- Associated Press - Saturday, July 18, 2015

DEERFIELD, Ind. (AP) - Before Bobby Manning reaches his house off Indiana 28 in Randolph County, he sees the one-room schoolhouse.

He calls it his beacon.

Not that he needs it to find his way home, he clarifies, he’s lived up the road for 47 years. His children, and now grandchildren, grew up riding their bicycles to the school.

“We just like the old school. It’s there, you know?” Manning said. “I’d hate not to see that there, and that’s not going to happen.”

Manning, along with a group of like-minded people, is restoring the building.

The schoolhouse - Schoolhouse No. 5 - sits a few feet from the road, at the edge of a farm. Like the nearby town of Deerfield, it’s easy to pass by if you’re driving fast. But if you slow down, it starts to look like something special.

It’s clearly old. The bricks are crumbling in a few places and the roof is stained, the large windows are covered by wood and the makeshift door is really a few pieces of plywood.

The last time it was used as a classroom was 1911, more than 100 years ago. At that time one-room schoolhouses were common across the country. There were likely hundreds of them in Randolph County, each only a couple miles apart to allow children to walk year round.

As schools consolidated, they fell out of use. Now there are only 12 school houses in the county - about 550 are left nationwide, according to the One-Room Schoolhouse Center - and fewer are in shape to be restored.

It’s the long, pointed windows that makes this schoolhouse stand out. And the way the front juts out to make a little entry. It’s Gothic revival style architecture, and it’s unusual for a simple one-room schoolhouse.

Unusual enough to have been highlighted by Indiana Landmarks in 1998, and a candidate for the National Register of Historic Places, if restored.

Greg Sommer knew the schoolhouse was special before any professional told him so. It has been sitting on his family’s property for years.

The Sommer family bought the farm in 1998 from the Jacksons, who had owned it since 1917 and inspired locals to call it the “Jackson School.”

The Jacksons used the building to store grain, but chose not to knock down one wall to store equipment, which was the fate of many nearby schoolhouses.

Sommer’s parents, Tom and Patsy, always wanted to do something with it. But when Tom died three years ago the schoolhouse was still the same.

Now Sommer is living on the family farm, feet away from the schoolhouse. He spends his extra time taking pictures of it. He’s got some with a sunrise, some with a sunset, one in every season. One picture won him a title at the Randolph County Fair and was named the most artistic photo of 2015 by Indiana DNR.

It would be hard to find someone who loves the school more, except maybe Jon Meeks.

Meeks carries a box full of documents with him. He was a metropolitan plan commissioner for 28 years and worked closely with historic preservation. He is also married to Carol, who has worked at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park for 30 years.

He’s the one who figured out how to do something with the schoolhouse.

Meeks, Sommer and Manning got together and created a nonprofit - Friends of Ward Township District No. 5 School - with six board members on Oct. 1, 2014 and began trying to find money.

The Community foundation of Randolph County gave them $10,000, Lily Endowment gave them a matching grant giving $1 for every $2 raised. They’ve got about $25,000 so far.

The plan is to return the building to how it was in 1900 - complete with a pot-belly stove, desks and old school books - for schools and groups to experience.

So far they’ve cleared out the building, secured the windows to avoid future damage, removed the ceiling to get rid of “critters” and repaired missing pieces of the roof.

Inside they found a chalkboard, which is really just plywood painted black, stretching across one wall and an eraser. On the walls were a few remaining letters of stenciled messages.

One above the chalkboard likely said, “Wisdom is more precious than jewels,” Meeks said, although only the words “precious than jewels” remain. Above the door are the words “Upward and Onwards.”

The three men survey their progress.

“It smells 1,000 times better,” Sommer said.

Next they have to stabilize the foundation, fix the brick work and repair the roof. It will probably take three or four years to fully restore the school, Meeks said. Considering the building’s age, it’s not a lot.

“It’s like a fortress,” Meeks said.

“The rafter work, in my opinion, is ahead of its time,” Manning said. “It’s how we are doing it now.”

Manning went to a one-room schoolhouse, Leora Brown School in Corydon, for two years during his childhood, although it was decades after Schoolhouse No. 5 closed.

As a fifth- and sixth-grader in the 1950s, Manning and his younger brother walked to the school with about 30 other students in grades 1 through 7. Younger children sat on the left and older children on the right. Sometimes a couple girls in grade 7 would help out the younger ones. One boy had the responsibility of waking up early and starting a coal fire in the potbelly stove during the winter.

“That one-room school, I enjoyed that. It was a lot of fun,” the 71-year-old said. “To me, I just went to school. I liked school.”

When it closed, Manning went to a larger school in Bryant. He enjoyed having extra activities offered, including art and shop classes. He was the only student who received a grade for art in Corydon when his teacher asked him to draw a picture and put it up on the blackboard. It was a drawing of a farm, done in crayon.

He’s told his children and grandchildren about the one-room schoolhouse, and taken many of them to see it after it was restored. Now he’s looking forward to doing the same with Schoolhouse No. 5.

“I think it’s important for children and grandchildren to know their grandparents’ history,” he said. “I hope they keep that in their minds. Maybe someday it will be important to them, and they’ll think ‘Oh yeah, I remember Grandpa telling us about that.’”

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Source: The (Muncie) Star Press, https://tspne.ws/1TD3KCw

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Information from: The Star Press, https://www.thestarpress.com

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