JAFFREY — Conant High School was established in 1870 with a gift of $7,000 from John Conant. He had settled in town in 1816, becoming a successful farmer.
Volume 1 of “The History of Jaffrey” relates earlier attempts to open a school that offered more advanced teaching for the town’s scholars. None were successful or lasting until 1833, when Melville Academy, a private school supported by a group of incorporators and by charging tuition, opened to accept pupils from Jaffrey and surrounding towns.
The venture flourished for more than two decades until the depression and panic of 1857 brought its success to an end. The building was closed and became derelict, eventually becoming owned by the town and used as the District No. 7 schoolhouse in 1863.
John Conant’s munificence enabled the town to offer its older students an education beyond the common eight years of schooling.
In the beginning, Conant Free High School was proposed to serve both ends of town. Jaffrey Center still had a sufficient number of scholars to warrant holding a session at that end of town. The first term was held in the former Melville Academy building. At that time, the Jaffrey Meeting House was being altered to provide a second floor for the operation of town affairs, and the lower level to house the high school. The second year would be held in the District No. 2 schoolhouse, called Union Hall. This was in the rapidly growing section of town by the Contoocook River, called East Jaffrey, where water-powered businesses were burgeoning. In most families, however, the students chose to attend only the sessions offered at their end of town.
By 1897, the population of East Jaffrey had grown sufficiently to warrant that Conant Free High School would remain at that end of town, sharing space in the 1854 brick Union Hall. A second building, a four-room, wood-frame structure, had been added nearby in 1893. But rapid population growth forced adding a wooden wing to the brick building which became the home of the high school. This would serve until 1915.
The accompanying picture of a brick building is the original Conant High School. When it opened to accept students in 1916, it housed grades 5 through 12. Grades 5 through 8 occupied the lower floor, and Conant students used the upper story.
At the opening, it had a very refined, sturdy appearance. The rows of windows were broader and higher; the roofline had brick treatments, which suggested crenulation; a handsome pediment was atop the front door, and there were other lighter figures that were included in the attractive brickwork. A few of these can still be detected.
These elements were removed in an attempt to make the old building blend in when an addition was added on the south end of the building in the 1950s. The school served both junior- and senior-high students at that time. And Conant finally had its own gym.
The town kept growing, of course, and in 1973, a totally new Conant High School was built behind the original building. The original Conant High School and its 1954 addition now house the Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School. More recently, additional classrooms were added, and the four sections now serve the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District.