The 1866 Seneca Schoolhouse—the oldest surviving one-room school building in Montgomery County—today offers a unique "living history" experienced for Washington area children.
Leaving their cell phones and computer tablets at home, visiting students put on 1880s country clothes and spend a day learning in the old-fashioned way—with spelling bees, recitations, and personal slate tablets for writing and doing arithmetic.
At recess, children play popular 19th century games like tag, hot potato, baseball (using green walnuts for the ball), and they roll wooden hoops with a short stick.
The State of Maryland had authorized, in 1860, the founding of tax-funded public schools, but many of the new rural schools, liked this one in Seneca Mills, were founded entirely with private local donations.
It was organized right at the end of the Civil War by local citizens who donated funds to build it, hire the teacher (for an estimated $200 a year), and maintain the building. The effort was led by Upton Darby, who owned the nearby grist mill on River Road, just west of Seneca Creek. Darby's mill, later called Tschiffely Mill, is long gone, but his handsome 1855 white frame house still stands near the creek, behind Allnutt's General Store (later Poole's Store) on Old River Road.
cash, materials and/or labor. The school was built of red sandstone from the nearby Seneca quarry, in the cliffs above the Potomac River.
The tiny Seneca Mills School continued to rely on local donations and student fees, supplemented by county funds, until it was taken over by the county around 1876. It was abandoned as an active school when a new elementary school was built close to Darnestown in 1910. By the mid-20th century, after 25 years of use as a simple residence, it fell into disrepair.
In the late 1970s a new historic preservation organization, Historic Medley District (HMD), founded by Mary Ann Kephart and Winsome Brown, raised money (including state grants) to restore the old stone structure to be the Seneca Schoolhouse Museum, which opened in 1981. HMD undertook a second restoration in 2010-2014, repairing stonework and roofing, and replacing the decayed early 20th century windows with correct reproductions. For information about booking a student visit or party at the museum, see www.historicmedley.org.
(Inscription under the image in the lower left) Sold to the adjoining landowner in 1944, the schoolhouse was turned into rented housing, subdivided into four rooms with a second story added under the roof. Around 1970 the dilapidated structure was conveyed to the State of Maryland, along with all the surrounding farmland, to be part of Seneca
Creek State Park. Historic Medley District manages the site under an agreement with the state.
(Inscription under the image in the upper right) Attentive to a teacher portraying schoolmarm Miss Alice Darby, the boys and girls (who in the 1880s would sit on opposite sides of the center aisle) are warmed in winter by a pot-bellied wood stove. No one misbehaves, of course, not wanting to risk the 1880s punishment of putting on the dunce cap and sitting on a stool in the corner.