(Editor’s note: This column is part of an ongoing series on the history of Upper Township. Main source: "The History of Upper Township and Its Villages, 1989"; "The History of Petersburg," by H. Stanley Craig, 1914; The Upper Township School Project researched by Michael Houdart, president of the Upper Township Historical Society)
Readers, you will be reading (and seeing a few pictures/photos) in this session of the history of Upper Township about the various schools which Upper Township students have attended since the earliest days of our township. So, please relax and enjoy this story of the schools in the township; at least one of which you just may have once attended.
What if I told you that through its long history since the 18th century, Upper Township has had a total of 24 schools used by its children? Well, it’s true.
While most of those school buildings are gone (some, mysteriously, with no trace) there are quite a few still standing though built over 100 or more years ago. Over the years, as the school system improved and expanded, with a tremendous growth in population, these old buildings have often found a new purpose.
As "The History of Upper Township and its Ten Villages" stated in 1989:
“The education of their children (has always) been a matter of utmost concern to the citizens of the township and today its schools and education are managed by a single Board of Education. ... Today the education system is centralized and the children are predominantly bussed to school with grades Kindergarten through grade 5 attending classes in the Elementary School in Marmora (built in 1953), grades 6 through 8 attending the Middle School in Petersburg (built in 1973), and high school grades 9 through 12 attending Ocean City High School.”
Since the "History" was written, quite a few things have changed.
There is a new primary school built in Marmora (completed in 1991) which contains grades pre-K through grade two and the older elementary school now contains grades three through five. As noted above, students leave here and go on to the middle school in Petersburg entering in grade six. Students still attend Ocean City High School in grades nine through 12.
But that’s not the way it was when the various villages were first settled and began to develop. Each village had its own school board in the early days.
The early residents of the township were interested in maintaining their cultural heritage and this was manifested in their desire to educate their children.
The first school we will read about is the Dennis Landing School.
“The shipbuilding village at the head of Dennis Creek organized to build a school house and on Feb. 24, 1793, purchased fifty square rods of land for the sum of 5 shillings from James Ludlam. The lot was deeded to a company of 31 men, 'for a school house as long as time shall last.' The road on which it was located was forever known as School House Lane."
We have no surviving records of the pupils or teachers who used this schoolhouse, but the building was used until 1840, when a new lot was bought across the lane and the old building was sold and moved across the lane.
Now you’re probably wondering, what does a Dennisville School have to do with Upper Township? Well, back in 1726, Dennis Landing was part of Upper Township and was settled by Anthony Ludlam. How about that?
As early as Sept. 3, 1801, (Thomas Jefferson was president for just a few months) Henry Ludlam deeded ground to the citizens of Dennis for just $1 for another public school that would serve both the residents of Upper as well as Dennis. This school is listed as the first community school built on its own land in Cape May County.
At the time, this school was not free. Parents who sent their children here paid a stipend/share and had to provide all materials for learning.
From "The History of Upper Township and Its Villages," ”On May 23rd, 1801 for the sum of one dollar, Henry Ludlam (deeded) to certain parties ‘a certain lot of ground situated on the main road between said Ludlam House and the House of Daniel Ludlam for a school house.’ It was customary for any man of great means who was interested in education to secure his own teachers and start his own school."
There are many local and well known names today who were participants in establishing the Ludlam School. The list is far too long to name everyone.
The schoolhouse, as it was first constructed, was a low, one-story structure, rectangular, with a broad-boarded side facing the main Road. It was erected by one of the Johnsons of Dennisville (who owned and operated a saw mill where Johnson’s Pond is located today) and was later moved to the William Morrison site, which stands on a knoll on the road from Dennisville to the Landing. During this move, which was done during the Civil War, the building was renovated.
Chronologically, the next school for Upper Township students was the Petersburg School of 1814, later known as the Franklin School. (James Madison was in the White House and the War of 1812 was at its peak.) Ezekiel Van Gilder Jr. and his wife, Mary, were the two principal shareholders of the school, and money was raised by subscription.
”We the subscribers promise to find one-fourth part of a cord of good oak wood per scholar, at least, and at the expiration of said term, each subscriber is to pay his proportion according to what he signs and sends. School to commence Dec. 28, 1820.”
The land was deeded by Ezekiel to those who contributed to the building of the structure. The deed is still available to see in the county museum. This building was located right in front of the next Petersburg School, which later became known as the Redman’s Lodge, a private lodge for the men of Petersburg on the order of the Elks or Moose Lodges. This building still stands today and is a private home.
An additional Petersburg School was built in 1871 (U.S. Grant was in the White House for just two years.) and was just one room. It was located a little distance back from the location of the Franklin School. The township bought the land on which the school was placed from Mr. Edward Voss in 1903. In 1909, a second room was added to the 1871 structure and the building was remodeled. Both structures are now gone.
The third school was known as the “Farmers’ School” in Beesleys Point. This school dates back to 1818. (By this time, James Monroe was president of the U.S.) The school was incorporated "for the promotion of learning."
This school, like the Ludlam’s School, was not free. Each parent paid for a subscription and each subscriber purchased a number of shares. Two shares cost $26. Was it one share for each student per semester? We have no evidence today of what each child was charged. Parents had to buy all of the books, slates, paper and pencils.
It can be surmised that if early schools were set up on a subscription basis, costing parents both tuition and the price of school supplies, poor or needy students may not have attended school at all.
The second Beesleys Point School was built in 1889 (Benjamin Harrison had just been inaugurated as president.) on the east side along Route 9 and today is a private residence. The first school was sold to a man from Ocean City, to where it was moved and used as a barn. After that it was probably torn down to make room for new homes.
After the Civil War, education became a public responsibility, and one single school board for the township was established.
Before this, parents could actually take turns boarding the teacher and supplying the firewood in place of cash for the tuition!
This second Beesleys Point Farmers’ School had a bell tower. Some time ago, the bell broke free from its housing and was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Del Coreo to the Historical Preservation Society of Upper Township. The bell is now inside the historic Friendship School on Route 9.
We'll continue our look at Upper Township school buildings next week.