Portsmouth Historical Society gets social

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PORTSMOUTH — Isabella F. Fish was brought back to life on Sunday, and she had some words of caution for everyone who left the one-room Southernmost School that sits behind the Portsmouth Historical Society:

“Have fun at recess. Don’t climb any trees!” warned Miss Fish, who was played by Society member Gloria Schmidt.

Under the school's rules of the day, students who dared climb too high would be "lashed" with a hickory stick against the knuckles — one rap for every foot over three feet. Other class edicts were no less stringent. The most serious punishment was 10 lashes for “misbehaving” to girls.

“There (was) no misbehaving to boys,” said Ms. Schmidt, before pointing out that the girls could not grow their nails unless they wanted a couple of swats themselves.

The Historical Society, which is celebrating its 75th year, gave local residents a chance to step back in time Sunday at its annual Harvest Social. Families toured the museum — the former Christian Union Church, which dates to 1865 — as well as the Old Town Hall (1850) and the Southermost School (1725), a post-and-beam building which the Society believes is the oldest surviving schoolhouse in the nation.

The school moved around a bit before it settled in back of the museum in 1952. It was originally situated directly across its present location on the other side of Union Street.

“Then it was moved down, around 1800, to West Main Road and Union Street. Then in 1860 we moved from two schools — Southernmost and Northernmost — to eight school districts," said Ms. Schmidt. The schoolhouse was then used for storage at a Union Street farm before the family donated it to the Society.

Miss Fish — schoolmarms weren't allow to marry at one point, Ms. Schmidt said — taught at the former Newtown School, not Southernmost.

"However we have her records, so that's why we're portraying her," she said. "We have all of her school ledgers and things like that.”

Miss Fish started teaching around 1886 and continued for at least 23 years. The records she kept provide a valuable glimpse into what school was was like here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ms. Schmidt said.

“They very much went around the agricultural year. So they’d have a very late start in September and leave very early in May. And if it was time for a harvest, school was out," she said.

Class size wasn't as big a deal then, either, as Miss Fish taught a whopping 51 students in one classroom at Newtown, she said.

As for classwork, Ms. Schmidt said, “You had the three Rs — reading, writing and arithmetic — even though they don’t all start with an ‘R.’”

Using modern slates, she showed Sunday's visitors how lessens were taught in the school. “The kids don’t do penmanship anymore, and that would been one of the first things," she said.

The Portsmouth Historical Society, at the corner of East Main Road and Union Street, is open from 2-4 p.m. on Sundays. Admission to the museum is free — but donations are welcome. For more information, call 683-9178 or visit http://portsmouthhistorical.com.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.