In past years our township has supported at least ten different schools located in the various towns in our area, all of which are now just part of our history of days gone by. In tribute to all the teachers and students of those schools, this is the first in a series of articles to remind us of the very important part these schools played in the lives of those who were privileged to spend some of the best days of their lives within their walls.
The school in North Port Norris (or Middletown as it was once known) is the first of the series.
Port Norris School
By Carol Saul Gromer
North Port Norris was once called Middletown. Today, people pass through on their way south to Port Norris or north toward Millville without knowing the rich history steeped into the soil where the Port Norris-Haleyville Road and Sockwell Lane intersect. On the Southwest corner of that location is a lonely looking plot overgrown with trees and weeds. Truth be known, that land is far from being lonely. Many warm memories hover there keeping it company. To learn its secrets, take a trip with me back in time to the days when that very spot was alive with the pounding footfalls of laughing children.
On this site was not one but two North Port Norris elementary schools. They didn't exist at the same time of course, but one followed the other as the residents of the hamlet did their best to provide for the education of their children. Two students attending the older school in the mid-1890s were Maurice Sockwell and Jim Foster. Maurice tells that it was a one room school with 45 students in seven grades. In 1898, at age 10, he took the job of school janitor. His job consisted of keeping the fire going in winter and sweeping the whole building with a broom for five cents a day. He also relates that as he got older, he and his friends had some devilish antics. The boys would take a cigar box filled with mice into the school. At a predetermined time the mice would be released. The teacher, Mary West, was afraid of mice and would give the boys an hour off to catch them.
Maurice and Jim had another ploy to get out of school early. Their next teacher was a bearded man named Mr. [Auley C.] Davis. They would write a note asking that they be let out of school at three o'clock to go to the store for their mothers. Maurice continues, "He sure knew it was our writing, but I think he was glad to get rid of us and let us go."
The construction date of the old school is hidden in time, but the building existed there until the summer of 1915. The Bridgeton Evening News reported on July 17, 1915, that Henry Schwartz had purchased the old North Port Norris school house and was having it moved to his lot on Main Street, Port Norris, next to Prichards Variety Store. It continued to say that when it was rebuilt, it would be used as a garage by Earl Brown. Under the caption NORTH PORT NORRIS, the Bridgeton Evening News reported this short statement in their July 26 issue that year, "Work has begun on the new schoolhouse."
a roster of those attending the new school existed, names such as O'Neal Danna,
Randazzo, Berry, Garrison, Pruno, Todd, Bradway, Robbins, Sockwell and Terry would
be among them. Maybe such a roster does exist. Buried beneath the surface in the
southwest corner of that old school lot is a Rumford yeast jar. If Arbor Day was
acknowledged in 1920, it could explain why students planted a tree on that spot.
Before the dirt was shoveled over the tree roots, one by one the students added
their name to a piece of paper. The paper was folded carefully and put into the
jar. The lid has probably rusted and the paper dissolved, but maybe not. It might
be found one day still in the spot those small hands placed it.
Each school, in its day, faced the main road. In the front yard on the side toward Port Norris was a pump shed. It was built over a well where after a strenuous recess workout, the girls and boys would line up to use their metal folding cups and drink the cool clear water. When the wells useful days were over, it was likely filled in, but no doubt it is still there.
In the area back of the school was an outhouse. It was a divided building with a door on the left front for boys and the right front for girls.
Kathryn and Ruth Sockwell each wrote their memories of their days as North Port Norris students. Kathryn wrote, "It [the new school] was one big room with large windows all along the west side with a big heater on the north side. Blackboards ran all along the wall behind the heater, [behind] the teachers' desk and along half the east wall. There was one cloak room for girls and one for boys. The bathroom was out back. The big round heater burned wood and coal. I was the janitor. I made $3 per month and put my pay in the Millville Bank. At the end of the school year, I had to put two or three big five gallon cans of oil all over the school floor with a long-handled brush. That was a real job. I brushed it on the floor of the big room, then the cloakroom floor. In the vestibule, I was almost to the door and found I made a mistake. There I stood in a circle. The only way out was to jump. Holding the oil can I leaped. When I did the pan flew up and came down all over me. I wondered how I ever got home."
Teachers remembered by the Sockwell girls were Miss Edith Bateman, Miss Matilda Sockwell, Miss Fleetwood from Dividing Creek, Miss Brewster from Haleyville and Miss Hoffman from Leesburg. Kathryn says, Miss Hoffman died of the flu in her first year of teaching. They claim in her coffin, she looked like a fairy princess she was so beautiful.
Memories of the school day were described as classes meeting in one big room. When each student went to the front to recite or to write on the blackboard, there was never a sound. No one threw spit balls. All came to learn and did. Kathryn says she never remembered a noise in the schoolroom other than changing classes.
Ruth paints a different picture of her memories, at least during recess. She says one day after lunch, all the kids were playing hide and seek. "I was hiding in the cloakroom when the kids found me and were about to catch me. I jumped out of the window and our teacher, Matilda Sockwell saw me. I had to stay in after school for a week." It might still be possible to see that window. It was the one located closest to the front on the west side of the building. At the end of its career in North Port Norris, the new school was moved to Shellpile [Bivalve]. After being used as a school in that area, it was repurposed in the not too distant past, as a restaurant. The infamous window of Ruth's jumping fame could still be there.
As time moves along, it erases many treasurers. What remains for those who care are the words left by people who lived with and loved those things, people and places. Through their eyes we can peer into life as it was in the days so long ago. Now that you know a bit of the history of the southwest corner of Sockwell lane and the Port Norris-Haleyville Road, stop there on some quiet day. Listen for a few moments. It might not be the wind you hear rustling the leaves and grass, but echoes of the past that linger there because you remember.