Dr. John Wilson's Round Schoolhouse

Round Schoolhouse

Brookline Round Schoolhouse, Grassy Brook Road, Lilacs In The Dooryard.jpg

Grassy Brook Road Leading North

Lilacs In The Dooryard

Dr. John Wilson designed this round brick building on the wayside of the Grassy Brook road in 1821. The long-time resident Liberty Harwood told his son Albert that Dr. Wilson had insisted upon his own design as a condition for his hire by Brookline to teach the first term there.

When Dr. John Wilson died in Brattleboro years later at his house and old saw mill on Vernon Street, some of these first-term pupils were curious to learn that their former teacher and preceptor was the notorious Scottish highwayman "Captain Thunderbolt", the son of a pious Presbyterian blacksmith resident in the village of Muirkirk, Ayrshire county, and wanted in the poverty "year without a summer" 1816 for five hundred pounds British sterling---a small fortune.

Dr. John Wilson, Sketch From Daguerreotype By Benjamin F. Popkins.jpg

Dr. John Wilson

Sketch From A Benjamin F. Popkins Daguerreotype

A square trapdoor in the schoolhouse ceiling leads up into the attic. It is a surprise to see the huge, almost one-foot square, adze-marked, trunnel-pegged timbers of the inverted post and beam--the post end rising out through the center of the conical, or turret roof.

Round Schoolhouse, Brookline, Madison E. Watson Photograph, Circa 1895.jpg

Brookline Round Schoolhouse

Madison E. Watson Photograph About 1895

After a disastrous freshet on Wednesday, June 20, 1821, the entire Grassy Brook valley was filled with the debris from ruined saw and grist mills, houses, barns, every bridge in Brookline, the wreckage of Ebenezer Wellman's blacksmith shop, and that of the log schoolhouse that had been build for District No. 2 in 1796.


The Round Schoolhouse In 1909

On this particular Wednesday in 1821, Dr. Wilson did not actually witness the storm in Brookline---he was in the village of Williamsville in Newfane, at the general store of William H. Williams, purchasing three yards of "Quality binding" on his account, for nine cents.

But Dr. Wilson likely followed the advice of some thrifty Brookline resident when he salvaged the post and beam, hauling it intact to the schoolhouse site, and turning it end up to serve as the single, immense attic brace---


Inverted Post and Beam Construction In The Round Schoolhouse

In Scotland the disproportionately large, horizontal "roof-tree" beam served to protect dwellings, with its added weight, from the frequent whirlwind tempests. Nineteenth century Scottish guests toasted their hosts with a convivial "To your roof-tree!". The upside down post and beam in Brookline is a rare, transplanted piece of Scottish vernacular, or folk architecture.

Brookline Round Schoolhouse, Inverted Post And Beam In Attic.jpg

Inverted Post And Beam In Round Schoolhouse Attic

Seventy years ago, Clara Cutler Weatherbee wrote that "The brick which was to be used to build the present round schoolhouse had been piled on the north side of the brook. So powerful was the water that the entire pile was carried onto the opposite side and left about where the schoolhouse now stands."

Round Schoolhouse, Brookline, Inverted Post Beam, Trusses, Roof Nails In Attic.jpg

Inverted Post, Trusses, Roof Nails

With this unexpected displacement of the bricks in June, a new site for the schoolhouse on higher ground was chosen, and Peter Benson accordingly deeded land on August 10, 1821 to the town of Brookline, for five dollars.

Late in life, Keziah Ormsbee, the wife of Newfane blacksmith Elihu Park, remembered playing in the round schoolhouse when it was being built. The Scottish Keziah, daughter of the Brookline hotel and storekeepers Benjamin and Isabel, was a nurse in Newfane noted for her devotion.


The Execution Of Deacon Brodie And George Smith, Alexander Hays Ritchie.jpg

The Execution Of Deacon Brodie And George Smith

Alexander Hay Ritchie

Scotland Origins

Brookline historian Charles P. Stickney wrote a letter on July 29, 1911 to Brattleboro antique dealer Harry R. Lawrence, saying that the schoolhouse was "modeled after a dome in England". Lawrence's own printed notation is, "Dr. Wilson said the plan was taken from one of the domes of the House of Parliament, London".

Old Edinburgh Tollbooth.jpg

The Old Edinburgh Tolbooth With Round Turret Towers

The reference here to London specifically is a possible misunderstanding. Drawings of the Houses of Parliament in London before 1822 show no round towers. If Dr. Wilson did refer to a parliament house, it would much more likely be to the Old Tolbooth on the High Street in Edinburgh, the medieval seat of the disbanded Scottish Parliament and symbol of political independence from England.

Dr. Wilson studied medicine and surgery at the University of Edinburgh during 1815-1818, and when the great Old Tolbooth was finally razed in 1817, he doubtless heard the tavern tales of the England-defying Porteous Riot under its walls in 1736, the daring escapes from its prison, and the public executions performed.

The round schoolhouse in Brookline has the size, shape, proportions, materials, and windows of the ancient Old Tolbooth's round "turnpike" stairs tower's turreted peak. Brookline has the resurrection of Scotland's razed pride---

The Old Tollbooth Of Edinburgh During Demolition, Attributed To Alexander Nasmyth.jpg

The Old Tollbooth Of Edinburgh During Demolition

Attributed To Alexander Nasmyth


Round Barns In Scotland

Round storage barns were common in the Scottish countryside in the late eighteenth century, and round watchhouses in the cities held the miscreants who were arrested by the town guard at night, for seeing the magistrate the next morning.


Glen Prosen round dairy barn now called Tinkerbell Cottage


Round House At Udny

In the days of "Resurrection men" and bodysnatching for anatomical dissection, mort houses were built to lock up coffined bodies until they were unfit for medical study, and therefore not worth the stealing. The coffins were then buried properly.

This Round House at Udny was built in 1832, with double doors and a rotating platform to receive coffins. As a young medical student in Edinburgh, Dr. John Wilson understood the necessity for bodysnatching in the days before laws were enacted for providing medical experts with dissectable bodies.

Brookline Round Schoolhouse, 1950, Leo Litvak Photograph.jpg

Photograph By Leo Litvak 1950

The notion that Dr. Wilson made the schoolhouse round so that he could see in all directions, and so escape any approaching law officers or revenuers, is based on that known purpose in the traditional Scottish watch-house. This purpose would have been served well, if the school had been built in its originally-planned site, north of the Grassy Brook---and much closer to the northern-most settlement in Brookline.

With the schoolhouse built against a steep hill immediately to the west, any ambush of Dr. John Wilson would be quite easy. Highwaymen, as a class, are not lacking in courage and foresight, and so it is truly difficult to believe that Dr. John Wilson was so afraid of his own shadow, as the traditional tale-bearers represent him to be.

Dr. Wilson was probably less concerned with ambush, and more concerned for the health and comfort of his students---and he knew that a round room uses the stove's central heating most efficiently for everyone---not just for those nearest to the stove. Single and double oak benches were set in a circle around this stove, helping all to stay warm. The round schoolhouse was also warmed in the winter by its close fit into the steep hillside, sheltered from the prevailing wind.

Deliberately setting Scottish architecture in a remote Vermont valley is remarkable. The work is the doctor's self-administered anodyne for the pain of hopeless exile, his atonement in brick and wood, slate and stone, for his crimes; and expressing his faith and despair at the troubled, forgetful heart, and Dr. John Wilson's hope for the learning that heals.

Charles P. Stickney said that the round schoolhouse "is never forgotten by those who live in or pass through the town for its grotesqueness; yet many gifted sons and daughters have passed from this to other places. . ."


Brookline Round Schoolhouse, Oak Bench, Circa 1860, Seats Two Students.jpg

Oak Bench, Circa 1860

These benches were set in rows in the round schoolhouse about 1860. Two students seated in one bench could lean forward and write on the level desk part on the back of the bench before them. This one surviving bench has most of the desk part broken away.


Michael Martin, Captain Lightfoot

Dr. Wilson's former friend and partner in crime, "Captain Lightfoot", Michael Martin from the village of Thomastown in County Kilkenny, was hanged at East Cambridge, Massachusetts in December 1821. Certainly Martin's long, published confession to the depredations of "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" at this time turned Dr. Wilson's thoughts to his past.


Michael Martin, "Captain Lightfoot"

A watercolor portrait of Michael Martin was found in Police Headquarters, Central Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts on Thursday, March 11, 1920, when painters who were renovating the building moved a cabinet which contained the rogue's gallery from its accustomed place against a wall. The watercolor was painted over on Tuesday, March 16. This photograph of the watercolor was printed in the Boston Sunday Globe for March 21, 1920.

The highwayman's right eye seems to be entirely closed---possibly an old injury, or possibly a new injury sustained during his capture while attempting to escape his prison, shortly before his hanging. The artist may have been working for the Cambridge police department, or may have accompanied the newspaper reporter who took down the famous "Confession" of Michael Martin.



Dr. John Wilson

Highwayman "Thunderbolt And Lightfoot"

Daguerreotype Taken About 1842 By T. Covil

Benjamin Crown photographed this Covil daguerreotype when it was on display, along with the spectacles and medical instruments which had been owned by Dr. John Wilson. These several artifacts became a part of the collection of George Norman Smith of Hinsdale, New Hampshire.

Thomas St. John, this writer, purchased this collection at a Northfield, Massachusetts public auction on the evening of November 6, 1995.

The extensive George N. Smith collection---which includes the letters of investigators recording early commentary, often antiques specialists---has been housed at the Newfane museum of the Historical Society of Windham County since 1996.


Dr. John Wilson In His Age.jpg

Dr. John Wilson


Memorial Day Exercises 1910


A pleasant occasion was the flag raising at the Round schoolhouse last Friday. The school children participated in speaking, reading, and singing, and Rev. Mr. McHale and Deacon L. W. Bush made remarks appropriate to the occasion. The stars and stripes, our American flag, were floated to the breezes over the historic building.

Brattleboro Reformer, June 3, 1910.


Mrs. Edith Farnum With Her School Class

Sixteen Horsepower Rambler.


Photographs By Porter C. Thayer


Edith Julia Boyd

Mrs. Arthur H. Farnum


Mrs. Edith Farnum closed last Saturday another of her successful terms of school at the round school house. The school took a straw ride to a beautiful grove where ice-cream was served. Mrs. Farnum is retained for the fall term.

Brattleboro Reformer, July 1, 1910.


Round Schoolhouse In Brookline, Vermont Countryside.jpg


Photographs taken in the Round schoolhouse in May 1916 during recess.




The Regulator wall clock

Tempus fugit

Over still life and a cat with white legs


Word "flags" on box nearest the stove pipe

Flags in boxes---presents for students on Memorial Day 1916?


Porter Thayer places his cap on foreground desk for photographing.


Hand bell and vase with flowers on the desk

Oak slat wainscoting behind the desk

Drum with stars on a field of blue covering under the desk


Dr. John Wilson, 1847 Engraving For Michael Martin's Confessions Reprint.jpg

Brookline Round Schoolhouse, Old Chimney.jpg


Boston Sunday Globe, "Captain Thunderbolt".
Article by Walter Scott Carson, May 11, 1890.
Drawing of Dr. John Wilson from a daguerreotype by Benjamin F. Popkins.

Brattleboro Reformer Issues---
October 16, 1885 page 4.2 (Drown)
October 30, 1903 Page 7.4 (Harwood)
November 5, 1909 page 8.4 (Schoolhouse)

Burt, Edmund,
Letters From a Gentleman in the North of Scotland to His Friend in London
(London: S. Birt, 1754).

Cabot, Mary Rodgers, "An Account of Dr. John Wilson."
Typed manuscript, 1912. Ten pages. Vermont Historical Society.

Grant, James, Cassell's Old and New Edinburgh: Its History, its People and its Places.
(London: Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co., 1882).

Lawrence, Harry R., Letter. Brooks Memorial Library, Brattleboro, Vermont.

Mead, Larkin Goldsmith, "An Account of Dr. John Wilson" (Brattleboro: J.B. Miner, 1847).

Stickney, Charles Perham, "Brookline."
Published in Abby Maria Hemenway, Editor, Vermont Historical Gazetteer, Volume V. (Brandon, Vermont: Mrs. Carrie E. H. Page, 1891), pp. 376-405.

Vermont Phoenix, November 29, 1895 Page 6.3 (Ormsbee)

Weatherbee, Clara Cutler. "A Brief History of Brookline."
Written for Old Home Day at Brookline, Vermont August 11, 1928.
Eleven page manuscript in the Historical Society of Windham County Museum.

Williams, William Hastings, Day Book "C" 1821-1823. Page 80.
Historical Society of Windham County Museum, Newfane, Vermont.

Brookline Round Schoolhouse, Alice Perham Photograph.jpg


Dr. John Wilson, Captain Thunderbolt is a pictorial history of Thunderbolt's life and career in Boston and throughout Windham County, including eyewitness accounts and descriptions of his appearance and activity.

Dr. John Wilson, Probate Records contains the names of creditors and debtors to Dr. Wilson's estate, often with the reason stated, as well as a complete inventory of hundreds of items remaining in the Vernon road house, saw mill, and barn.

Dr. John Wilson's House In Newfane in the village called Williamsville.

Dr. John Wilson, Captain Seth Briggs describes Dr. Wilson's treatments for Capt. Seth Briggs of West Dummerston, including electricity.

Dr. John Wilson, Descriptions, Commentary gathers together the scattered references to the Windham County country doctor.

Dr. John Wilson's Stray Horse concerns the six year old sorrel mare that was last seen at the Fort Bridgman farm in Vernon, owned by Col. Erastus Hubbard.

Dr. John Wilson's Remedy describes the doctor's treatment for Wilder Knight, his indigestion.


Thomas St. John

Thomas St. John is originally from Bloomfield, Essex County, New Jersey, attended Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, removed to Montclair, New Jersey, then later to Boston, Massachusetts and Cambridge, and Brattleboro, Vermont. His recent ancestry are from the Berkshire Hills in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

"Nathaniel Hawthorne: Studies in The House of the Seven Gables"

"Nathaniel Hawthorne on Beacon Hill"


Round Schoolhouse, Brookline, Thomas St. John Photograph.jpg

October 30, 1994








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