In late November of 1898, Norwich celebrated the opening of the Village School, now known as the Marion Cross School. According to The Hanover Gazette, “The new building for which the people of Norwich have been waiting patiently for over a year has been completed... and it is with a feeling of pride that the citizens came in large numbers to inspect the handsome and commodious new structure.”
The new school was a two-story red brick building with two classrooms on the ground floor “seating almost forty pupils each” and two rooms on the second floor “with a rolling door between them, so that the two large rooms can instantly be converted into one large hall for entertainments with a seating capacity of nearly 300.” Each room had eight large windows “providing an abundance of light, which was somewhat lacking in the old building.” The cost of the school was $5,134.06.
Before the building of the Village School, one-room schoolhouses were spread throughout the town’s precincts. In 1781, Norwich built its first school and soon after divided the town into distinct, independent districts. The district schools received some financial support from the town, but parents supplied books and materials for their children, and the teachers often boarded with families. By 1836, there were 20 school districts with 774 students. But gradually the population declined and by 1880 there were only 15 schools for 220 students.
Children who lived in the village center received an education across the street from the Congregational Church in the North Barracks – one of the few remaining structures of Norwich University – which had moved to Northfield in 1866. It was a snug fit. Students from primary to high-school level were taught in two rooms on the first floor. There was a long stove in each room and the students kept the fire going with wood “the size and length of railroad ties.” Not surprisingly, the North Barracks burned to the ground in 1897. Within a year, the new brick school was built.
This is the 1939 8th-grade graduation. It was the first graduation to take place at Tracy Hall. Mrs. Cross is standing in the middle of the top row.
By the late 1890s, it was obvious that operating single-room schools at every corner of Norwich had become impractical and costly. “An improvement might be made uniting more schools under one roof,” suggested one superintendent of schools in a town report. Fewer teachers and schoolhouses would save everyone money, and classes could be separated by grade levels. For these reasons, the superintendent concluded, “I approve of the centralizing of the schools as much as possible, that is, uniting as many schools in one as can be made practicable.”
Vermont agreed and a state law passed in 1892 abolished the district school system. From then on, Norwich was in charge of all of the community’s schools. When the Village School opened in 1898, it offered classes for any Norwich student. While several of the one-room schoolhouses closed and took advantage of the town’s offer, many remained in operation.
The Village School gradually prospered. In 1917, the Norwich Women’s Club paid for a music teacher. An annual spelling bee was held each May, and student work was on display in the church vestry at the end of each year. In 1932, the first standardized tests were given to the 8th grade and Norwich students came out above the country’s average. There were also structural upgrades: indoor plumbing was installed in 1925 and a central heating system replaced wood stoves in 1942.
However, the most important improvement came with the arrival of Marion Cross in 1929. A graduate of Johnson State Teachers’ College, she began her career in a one-room school in Cambridge, Vermont, where her mother had once taught. When Mrs. Cross first arrived at the Village School, there were four classrooms and each teacher taught two grades. For her first five years, Mrs. Cross taught 7th and 8th graders in the upstairs rooms of the brick school. In 1934, she was appointed the principal/teacher of the school, a post she held until 1973.
Mrs. Cross ran a tight, well-ordered school. “She was strict,” said Bill Aldrich a 1952 graduate, “but, being the principal, I guess she had to be.” Donald Ballam, a student of Mrs. Cross in the 1930s recalled, “You did sort of toe the mark. Even boys who may have been larger than Mrs. Cross gave her no trouble.”
Each morning, the upper four grades had joint assemblies conducted from the hallway, the children seated in their respective rooms. The flag salute, the Lord’s Prayer, and a Bible reading usually from Psalms, made up the assembly. Attendance was taken and instruction began for the day.
A highlight each June was the eighth-grade graduation. The 1939 graduation was typical of many and included four students from the Beaver Meadow school, four students from Pompanoosuc, four from the Root District, three from the New Boston School, and a dozen from the Village School. “With all the eighth graders from the different schools gathered for the ceremonies,” said Mrs. Cross, “it was truly an important occasion for the entire town.” Students practiced for several days before the graduation. During the 1939 ceremony, Wesley Cook read the class will, Edna Smith read her essay My Trip to Montpelier, the chorus sang Au Claire de la Lune and Rev. Hazen closed with the benediction. The class motto that year was ‘Find a Way or Make One’ written by Violet Preston.
In 1945, Norwich faced several educational dilemmas. All but four of the one-room schoolhouses had closed; only the Root District, Beaver Meadow, Turnpike, and Pompanoosuc schools remained and very few students attended them. At the same time, enrollment at the Village School had swelled to 104 by 1944 and was bursting at the seams.
By 1948, there were 171 students, but only the five lower grades met in the Village School. The 6th graders, all 28 of them, had a classroom on the Tracy Hall stage, separated from the main auditorium by a curtain where music and gym classes were held. The 7th grade was taught in a small room on the top floor. Mrs. Cross had an 8th grade class in what is now the Listers’ Office, a tiny room up two flights of stairs. It was so small that after the children’s desks were moved into the room there was only space for a teacher’s desk. She had to store her coat and her crutches for a sprained ankle in the hallway. Added to the tight quarters, the Norwich Women’s Club began serving a 15-cent hot lunch to all children in the basement of Tracy Hall in 1945. The school and Tracy Hall were overflowing with young scholars. Something had to give.
In October of 1949, voters approved a bond issue to enlarge the school and it was decided to construct a four-room addition. The expansion continued until 1951 when the last one-room schoolhouse in Pompanoosuc shut its door. After that closing, all Norwich students – more than 200 – attended the Village School. Once again, more space was needed. In 1960, voters elected to build a six-room addition to the Norwich Village School at a cost of $122,586.
In 1962, Norwich joined with Hanover to form the Dresden Interstate School District. John F. Kennedy signed the Interstate Compact into law in November of 1963. This was the last piece of legislation he signed before his assassination. From then on, Norwich students from 7th to 12th grade would travel across the Connecticut River for their secondary education.
The last 8th grade at the Village School held its graduation ceremony at Tracy Hall in June of 1964. “In an unscheduled speech of thanks, Ellis Harlow, speaking for the class of 1934 presented a gift certificate to Mrs. Cross. The class of 1934 was the first to graduate after Mrs. Cross became principal.”
This was the last 8th grade to graduate in Norwich, in 1964. From then on, grade 7-12 classes were held in Hanover.
Mrs. Cross retired in 1973 after 44 years at the Village School. In an interview soon after she left, she pointed out that “Norwich has always been a highly cultured area, with this very much due to the influence of Dartmouth College...Its school will continue to be progressive and its citizens will always be actively supportive.” In closing, she reflected on the career she had chosen. “I can’t tell you what it is, but something about working with children – the most important part of a community – makes you feel very much a part of that community. It’s the most rewarding experience anyone could hope to have.”
At a town meeting in March of 1973, Norwich voted to make the school her namesake, the Marion Cross School. According to Mrs. Cross, this was the pinnacle of her 49 years devoted to teaching. The following September, Milt Frye became the new principal and guided the Marion Cross School for the next 23 years. But this of course is another story.