“How can you be an official Atkinson resident without being a graduate of the Atkinson Academy?” asked Steven Lewis, a lifelong resident of the town of 6,500 about 25 miles from Manchester, N.H.
The Academy, housed in a building constructed in 1803 and one of the oldest school buildings in the country, is inextricably linked to the town’s history.
Lewis, a member of the Atkinson Historical Society, is a part of that connection: He and five generations of his family, including his children, attended Atkinson Academy, which started as a one-room school on the corner of Mediation Lane and Main Street.
The school was incorporated in 1787. The original building was destroyed in an 1802 fire, and a new building was constructed in its place, according to a history of the school produced for the town’s 250th anniversary this year.
The 1803 building on Academy Avenue is still standing, and parts of it are still used for music classes, including chorus and band for 4th and 5th graders and strings for 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders. The school has about 340 students.
From the street, the white two-story building, with a distinctive cupola, looks as it did in 1803, even though several upgrades and additions have been made over the years, Lewis said.
In the 1980s, for example, boilers and cooling systems were improved, said Jim Hughes, the Timberlane School District facilities director. Additional classroom space also has been added. And in 2000, a two-story addition, with office space on the first floor and a gymnasium and classrooms, was added as part of a $38 million districtwide construction project, Hughes said.
Even before all of that, the original one-room school house had been expanded. Additional funds have also been spent over the years to preserve the cupola, said Hughes, who describes the original building as a remarkably “well-built” structure.
The newer additions were also painted white to blend in with the original Atkinson Academy, Lewis said. “They were very careful not to destroy the architectural integrity of its original design,” said Lewis, a builder.
Atkinson Academy has also been the center of the community and is still the site of major social functions despite the town recently having built a community center, he said.
From Private to Public
Atkinson Academy started as a private school and was co-ed from early in its history. But the turn of the 19th century into the 20th century was accompanied by a population and economic decline as many of the descendants of the earlier settlers moved west. The school was closed for about 20 years in the mid-20th century and became a public school and part of the Timberlane Regional School District in 1958, Lewis said.
Kathleen Dayotis, who arrived as a 5th grade teacher in 1974 and is now the principal, said that a sense of history permeates the building. Dayotis finds ways to incorporate the school’s history into the day to ensure that students are aware of the Academy’s place in the town’s story.
The custodian rings the bell—which Dayotis believes is the original bell—every morning. And as part of the town’s 250th anniversary celebrations, individuals were invited to the Academy to share with students the history of the school and the town.
Some of the school’s founders—including Dr. William Cogswell, who donated land for the original school building—also fought in the American Revolutionary War.
President John Adams’ grandchildren attended the school at one point, Lewis said.
“It’s a tremendous source of pride because when the Atkinson Academy was created, it was an anomaly,” Lewis said. “It wasn’t your typical situation of primitive early pre-Colonial America.”
Residents were concerned “about educating their children when some people were just worrying about getting though winter and surviving,” he said.
Dayotis, who taught 5th grade on the upper floor in the older part of the building when she started, sometimes gives tours to those who stop by, want to take pictures, and are interested in the Academy’s history.
“I love the school,” she said. “I’ve been there for so long, it’s like a part of my house.”