New Canaan resident films doc to highlight Little Red Schoolhouse

John D. Murphy was determined to do a documentary about the last one-room schoolhouse to operate in Connecticut once he learned some former students were still alive.

A few years ago, Murphy noticed a New Canaan Historical Society announcement on an open house at the Little Red Schoolhouse that mentioned former students would be docents.

“I said to myself, ‘Man, we have people still alive who went to this school. There’s a first-person narrative that should be documented,’” he recalled.

Murphy, an Emmy Award-winning video journalist, lives about a mile from the schoolhouse in New Canaan. “I pass by it constantly,” he said. His efforts have resulted in a documentary film of almost 40 minutes, “Stories of the Little Red Schoolhouse — Student Conversations,” that features a dozen students reminiscing about their former elementary school.

The schoolhouse on Carter Street was open from 1868 to 1957. About 30 students from grades one to five were taught at any one time. The schoolhouse has a pot-belly stove, slanted desks screwed to a wood-plank floor, and Aesop’s Fables paintings on the wall done as part of a Great Depression jobs program.

New Canaan once had 11 one-room schoolhouses, with the Carter Street facility staying in operation so long because of teacher Mary J. Kelley. She attended the school in the 1890s and then taught there for 47 years, and she retired when the school was closed. Kelley’s official title was schoolmistress and she taught all grades.

The New Canaan Historical Society now owns the schoolhouse and it’s been restored. Murphy said being inside the schoolhouse is a unique experience. “Oh my God, it’s like walking through a time warp when you go inside — like walking into 1957,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

Original teaching tools are still displayed inside. “You can touch this stuff,” he said.

Students held Kelley in high esteem. “There’s great fondness and great love for Ms. Kelley,” said Murphy, noting one interviewee called her the best teacher he ever had, even when compared to his Yale professors.

“She loved us and we loved her — and respected her,” a former student said in the film.

Kelley was a disciplinarian but fair. “I thought she had eyes in the back of her head,” a student said.

Some of Murphy’s interviews involve more than one former student at a time. “They reveal things to each other and this adds spontaneity to the conversation,” he said.

Those interviewed feel a lot of nostalgia toward the old old-room school. “Maybe it was the intimacy of the education,” Murphy said. “They were all kids from the neighborhood and it was a rite of passage for them.”

One student told Murphy “she just cried and cried” when she learned the school was closing.

Students share memories about the morning flag-raising, Bible readings, poetry lessons, Kelley making toasted sandwiches for them, learning geography through pull-down maps and a globe, sitting in the dunce’s stool and Cowboys and Indians Day.

“There were treasures you just don’t get in modern schools,” a student said.

They talk about playing old-fashioned games and taking nature walks in the woods to learn about flowers, plants, trees and rocks. Kelley was quite knowledgeable on the subject because her family owned a nursery.

The film includes photos by national photographer Ozzie Sweet, who had highlighted the schoolhouse in a book and magazine essay.

Murphy considers the documentary to be an ongoing project because he’s still making edits and may get additional former students to do on-camera interviews.

His ultimate goal is to get more people — especially families with children — to learn about the schoolhouse and visit it.

Although near a main road, the schoolhouse is in a somewhat isolated location and many local residents don’t know much about it, Murphy said.

He hopes to have a public screening of the finished film in New Canaan, perhaps at the town library, that includes a question-and-answer session with former students.

Murphy knows young Fairfield County residents will be surprised to know that not long ago, some students went to school here without running water or electricity and had to use an outhouse.

“They had to freeze to go to the bathroom,” he said. “It’s entirely different than what today’s kids know.”

Murphy works for NBC Sports, where he’s covered nine Olympics and the NFL, and has his own production company. He’s been a CNN video-journalist, handled photography for a PBS docuseries, and done work for MSNBC, E!, Lifetime and “Access Hollywood.” The Boston area native previously lived in Darien.

The documentary’s main sponsor was New Canaan’s Karl Chevrolet, and Leo Karl Jr. was one of the former students interviewed.

The film can be accessed for a fee on Murphy’s webpage (search for “The Little Red Schoolhouse”). He plans to donate any revenue from the film to the historical society for the schoolhouse’s upkeep.

The Little Red Schoolhouse is open for public tours by appointment, once pandemic restrictions are lifted. Go to for information about visiting.