This week in Brattleboro History we are traveling back seventy years, to June 21, 1949. It was on this date that Brattleboro voted to build a new high school on the fairgrounds. The old high school was on Main Street and many thought it was inadequate. There was no gym or auditorium. The classrooms were crowded. Parking was challenging and the heating system did not function very well.

As one letter writer to the Reformer wrote, “It has been thirty years since the residents of Brattleboro first started talking about the need of a new high school…In the meantime, the nature of the world and the town of Brattleboro has changed immeasurably. Certainly those changes have not decreased the need for the kind and size of building required to give this town, its children and their teachers, a decent break”.

The Main Street high school was built in 1884. In 1949 the Reformer did a review of newspapers and public school reports from earlier years and found the first discussion of overcrowding at the Main Street high school in 1901. From the Prudential Committee, July 1, 1901, “The greatest hindrance to good high school work is the lack of sufficient space.”

There had been discussion about expanding the high school, or looking for another site, but World War I, the Great Depression and World War II stopped the momentum of these conversations. After World War II ended there was a jump in local births and the school district reported that school populations would peak in 1956. According to their analysis there was no way the schools could handle the increased number of students.

In 1946, the school board took action to begin building a new high school on the Crowell Lot, (where the park is presently). The intent was to build a new school there but further discussion put the action on hold, as many people did not think there was adequate room for a new school on that property.

In 1949, a study committee considered expanding the present Main Street high school; or building a new school at one of the following sites…on Cedar Street near the ski jump, at the fairgrounds, or at the Clark Farm on Guilford Street.

This was a very difficult decision. The study committee thought there was not enough room to expand at the present high school. Cedar Street had enough room but there were concerns about interfering with the ski jump. It was said the Clark farm was too hilly and had too many water springs on the property. The Crowell Lot was deemed too small and committee members feared that the fairgrounds were too far away from the town’s population centers.
An educational expert from Yale was consulted and he recommended the fairgrounds location. The study committee brought the recommendation to the voters and, on June 21st, 1949, by a vote of 806 to 430, the town voted to build a new high school on the fairgrounds.

The fairgrounds were located on the southern edge of the settled area of Brattleboro. The area had a storied past. In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s it served as a muster field for local militia. In the early stages of the Civil War the 1st Vermont Regiment camped on the field at the end of their three month enlistment. Colonel John Phelps, from Brattleboro, led the 1st Regiment. Shortly afterwards, a military camp with barracks was established on the field, and over one third of the Vermont soldiers who served during the war mustered into service here. Later, during the Civil War, a military hospital was built on the site as well. The Brattleboro Camp mustered 13,650 soldiers into service during the Civil War and approximately 4,500 returned to be treated in the hospital due to injury or sickness.

After the war, beginning in 1886, the annual Valley Fair took place on the site. The fair occurred every September until 1931. Brattleboro High School did not have athletic fields at its Main Street campus. Basketball games were played in the Armory, while baseball and football games were played at Island Park. In the 1920’s, as the annual floods had worn away the island, the High School looked for another place for these athletic contests to take place. The fairgrounds became the location and in the 1930’s the WPA began grooming the football, baseball and track complex, which became known as Stolte Field.

During the winter months the student body had suggested over fifteen various names for the sports teams. The Student Council narrowed the list down to two names. In February 1950, the B.H.S. student body voted an official nickname for the athletic teams; the Colonels. According to Principal Parry and Coach Natowich, the choice came down to Colonels or Panthers, and by a vote of 330 to 160 the Colonel nickname was victorious. The February 23 edition of the Reformer reported “Down through the years Brattleboro High teams have been called everything from Organ Grinders to Bratts, but the name most popularly used has been Purples. This has oftentimes presented a problem because the school colors of neighboring Bellow Falls High are also purple and white”. The paper reported that the student council had taken on the task of naming the teams when it was known that the school would be moving to the old military site and fairgrounds.

On September 17, 1951 the new Brattleboro High School on Fairground Road opened its doors to students for the first time. According to the Brattleboro Daily Reformer, 756 students, grades 7 – 12 registered for classes on that first day. The paper referred to the school as the “million dollar building on the fairgrounds”.

At the same time, the town voted to add three new classrooms to the Oak Grove School. The Crowell Lot later became a town park. The Clark Farm later became Living Memorial Park. Soon, the old high school would become space for town offices and the police department.

All of this information comes from copies of the local newspaper, the Brattleboro Daily Reformer. These are primary sources.

Meanwhile, a visit to Wikipedia incorrectly says the following about the history of the school, “In the early 1950s the decision was made to build the new high school on the “Old Fairgrounds” in the southern section of town. The school officially opened for the 1956 school year”.

This is an example of why you might not want to trust everything you find on the internet. The school opened in 1951, not 1956. The decision to build the school was made in the 1940’s, not the early 1950’s. Wikipedia, and many other internet sites, are not primary sources and can be less reliable than firsthand accounts of historical events.