A little Vermont schoolhouse washed away in the 1927 flood became an inspiring symbol of the state’s resilience when schoolchildren around the country sent in their pennies to replace it.
A wealthy woman made a big donation as well, but that oversight wasn’t corrected until later.
The Great 1927 Flood was one of the worst weather events to strike Vermont. The ground was already saturated when a tropical storm met a rainstorm and then stalled over the state. A hard rain fell on the night of Nov. 2, 1927 and continued for 38 hours. It let up for an hour, then poured for another five hours.
The 1927 flood left 9,000 homeless and killed 84 people, including Lt. Gov. S. Hollister Jackson.
Bolton, Vt., suffered the worst. The town lay along the Winooski River, the most dangerous place to be. The river waters rose a foot an hour. Twenty-six residents of Bolton died in the 1927 flood, including 15 people killed when their boardinghouse was swept over Bolton Falls.
A schoolteacher, 20-year-old Clara Thompson, watched the Winooski River carry away her little schoolhouse.
Pinneo Flats Schoolhouse
The dilapidated Pinneo Flats Schoolhouse had been abandoned for 10 years when Bolton School Superintendent Edward Clark decided to repair it. He and two other parents worked summers, weekends and holidays to fix it up. The school reopened in the fall of 1926 with 17 students.
Several of the school’s students died in the 1927 flood. Clark vowed to rebuild it. He wrote to the editor of the Burlington Free Press, saying he could reopen the school in an empty barn on January 2 with donations of $1,000.
The newspaper ran a campaign to raise money for the school from Nov. 18 to Dec. 30, reporting on donations as they came in.
Gave Up Gum
Children from nearly every school in Vermont brought in their pennies and birthday money to help the children of Bolton. One child in Waterbury said he gave up chewing gum to help. Schoolchildren in flooded Springfield, Mass., donated money to the Bolton schoolchildren.
Local groups such as 4-H Clubs, PTAs, mothers clubs, alumni groups and American Legion posts raised money by putting on plays and special programs. Donations came from Chicago, Florida, Alabama, Ohio, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Paris, France.
People didn’t just donate money. Mrs. P.E. Kingsley of Middlebury donated an organ. Swanton Lumber Co. gave six doors and hardware, G.S. Blodgett Co. donated paint. The Lucy Wheelock School for Kindergarten Teachers gave a stained glass window and the MacMillan Co. of Boston sent textbooks. Desks, flags, a water cooler and money poured in.
Ground was broken on Dec. 1 on donated land. Workmen excavated and built the new school in temperatures of 0 degrees.
By Dec. 27, 1927, nearly $3,000 had been raised, enough to complete the new school.
The new Bolton Memorial School opened on Jan. 25, 1928. It had a hardwood floor, a 20′ by 25′ classroom, a stage, chemical toilets, gaslights and spring water. Clara Thompson, who returned as teacher, wrote, “We now have a fine, well-equipped building, situated on a high land.”
The Burlington Free Press called the new school ‘an educational epic.’ “We are glad this Memorial School was not created by one beneficient giver. That would have robbed a host of boys and girls of the abiding joy that will ever be there as they visit or drive past the structure and realize they had a part in this fine memorial.”
To perpetrate the myth that resilient Vermont could do without government help in the wake of the 1927 flood, no mention was made of the $300 the town contributed. Nor was the $1,000 given by Emilie Pineeo Smilie.
That oversight has been corrected. Bolton’s elementary school, housed in a new building, is known as the Smilie Memorial Elementary School.
With thanks to “The Troubled Roar of the Waters”: Vermont in Flood and Recovery, 1927-1931 By Deborah Pickman Clifford and Nicholas Rowland.