Robert Freeman is on the lawn, ringing an old-time school bell as the bus from Marple Newtown School District’s Worrall Elementary pulls up curbside at the Hood Octagonal School. The mid-19th-century one-room stone schoolhouse sits perfectly preserved at the northeast corner of the historic 83-acre Dunwoody Village property in Newtown Square. Once the kids are unloaded and inside, it’s down to business. He’s the schoolmaster; the visitors, his pupils.
“Did you know that when you walked through that door, you went back 166 years?” Freeman asks Lisa Dowd’s fourth-grade class. “Did you feel any different? And what about the shape of this building? Octagon: What does that mean? Eight sides. Right. There’s a six-sided building not too far from here called the Pentagon. A 10-sided building is a decagon. But enough geometry—today is more of a history lesson.”
Dressed in an open-collared, white shirt and tan suspenders and pants, the 86-year-old Freeman hangs his straw hat on a peg behind his schoolmaster’s desk. If the large potbelly stove in the middle of the room was operational—and if it was winter—it would easily heat the room. Seven windows on as many sides start just above the students’ eye level. The entrance, a double-Dutch door, fills the eighth side.
“You can hear the traffic (on Route 3), but you can’t see it, which means you’re more likely to keep to your work,” Freeman suggests. “Good idea, right?”
Always of interest is the common water bucket with a ladle made from a gourd, the hickory sticks, and the dunce cap.
“You were allowed one drink per seven-hour day,” Freeman tells his captive audience. “This hickory stick wasn’t kindling for the wood stove. You would get just enough of this to say (pointing to his head), ‘I won’t do that again!’ But that was for the boys only. Girls would hold out their right hand if they were left-handed, or their left if they were right-handed. They would get a tap—not to injure, but to smarten them up. The dunce was reserved for something serious. So if you’re ever called a dunce, it’s not a compliment.”
What is a compliment, however, is the status of the Hood Octagonal School—and the national, state and local movement it helped spawn to identify, preserve and celebrate historic schools. Hood, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, is a model for what others also seek for their old schools. Hood, for example, hosts field trips each fall and spring, and also opens for the township’s annual Colonial Days celebration each June.
Buildings that were once schools are being preserved as museums, historical societies, homes, offices or community spaces. A more-than-coincidental convergence of savvy, preservation-minded states and townships, which understand the need for tourist attractions, are taking advantage of federal grant money and the green building environmental pulse to salvage and reuse old schools. Many already have built-in “green” advantages in heating, natural lighting and ventilation. “No matter where the sun is, we get light [inside Hood],” Freeman says.
“A lot of [one-room schoolhouses] have fallen down, so the ones still standing become more valuable,” says Country School Association of America (CSAA) board member Mark W. Dewalt, an education professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.
Books are popping up everywhere. Dewalt finished his Amish Education in the United States and Canada nine months before the Oct. 2, 2006, mass-murder-suicide at West Nickel Mines School, a one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County. The massacre also directed the spotlight, though negatively, on one-room schoolhouses. Dewalt’s next book will include a major chapter on the school shooting. Another book, Under One Roof: A Traveler’s Guide to America’s One-Room Schoolhouse Museums, edited by Grace S. Shoerner, lists over 300 existing schoolhouse museums by state.
Anna Mae Miller, who turns 88 this month, attended the Western School, a one-room school a half-mile off Route 113 near Furman Gyger’s farm in Kimberton, in first and second grade. She was one of three students in first grade, then a Gyger boy died in a trapping accident. Anna Yeager became her only classmate.
“I always giggled, so I sat in the corner more than once, then I’d still giggle up there,” recalls Miller, who now lives outside West Chester in a retirement home after working 50 years as a nurse at Chester County Hospital. “We were lucky, though. We learned right from wrong, and not to depend on anyone else. We learned things like honesty and kindness, which you don’t even hear about today.”
Beginning in 2000, the National Trust for Historic Preservation selected historic neighborhood schools for its list of the “Eleven Most Endangered Places” to increase public awareness. It has a current referendum seeking to prevent tear-downs.
Likewise, the CSAA, which incorporated in 2007, is dedicated to identifying and preserving the remaining one-room schoolhouses. There are still about 400 active public one-room schoolhouses in the United States, though the Amish have some 1,200, Dewalt says. “It’s a constant search,” adds the CSAA’s Susan Fineman. “It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”
At the state level, in 2006, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) launched “Educate Yourself About Preservation: Preserving Pennsylvania’s Historic Schools” at the Hood Octagonal School, which was then formally added to the National Register of Historic Places.
“The initiative essentially asks school districts to consider the economic and practical viability of preserving and reusing older school buildings as an alternative to constructing new buildings that may use up precious open space and require mass busing of students,” says Kenneth C. Wolensky, a PHMC historian who spoke in Newtown Square when the preservation project was unveiled.
The project’s premise is that historic schools reflect the evolution of state education policy and funding, community development, and settlement patterns. Schools are a community’s anchor and source of pride. They also feature unique or unusual architecture.
The initiative includes a statewide survey to identify historic 20th-century public schools. Ultimately, its website (phmc.state.pa.us/bhp/schools.asp) will include survey results, a contextual analysis of historic schools, bibliographic and tutorial resources for researchers and teachers, advocacy and outreach tools, and best-practice guidance for architects and planners.
One goal is to facilitate future nominations of historic school buildings to the National Register of Historic Places. Today, 289 historic school buildings in Pennsylvania are on the national list. Another 347 schools have been determined eligible for listing at the state level.
Other institutions and organizations support PHMC’s endeavor, including the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). Most PDE construction cost reimbursements to school districts are for the rehabilitation and
reuse of existing school buildings.
Late last fall, 2,400 Smart Growth schools’ radio messages aired statewide on 60 stations. The initiative also advocates the reuse of existing neighborhood schools—particularly if they’re historic—and promotes new-school designs that are compatible with their neighborhoods. The campaign has been adopted by the American Institute of Architects’ Pennsylvania board of directors as a theme to celebrate the organization’s 150th anniversary.
Jon Rednak, assistant executive director of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, dealt with Amish educators who run one-room schools before he recently retired as superintendent of the Solanco School District, south of Lancaster. One of those schools was West Nickel Mines, which was five miles from his office and two miles from his National Blue Ribbon Bart-Colerain Elementary in Christiana.
“We’d like to have had 10 elementary schools like it, but no one can afford it,” Rednak says. “We strived to maintain a small size that would take you back to the days of one-room schoolhouses, but even in Lancaster County, we’ve broken away from that because of construction costs. Small schools are cost prohibitive, so instead, we have the antithesis of what one-room schoolhouses once were.”
In Solanco, there are 35 one-room schoolhouses, but none are public. All are owned and operated by the Amish. In fact, Rednak says the last public one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County just closed, though with plenty of controversy. “Anywhere you can have that close-knit one-to-one relationship with students should be lauded for attempting to keep that piece of history alive,” he says. “There’s a sense of safety in small numbers, and the notion that it’s ‘our’ school.”
At the Hood Octagonal School, there isn’t electricity, nor lights Robert Freeman can flicker to grab the attention of the Worrall Elementary students, so he taps a desktop with a small, square wood block. “If you hear this, stop, look up here and keep quiet,” the schoolmaster says.
He’s asking the girls, who began by repeatedly inking their names in old script with quills of feather and steel points, to switch activities with the boys, who sat on benches, working on any of six math problems. They each used a slate board and a slate stylus. One problem is so difficult, Freeman says, “It took me three days to do it.”
A retired eighth-grade math teacher, for three years in Philadelphia and 28 years in West Chester, the Haverford School and Amherst College graduate now lives at Dunwoody, a retirement community on the old dairy farm where the barn, stone farmhouse and 1842 stone school remain.
Newtown Township once had five octagonal schoolhouses. Only the one built by William H. Dunwoody’s great grandfather, Joseph Hood, has survived. Its restoration was made possible by former Dunwoody resident Harry Rahn, who left $5,000 for the board to use as it wished. Work was completed in 1964.
A century earlier, if you were kept on the farm in the morning, you would report to school at 10 a.m. and stay until 5 p.m. If you had afternoon chores, you’d come at 8 a.m. and leave at 3 p.m. Chores differed in number and kind for girls (who had more) and boys, as one chart in the schoolhouse outlines. The girls’ chore list warns, “Laziness is the worst form of sin.” Under the boys’ list, a maxim suggests, “The idle fool is whipt (sic) at school. Be obedient.”
In arithmetic, questions often involved weights and measures in terms not so common today: hogsheads, gills and pecks. “You’d learn so much because you’d be in one grade but also hear what was going on in the next,” says 58-year-old Ben Woodland, whose grandmother, Margaret Windolph, taught at a one-room schoolhouse in Chester Springs.
When it’s time for Freeman’s charges to head outside for recess, he bangs his block of wood, then explains several Colonial-era make-do games, including the yo-yo, corn-cob-and-feather dart, and paddles to bat pinecones.
After recess, he ushers them into a science lesson on the attributes of the dandelion leaf in tea, soup, salad, wine and as a stain. “So remember, that’s five uses for something we call a weed,” Freeman says.
He closes with a history lesson on Lydia Darrah, the Revolutionary-era Philadelphia homemaker who crossed British lines to warn George Washington of the attack in the Battle of Brandywine.
“If not for her, Washington may have lost,” Freeman says. “He may have been killed. History may have turned out differently. We may have never become independent, and we may have lost our first president. Remember, one person can make a difference.”
The stories of three other one-room schoolhouses about to be given new life:
Pothouse and South Whitehorse roads, Schuylkill Township (Phoenixville)
Eighty years ago, Frank B. Foster saw that education out in the country—where he raised cattle and horses at his Charlestown Township estate—paled in comparison to that of the city. In response, he built three Chester County schools, one each in Schuylkill, Charlestown and East Pikeland townships.
A Haverford businessman who made his fortune in Congoleum flooring, Foster intended his buildings to be permanent. Many students were educated in these eight-year schools, with their thick stone walls. Some held May Day celebrations and Maypole dances, and crowned “Queens of the May.”
Still, Sandy Momyer, president and chair of Friends of Schuylkill School, finds her grassroots group working daily to preserve this piece of the past. In 2001, the Schuylkill School was singled out for demolition by the Phoenixville Area School District. Now the district and the Schuylkill Township Board of Supervisors are working on an agreement to save the historic structure, which was built in 1930 and where Momyer worked in the administrative office between 1960 and 1974.
“It’s never an easy fight,” says Momyer, the former executive director at Historic Yellow Springs, where she’s now the part-time archivist. “It had mold issues, which are always a red flag, and the newer parents decided the building was sick and not worth saving.
“But for us, it signaled the end of a tradition, the end of a distinctive landmark. Mr. Foster brought in music and intramural sports. He improved roadways to bring children to the schools and take them on field trips. His buildings became the center of activity—but the district was still determined.”
So is she.
In August 2002, Schuylkill School was declared eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places by the state Bureau for Historic Preservation. The state said the building reflects tradition and has historic and architectural significance, making it adverse to a tear-down. The school district then began considering adaptive uses, but eventually let the township take over the building as a $10-a-year rental.
Now, plans are for an evening, weekend and summertime educational and historic resource center, and maybe even inclusion on the Schuylkill River Heritage trail.
Funds must still be raised for a new roof, windows and water-damage maintenance. A $10,000 Claneil Foundation grant helped get the ball rolling. So did $3,000 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Department of Community Economic Development grants—$7,000 from Rep. Carol Rubley and $5,000 from Sen. Andy Dinniman. The township, too, initially helped fund an adaptive reuse study and early structural and engineering studies.
“A lot [of people] think you just destroy and build anew,” says Momyer, who also serves as chair of the Schuylkill Township Historical Commission. “We don’t. Those who don’t have the vision for what could be done with an old building just say, ‘It’s ugly. We don’t like it, so just tear it down.’ Part of our goal is to help people have a wider vision to see what can be done.”
Foster’s Charlestown School is part of the Great Valley School District and has already been adapted into the renovation of the new Charlestown School on Route 29 and Phoenixville Pike off Route 202.
The East Pikeland School, which is part of the Phoenixville Area School District, remains open, but the district is also building a new school nearby called the Kimberton School. “We’re keeping an eye on it,” Momyer says.
Locust Grove School
Locust Grove and Corrine roads, Pocopson Township (West Chester)
Sarah Mims, chair of the Pocopson Township Historical Committee (PTHC), spent the morning meeting with the carpenter, discussing what door will best secure and historically duplicate the one from bygone years at the Locust Grove School. It’s an important—and expensive—decision. The re-built door may run upwards of $3,000. A period lock may cost another $500.
By 2009, the township, which purchased the one-room stone schoolhouse in 2004, wants to restore the building to a circa-1890s schoolhouse and allow children from neighboring schools to visit like they do at Hood Octagonal. As such, the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District is incorporating the visits into an approved elementary school curriculum.
The PTHC says the school’s preservation will reinforce the village-like atmosphere of Locust Grove, balance the impact of new development, and serve as a permanent home for township artifacts and civic and governmental meetings, all while re-gentrifying a currently uninhabitable building and providing a link to the past.
Locust Grove School, which was abandoned with the consolidation of the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District in 1930s, has been a township fixture since 1865. At least, that’s when school records begin there.
Back then, there were three one-room schoolhouses in the then-Pocopson School District. One of them, the Baker School, was dismantled in 1960. The other, Pocopson School on Route 52 near Denton Hollow Road, is now a furniture store. The other, Locust Grove, was previously a residence and rental property.
“The township thought it was a great project,” Mims says. “We have discovered a lot of information, including photographs that we intend to share with the community about our schoolhouse. We have original teacher contracts, teacher and enrollment lists, and minutes from school board meetings. We also have copies of invoices from the construction of the building. One of our most famous citizens, Christian Sanderson, was a teacher at the school.”
All restoration funds have been raised through private, state and federal sources without having to tap local tax dollars. A grant even subsidized the $126,000 purchase price. This year, enough funds were raised from the Fair Play Foundation in Wilmington, Del., for a new cedar roof and a bell tower. Windows were also sealed, and the new door installed. The construction budget for the remaining renovations is $210,000.
“We’re acting on behalf of the township,” Mims says. “We’re all volunteers, and that, too, has helped sell it.”
Abraham Fetters-White School
Route 100 and Worthington Road, Uwchlan Township (Exton)
“Initially, it was so hard to come in here,” Fran Pluchino admits. “It was an eyesore—definitely.”
Now, she and Frank Perina, the two remaining members of the Abraham Fetters-White School Preservation Society, hope to reopen this recently renamed one-room schoolhouse’s doors this fall.
Working from several interior and exterior 1902-05 photos, and in conjunction with the Uwchlan Township Historic Commission, contractors demolished a 1950s residential addition, gutted the interior, cleared its overgrown lot that Boy Scouts then landscaped, remedied mold and termite problems, and installed a new septic system. In June, only interior work remained.
Largely, the building will be used as a community meeting room, and will include two restrooms and a kitchen. One artifact-decorated area will be dedicated to its history as a schoolhouse. It will be open for monthly tours scheduled with the local historical society.
“It’s on the state preservation list, but to maintain it as a museum. If we had millions, we’d do it, no question. But we don’t,” Pluchino says. “It’s been an uphill struggle, but we’re looking at its value to the community. School children could still come in on class trips or host assemblies here. We don’t know what all it could be, but we know from whence it came.”
When it opened in the fall of 1817, the then-called White School was named for the color of clay used in its construction. It remained a school for 101 years before closing in 1918. Reunions were held until 1939.
Two congregations, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church of Lionville and Exton’s St. Paul’s United Church of Christ (which now owns the schoolhouse) began worship in the schoolhouse in the 1830s.
By 1863, the White School, which was originally across the way, became overcrowded with 60 students inside a 20-foot-square building. Directors Samuel Butler (the father of a congressman), Fred Bingaman, Abraham Fetters, Jacob Acker and Charles Moore borrowed $300 to build a new, larger school—the current one.
Namesake Abraham Fetters was a teacher at the White School for nine terms between 1850 and 1859. Under his guidance, the township’s first teacher’s association was established. He also created the township’s first public school library, “The Pupils’ Library of the White School, Uwchlan, Pa.,” on Dec. 31, 1857. Fetters later served as a captain during the Civil War, drilling his men on the streets of Lionville before heading to Harrisburg on the morning of Sept. 16, 1862.
From 1922 to 1998, the schoolhouse was a rental property. When it was finally vacated, Pluchino, the preservation society’s secretary and treasurer, and Perina, its chairman, plus four others, negotiated a 25-year lease. The society has raised $140,000 of an estimated $200,000 in restoration costs, chiefly from the Arcadia Foundation, the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau, community donors, and county, state and matching grants. Some of the money has come from their pockets.
“We’re so close, we can taste it,” Pluchino says. “We’re picking out lighting fixtures.”