Last Friday’s post on the portrait of Horace Staples spurred one reader to ask who the founder of Westport’s high school was, anyway. Here — direct from my book Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education — is the answer.
In 1866, Horace Staples was perhaps the wealthiest man in Westport. A direct descendant of Thomas Staples, one of 5 settlers who founded Fairfield — and of Mary Staples, accused but acquitted of witchcraft during the fever of 1692 — he had worked since he was 8 years old.
At age 27 he started a lumber and hardware business in Saugatuck. It soon grew into a general store carrying grain, groceries, household furnishings and medicines. He bought sailing vessels, a silk factory, and an axe factory. He owned a thriving pier off the west bank of the Saugatuck River. In 1852 he helped establish a bank. In addition to everything else, he ran a farm.
Now Horace Staples was 65. Every morning he watched Westport boys and girls board the Post Road trolley. Some headed west to Norwalk; others east to Bridgeport – the 2 nearest towns with high schools. It was time, he thought, for Westport to “get up” a high school of its own.
He offered to give the town a lot for a building. But no one did anything. He offered again; again the town refused to act. Year after year, young Westporters left town for education. Others, at age 14, began to work.
In 1880 Horace Staples’ only daughter died. His sole remaining heir was a grandson. He decided that the fortune he intended to leave his daughter should benefit all young people in town. Nearly 80 years old – and so hard of hearing he carried a yard-long ear trumpet – Horace Staples embarked on a final project that, more than a century later, would dwarf every other endeavor of his long, successful life.
In 1882 he redrew his will, directing some of his money toward a new high school. The following year he planned a red-brick building just up the street from his West (now Riverside) Avenue colonial home.
Though over 80 years old he was in good health, and came from a long line of long-living people. “I might as well see my name up in bricks while I am still around,” he said.
“A suitable building for a school house” would be erected on vacant land he donated. His builders assured him the school would be finished by July.
On April 22, 1884, whistles and sirens blew; church bells rang. Businesses closed. A procession formed in front of National Hall, turned left onto West Avenue, and made the short walk to the site of the ceremony. The crowd was estimated at 2,500.
Governor Thomas Waller arrived. Pastors offered prayers and addresses. A choir sang a hymn composed for the occasion. The cornerstone was laid.
Governor Waller finally stepped forward. The Westporter did not print his address. It did note, however, that “A good high school will increase the value of property, and raise the price of onions.”
Despite his builders’ assurances, the building was not ready when the first term began in September. For a few weeks classes were conducted on the 3rd floor of National Hall (Horace Staples’ First National Bank of Westport occupied the first floor). Sixty students enrolled, from Westport, Norwalk, Southport and Weston.
The red-brick and stone building on West (Riverside) Avenue opened officially on October 31, 1884. The 1st floor contained 2 classrooms, a cloakroom, a laboratory and a 250-volume library.
The 2nd floor contained 2 more classrooms, another cloakroom, and a 350-seat “Assembly Hall” that doubled as a gymnasium. The entire school assembled there once a day, for devotional exercises.
During the first year of operation, there was no running water. The next year water pipes were fitted in the building, and wash bowls placed in the cloakrooms.
Classes were held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The curriculum included the usual courses of the day — advanced arithmetic, algebra, English grammar, physical geography, botany, geometry, trigonometry, English history, physics, chemistry, French, German, ancient history and the United States Constitution – plus 4 courses not generally offered in high school: Greek, Latin, physiology and genealogy.
The latter was a particular favorite of Horace Staples. It is “not enough to know where you’re going,” he said. You “also have to know where you’re coming from.”
The inclusion of those 4 courses is noteworthy. From its inception, and all the way through to today, Staples has done things other schools do not do.
But in other ways, the Staples of 1884 was very different from the modern Staples High. The first graduating class to enter the halls of Westport’s new school consisted of just 6 students.
And all were girls.
(My book on the history of Staples High School is available at the Westport Historical Society. Click here to order.)