Brian Sullivan: Elementary history worth revisiting


PITTSFIELD -- Among the many great men of late 19th century Pittsfield was a talented fellow by the name of William Plunkett.

One of the many "founding fathers" of our city, Plunkett helped sew together the fabric that would eventually become the booming Pittsfield of the first half of the 20th century.

Plunkett remains a favorite of mine, in part, because it's said that he was a member during the 1850s in Pittsfield of the original "Baseball Nine," while in later years gaining a reputation as perhaps the city's biggest sports fan. He rarely missed a sporting event of any kind.

In short, a sports guy. Probably a bit ahead of his time.

The elementary school named after Plunkett has been reduced to a pile of brick and ashes now, the site at the corner of First and Fenn streets having been cleared out for -- thank the Lord -- a coffee shop. And I was worried the space would end up being used for something trivial.

The razing of the former school, however, serves as a reminder of just how crazy the evolution of our school system suddenly became at the onset of the 20th century, and how many of the great people whose names were used to designate those schools have disappeared from the city lexicon and are no longer relevant.

I've always felt it was such a slight to these men that we closed or vacated these original schools, and in the process, wiped their legacies from our memories.

Plunkett was a lawyer, politician and bank vice president. But that was the outer layer. He also was both approachable and reasonable, and it's written that he was an advocate for the city's children. He died in 1903, and the school that was named after him was built in 1909 at a cost of $80,000.

So, this winter when you drop in at the corner of First and Fenn streets for that coffee, take a minute to remember the guy whose name used to mean something special.

Plunkett wasn't alone. There were plenty of new schools that needed names.

So, let's set the stage. In 1900, Pittsfield's population was about 22,000. By 1915, it had risen to about 40,000. And by 1930, it had jumped to nearly 50,000. The school budget, as you might expect, went off the radar screen. It was just too hard to keep up with the rising demand for buildings to house the students. There weren't enough hammers, nails, brick or mortar to keep pace.

The city, by 1916, had 21 elementary schools. The eight newest were all built between 1900 and 1915, and while none remain active as schools today, the former William Mercer Elementary on First Street houses the city's school administration offices.

The remainder of the "new eight" included Henry Dawes on Elm Street (1908), William Nugent at the Junction Bridge (1910), Gen. William Bartlett on Onota Street (1910), Crane on Springside Avenue, named after the family that built Dalton and much of Pittsfield (1913), Thomas Pomeroy on West Housatonic (1915) and Joseph Tucker, on Linden Street (1907).

The remaining elementary schools -- some were simply one-room buildings -- had been built during the 1800s, a few dating back prior to the Civil War.

That list includes -- I have to admit, some I knew and others I had never heard the name -- the former William Rice school on Winter Street (1890), Solomon Russell on Pecks Road (1897), Charles Redfield on Elizabeth Street (1896), George Briggs at the corner of West and John streets (1896) and Franklin Read at Fenn and Second streets (1885).

Others of the day included Pontoosuc, Osceola, Barkerville, Morehead, North Woods, Coltsville and Holmes. It's a far cry from the eight schools we have today, but certainly it's history worth revisiting.

Brian Sullivan can be reached at


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