Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 38 Issue 6 • June 5 - 11, 2008
now in our 38th season

Bear Street

by Frances Kartunen

Proceeding along Lower Pleasant Street from Five Corners to what was once the very edge of town, one comes to Bear Street, connecting Pleasant Street to Orange Street. Today there is only one old house on Bear Street, a very old one, indeed.  It is believed to have been standing just off Orange Street at 3 Bear Street since 1756. The core of the house is said to be even older, having been built elsewhere around 1720 and moved to its current site by a young man named Tristram Bunker.  The place it came to occupy, Fish Lot Share Number 18 in Newtown, had been assigned to the Bunker family back in 1717 before there was an Orange St.

In the mid-1800s there was also a school on Bear Street. It has vanished without a trace, but sometime in the 1920s the Inquirer and Mirror printed the following reminiscence about the long-forgotten school:

The fact that the town long ago maintained a school at the extreme south part of the town which was called the  “Bear Street School” was brought to light this week by a glance at the old Bible which has been doing service in the Orange Street School these many years. On the fly-leaf of the Bible is the inscription “Bear Street School—1852.” Bear Street is the narrow way extending westward of B. S. Adams on lower Orange Street near what was formerly the “railroad crossing.” All facts regarding the “Bear Street School” are vague—in fact we are unable to determine when it was started or how long it was maintained. There is probably no one now alive who went to school there, but James H. Wood Sr., whose memory dates back more than half a century, recalls that the “Bear Street School” building was moved further into town many years ago and became the office building where the late C. C. Crosby conducted a coal and grain business for many years, facing Whale Street on the site now owned by the Gas and Electric Company.

The newspaper article went on to assert that Anna Gardner had taught there, but this is probably mistaken.  She famously taught at the African School at the corner of York and Pleasant Streets, but the list of the positions she held in Nantucket schools over the years makes no mention of the Bear Street School.  There turn out to be, after all, some surviving school records that list teachers who did teach there and also give us just a glimpse of the school itself.

It was in existence by 1846, a year before Nantucket’s schools were racially integrated and five years before the York Street Primary and Introductory School was discontinued.  In its last years, York Street Primary had been conducted “for the colored children and such white children as desire admission.” Upon its closure, it was probably Bear Street that absorbed its students, who numbered just twelve to fifteen. In 1854, the enrollment at Bear Street stood at eighty and occasionally during the 1850s it topped a hundred.

Bear Street School never had a schoolmaster; the teachers were exclusively women, and there was high turnover. Lucy Russell was there from 1846 to 1848.  She was replaced by Lydia Palmer, whose Fair Street Introductory School had just been closed, but almost immediately Palmer moved on to serve as Principal of the North Primary School.  Lydia B. Swain was appointed as an assistant in the spring of 1848, but she moved on to the South Primary School within four years. In the meantime Hannah Robinson had come in for a year before departing Nantucket for California. Delia Folger was taken on as a substitute teacher at Bear Street in Oct.1851 and was permanently appointed two months later when teacher Priscilla Chase left.  Philinda Fisher taught from Sept. 1852 until she transferred to the South Primary School. It must have been difficult to maintain continuity of instruction under the circumstances. According to the school committee report of 1854, the school’s teachers tended to find their work “arduous and unsatisfactory.”

In 1853 the name was changed to the Spring Hill School, but despite the new name and delivery of new desks, the school faced overwhelming challenges. It suffered from being so far from the town center. There were too many students for the teachers, and many of them came to school well past the age when they should have begun.  Then, too soon, they left school to go to work. Parental involvement with the school was reportedly nonexistent.  Nonetheless, the school committee acknowledged in 1854 that, “In several branches, however, the different classes exhibited at the last examination very respectable attainments and considerable progress.”

Knowing this whets the curiosity.  What became of the children who had their first or only education at the Bear Street Primary School? How many went on to other schools, and how many in their early teens went straight to sea or into domestic service, never to resume their education?  Did any student from the Bear Street/Spring Hill School ever enter Nantucket High School? And what about all those women teachers trying to instruct eighty to a hundred children at a time? The unsung effort of student and teacher alike to attain much of anything under such conditions must have been nothing short of heroic. How did we manage to forget about this valiant effort to educate Nantucket children?

Frances Karttunen’s books, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars and Law and Disorder in Old Nantucket are available at Nantucket bookstores.

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