BORDENTOWN CITY — Residents and visitors can hardly walk down a Bordentown street without seeing a reminder, in the form of a sign or a building, of the city’s rich history.
The city started as a regional trading hub, became the home of the man who inspired the American Revolution, Thomas Paine, and even sustained several houses that have lasted for centuries, according to The Bordentown Historical Society.
But no aspect of the city’s history made a greater contribution to local and national history than The Clara Barton Schoolhouse, which in 1852 became the first public school in New Jersey and one of the first in the country, setting a precedent for education that continues to this day, almost two centuries later.
It’s one of the most important landmarks in the state, according to historical society members. And that’s precisely why they are working tirelessly to keep it alive.
Throughout the rest of 2020 and all of 2021, society members are trying to raise $50,000 to renovate the schoolhouse.
The old brick building needs a new roof, new heating, new fencing and new electrical work, according to Bonnie Goldman, a historical society trustee. But, if it is to be upgraded into a museum that students and groups from all over can visit, as the historical society wants it to be, the schoolhouse will also need a video screen and WiFi connectivity, added Goldman.
During the coronavirus pandemic, and the era of social distancing, society members have already met virtually to brainstorm ideas, and they have already started talking to their fellow city residents to get the word out about a full-scale renovation of the schoolhouse at 109 E. Burlington St.
“Word of mouth is number one,” said Tim Rollender, the co-president of the society. “It’s a piece of this community, so it’s important for everybody to contribute.”
The historical society has also commissioned a local artist, Erik Weedeman, to create a logo with Barton’s likeness that they can put on mugs, tote bags and other merchandise. Members have also enlisted local businesses, like Mimosa Goods on Farnsworth Avenue, to sell the items and put a significant portion of the profits back into the renovation effort.
Rollender is even planning a letter-writing campaign to local corporations for the fall, and a series of ticketed events, like speakers from nearby universities and a historical play, for 2021.
Altogether, the goal is to reach $50,000 and to finish the project by Christmas Day 2021, which will be Clara Barton’s 200th birthday.
The completion of the project will make the schoolhouse accessible not only for class trips, but for any residents or tourists interested in learning about the history of public schooling in America, said Rollender. It will also add to Bordentown’s quaint, historic aesthetic, which pairs nicely with the city’s newer identity as a vibrant downtown area. “If I didn’t live here, I would be attracted to this town because of the history,” said Bordentown Mayor Jim Lynch. “Anybody who has lived here for a long time realizes it, appreciates it and respects it.”
Society members respect the history so much that they are willing to work as hard to preserve the landmark as Barton did to open the school.
In 1852, Barton took a train from Hightstown to Bordentown, according to Goldman. She had been staying with a friend’s family in Hightstown, one that kept up an active social life, and she wanted some peace and quiet.
Instead, in the city, Barton found rowdy children all over the street corners during the days. By asking around, she learned that the childrens’ families couldn’t afford private schooling.
So the trained teacher decided to open a free public school for city kids. Barton convinced the editor of the local newspaper to put up funding for the one-room schoolhouse.
After opening with six students in May, the school ended the year with 600 students, a second teacher and a second location. By 1854, the school had a second building with two stories and eight rooms.
But after Barton missed several months with laryngitis, city officials passed on her for the position of principal, choosing a man instead.
Barton left for Washington, D.C., a job as the first female employee in the U.S. Patent Office and the rest of her historic journey, which included serving as a battlefield nurse for the Union in the Civil War and founding the American Red Cross.
It was a loss for Bordentown, said Goldman, but the city didn’t lose Barton completely. One of the elementary schools in the public school district she paved the way for bears her name: Clara Barton Elementary School.
And now, the historical society is making sure the city never loses Barton again. According to Rollender, the society has about $10,000 in hand for the renovation effort, which is almost enough to start the roof this fall, as planned.
“If we continue on this trajectory, we’ll be able to get the roof on before snow comes,” he said.
A local news and sports reporter around Pennsylvania and New Jersey since 2015, Jarrad Daniel Saffren joined The Burlington County Times’ award-winning local news team in October 2019, adding business, education and town government features to the coverage. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @JarradSaff. Please help support local journalism with a subscription to The Burlington County Times.