Scarce funding imperils many one-room schoolhouses

Posted: March 13, 2011

On a sunny day in 1897, the children put on their best clothes and lined up for a class picture in front of the brick, one-room schoolhouse.

The girls wore long dresses, ponytails, and braids. The boys donned jackets and ties. One boy held his younger sister's hand.

By the time the moment was captured, the Chesterford School in Maple Shade was already nearly 100 years old.

Now in its bicentennial year, "the Little Red Schoolhouse" has fallen on hard times. Tours have been suspended because of structural problems, and repairs are on hold until funding is secured.

Chesterford is one of more than a dozen one-room schoolhouses in Burlington County and among scores across the region, usually run by private groups struggling with upkeep when public and private money is hard to come by.

The Maple Shade Historical Society is waiting to learn whether the cash-strapped state - through the New Jersey Historic Trust - will provide $241,000 for the building's rehabilitation.

The decision, originally expected this month, has been delayed while budget issues are resolved in Trenton, said Deborah Marquis Kelly, chair of the trust. Maple Shade has provided nearly $120,000 and would provide a similar amount to match the state's total contribution to fix the roof, floor, and porch.

In Bucks County, the Shelly one-room schoolhouse in Richland Township also needs work, including brick and mortar repairs, and construction of a handicapped-accessible deck.

But one county commissioner last month questioned the application for $47,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funding to do the work, suggesting the money might be better spent on blighted low-income areas. The application was ultimately approved by the commissioners and submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"It's enormously expensive to maintain" the one-room schoolhouses, acknowledged Maureen O'Connor Leach, a member of the board of the Country School Association of America, a nonprofit organization of museum workers, teachers, preservationists, and historians that works to preserve the schools.

"With the beauty of age also comes deterioration," said Leach, also program director of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in New Jersey, which operates the Old Schoolhouse in Mount Holly, built in 1759 and one of the state's oldest. "Part of the challenge is keeping up with the day-to-day things . . .. State money is definitely drying up."

The schoolhouses are reminders of a time when a handful of students from about age 4 to 16 simultaneously learned reading, writing, and arithmetic within four walls.

In June, preserving and presenting these vestiges of the past will be the theme of the 11th annual conference of the Country School Association at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J.

Most historic-preservation projects "are in the same situation . . . unless they get money, they won't move forward," said architect Margaret Westfield of Westfield Architects & Preservation Consultants in Haddon Heights, who has worked on Chesterford and several other one-room schoolhouse restorations in South Jersey.

"I like the work because it saves our heritage and makes a difference for future generations," she said. "The kids go [to the one-room schoolhouses] and experience the whole thing.

"What better way to learn about history than to be immersed in it?"

At the Shelly schoolhouse in Richland, a visiting fourth grader once was asked whether she preferred the 1885 school to her own, said Vic Stevens, president of the Richland Historical Society.

"She said, 'It was really nice in 1885 from what I can see here, but I like it better today because I can be an astronaut,' " recalled Stevens, who got word this month that the building had been approved to be on the National Register of Historic Places.

At the Chesterford School, also on the register, many of the needs are painfully obvious. Built in 1811, it hosted classes until 1907 and later became a general store before being turned into a historic site.

On Friday, members of the Maple Shade Historical Society looked up at a gaping hole in the ceiling. Water has been leaking through from the distinctive bell tower above.

"When it falls down, it's gone forever," said historical society president Betty Procopio, a retired teacher who took children to Chesterford and whose grandmother attended a one-room school in Ohio. "It's a link to the past, a visible landmark."

Rich Rowan, treasurer and member of the board of directors of the historical society, said the school "needs a lot of help."

"That's why we're depending on the grant," he said as he stood near a potbellied stove, a 15-star American flag, and inkwell desks. "Without it, we can only stabilize the building.

"In these times, it's just difficult to get anything done."

But he, Procopio, and others are trying. "We have to," he said. "This is a really big part of Maple Shade's history."


Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

 


 

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