In June 2007, Dr. Chris Manaseri, then superintendent of the Brighton Central School District, spoke at a Phelps Historical Society event about the value of saving one-room schools. Dr. Manaseri had extensively studied many such schoolhouses, once the mainstay of American public education. He helped preserve two in the Finger Lakes region.
Two women dedicated to education were in the audience, and were inspired to replicate for today’s students the classroom experience of former generations.
Mary Lue Mueller, a former school-board member for both the Midlakes School District and Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES, was aware of a surviving local school building, the Coonsville School, also known as Manchester District #12. Built in 1928, it was originally located at the southwest corner of Route 96 and County Rd. 7. Grades 1 through 8 were taught there until the mid-1940s when centralization occurred. It was moved twice in the 1970s to make room for a new Manchester Town Hall and other needs. A town resolution protected it from destruction. In 2007, the former school provided storage space. The building’s pedagogical past was obscured by its appearance: raised up on cinder blocks, its windows boarded up, and surrounded by fencing.
Mueller and Joy Wilkes, a retired elementary school teacher, shared a vision of students taking a field trip on their own school grounds where they could role-play in the one-room schoolhouse. With others, the women formed the Midlakes One-Room Schoolhouse (MORS), a volunteer committee committed to restoring the Coonsville School and relocating it to the Midlakes School District Campus, which serves the Phelps-Clifton Springs area. After the Town of Manchester allowed MORS to take ownership of the building, the Midlakes Board of Education agreed to accept it with the assurance that no taxpayer funds would be used for the project.
In the early 20th century, there were 200,000 schoolhouses across the U.S with 10,000 school districts in New York State. By mid-century many had disappeared due to the centralization movement. Dr. Manaseri proposed that one-room-schools be preserved and utilized by today’s students. He had first-hand experience when he served as superintendent in two school districts: during the move of the MacDougall School to the Romulus Central School grounds in 1997, and in 2004 when Wheatland School No. 4 was moved to Wheatland Chili school district. The superintendent spoke of revitalizing these buildings to benefit today’s children by promoting an appreciation of one’s sense of place and one’s history.
The MORS group worked tirelessly to raise money along with in-kind contributions for the project. One volunteer, Terry Mays, had been the building and grounds supervisor at the Romulus Central School System during the move of the MacDougall School. He built a replica schoolhouse to attract contributions. A hopeful sign reading “Move Me” was put on the school. There were monthly planning meetings, appearances at festivals and other public venues, grant-writing, plus sales of S’mores (for MORS), T-shirts, and commemorative bricks. They linked to the not-for-profit status of the Clifton Springs Historical Society to receive donations. The Phelps Historical Society accepted artifacts on their behalf to furnish the school building.
MORS gathered more than funds. Former students were sought, including Manchester resident Shirley Govenor VanderWall, one of the last students to attend the school before it closed in 1941. At the time, VanderWall was entering the 4th grade. She has vivid memories of walking to school, and learning by listening to older students doing their lessons in the one-room classroom setting. Such recollections were important in planning future programming.
Finally, on August 18, 2009, MORS volunteers gathered to watch the historic move. The Ontario County Workforce had removed the schoolhouse roof to clear the utility wires along the six-mile route to the Midlakes campus. The plaster walls and lead-based paint siding were gone and the windows stored. The frame was wrapped to protect the interior.
With an Ontario County Sheriff’s escort and a caravan of utility trucks, a flatbed rig on eight airplane wheels moved slowly east along Route 96 to Route 488. The rig was driven by Bernie Klug of Klug Crane Service. Klug’s father had moved the Coonsville School once for the Manchester Highway Department in the 1970s, and Bernie was responsible for the schoolhouse moves in the Romulus and Wheatland Chili school districts. There was an air of anticipation as the overly wide load took off. Traffic had been re-routed to clear the way for the precious cargo now bearing a large red ribbon and a gift tag reading, “To Midlakes Students from Community Support for MORS.” In less than two hours the schoolhouse arrived on the campus, and Klug artfully backed it onto a new concrete pad near the elementary school.
After a short celebration, the hard work resumed. The shell needed to be enclosed so the original floor and other remaining parts would not be ruined by rain. The Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES carpentry students would not be able to work on the project until the school year, so Wilkes’ husband and son put up the roof rafters. Once the school year started the students built an entry room to replace the original, which was too rotted to reuse. Putting up the siding, returning windows to their locations, installing a ramp and refinishing the interior were carried out. A picket fence and schoolhouse sign were added with donations from local businesses and individuals. Old primers and related artifacts were labeled and displayed.
Barbara Chapman can empathize with all the MORS group has achieved. She was active in the restoration of the Wheatland No. 4 Schoolhouse. “My husband and I have been very involved in the entire project – he in the reconstruction and myself in the history and programming.” Chapman, the Wheatland Deputy Town Historian, says they have developed a variety of educational programs since opening the building in 2004 but admits promoting visitation with teachers is ongoing. This year there were classes at the schoolhouse each day during the last week of school. A successful program with the Girl Scouts, begun in 2008, has been attended by 150 girls and their leaders to earn a “Local Lore” badge.
“It could only happen in a small town,” says Wilkes of the support MORS received. The Coonsville School has newly refinished donated desks with attached seats. A coatroom and individual lunch pails await young visitors. A 48-star American flag from the early 20th century hangs near a portrait of George Washington. McGuffey Readers will provide authentic lessons. As a concession to winter weather, insulation was added during the renovation, along with a propane stove. An upright piano in the corner was a gift from the family of a teacher who taught in a one-room school.
Wilkes reports that as of June 2011, over 40 school classes have been held in the building. Adult groups have also visited including the Clifton Springs and Phelps Historical Societies – only four years after Wilkes and Mueller first heard about the innovative reuse of one-room-schools.
To see the school
On the second Sunday of each month, an open house is held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. To schedule the use of the schoolhouse, contact Joy Wilkes at firstname.lastname@example.org, 315-548-4080 or Mary Lue Mueller at email@example.com, 315-462-3414.
by Laurel C. Wemmett