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As a child, George Mason’s son, John, remembered the school house as a stand-alone structure to the left of the mansion. In 1956, an archaeological dig located the foundations, and the schoolhouse was reconstructed in 1962.
For the first fifteen years that the Mason family lived at Gunston Hall, the tutor lived and taught the Mason family children in the mansion itself. Once the Masons had this special structure constructed, the tutor relocated. By that time, most of the Mason girls had finished their academic lessons. The school house became the domain of the Mason boys, and other young wealthy male neighbors.
Lessons were taught by a succession of tutors, many of whom were indentured servants from Scotland. In exchange for a fixed period of work, Mason provided their passage, a nominal annual wage, and a place to live. Their personal room was likely fitted with a bedstead, an old chair, and the few possessions the tutors could fit in a wooden traveling trunk or a leather suitcase known as a portmanteau.
The classroom was likely plain and furnished with some schoolbooks on a wall-mounted shelf, communal benches, a small table or two, maps, slates and graphite pencils, few paper booklets or loose pages, pencils, quill pens and ink, and at one point, a collection of wild animals held in cages or open weave baskets.
The room was alternatively hushed and riotous, filled with the sounds of recited lessons or the scratching of slate pencils on slate. Hats hung on the pegs behind the door, ready to be slapped on the children’s heads when they were released for play or a meal.
Access to formal education was a privilege of the wealthly. At the time, only about 10 percent of people who were enslaved learned enough writing to be able to sign their names. Literacy was more common among free people. Still, fewer than three-quarters of free white men in Virginia could sign their names.