Erwin Harbat was not born until 1936, but the Woosamonsa School House, which closed its doors 18 years before he was born, is integral to the identity of the farming community he grew up in.
His father moved to the farm on Woosamonsa Road in 1932, after his mechanic job at Yellow Cab in New York left him with aching joints and his doctor prescribed fresh air. The elder Harbat, along with his cousin, purchased 120 acres down the road from the Woosamonsa School House for $6,000 and, like many families in the Hopewell Valley, created a dairy farm.
“In Hopewell Township, in 1948, there were more dairy cows than people,” Harbat recalls.
When Erwin turned eight, his birthday present was a milk pail. The family had a tough time during the Depression, almost losing the farm in 1937. For the Harbats and other farm families, having a school close by was important. That’s why 14 one-room or very small schoolhouses were constructed in the early 20th century, to enable children to walk to school.
The one on Woosamonsa Road is still there, thanks largely to the Woosamonsa Schoolhouse Association, which maintains it. For the better part of a century, the association has been hosting its annual Strawberry Social — set for June 4 this year — to raise the funds needed to take care of it.
The Woosamonsa School House dates from 1875, although there is evidence of an earlier stone school building on the property. Documents show that enrollment ranged from 30 students to 63 at its height in the 1879-80 school year, although absenteeism was high, especially in winter.
The school was closed in 1918, and in 1922, the school district sold the building to the association for one dollar on condition that it be used only for social gatherings and community service. The yearly Strawberry Socials began back in the 1930’s, becoming a means of fundraising in the 1950’s.
This year’s Strawberry Social will include games for children 10 and under, a fiddle duo called “Fiddlesticks,” with antique dancing puppets. Elizabeth England, a board member of the Woosamonsa Schoolhouse Association, says people dress up in old-time outfits—old-fashioned collarless shirts, sometimes straw boaters [men’s summer hats], vests, pinafore aprons. “People who know about the schoolhouse and have loved it for years,” she says.
Since acquiring the property, the association has sought a balance between its limited funds—most of which have been provided by neighborhood residents and trustees—and its desire for historical authenticity.
To maintain the school house’s historical elements, they have sandblasted the original clapboard and done their best to match the original green and white paint. After someone remembered that there had once been a cupola on the roof, George Pearson, an architect in Pennington Borough, designed a new one gratis, and Gary Hansen, who used to live up the street from the school house on Poor Farm Road, built it. (Poor Farm Road, also a part of the schoolhouse’s “neighborhood,” got its name because the farm gave jobs to indigent, unemployed people during the Depression). Thomas Horsley built new steps as part of his Eagle Scout project.
Harbat shared the story of how they sought a school bell to replace the remains of the old one. On the bell was written “Fredericksburg, Ohio,” so when Harbat visited friends in Dayton one New Year’s, he asked whether they knew of a bell manufacturer in Fredericksburg. He learned that the J. B. Foote Foundry, which was established in 1875, had an extensive antique bell collection even though it no longer made bells but instead molded augurs for meat grinders. The foundry’s president, Tom Updike, asked Harbat to bring in what remained of the original bell, and he rebuilt the bell for them.
But the association has also had to make compromises. The new roof was done with modern shingles, rather than the original wood shingles. When a dance group was willing to fund a new floor that enabled them to use the building, the association went along. The dance group rented the space for $20 per Saturday night of folk dancing.
Several original artifacts remain in the school building: a photo of a teacher with her students in front of the school from 1880, donated by Jack Keppell, who had an art gallery in Pennington and was/is a history buff; a picture of President Abraham Lincoln, cleaned by Keppell; carbide gas lamps (which replaced the earlier pot-bellied wood stove); and three original desks. There is also a replica of the original clock.
School days at Woosamonsa began with a Bible reading from the teacher, pledge of allegiance, and a song. Students proceeded at their own pace through a series of graded texts. The school has no bathroom and no running water, but has an outhouse. Nearby is a spring where students would fetch water for the day.
Older students acted in plays, charging a small admission fee to raise money for the school’s library fund. In the winter, the teacher would plan sled rides, sending an older boy going home for his father’s team of horses. Sometimes they drove to another country school, where the older students participated in a spelling bee.
The school served a community. It included John Fleming (part of Woosamonsa Road was once called Fleming Road in his honor), a trustee of the school; the family of John Titus, who had a blacksmith shop and wheelwright business on Woosamonsa Road and was known for his fine wagons; the father of Henry Burd, who was a student at the school. Henry himself, the former superintendent of the Hopewell Township’s department of public works, a trustee of the association, and owner of South Wind horse farm (purchased in 1932), used to take out his Model T and sell tickets to the Strawberry Social.
Since its closure as a school, the building has been used as a Sunday School, a meeting place for the Woosamonsa Art Club, a polling place for Hopewell Valley District 4 voters from 1970 to 1986 (a trustee emeritus told England that the rent the township paid “used to pay the electric bill”), and a place where many community affairs and private parties were hosted (including the bridal shower of current trustee Jerri Farina).
Harbat went to Hopewell Valley schools; his primary school is now Academy Court, his grammar school is where Tollgate is located, and his high school, where he graduated in 1954, houses the board of education offices. He estimates that 10 to 15 percent of the 55 students in his graduating class came from farming families.
As an undergraduate at Rutgers University, Harbat studied dairy science; he also earned a master’s degree in agricultural biochemistry and nutrition and was only 15 credits from a doctorate. But his father died suddenly in 1962, and Harbat ran the dairy business from 1963 to 1974, tripling the herd.
After increasing the herd, he found he was making less money than previously, and in 1974 left the dairy business, although he did continue crop farming, mostly soy beans and corn. Then he bought the old feed mill in Pennington, on Main Street off Route 31, and ran a grain merchandising business there. He also owned the station next to the grain elevator.
England, who grew up in Passaic, moved in 2000 from New Hope to a farm near the schoolhouse so that she could stable her horses at home. Her grandfather, she says, built a house in the middle of a cornfield in Passaic, giving her a rich sense of the transition from farms to towns and suburbs.
“For me, the idea that places exist where there are still trees—I feel like if we don’t protect buildings like this, it will be very bad—we will lose our history—and we are losing the people who have that history,” she says.
Julia Holcombe Wentworth, both a student and a teacher at Woosamonsa, published a poem about the schoolhouse on October 11, 1949, capturing in this verse the sense of communal loss at the school house’s closure: “The old school-house is altered now,/Empty and lonely and drab and drear,/Its walls do not echo to children’s calls,/No longer its ringing bell they hear.”
“The schoolhouse is a labor of love,” England writes in an email. “The association is challenged to raise funds due to lack of awareness; the property, with its charge to be used as a community asset, is difficult to rent due to lack of facilities (restrooms/running water, handicapped access); and the Strawberry Social (revived when Erwin Harbat joined the board) is our only fundraiser.”
The association has a new website, woosamonsaschoolhouse.com. Tickets to the Strawberry Social, sponsored by Uncle Ed’s Creamery, Stop and Shop on Denow Road, and Jack’s Nursery, are $8; children under 5 are free. The event is scheduled to run from 1 to 4 p.m., rain or shine. The address of the schoolhouse is 103 Woosamonsa Road, Hopewell.