Agassiz School Notes - 1922 to 1929
The idea of recording these memories came in a discussion with Agassiz teacher, Marilyn Walsh. She said that there seemed to be no history of the Agassiz Schools as they were before they moved from Burroughs Street down to Carolina Avenue. I decided that if I did not write these thoughts down nobody would. Actually, I took one or two copies of the School Magazine called The Agassiz Boy to the Headmaster there sometime three or four decades ago. As I recall it, it was when the School was still on Burroughs Street. I also think I gave them the third grade pictures. Perhaps they are in the library on Holbrook Street.
On a bright day in early September, 1922, Mother took me by the hand from 6 Newsome Park, down Eliot Street to Brewer, down Brewer to Burroughs and up the granite steps into the smaller of the two brick Agassiz School buildings. She took me to put me into the kindergarten, which was in the room on the first floor on the right, as you went through the door on the Burroughs Street side of the school. I was a somewhat protected child, they having waited 5-1/2 years for me after my brother was born, and I did not like the idea of staying there all day, but there was not anything I could do about it. The ice was broken for everybody when poor little Calliope Jairis vomited. She was the daughter of the able fruit storeowner across from the bank and two or three stores from Seaverns Avenue on Centre Street. She obviously was more upset than I. Everything settled down when very large, round white haired custodian Kelley came in with a bucket of sawdust and cleaned the whole thing up.
I do not remember very much about kindergarten except that our teacher was Miss Earnshaw. If I have it correct, the Earnshaws owned and operated an old “coaching inn” on Center Street, West Roxbury, just beyond the current Unitarian Church. The inn was razed three or four decades ago to build a Stop & Shop or one of those markets. I believe it was still functioning as a tearoom during those years.
My father, having been on a championship club baseball team in the 1890’s in Boston was terribly pleased that I had Miss Earnshaw, for, if I remember correctly, her brother pitched either for the New York Yankees or New York Giants.
I do remember that we sat in a circle in that room. The circle was painted red on a maple floor. I suppose we sang all the songs and did all the things that kindergarteners do.
Actually there were three buildings. The use of the plural in the title was done on purpose. The Primary School contained the first three grades. It was a red brick Victorian building with a double-pitched roof, slate, as I recall it. It was very high studded. The basement had windows above the ground. In the basement were the latrines. The boy’s room had a slate barrier and trough with water running down the slate. Some small boys tried to shoot over the barrier and did occasionally, until a supervising teacher interfered. I never saw the girl’s bathroom.
The larger of the two buildings was built probably around 1880 or 1885, some twenty years later than the Primary School. There were several buildings like the Primary School around, such as the Hillside School on Elm Street on the corner of Everett Street at the end of Seaverns Avenue. It was razed for a parking lot across from the Congregational Church. I believe these schools were built shortly after the annexation of Roxbury by Boston in the1860’s.
This larger of the two schools was truly Victorian. It had a large overhang. Its main grand entrance was on Brewer Street. The Headmaster’s office was over the grand entrance looking out on Brewer Street toward Jamaica Pond. There was a protrusion on the primary school side which contained the fourth grade which I attended. I believe the architectural reason for the protrusion was to allow the hall on the third floor to take all the pupils.
Despite the fact that the main entrance was on Brewer Street, we entered and excited through the Burroughs Street side. Directly across the street from the entrance was a wonderful penny-candy store where one could buy “tootsie rolls” or other luscious items. It was in the workshop of the local house painter, Mr. Heap.
There was a third building in the back of the brick courtyard sort of between the two brick buildings, but way back toward Thomas Street. This was a gray prefabricated school building. Several prefabricated buildings were added during that period as the number of pupils increased. It was probably either a Hodgson Houses or a Brooks Skinner prefabricated school, one floor, and I believe heated by a stove.
The first grade was on the second floor on the back side toward Thomas Street. The teacher, whom I had, was Miss Cleveland. She was a graying rather large woman who wore glasses. I have a couple of recollections of that class. That is where we started cursive writing the Palmer Method, “push and pull,” but with pencil. I think we did not get ink until the second grade, or even the third grade.
We learned to spell with a box of little green letters out of which we would pick the right letter. Once I saw the exact letter that I wanted on the desk of a fellow pupil across the aisle. As I reached over to get it, Miss Cleveland just had to say loudly “David.” She was a nice person, and all went smoothly.
I believe it was that year that we became very conscious of Miss Anna Von Groll, who was the Assistant Principal of the Primary School. One day my mother came to pick me up early for a doctor’s appointment and Mother never got over the fact Miss Van Groll pinned her up against the wall of the stair hall and scolded her, asking her what she thought she was doing breaking up the continuity of the School by picking me up for a doctor’s appointment at quarter of twelve when school did not close until twelve. Much more on this Miss Van Groll later.
For the second grade we went up to the top floor on the back toward Thomas Street. The class was broken in two and someone else had the room on the Burroughs Street side. My teacher was Miss Bertsch. She happened to be the sister of the stenographer in my father’s office in Roxbury. I do not know whether that helped or hurt. She was very tall, probably 5’11”. Had a somewhat large nose, was graying by this time. As I remember it, second grade was a serene year except for the fire escape.
Naturally, we had to have fire drills. These came unannounced. We would go out a door directly from the room onto the grill of the fire escape. Unfortunately, instead of looking down at the step, one looked right through to the brick courtyard below.
Perhaps it is well that we had practiced, because one morning about eleven o’clock the fire alarm went off and we all thought it was a false alarm. When we got down to the ground and out the gate on the other side, there was Engine 28 and the other pumpers. We were told by all the authorities to get out of there and go home.
My father was something of a “spark” having witnessed the Roxbury fire as a little boy in the 1880’s, which burned down the old Walpole Street American League baseball grounds on the site of where Northeastern exists today. He also witnessed the Chelsea fire a few years later. When he heard that the School was on fire, when I got home, as he happened to be there, he got into the car and took us to see what was happening. It actually was a fire and the firemen were on the roof taking the slates off and chopping through the roof. I believe we went back to school the next day.
Third grade under Miss Van Groll was really something. She probably stood all of 4’10” or 11”. She was a little round. She had brown hair and wore pince-nez glasses, as I recall. She was a little autocrat, as is indicated in the episode with Mother and the doctor’s appointment.
When she would sit at her upright piano and play back to the class, she would announce that she could see everything that was going on in the polished mahogany of the piano, so we must behave.
One of her finest moments was probably in 1926, the day after Malcolm Nichols was elected as the Mayor of the City of Boston. His son, Clark Nichols, was in my grade. The new Mayor came and visited us the day after he was elected. I can still see him now in a black Chesterfield, a gray suit, black shoes and a derby. Miss Von Groll was thrilled that he had come to her class.
The Nichols’ lived on Centre Street on the corner of Hathaway Street. There was a younger brother and sister. Mayor Nichols was a widower at the time, I believe.
I do not remember the names of too many people of that grade, but I can say that Dorothy Neale was very bright and may have been the brightest in the class. Another very bright boy was Hugh Gray. I remember also Pricilla Picket, who was the daughter of the eminent carpenter in Jamaica Plain, who lived off Centre Street near Dunster Road. Jane Ohler lived on Orchard Street and we often walked to school together and became good friends as grownups. One of the Bowditches, I think Hoel, came down from their place on top of Moss Hill. Philip Rasmussen, later a Navel Flier hero, lived as far away as Winchester Road. The school at the end of Louder’s Lane had not been built yet. Henry Schmidt lived right at the entrance of Louder’s Lane. Those were the people I saw because of growing up on Prince Street walking to school.
However, most of the children came from the other side of Centre Street from Lamartine Street and Chestnut Avenue and down Centre Street toward St. Thomas Aquinas and Carolina Avenue, Custer Street and so forth.
I think the second section of the third grade was in the portable building. I do not know how they divided us, whether it was by grades or just arbitrarily. I believe the other second grade teacher was a Miss McReady.
Then in the fall of 1926 we split. The girls went to the Bowditch School and the boys went next door to the larger Agassiz School building.
My fourth grade teacher was Mrs. Holland. She was a lovely lady with white hair. She was kind and soft spoken and everybody took to her. My friend Nathaniel J. Young, who still lives on Pond Street, Jamaica Plain, tells me that at that time a married person could not be a teacher. His mother had been a teacher in the Boston School system until she married Mr. Young. I believe Mrs. Holland was a widow and lived on Willow Street, West Roxbury. She was a nice enough so that my parents sought her out one afternoon and that is why I have the Willow Street recollections.
Later, according to Joan Scolponeti whose father was Corporate Council at City Hall and who grew up on May Street, Jamaica Plain across the street from the Gargans, with whom she played, told me that she also had Mrs. Holland. So sometime in the years after I left, the fourth through eighth grade building apparently started to accommodate girls as well as boys.
The Ruling Hierarchy
We have already noted that Miss Anna Von Groll, who proudly lived at the Fritz Carlton Hotel on Boylston Street near Fire Department Headquarters, was the Assistant Principal of the Primary School.
The Headmaster of the whole Agassiz School system was Joshua Q. Litchfield. “Q.” stood for “Quincy.” Mr. Litchfield was extremely proud of his Yankee ancestry and of that Quincy name which, after all, was related to the famous Adams family in Quincy. He looked like a typical Yankee, bald, with a large nose. He seemed completely competent to handle the job.
Under him the Assistant Headmaster, who was a receding-chin gentleman by the name of James Nolan. Everybody thought “Jimmy” Nolan as tough. It was he who gave the rattan to the worst offenders (more on this later). In case Mr. Nolan was out, Miss West, who was also somewhat chinless, had the authority. She was an eighth grade teacher.
My fifth grade teacher was a round somewhat red faced, brown haired 35-year-old called Miss McGowan. She was a very good teacher. She was a very good disciplinarian. It was there that the rattan first appeared. Luckily I escaped it. It was fearsome to see these tough little boys asked to go into the coat room to get their hands whacked with a rattan and come back with tears running down their faces and all defiance gone.
For a short time that year Miss McGowan was sick. She was replaced by a younger woman by the name of Miss Butler. She must have had a boy friend at Boston College, because all she could talk about was the Philomatheia Club. I looked in the Newton phone book but the Philomatheia does not show. I have seen it in a Swiss Chalet style building over there. I suspect that Miss Butler attended dances or parties at the club there in the 1920’s.
It was in the fifth grade that we started woodworking. I got good grades at Agassiz, all “1”s in everything except woodworking. The more dexterous boys were sent down to Eliot School on Eliot Street, which had been taken over by the Public School System sometime in the 19th century. There they really got good woodworking training. I think our woodworking teacher’s name was Mr. Maguire. He was very patient with clumsy people like me, and in spite of not getting a good mark, I enjoyed it and still tinker with things.
For sixth grade we went upstairs to the second floor of the big building. The teacher was Miss Childs. The other sixth grade teacher I do not remember. The School did go on through the eighth grade at that time. After age 11 I had more confidence. I would stay after school and play with John Malone, who lived on Brewer Street, in the schoolyard until thrown out. Malone’s father had the Arborway garage on Centre Street near Forest Hills. Originally before automobiles, it was Malone & Keene with horses and buggies. Or I even went down to the Carolina playground and tried playing baseball, but I was not any good, so gave it up.
The next year I went off to Roxbury Latin.
Once a month or so we would go upstairs to the third floor where Mr. Litchfield would give us a treat of movies. Of course, these were silent movies and captioned. This was supposed to be a treat, however, getting two or three hundred little unclean boys in a hot hall is not the pleasantest for the olfactory senses.
The Children’s Museum
At that time the Children’s Museum was located on the Pine Bank of Jamaica Pond in the Victorian mansion of Thomas Handasyd Perkins, which is still there, although it is falling apart. We would walk from the school down approximately to Mayor Curley’s mansion and there would be a policeman there who would get us across the traffic. These visits went completely over my head, but I guess some of the children got something out of it. The Children’s Museum moved to the old Mitton Mansion on the corner of Burroughs Street and the Jamaica Way before it moved downtown a few years ago.
The Pet Show
In the spring of my sixth grade year, it was announced that there would be a pet show on the lawn across the street from Mayor Curley’s house on a given Saturday. Our family had a thoroughbred wire-haired fox terrier. I bathed her, and primped her, and brushed her, and put a ribbon on her and walked down there to the site of the show. I looked around and it did not look to me as though I had much competition. There were two or three cats, a couple of not very beautiful dogs. Perhaps there was a canary, a parrot.
Just when the teacher said, “We will now have the judging,” the door of Mayor Curley’s Mansion opened and young Francis came out. The policeman stopped the traffic, led him across the street and with his not-very-well-groomed mongrel dog. This was just in time for the judging.
The teacher called him by name and told him to come and we could now have the judging.
My recollection is that I did get the Blue Ribbon, and Francis Curley got second prize, a Red Ribbon.
This was a very good school, the Agassiz School. These teachers were good. They devoted their lives to teaching small children. All of them were unmarried except Mrs. Holland, who was a widow, as I said. Most of them had been trained at Boston Normal School on Huntington Avenue. Discipline was strong.
There was a great mixture of people in the Agassiz School. As I described before, most of the pupils came from the south side of Centre Street. This was not an affluent area. One little boy needed a bath so badly that one of the teachers sat him in the back of the room so that the odor would not bother the other children (or the teacher).
Joe Graham was a genial, smiling, blonde policeman, who got those two to three hundred children across Centre Street safely every day. He was a character. He was there long after I left school.
On a balance, it was a good and fulfilling experience.
Written by David A. Mittell.
David A. Mittell grew up on Prince Street in Jamaica Plain. He attended the Agassiz School and Roxbury Latin. He is a 1939 graduate of Harvard University. Mr. Mittell is a retired executive of Davenport Peters, the oldest American continually operating lumber wholesaler. He is a member of the board of trustees of the Plimoth Plantation and Roxbury Latin High School.
Comment by George B. Stebbins, Jr. (geosteb at juno.com):
A friendly amendment: I believe the policeman who covered Centre Street was Joe Graham, not Jimmy. Jim Graham, who lived in the castle on the Arborway, was president of the Forest Hills Cooperative Bank. I also attended the Seeger School where the Mittell and Salisbury names were important; I spent four years at Agassiz, two at J. P. Manning, and then went to Roxbury Latin School.
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