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Round Schoolhouse

08/03/06 12:00AM By Joe Citro
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(HOST) Vermont has a good track record for preserving landmarks with historical significance, and commentator Joe Citro is happy to report that another small, but very unusual building in Southern Vermont is about to get some much needed care.

(CITRO) It's a one-of-a-kind architectural oddity situated in the hard-to-find town of Brookline, Vermont.

A round schoolhouse - perhaps the only one in the country -- and its design is every bit as eccentric as its designer.

Yes, I have told this story before, but I want to revisit it today to share some good news.

But first, the backstory:

Brookline's round schoolhouse was built in 1822, designed by its founding teacher, Dr. John Wilson. Constructed from local brick, it has windows all around.

Its architect was a genuine "man of mystery." Locals didn't understand why their aristocratic educator would accept a lowly teaching position. And why in such an out-of-the-way place? They mused about his unconventional academy, but mostly they wondered about his behavior. Why wouldn't he talk about his past in the British Isles? Why did he occasionally walk with a limp? Why did he always wear high collars or thick scarves?

Some of the answers came with Dr. Wilson's death in 1847.

The undertaker discovered his heel had been shot away; he bore the scar of a musket ball on his leg; and his neck was horribly disfigured. His cane concealed a stiletto and his home contained a cache of swords, guns, and ammunition.

Eventually someone realized that their reclusive schoolmaster was in reality a famous British highwayman -- the notorious "Captain Thunderbolt." For more than a decade he and his partner "Mr. Lightfoot" had terrorized the English countryside. A Robin Hood-like rogue, he allegedly stole from the rich, gave to the poor, and squirreled away enough to escape to rural America.

But one mystery remained: Why the peculiar design of his schoolhouse?

Some speculated that he just didn't want to get cornered. Others said the windows allowed him to watch in every direction. But the fact is, nobody knows.

One thing I neglected to tell you earlier was that this Vermont treasure was in pretty sorry shape. Some 19th century educational paraphernalia remain, but the building hasn't been used as a school since 1938. After that, until 1980, it was hosting town meetings. Since then it has been a constant reminder of what neglect can do to old buildings.

The thought of razing the schoolhouse troubled me. I didn't like the possibility of losing this wonderful link to our past.

So here's the good news: The Brookline Historical Society, the Freeman Foundation, and the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation have agreed to help renovate the place.

Now generations to come will be able to view this oddity. Its very presence will keep alive the story of one of Vermont's most colorful "men of mystery".

Novelist Joe Citro is a native Vermonter. He lives in Burlington.

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