Lost & Abandoned

A Schoolhouse Paid for With Liquor


In 1789 the US Constitution finally created a (sort of) cohesive country from the 13 states that had won the Revolution. Delaware was the first state to join. Right after that in 1791, Delaware wrote its own state constitution. One of their ideas was to publicly fund schools. This won’t make you blink now but it was crazy radical in 1791. There had been small schools since the Swedes settled the area (I say “settled” loosely, the Lenape tribe had already been here for ages of course). But then schools were usually private, supported by either a church or neighbors who had hired a tutor collectively for their children. For the ordinary child (ordinary either in intelligence or financially) there was to be no school.

Tax-funded education was considered by Delawareans to be the “strongest defense a free government could have” and so they came up with a plan for funding. Five years later (hey look, government’s been moving slow since the dawn of time!) tax money from marriage and tavern licenses was set aside exclusively for education. And this wasn’t a measly portion, it made up a fifth of the state’s money!


Finally in 1799, there was enough money for the schoolhouse to finally become a reality. Robert and Jehu Forwood and Thomas Bird, Jr. were deeded this land to build a school. And I mean that literally, Robert Forwood built the school himself and he did it in two months. The Forwoods and Bird Jr. paid 50 cents for the property and after Robert completed the one-room building it opened for business in August of 1799.

The building was actually a square shape then with a large oak desk for the teacher and seats facing back-to-back: boys faced one way towards a male teacher and girls the other way towards a female teacher. (And yes the female teacher was paid a little less for the same work which is frustratingly still going on).

By 1829 a Free School Law had been passed, which meant more schools would be created in “walking distance” of each district and each school would be publicly funded, free to all (white) children. School still wasn’t guaranteed at Forwood. Each year voters decided whether to open the school at all; though it looks like they voted for Forwood to open every year.

By 1855, there were over 100 students attending school in the little square building. Quickly, they expanded to the size you see now and students for the first time actually received desks to sit at.

In 1899, there was a large gala to celebrate the school’s 100-year anniversary. Speakers recited original poems, oral histories about the schoolhouse and stories about past students like then-current U.S. Surgeon General, William A. Forwood and many others who had fought in the Civil War with distinction. One guy brought the mood temporarily down with his speech about the school still being funded by liquor tax money but it seems everyone mostly ignored him.

Thomas Bird and his orchestra accompanied the party with music as the party goers set up long tables with ice cream, cake, watermelon and other delicacies under the summer sun. That sounds like such a good day.

SIDENOTE: A former student signs up for three months in the union army

One of those former students that had served in the Civil War was a Forwood: Cyrus H. Forwood. A 25-year old farmer, he lived on the family farm with his parents and two sisters right by the school that he had attended as a youth. His grandparents had built the Forwood schoolhouse. In 1861 he volunteered for three months of service in the Union Army. In the end, he served for three years and kept a diary detailing his time. And yes, I read his diary. {ps: the following photos were taken at Gettysburg}

Cyrus fought at a few major battles during the war. He missed the Battle of Antietam by a day. He was lagging behind because he had fallen ill and was recovering in Pt. Lookout, Maryland. At the hospital he was surrounded by sick soldiers rapidly dying and being hastily buried without a second thought as the next crop of sick men arrived. Not exactly the best way to keep your spirits up and recover quickly. Of course this was compounded by the meager rations on offer: coffee and bread with molasses for breakfast and supper, for lunch a tiny piece of meat and “horrible vegetable soup.” After a month Cyrus said he felt sicker than when he arrived. Once he finally did recover he set out to join his company…on a 70 mile walk. Which is why he missed the fight but he was only a few miles away and could hear the “roar of the artillery.”

After fighting at Chancellorsville in April his company, the Second Delaware, moved to Gettysburg. On July 3 the Second Delaware defended Cemetery Ridge during Pickett’s Charge (the day before they had fought at The Wheatfield and in Rose Woods, a post and photos about that spot are coming up!). Southern Army General Robert E. Lee was making his big assault in hopes to destroy the Union Army and move further North. Northern Army General Grant and the Union Army halted the South’s campaign in one of the bloodiest battles of the war with at least 51,000 dead and many more injured. Cyrus himself was wounded in the leg but not seriously enough to lose the leg to amputation. He was sent to a hospital in Wilmington, Delaware where he recovered before rejoining his unit.

After the battle of Gettysburg and spending the winter drilling at camp in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the Second Delaware continued their pursuit of General Lee to Manassas Gap engaging in several more campaigns. General Grant suffered heavy losses that Spring but didn’t retreat. Instead he pushed Union troops towards the small town of Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia, rushing to arrive before the Confederates. The Confederates were within two miles when both armies (that’s 152,000 soldiers) began to flood into what would become the battlefield.

Desperate to break the Confederate line, General Grant ordered an attack. But no one planned what to do if they did break the line. So when the Union soldiers managed to move through the Confederate line, the Southerners easily counter attacked them in the 200-yard stretch that were now inhibiting. It would become known as the “Bloody Angle” and it was the longest sustained hand-to-hand combat fight in the entire war. For 22 hours they fought until the Confederates finally fell back.

Casualties were heavy, 30,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured during the battle. Cyrus was to be one of the 18,000 Union casualties (such staggering numbers) after he was shot through the abdomen. He died three days later in the hospital tent at Spotsylvania Courthouse just a few weeks before the end of his three-year service term. He was 28-years old.

Historical photos of Forwood School from the State Board of Education Photograph Collection Historical photos of Forwood School from the State Board of Education Photograph Collection.

Writing on the Wall

As the population grew and educational standards changed the district forced many schools to merge. In March 1939 the Forwood School was ordered to close at the end of term, 140 years from its start. The school was set for the auction block. The community attempted to save the school for public use but WWII was looming, and already happening in Europe, so any deals were slow. After Pearl Harbor and the country’s subsequent involvement in the war there was a stop to any projects like this. The school was sold back to the Forwood family in 1947 for conversion into a house.

Their decedents still own it today. They want to develop the property and have been fighting with the community about it for over 10 years now. The land will either be used for townhouses or an office park and a strip mall (it’s already directly in back of a strip mall). They replicate the school for those opposed to the land development but it won’t be the same. The school easily qualifies for historical preservation and protection though it seems the preservationists so often lose.

That wasn’t the end of the Forwood School completely! Alfred I. du Pont (remember Nemours, his house?) was hugely supportive of funding schools and did so for Forwood. The newer elementary school (built in 1941, I believe) is still in use today and there’s even a Forwood Junior High as well. I pass the schoolhouse everyday and now that I know what it was I always picture that summer day they celebrated their birthday with an orchestra, outdoor games, watermelon and cake. Perfect!

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5