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Little ol' school house getting new life

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Posted on September 10, 2012 |
By Xian Chiang-Waren and John McCright



Starksboro schoolhouse_2526.jpg
GREG ORVIS STANDS in front of the Jerusalem Schoolhouse in his native South Starksboro. Orvis, who attended grade school in the 1874 building, is part of a group working to restore the historic structure and make it available for more community events. Independent photo/John S. McCright.

SOUTH STARKSBORO — Greg Orvis easily recalls the days when the one big classroom at the Jerusalem Schoolhouse in South Starksboro was buzzing with activity. As many as 27 students in grades 1 through 8  learned their lessons under the watchful eye of Mrs. Wyman when Orvis attended the school in the late 1950s and ’60s.

“She was very organized, and some of the older kids helped the younger kids,” Orvis, 61, said of Lucy Wyman, who taught at the grade school for years.

“She gave us a lot of latitude, but when she gave you a job to do, boy, you better do it,” he continued. “If she expected 100 out of you and you got 90, she let you know.”

The historic Jerusalem Schoolhouse, the last town-owned, one-room schoolhouse in Starksboro, closed years ago. But in recent years it has come to life again, hosting regular meetings of the Ladies Home Circle, the Bone Builders exercise class, and a twice-monthly Episcopal gathering.

A group of area residents known as the Friends of the Jerusalem Schoolhouse committee has been working to restore the building and make it a hub of even more activity.

The building has the potential to do even more, explained Nancy Orvis, Greg’s wife and a member of the Friends of the Jerusalem Schoolhouse committee, which has worked for the past four years to raise funds for repairs and improvements to the site.

“We want a new kitchen that will facilitate dinners and hunters’ breakfasts,” she said. “We would also like the building to be an emergency shelter in case of a flood. South Starksboro is far removed from the village, up on Route 17. It’s a growing community. It would be nice to have something here. We are hopeful that once the building is renovated and restored it will be used much more often.”

Orvis said the schoolhouse needs a new heating system, new wiring and plumbing improvements. One of the committee’s major goals is to raise enough money to keep the schoolhouse heated year-round. These days, the water pipes are drained each fall after hunters’ breakfasts are held there, limiting the space’s use during the winter months.

Now recognized as a site worthy of cultural preservation by the National Registry of Historic Places, the Jerusalem Schoolhouse was built in 1874. It was a church as well as a schoolhouse until 1968.

“There are quite a few people still in the South Starksboro area who went to school there,” Orvis said.

“My husband … has sentimental feelings about it,” she added, laughing.

Greg Orvis obviously has a lot of affection for Mrs. Wyman. He tells about the time she saw a deer outside the bank of windows and let the boys who had come to school with hunting rifles in hand go track it.

He also has plenty of stories about how the school at one time was heated by two big stoves — one at either end of the room — before a central, forced air system was installed during his time there. In nice weather the students played ball in the side yard, making special accommodations for the geography (a cemetery and Baldwin Creek were obstacles) and the fact that players stretched in age from 6 to 14.

Over the past few years the Friends of the Jerusalem Schoolhouse have gathered several thousand dollars to help restore the elegant old building. An architect has drawn up plans and the committee plans to begin repairs and restorations next spring.

“We’re trying to bring this up to modern standards for the next 100 years,” Greg Orvis said.

All that remains is to finish filling the bank account.

On Sunday, Sept. 16, a fundraiser (or, as Nancy Orvis calls it, a “funraiser”) will be held in the Jerusalem Schoolhouse from 1 to 5 p.m. Local musicians will perform, children can enjoy face painting and horseback rides, and a potluck lunch will be served at 1:30 p.m. There is no entry fee — fundraising during the event will be based on donations and a small flea market, and additional efforts will be made through grant writing.

“We just want people to come have a good time, see the building, and enjoy,” Nancy Orvis said.

The hope is that once the renovations get under way, community enthusiasm will build, and Starksboro residents might volunteer time and services.

“We have electricians and plumbers in town,” she said. “If we get a lot of volunteer support, we might get through the renovations for half the price.”

After nearly five years of fundraising efforts, Orvis is excited to see the project get off the ground.

“We just want it to take off and get done! We want to see the day when the Friends of the Jerusalem Schoolhouse disbands — we’ve done what we set out to do, now let’s let the community enjoy.”

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