IT HAPPENED IN OUR TOWN: Denville Goes Back to School… in the 1890s.

By Peter Zablocki


Kids have been going to school in Denville since the year 1774. Back then, if the youngsters wanted a day off, someone would drop a piece of damp leather that would burn with a terrible odor into the charcoal pot in the fireplace within the one-room schoolhouse… Today, there is a bigger foe keeping them away from their regular learning schedules. 


Whether it was missing school because of the Polio epidemic, or the Spanish Influenza, or the lack of coal to heat the building during the Great Depression or World War II, Denville students always made the best of it; and just like now, they never gave up. This is for our students, teachers, administrators, and staff out there who continue to make Denville proud…


The following is a firsthand account of attending the Union Hill School House in the 1890s – from the Denville Historical Society’s collection. 


“As an eight-year-old boy, I attended a one room school in Denville Township. The school was in the Union Hill Section. We called it “Pigeon Hill” then. Miss Adelaide Hance was the teacher. She had 45 pupils and the grades were pre-primer (now kindergarten) through eight. 


We used slates in those days. Some of the girls and ‘fancy boys’ had sponges tied to the frame with string, but most of us just brought a rag from home. The ‘dainty’ ones wet the sponges or rags in the proper way and from the proper source, but many of us used a quicker method. I think I need say no more, but I must add that eventually things were pretty ‘smelly.’


Seats and desks were ‘doubles’ – that is two sat together. Often a younger child was seated along with an older one so that he could be helped with his work.


The mid-morning recess was not for play. Two of the bigger boys went to the house next door and drew a bucket of water. I must tell you that this was truly an ‘old oaken bucket.’ Two of them, in fact, operated on a pulley wheel and chain. We let the bucket down until we heard a splash, then hand over we pulled it to the edge of the little well house, dumped the cool stuff into our pail, and trundled back across the field to school. Once back in the school room, the boys took the tin dipper from a nail and passed up and down the aisles until everyone had had his drink. I never tasted better water…


Noon hour was another matter. At the dismissal signal, the boys dashed outside to the coal bin. That was our favorite seat for the lunch hour. There would be a mad scramble to see how many could get a seat on the roof of the bin. More than one scarp, with fists flying took place between contenders for the honor.


After lunch we would go down the hill to play in the [Den] brook… it was an ideal place to cool off on a hot day. 


One day we decided to build a raft and go sailing. Two or three railroad ties from the mill race made a good foundation. For boards we tore apart the old water wheel which had at one time powered the paper mill. Nails had to be brought from home – but then all boys had pockets…


Sometimes we didn’t hear the bell and so we would be late for the afternoon session. When this happened too often, we’d post a lookout to give the signal. I can’t remember being punished especially. Maybe the teacher didn’t relish our wet clothes and shoes. In the wintertime, a pot-bellied stove afforded the only heat. Those near it were in the tropics, those by the walls, in Greenland. Monday mornings found the ink frozen, so we would have to wait for it to thaw before doing our copybooks… About the year 1897, the teacher told us to take out slates home and leave them. Modern times had come! We were to have paper and pencils!


There were no buses in those days. In the winter when the deep snows came, my father drove his team (of horses) and a pie-shaped wooden snowplow ahead of us to make a ‘track.’ Most of us walked from one to two miles to school…


The District Clerk, who was John Finnigan, Sr. at the time, came in once in a while to quiz the class…


There was but one teacher, but we respected her and she must have loved us and her job for we all gradated and took our places in society quite successfully. Perhaps the greatest lesson we learned was that leaning is not confirmed to the walls of any buildings but that it goes on and on as long as we live.”


You can still visit the very same one-room schoolhouse described in this story. After it was restored to its former glory by the Denville Historical Society, the school proudly stands in its original location on Openaki Road. We are also currently in the process of collecting funds to restore its sister school, the 1908 Union School House, directly across the street. Please contact us at if you would like contribute to that endeavor.  


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