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Free School offers Colonial educational experience

A collection of desks in the Free School ranges in age, manufactured between 1868-1940s. The Free School is a living history classroom, a museum and repository for educational artifacts that has been "resurrected" and is maintained by the Anne Arundel Retired School Personnel Association (AARSPA) in conjunction with the Anne Arundel County Board of Education.
A collection of desks in the Free School ranges in age, manufactured between 1868-1940s. The Free School is a living history classroom, a museum and repository for educational artifacts that has been "resurrected" and is maintained by the Anne Arundel Retired School Personnel Association (AARSPA) in conjunction with the Anne Arundel County Board of Education. (Photo courtesy of John Hammond/AARSPA)

With all the windows broken, the sink ripped out and lying in the front yard, and hundreds of years of natural wear and tear, the place was a fixer-upper.

"Ladies, you don't want this," they were told.

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But it was the first school built in the county, and the Anne Arundel Retired School Personnel Association did want it. The group bought the property in the 1960s, and more than 20 years and $239,500 in renovations later, finally invited a group of students back inside the 1720s-era building.

The Annearrundell County Free School no longer enrolls students, though given its name, it gets about a dozen calls and emails a year from interested parents. Instead, the old-fashioned structure serves as a living-history classroom and education museum. Resident history buff and former Anne Arundel teacher, principal and assistant superintendent Howard Hall, 83, leads occasional tours of the building.

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"When that first class came in, and the schoolmarm said to one of the boys, 'Would you bring in the wood for the fireplace?' you should have seen his face," Hall said, chuckling at the memory. "It was like, 'You gotta be nuts.'"

Established in 1724 under a Colonial Assembly act that ordered that a public school be built in each of Maryland's then-12 counties, the Free School sat on 150 acres of farmland purchased from the Snowden Plantation. The farmland around the building was tended by the schoolmaster, who could grow and sell anything he wanted, except for tobacco.

"And it wasn't for health reasons," Hall said. "It was because the plantations in the area didn't want the competition."

The Free School boasts one famous alumnus, Johns Hopkins, who attended the school for two years in the early 1800s. Presumably, Hopkins would have attended longer, Hall said, but his father, who owned a plantation nearby, freed his slaves and needed his son's help on the farm.

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The building houses a collection of educational artifacts from throughout American history. Rows of desks from the late 1860s through the 1940s show an evolution of design, a transition away from ornate grillwork to more practical inkwell, pencil and book holders. A potbellied stove stands at one end of one of the school's three rooms. Farming tools, lunchboxes and dunce caps are on display.

Perhaps the most impressive relics in the building, though, are the nearly 300 old textbooks. The collection includes an original "McGuffey Reader," one of America's oldest primers.

Bob Kanach, president of the Anne Arundel Retired School Personnel Association, spoke of the importance of protecting the historical site and the value it offers to the community.

"This is the beginning for public education — it's our history," Kanach said. "It's our legacy. We want to preserve it and keep it for the future."

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If you go

The Annearrundell County Free School is located at 1298 Lavall Drive and is open to the public from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays. Alternatively, tours can be scheduled by calling 410-573-0840.

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