Bygone Brigham Academy

It was a hazy July afternoon and the sun was shining of the hood of my friend’s Dodge as we parked. Within minutes, I was sweating through my t-shirt. In front of me was the century and a half old, abandoned brick academy that I had been waiting for about a year to get inside of. And it looked like I wasn’t the only visitor. The lawn was filled with people wearing hardhats, trailers, and extension cords. I started to feel awkward, standing by the truck, trying to not make eye contact with the people who were making it with me.

Thankfully, Chance Benedict pulled into the parking lot, turning down my increasing feeling of being out of place. Chance is the principal of the Bakersfield school district, and through about a years worth of email back and forths, was kind enough to open up the building for me and give me a guided tour.

Brigham Academy is in the tiny 4-way intersection town of Bakersfield, halfway between “the dairy capital of the world” – Enosburg Falls, and the ski village of Jeffersonville. I discovered the academy by accident when I was passing along Bakersfield’s main drag, which is state route 108, and saw the dignified brick edifice that was more visible in mud season when the line of sight is increased thanks to the bare trees. Driving down relevantly named academy lane, I got a closer look at the place, and realized that it was abandoned – the distinctive brick building in a state of slow burning decay.

Some of the windows were broken, the white painted front doors are showing signs of gray decay and the brickwork is beginning to crack, loosen and tumble in a few places. The front steps have been removed in some areas and the all the doors are padlocked closed. Geometry draws your eyes up to the central clock tower above your head, it’s unique wooden face frozen the exact time it ceased functionality years ago.

This is Brigham Academy. Its impressive architecture alludes to the equally impressive gentleman its existence was made possible by; Peter Bent Brigham. Born in Bakersfield in 1807, Brigham was a man who dedicated his life to defying the one thing that plagued him as a kid; poverty. He was forced to drop out of school in his early teenage years and find work to support his family after the death of his father. But he worked hard, and through perseverance and an amiable personality, he would become a prominent figure later in life and eventually a self-made millionaire. In between, he made a name for himself by becoming a businessman, restaurateur, real estate trader, the director of Massachusetts’s Fitchburg Railroad (the railroad that runs through the dark depths of the legend conjuring Hoosac Tunnel), the founder of the Brigham Hospital in Boston (a hospital that would become connected with Harvard), and eventually and most relevant to this post, a self-titled academy in Bakersfield. That’s quite the accomplishment list. Some days, I can barely check my email.

Because Brigham never had the chance to receive a higher education in his life, he grew up bitter about it. Now with his sizable fortune, he wanted to ensure that the children of Bakersfield would have the opportunities he never had, and donated a grand sum of $40,000 to the town of Bakersfield; $10,000 towards the building and funding of the newly established academy named in his honor.

But educational needs changed towards a movement towards all-inclusive public schooling, and enrollment dropped and finances dwindled. Eventually, the academy couldn’t afford to stay open, and in 1966, it began its function as the local public high school and deteriorated rapidly into the mid 80s, when the state of Vermont decided they didn’t want to add a lesson on the terrors of building collapses to the high school curriculum, and closed it.

Building the academy was one thing, but deciding what to do with it, especially without the cash to do such things is another puzzlement. While local opinions differentiate, the only thing that everyone can seem to agree on is that they all want the place to exist in the Bakersfield of the future.

Suggestions have been tossed around to convert the academy into a new home for the town offices or an expansion for the Bakersfield Elementary School – but the building’s deterioration and outdated amenities created setbacks of the financial kind, leaving the academy in a state of momentarily untouchable rotting limbo.

Brigham Academy is kind of a big (silent) deal to me. My abandoned hometown creamery was the first place I ever explored, thanks to its convenience, and Hyde Manor was a flicker that burned my desires, but the academy was the first place I sought out to explore legally, with me going through the rounds of contact, permission and scheduling. It happened during a change in my life, after I had left college, where I just didn’t dig my old scene anymore, and began to drift away towards exploration.

Chance fiddled with the padlock on the front doors and as they swung open, an immediate change in atmosphere was noticed. The sultry July day outside gave way to a more dank and musty smell of the academy’s interior. The two of us then stepped up a three-foot brick rise up onto the first floor. The front stairs had to be removed because structural and foundation issues had eroded them to a dangerous point of potential lawsuit-ness.

I came to the academy with no expectations, and my first impression pleasantly reassured me that it was worth the persistence. The massive building contained much original details with exceedingly cluttered halls and lurid pastel colored walls and their crumbling lead painted remains blazed in summer heat. To my right, there was a door, which I decided would be my first area I would venture too. I slipped through and discovered a fantastic feature of the school, a unique sunken basketball court from 1904, the tired wooden floors were horribly warped and crooked, with the thin and fading court lines still visible from the wraparound second-floor mezzanine lined with windows protected by lattice/mesh screens above, just in case of wayward basketballs or rowdy spectators.

The basement area, which contained the locker rooms was full of mold and pitch black due to no window access or working electricity. The dank and dark ambiance was definitely creepy down there. The principle joked that he would wait for me at the top of the stairs.

There is apparently a spook story about this particular part of the academy, that involves disembodied sounds of basketball games in play in the empty court that manifest themselves at any time of the day or night. A janitor even reported seeing a basketball bounce itself across the court! In other parts of the building, furniture is said to rearrange itself, cold air wafts from nowhere, and doors open by themselves. What was going on here? Years ago, a visiting psychic claimed that the old building was full of playful native American spirits who were behind all the shenanigans.

The first floor contained some interesting relics, and was packed full of furniture and piles of years of accumulated trash which spanned over 100 years to the more recent. Classrooms had original chalkboards in them that still had chalk scribings on their surfaces from when the school was still functional. I was intrigued when I had Bakersfield residents send me messages telling me they recognized their own names, or recalled when a friend wrote something on the board.

The top floor contained an enormous theater area, with wooden stage and dull green painted walls that undulated as you walked by. The wooden floors creaked and made high lonesome sounds that filled the large space as my boots clomped down. Behind the theater sat a cluttered room of disused drama props in disarray and dust that added somewhat of a melancholic feel to the place that slipped under your skin.

The rest of the time capsule like building was quite gorgeous and we spent two hours shooting and listening to Chance’s great stories about the academy and its history. Some of the classrooms upstairs were more modernized in the 60s, and brandished ugly drop down ceilings that were in various progress of disintegration and ugly florescent lights. One room had a weird mural of a clown painted on a wall that eerily gazed with a smug yet complacent stare over the room. Original wooden desks that were awkward and rigid still sat in almost perfect rows in front of a chalkboard, their surfaces warped with years of skin oil and use, with your archetypal student graffiti carved into their surfaces.

Wondering around the academy was proving to be more oppressively hot than the outside air somehow, and by now, I was drenched in sweat that was beginning to sting my eyes.

But the best was yet to come. Hidden in a backroom behind the auditorium was a steep and narrow staircase typical of old buildings that ascended through the ceiling, to a heavy wooden trapdoor and up into the clock tower. The original bell still was perched on the rafters, covered with years of dust – the hot summer heat baked the small space.

Because of time constrictions, we only stayed about an hour inside, not nearly long enough. There was so much to see, and so little time to see it. But I felt special, and quite humbled that I was granted permission to photograph such a place, and that to my knowledge, little others have had the chance to see the inside in a few decades.

It’s a real shame that Brigham Academy is being left to fade into memory. It’s a great old building that can offer so much potential, especially in a disposable era America where new buildings are built cheaply with faux aesthetic added to disguise their overall banality. If anything, we should be preserving more Brigham Academy’s across the country.

But sadly, to save the academy, you need a vision, and you need money. So far, no such luck. Does Brigham Academy sing songs of doom or redemption? Sadly, the last memory many people of Bakersfield might have of Brigham Academy is seeing it be demolished.

An old postcard of Brigham Academy:

Brigham Academy

Brigham Academy Today (April 2015)

Summer 2012

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28 Comments on “Bygone Brigham Academy

  1. the scariest ghost story I ever was told was based at this Academy, specifically in the gym and also the little clock tower. Really creepy seeing that this place is real considering the story was scary as shit!

    • I’m very interested – would you mind telling the ghost story?

      • As someone who lives in Bakersfield I have heard a lot of stories about Brigham Academy. The story about the gym is a little chilling.

        During a warm summer day while the kids were out of school enjoying their summer vacation, the janitor was making his rounds making sure the school was ready for the start of the new school year. As he was finishing up with one of his many tasks he started to hear the sound of a basketball bouncing in the gym. As he started to make his way to the gym thinking it was a couple of kids who had gained entrance without permission, but to his surprise their was no one there. All the Janitor had noticed was a basketball stuck to the wall. As the janitor made his way down the stairs to the gym floor he heard the sound of a basketball bouncing, but again all he saw was the basketball stuck to the wall. He tried to pry the ball off, but no matter how hard he tried it never budged.

        When the janitor returned the next day he again heard the sound of a ball bouncing, but this time it was followed by the sound of children laughing. When the janitor made his way to the gym he saw the basketball, but instead of it being stuck to the wall it was bouncing by itself across the gym floor. That was the last time the janitor stepped foot in Brigham Academy..Still to this day if you are quite enough you may hear the sounds of children laughing and basketballs bouncing in the gym.

  2. I attended Brigham Academy for its final two years of service – 1985-1987. It was a middle school at the time, serving grades 4-8. I had just finished sixth grade when it closed. Shannon Cochrane (whose name is seen on one of the chalkboard photos above) was in my class. It’s crazy to see the state of the building now. It was long in the tooth when it closed, but nothing like that.

    Great to read about it!

  3. I am in shock; I had no idea this building was abandoned in such condition! Driving down 108, it seems like the school is still open since the new one is tucked behind. What a terrible shame; surely the building could have been rehabilitated for modern use.

    • I was in shock as well – it looks much better from the road, but definitely more rough on closer inspection. One of my favorite locations I’ve had a chance to explore, it really was a spectacular building.

      By the way, I’ve been a fan of your blog for some time now. Especially love your “Abandoned in Vermont” section.

    • The town has tried again and again, but certain residents don’t want to see it rehabilitated, but want it torn down.

  4. How sad, I had a lot of fun and memories going to that school. How sad to see what has become of it. It should be turned into senior housing and carry on the great name!!
    Tillie

  5. Brings back memories. I was the last third grade class at Brigham Academy in 1986-87. This building is so much a part of our community identity. We are working hard to save it!

  6. I feel so bad seeing this beautiful building in this condition. Seems like, if they could restore the “old Sweat Cummings Factory” in Richford this building could be restored
    .

  7. It’s to bad the state of Vermont can not help restore ths once beautifyl building. Shame on them and the people of Bakersfield for allowing this to happen. Everyonr says taxes are too high but think of the wonferful things that can be done to that building.

  8. So sad…makes me want to cry! So many memories. That grandstaircase where Donna, Pat, Beverly Shirley, Addie & I used to sit & eat our lunch. The gym where we played basketball holds so many memories for me. I went through the Academy a few years ago. Such a mess.

  9. Those pictures of the inside really do bring back memories, even though 2nd grade was the last year we were in there after the drunk guy burned down the elementary school. Thanks for doing this story! And the ghost stories, oh yes, there were lots of them. I remember something about an Indian graveyard, and there was a human skeleton in the closet there, for biology class I guess. The older kids liked to tell us they found it when they were digging the foundation. This is from my 2nd grade memory, mind you. Yeah, I was scared to death, I remember that!

  10. I loved reading your article. It put me back in fifth and sixth grade…1981ish time frame. I walked those hall, ran up those stairs two at a time, played basketball in the roaring clatter that circled above us while we played our hearts out in the pit. I went to the biggest social events of the season….dances in the auditorium and I bravely tried my hand at lip sinking to “Hey Jude” only to discover that while it was my favorite song and I knew it by heart it was a horrible song for lip sinking because it on and on and on. I even had Mr. Brigham (maybe grandson of Peter?) for a social studies teacher! I bet one of those wooden desks has CS + RG carved on it too! I still remember several of my teachers from my time there but Mrs. Perkins the science teacher stands out. She was very strict and right around this time the Rubics Cube was a popular toy. We all had them and couldn’t stop playing with them so she banned them from school. I am a 5/6 grade teacher now and often reflect on this time in my life as I try to understand and relate to my students’ everyday needs. I often try to remember how I felt at that age and with that comes a flood of memories of my time at Brigham Academy.

  11. Wow — goosebumps. My grandfather taught english and music there. I attended 4th grade there… after the Common School burned down. If I remember, they had to improvise a bit and our class was put in a room behind the cafeteria, not originally a classroom. My name is shyly scrawled somewhere up in the bell tower walls. 🙂 The only “ghost stories” I’ve heard of are about basketballs bouncing by themselves and rolling across the floor in the gym. Thank you for the photographs… I’ve been curious… and was surprised at the state of decay. It would be wonderful if it could be saved… but if not, I hope that most of the desks, fixtures, furniture, blackboards etc. could be salvaged…?

  12. What an interesting article, thank you for sharing. What a shame to see such a beautiful building deteriorate.

  13. So many memories of friendships and activities within these walls. Those who attended B.A. were like family; personalities, dreams and achievements were shared and celebrated together. We had pride in our school~ little in size, but huge in spirit!
    Some of the newer townspeople scoffed at the perseverance with which we alumnae dedicated ourselves to keeping this building, claiming it unworthy of the cost and effort it would take to restore it.
    On a trip to New York one summer, I chanced upon some copies of Vermonter Magazine in an antique shop, dated 1901-1904. Advertisements for the Academy listed it as one of the most prestigious schools one could choose to attend for many miles around.
    It was this sense of pride that we wished to keep alive as well as the building itself. When someone said to me “Some people in town are opposed to seeing kids playing on the school lawns, isn’t that silly?” When I attended Brigham, we were taught that the grounds reflected our school’s image to all who visited. We were pressed to keep the grounds clean, to use the walkways and not to litter, to play in the designated areas. Did that instill a sense of value of our landmark? You bet it did! To say that we are denying our children freedom by expecting them to adhere to this form of respect for what we have generously been bestowed is ludicrous.
    Graduating classes planted the trees along the walks in their memory, not only to enhance the landscaping, but to leave their mark on the place that meant so much to them throughout their growing years.
    To have this building torn down would remove an important element from our town…the element of pride, of achievement, and of what once made us great. One can only hope that there might be found a way to save this landmark, rather than try to fill the empty space it’s removal will leave in our town~and our hearts.

  14. This building is the jewel of our town. A retirement home is an excellent idea. Keep our elderly close to home and the children close to their aging family-

  15. The building seems to be in pretty good shape, but that won’t last too much longer. Looks like they just locked the doors and walked away. Too bad it couldn’t have been repurposed. Seems that there’s stiff opposition to just about any change. It’s surprising that anything gets done.

  16. The photos are wonderful. I’ve wished to get inside to see with my own eyes, this is almost as good. My grandmother and several other great aunts and uncles went there. So sorry it was left to molder away! It will take a lot to rehab it but there is a strong will to do it.

  17. I was principal of Bakersfield Elementary School for five years starting in 1997-98 school year. During my tenure we brought a plan to the voters to completely restore the building and use it as a middle school. The plan was voted in favor but a petition was brought forward to rescind the yes vote and that petition carried the day. On at least a couple of other occasions, restoration votes were taken place but went down mostly due to the great cost of fixing the building to make it meet required school codes. The school district is in the process of selling the Academy to the town in hopes that something can be done to save this historically significant and wonderful old building.

  18. My father and his seven brothers and sisters attended there. Thank you for sharing the photos. Hopefully a philanthropist will want to restore the building to a museum that could possibly show Vermont history.

  19. Thank you for doing this. Who knows what kind of support the internet will bring you in your effort to restore this beautiful building? By the way, in my research on Cyrus Pringle, Prince of Plant Collectors, I learned part of his schooling was in Bakersfield and that he learned to mount plant specimens from a “Mrs. Piper.” Does anyone know about this? Pringle Herbarium at U.V.M. is named after Cyrus Pringle who came from Charlotte. K.M. Harris

  20. We moved to Bakersfield in 1991 and have always been in favor of restoring Brigham Academy. Today it is owned by the town and there are no concrete plans on the future of the academy. If I could only win the Megabucks.

  21. I am a distant relative of Peter Bent Brigham (on the Brigham side). Just recently began exploring some of my ancestors history. I actually was reading the will written by Peter Bent which discusses the money left to build a school. I hope they can save it. Bill Keezer

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