by Dick Jenkins - Class of 1955
reprinted with permission

Elisabeth Bennet was born in Danbury on January 22, 1881. She attended Vassar College and was graduated from the Danbury Normal School in 1909. She earned a bachelor of science degree at New Britain Teacher's College in 1937 and a master's degree at Massachusetts State Teacher's College, Hyannis, in 1940. She began her long career in Manchester as supervisor and principal of the Ninth District School from 1909 to 1917. She became principal of Barnard School in 1917 and added to her principal's duties the supervision of Nathan Hale School. Miss Bennet lived at 64 Benton Street after she became principal of Barnard School.

In 1909, Miss Bennet came to Manchester as a teacher to train other teachers, but it was her devoted work with school children which also endeared her to thousands of Manchester residents who were her pupils. She was credited with many "firsts" in the Manchester public school system. She was the first to establish a school library, the first to promote a manual training program and she was credited with promoting the first recreational center. She was the first to use visual aids by means of movie projectors, now in common use in schools, and she stimulated interest in art and pottery.

In 1927, Miss Bennet organized the first school library, in the basement of the Barnard School through her own effort by soliciting volumes from her friends, by donations from her own library, and through the generous donation of her summer vacation time to the cataloguing of the new project. This library was refurbished and named The Elisabeth M. Bennet Library in 1952. Newspaper articles appearing in the Herald on June 20, 1951 speak of plans to dedicate this library to Miss Bennet. The year 1951 was also the year the Miss Bennet retired after completing 42 years of service to the Manchester school system. Our class, the class of 1951, had the final privilege of her wisdom and leadership.

Miss Elisabeth Bennet passed away on September 1, 1959, at the age of 78, eight years after retiring. Mr. Arthur Illing issued the following tribute:

"Miss Bennet's association with the schools of Manchester was long and outstanding. The breadth of her vision, her personal interest in pupils and teachers and her tireless devotion to their welfare have established her place in the records of Manchester schools as a principal of unsurpassed excellence. Those of us who worked with Miss Bennet shall always value our association with her as colleagues and friends. We are deeply saddened by her passing."

Barnard Junior High School Renamed Elisabeth Bennet Middle School

The board of education members voted unanimously on the evening of December 13, 1961 to rename Barnard Junior High School the Elisabeth M. Bennet Middle School. A plaque was hung in the school to commemorate the renaming. On this same evening Hollister Street School, officially called the Warren G. Harding School would be known henceforth as the Thomas Bentley School. Mr. Bentley served as principal of Hollister Street School for 34 years until his retirement in June of 1960.

The Ninth District School Fire

Miss Bennet is credited with saving many lives in the worst fire in Manchester's history, the Ninth District School Fire. It's very interesting to note the comments of Mr. Fred Verplanck, then superintendent of schools, since many records of the day credit Mr. Verplanck's organization skills and attention to training as the reason for no loss of life on this day. Mr. Verplanck's comments regarding Miss Bennet appearing in the June 20, 1951 Herald are as follows: "One of the most outstanding pieces of work that she did for the town of Manchester, in the opinion of Mr. Verplanck, occurred on October 23, 1913 at the time of the schoolhouse fire."

If you consider the numbers today you will be astonished at the magnitude of the Ninth District School fire. Let me tell you what records disclose of this event. How many children might you guess attended this school in 1913? If your guess is 500 you are wrong. If you guessed 1000 you are still shy by 100 children. Yes, 1100 students were in attendance that day. The building housed a variety of educational activities than are usually found under one roof - kindergarten through eighth grade, plus a training school for the undergraduates of the New Britain State Normal School, rooms for manual training, including woodworking, cooking and sewing, along with a gymnasium and baths. The South Manchester High School was also housed within this complex of buildings until the new high school was built on Main Street in 1904.

Miss Bennet had just reprimanded a youngster for using a peashooter in class and sent him back to his classroom. On his way back, he discovered paper burning in a wastebasket in a small room under the stairway. He ran back to report the fire and the alarm was sounded. Written reports from the Herald that day carry these words: "It was only a few minutes after the fire was discovered and the alarm turned in that the flames were shooting from windows in the second floor of the building and gained such headway that there was not a chance of saving the building. In less than an hour, the entire structure was in ruins. Not only was the large school building destroyed, but business places on the north side of School Street, a three-story building used at the time as a boarding house, the old wooden structure of Hose Company 4, a tenement house further east on School Street, a two-family house at Vine and School Street and the library and dwelling on Wells were also destroyed. Nearly all of the books in the South Manchester library were saved and many are now in the Mary Cheney Library on Main Street."

Frank Grimason's mother, Anna (1905-2012), was a student there on the day of the fire. When I asked her to tell us about that day these were her exact words:

"I was sitting at my desk, and I remember I had just bought a new pen wiper. That's used to clean your ink pen when you're done with it. Several of us smelled smoke but didn't think much about it. Our teacher told us not to worry, they would ring the alarm bell if there was a problem. After a while it was obvious to everyone but the teacher that there was a problem. Finally the alarm rang and I took my coat which I had hung on the back of my desk and we all marched out into the smoky hall. I was upset because I left my pen wiper at my desk. We went on to School Street and I just started walking home. My father came down the street on his motorcycle as he didn't have an auto yet, but I was almost home.

"The fire consumed the entire block as well as a boarding house across the street where the Trade School was later built, as well as three homes on Wells Street."

I asked Anna if she could confirm or deny that Miss Bennet had lost her hair in the school fire. She replied, "Miss Bennet had heard there were several girls taking a shower in the basement. I never took a shower there, we had our own bathtub at home. Well she ran down to warn them and received a burn on her forehead. I don't know that for a fact but that's what we were told. She was the head of the school at that time"

"After the fire I went to the West Side for schooling for a time, until the new buildings were constructed."

I asked Anna if she could tell me where the names Franklin and Barnard came from. "I think the new Barnard School was named for an educator but I don't know who he was. (Anna was exactly right, according to records a Mr. Henry Barnard, nationally known educator born in Hartford in 1811, was the gentleman for whom the school was named.) I assume the Franklin building was named after Benjamin Franklin, and I guess I don't have to tell you who the Cheney Technical School was named after." (Anna was to later become the personal secretary of Mr. Howell Cheney.)

Because of this disaster, Manchester would make some very sound decisions. Major changes were made in the quality of fire fighting equipment and the number and location of Hose Companies changed. Because of this disaster, wood frame school houses were no longer considered. The area that the Ninth District School occupied would compare to that which the Barnard and Franklin buildings, plus the East Side Recreational building, would come to occupy. I'm of the opinion that the Cheney family business was primarily responsible for the cost of erecting these buildings. Barnard School was first occupied in 1915, the East Side Recreation Building in 1917. Plans also materialized to enlarge the 8-room Lincoln School in 1911. At the time, Lincoln School was a wood frame structure. Washington School was built in 1915. Nathan Hale School and the West Side Recreational buildings were erected in 1921. The Howell Cheney Technical School was also built about the time of the new Barnard and Franklin buildings. At the end of the half century, we find nine buildings with accommodation for 3,500 pupils, in the district where in 1871 was one schoolhouse with four rooms. Later on, Hollister School was built. Manchester Green School came into being in 1921, followed by Highland Park and Buckland Schools. Alterations were made to the wood-framed Keeney and Bunce Schools.

The high school we hold dear was built in 1904 and was owned and operated by Cheney Brothers. It was known as South Manchester High School until 1927, the year Cheney's sold the building to the town for $24,601.49. The class of 1927 was the last class to graduate from South Manchester High School. The class of 1928 consisted of 64 boys and 60 girls and was the first graduating class of Manchester High School. The class of 1955, 347 classmates strong, was the last class to graduate from Manchester High School located on Main Street.

I must share a humorous story with you that relates to our dear high school principal, Mr. Edson Bailey. I had the good fortune of running into him about the time our high school building was being converted to the Bennet Apartments. I asked jokingly, "Mr. Bailey, now that our high school is becoming an apartment complex have you considered applying for an apartment there?" His expression changed to a big smile and he replied, "No, I'm afraid not, you see there are too many ghosts there to allow me a good night's sleep."

Webmaster's Note-1: For additional reminisences and articles concerning Elisabeth Bennet in this web site, please click here.

Webmaster's Note-2: Tucked inside Anna Grimason's copy of "A New England Pattern" was this newspaper picture of the old school now on Cedar Street that served as the Lutz Children's Museum until about 1980. This is what the hand-written note says:

Lutz Museum � originally Cooper Hill School. I went to school here 1913-14 after the Ninth District School fire. Was moved from Cooper Hill to Cedar St. in 1914. �Anna S. Grimason (1905-2012)


Reproduced 2011 from with permission of its webmaster Dick Jenkins.
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