for township graduations for the 8th graders moving on to high school. On weekends, the building was used for religious services. It was also the site for the Milltown Grange’s first meeting in 1905. By the early 20th Century, the one-room schoolhouse could no longer fit the growing number of children living in the area. Students moved to a two-room schoolhouse near the intersection of Fern and Dunham’s Corner Road. This school would also be expanded to add a third room. When McGinnis School was built, the three-room schoolhouse was sold to Roman Smith, who tore it up and gave the lumber to his daughter for her new home. The original one-room schoolhouse would become the town hall. Eventually, it became the site for the Public Works office. The building’s final usage was as the original stage for Playhouse 22. By 2006, the 19th Century structure was demolished and a housing development was erected in its place.
Off of the former Hoeys Lane (now Riva Avenue), a red two-room schoolhouse served residents of the Patrick’s Corner area for about six decades. This was known as Lawrence Brook School (not to be confused with the one on Sullivan Way). Constructed around the early 1860s, the school was fittingly named for its location, the site of the Lawrence Brook (it would not be renamed Farrington Lake until 1926). The 1872 school census records indicated that 71 children attended the school. Four classes were taught in a single room. The building was utilized as a school until 1924. Afterwards, it became a private home. The former schoolhouse would remain standing until 1994, when it was demolished to make way for the St. Mary’s Coptic Church’s expanded parking lot.
Children living in the Tanner’s Corner area attended Summer Hill School, located off the road of the same name. Situated on the current site of the Brunswick Square Mall, the school was utilized until 1922. 1872 school census records revealed an attendance of 45 children. In 1916, improvements were made to the structure of school. This included expanding the hallway entrance, and rearranging the blackboards and windows so light can come through on the left side. In 1921, an editorial in the Daily Home News by a disgruntled parent claimed that students were not receiving necessary school supplies. She also claimed that younger students were modeling some of the inappropriate behavior demonstrated by the older students (students in that school were as old as 15). Parents were quick to dismiss the claim, and eventually, the writer retracted some of her complaints.
On Schoolhouse Lane stood the one-room Weston’s Mill School. By 1914, the state school inspector condemned the building due to overcrowding. This was the result of South River no longer accepting East Brunswick students to attend their schools tuition-free. It would be abandoned not long after it was closed. However, by 1922, the building became a subject of interest for investigators of the famous Hall-Mills murder in Somerset. Investigators believed that the victims were held inside the building the night of their deaths. The structure has long since been demolished, and is now the location of Exit 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Finally, in what is now known as the Historic Village of Old Bridge was the one-room Old Bridge School. Located off of Kossman Street, the school had an enrollment of 75 children (according to those same census records). Boys and girls sat in benches on different ends of the classroom, while the teacher's desk was placed in front of the window facing the street. The school was depicted in James Crawford Thom’s painting known as “Winter in Old Bridge,” which illustrates children playing in a wintry setting next to a water pump. The painting, painted around 1885, hung at the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan for many years, before it was demolished to make way for the Empire State Building. The painting now hangs at the East Brunswick Museum (along with other paintings by Thom). By the 1880s, the school was relocated to a two-room schoolhouse. That building would be utilized until 1908, when it was moved across the street to make way for the replacement multi-floor concrete brick structure. It was then converted into the Old Bridge Town Hall. However, by 1924, it would be reverted into a school as part of an annex for Crandall School. Abandoned again by 1930, the building was reutilized a third time from 1938 until 1950, when Central School opened. In 1959, this building was handed over to the Police Post 34, AmVets. Ten years later, it was demolished. The original one-room schoolhouse on Kossman Street remains standing today as a private home and is the only remaining original schoolhouse left in the township.
In 1894, the Board of Education was formed as a result of a new state law requiring districts to have formal governing bodies in charge of their schools. Prior to this time, schools were supervised by the districts or ward trustees. The Board of Education’s first President was John H. Wade (after whom Wade School was named).
School life for rural children in those early years was met with many challenges. With no automobiles or any other method of transportation available for children (aside from the occasional horse-drawn buggies), students’ only way of getting to school was by foot. Children had to walk long distances to school in all types of weather. Back then, school was never canceled because of snowstorms. However, because childhood education was not mandatory, attendance would fall-off mid-year, as children helped work their family farms. Also, those who arrived early to school were expected to assist their teachers in igniting the pot-belly stove, which would warm the classroom. During the school day, multiple classes, multiple subjects, and multiple grades were taught in a single room. Each of the school’s principals also served as teachers. The county superintendent would supervise all teachers in the area (unlike today, where each school district now has its own superintendent). Each day, children brought their lunch, as meals were not served.
Overall, the first era of the East Brunswick Public Schools was met with numerous hardships. The schools had none of the modern conveniences that students and teachers enjoy today. However, students still managed to receive a proper education with dedicated teachers. The old wooden 19th Century-era schoolhouses would eventually be replaced with more solid concrete structures by the second and third era of the public schools, which will be addressed in the next article.
Ethan Reiss is a life-long East Brunswick resident with a passion for its history and presenting it to interested audiences. He worked for over a year under Middlesex County’s East Jersey Olde Town Village, and is currently a member and volunteer at the East Brunswick Museum. He is actively seeking full-time employment. You can connect with Ethan through LinkedIn, where you can find his previous articles.