This Was Then: ‘Rich Devils’

When Eastville had a prep school.

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The Treat Preparatory School was located on Temahigan Avenue, Oak Bluffs. While the building is long gone, the wall and steps survive today. —Courtesy Chris Baer

From 1908 until 1922 (or perhaps a few years later), Professor Edwin Treat ran a prep school for boys in Eastville. It was open six months in Oak Bluffs — May to October — and the remainder of the year in Helenwood, Tenn., a small coal mining community high up in the Cumberland Mountains. Headmaster Treat was educated at Yale and Princeton , the son of a Connecticut wagon-wheel manufacturer.

While the Oak Bluffs campus offered bathing, boating, fishing, tennis, and golf, the Tennessee campus offered polo, and an 8,000-acre hunting preserve. Academics was limited to three hours a day, but included individualized instruction in Latin and Greek. “The aim of the School is to give the best possible instruction amid healthful surroundings, free from distracting influences…. There are no special courses, but thorough Preparation for any College can be had,” read one 1920 ad. The boys came from some of wealthiest families in the country — among them, the son of Horace Dodge of Dodge Brothers automobiles, the son of the president of B&O Railroad, and a nephew of J.P. Morgan. Enrollment varied from as few as a dozen to more than 30, but the school advertised 20 or 30 tutors on staff. Tuition was $2,000 in 1917, the second highest among Massachusetts prep schools.

Tennessean Carmel Burke recalled the Treat boys’ antics in Helenwood in a 1976 booklet: “Their school was planned for boys too mean to attend normal schools, and they depended on physical activities to keep them occupied…. No stunt was too daring or dangerous for these rowdy boys. If no other challenge could be found, they would race the train on horseback toward Oneida. At times they would jump a fence into someone’s yard and ride the horse into their house. Once five students were arrested in Oneida for riding horses on the skating rink floor, and for riding horses on the second floor of one of the five hotels in Oneida. If local citizens needed recreation, they would go to Helenwood to see these ‘Rich Devils’ from Professor Treat’s school.”

In 1922, Treat closed the school and went to work for one of his most famous students, Horace Dodge Jr., at the Dodge Boat Works. Treat’s Eastville school building was quietly demolished, and a private home was built on the site in 1996.

In 1935, a house fire in Helenwood spread to a coal-mining supply store in the center of town, where a dynamite warehouse was kept. Twenty cases of dynamite and two hundred kegs of blasting powder exploded in a blast heard 12 miles away. The resulting explosion destroyed most of the town — “literally wiped off the map,” according to one news account — including the former Treat School compound next door. One dormitory building, situated farther from the blast, stands today, but the rest of Treat’s extensive campus was lost.