February 4: Woodstock Helps A New Nation Create a New Kind of Education


Today in1802, responding to post-revolutionary war Connecticans’ desire for secondary education suited to the needs of a new kind of nation,  the Woodstock Academy, Connecticut’s oldest coeducational secondary school, welcomed its first students. It’s creation helped mark a  new era in the state support of secondary education and  was a key event of in the launch of the Age of the Academy.

This 1801 floor plan sketch shows the coeducational classroom plan for the original Woodstock Academy Building. It was replaced by the Italianate school building (this post’s featured image) in 1873.

Connecticut’s Bible-reading Puritans  had early recognized the importance of publicly supported education. The Law Code of 1650  required towns of 50 households to hire school teachers, and towns of 100 to create Latin schools offering college preparatory lessons. As the state’s godly Puritans transformed over time into frugal Yankees, though, taxpayers’ desire to pay  for public education waned. By the mid-1700s, except for basic common schooling,  secondary and college preparatory education was offered almost entirely through “venture schools” totally dependent on privately paid tuition and therefore almost exclusively attended by the children of wealthy elites. The disruptions of the Revolutionary War further restricted public-funded  educational opportunities. After the war, however, as a new and optimistic nation sought to establish itself on a sure footing, the idea of creating a new form of education suited to the pragmatic needs of the new republic brought about educational reform.

The stimulus for such reform in Connecticut came from the general assembly’s 1799 “Act for Appointing, Encouraging and Supporting Schools.” This act dedicated the monies ($1.2 million) raised from the sale of Connecticut’s Western Reserve lands (now part of Ohio) to a School Fund whose earnings would be used exclusively to support public education. Importantly, the Act allowed local School Societies to “Institute a School of a higher Order for the common benefit of all the inhabitants.” While such schools could, on request, teach Latin and Greek (the core curriculum of most college preparatory venture schools), the first focus in the Act was given to courses in English grammar, geography, arithmetic, religion, morality, and “Happiness in the various relations of social life.”  This was education intended not just for elite sons headed for the pulpit or the courtroom, but for all the opportunities of life in a new and  rapidly developing nation.

Rev. Eliphalet Lyman rode horseback from house to house seeking donations of money, materials, and labor to build theWoodstock academy

Inspired by the Act, a group of 32 of Woodstock’s town entrepreneurs – including state representative John McClellan and Woodstock’s Congregational minister Eliphalet Lyman –  came together as proprietors to fund and manage a new “higher Order” school in Woodstock. The town granted the school land bordering the town common. Rev. Lyman became a horseback circuit rider seeking contributions for the school from local residents, and volunteers came together as a community to raise the school building in 1801. The Academy received a charter as an independent institution from the state in May 1802, and was the first coeducational academy among the six academies –in Woodstock, Cheshire, New Haven, Berlin, Colchester, and Fairfield –  founded in the years immediately after the 1799 Act.

Chartered Incorporation made the academies different.  Independent institutions managed by the private citizens who helped fund them, the academies provided a broader base of financial support (public, private, and tuition), oversight,  and community engagement than the exclusively tuition-funded venture schools. And, the coeducational academies provided the model  from which the public high school would evolve in the later 19th and early 20th centuries.

The initial group of academies was followed by a rapid proliferation of similar schools.  By 1840, 127 academies had been established in Connecticut. Most  would close with the advent of tax-supported secondary education, some evolved into other types of institutions, and a few would continue under their state charters as designated and contracted secondary schools for regional communities.

1869 photograph showing students playing baseball on the green in front of the original Woodstock Academy building.

Two centuries after its founding, The Woodstock Academy today  is the designated high school for the northeastern Connecticut towns of Woodstock, Eastford, Pomfret, Brooklyn, Canterbury, and Union. It continues to fulfill the vision of its founders as an institution that is independent, coeducational, inclusive, and regional, with a resident student component. Included in an enrollment of 1100 students are 100 resident students from 15 countries and 12 states. In 2019, Academy alumna Wanjiku Gatheru of Pomfret was selected as the University of Connecticut’s first Rhodes Scholar.

Further Reading

Dennis Partridge, “History of Schools in Woodstock, Connecticut,” Connecticut Genealogy

The Woodstock Academy,” The Historical Marker Database

The Academy Movement in New England,” Impressions From a Lost World 

Robert J. Smith, A History of the Woodstock Academy 1801-2016 (Woodstock, Connecticut,  2018)