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History at Hallsville reflected in scene from 1900 classroom

By DOUG ALDEN
New Hampshire Union Leader

June 11. 2012 12:00AM

Students make their way past a mural of a classroom scene from 1900 by Manchester artist Cameron Bennett at Hallsville Elementary School in Manchester. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
MANCHESTER - Students at Hallsville Elementary School got a unique history lesson, watching the developments day-by-day as an artist painted a mural depicting a classroom lesson at the school, from the year 1900.

Artist Cameron Bennett painted the mural based on an old photograph that Rachelle Otero noticed hanging on a wall when she took over as principal last year. The scene is a group of boys and girls sketching a dog as it sits on a desk in the middle of a Hallsville classroom, one still in use today.

The brown, sepia-tone photo had a label of '1900,' nine years after the school was built. One of the remaining fixtures is an old, electronic bell system resembling a switchboard, which still hangs on the wall long after it was last in service.

"That's how we knew it was that classroom, which was pretty cool," Otero said.

Hallsville remains Manchester's oldest active school and Otero wants to celebrate its history. She is thrilled with how Bennett's mural depicts what students and the school itself looked like 112 years ago when Manchester was a thriving mill town. Bennett chose the photo while he and Otero considered options for the mural.

"That was a photo that caught his eye when we talked about an historical mural and we just kind of went with it," she said.

An antique desk sits in front of the mural, a symbolic way to draw viewers into the scene and its many details, including a photograph of Daniel Webster and a bust of George Washington.

"Every time you look at it you see something different," said Dan Otero, the principal's husband, who was helping out during "field day" last week.

There are 16 students shown in the classroom, sketching beneath an old chandelier as a boy hangs on to the dog's collar. One variance from the photo Bennett introduced was to write on the blackboard. He painted in a list of all the school's principals and the years of their tenure at Hallsville, starting with William Huse.

Bennett said Huse was known for creative education methods and using a large dog as the subject in an art lesson fit with Huse's reputation. Both the mural and photo also show a palm tree - a species certainly not readily available in 1900 New Hampshire, yet it still made it to the Hallsville classroom as an example of an exotic plant from far away.

"I think it was a good choice. The kids really like seeing what the students were wearing back then,' Bennett said. 'You don't often see kids today sketching and I certainly don't think in this day and age anyone would bring in a live dog in the classroom for kids to draw it.'

Otero, who hopes to someday restore the school's tower clock to working order, said students were always excited to see the latest developments in the mural each day. One in particular that drew a lot of questions was the round hole in the top corner of the desks, where the ink wells were placed.

"What the heck is that? I had to tell them that was for the ink," Otero said. 'They were like, huh?' For this generation, ink is something that needs refilling in the printer every now and then.

Bennett said he was thrilled see students interested in the history of the mural as well as the subject of art itself. The mural is one of three Bennett is doing at the school. One in progress will show children, some developing wings as they grown as Hallsville Hawks - the school's mascot.

The biggest will be in contrast to the historic piece he finished last week. It will depict modern-day children and the many changes that have evolved since the Hallsville students were photographed in 1900. Bennett will feature 24 current students who were chosen through a writing contest.

"The school was really receptive to me. They made me feel like a celebrity, which I'm not,' Bennett said. 'Kids that age are still open to art. They're just so sweet and complimentary.'


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Doug Alden may be reached at dalden@unionleader.com.


Education Manchester