Tuesday, June 7th, 2016
Woman's interest in old buildings spurs new life for one-room school
By Claire Giesige
Michelle Houts gives a presentation at Landfair School. For the past four years,. . .
A local author's passion for historic buildings has given an old one-room schoolhouse a new life.
Michelle Houts has restored Landfair School on Erastus-Durbin Road, using a mix of original pieces, new additions and items from other one-room schoolhouses.
The project began four years ago, but the school has long interested "The Beef Princess of Practical County" author. During the early days of her marriage, she and her husband lived in a house visible from one of the school's windows. She used to load her daughter into a stroller and walk past it on her way to visit neighbors, peeking in as she went.
"We would go by here and peek in the door when it was a machine storage unit," she said. "I would look in here and think, 'wouldn't it be neat if someday somebody would restore that schoolhouse?' "
After the property's owners died, Houts began to worry about the building's future.
"There have been buildings that have had to come down, buildings that have crumbled," she said. "It's always sad for me to see those pieces of history go, so I asked my father-in-law to please not tear down the schoolhouse and wouldn't you know, my next birthday card was the deed to two and a half acres and the schoolhouse."
While renovating, Houts researched the history of the old brick school, making it a point to interview former students. The school, which was built in 1894, closed its doors in 1940, as best as they can recall, she said.
"I felt this urgency, not to get the building done, but to find out the history and to see if there were any students that went here," Houts said. "I knew if I didn't get their stories now, they would take them with them when they were no longer with us."
She was able to track down several living former students, some of whom attended an open house Houts hosted on Saturday, and gathered their stories.
Many former students remembered playing baseball on Friday afternoons against Joint School, a little white school down the road.
"Landfair had the better place to play ball so they came here," Houts said.
The Landfair alumni also remembered playing fox and goose; holding races; and a game called either Annie over, Andy over or Anthony over, depending on who was asked. For that game, the children would stand on either side of the building and try to throw a ball over the roof.
On Saturday, Houts entertained the crowd with other quaint memories made in a one-room schoolhouse. Many spelling bees, ciphering matches and recitations took place within the four plastered walls. One student shared with her that a teacher would have students bring a potato, an onion or milk every Friday and would make a pot of potatoes over the stove for their lunch.
Along with students, Houts researched teachers' names. She found the little country school had a high turnover rate.
"We noticed the teachers changed quite frequently. We don't know if the kids were that bad or what," she joked. "Almost no teachers stayed for more than two or three years."
On a slightly grimmer note, Houts pointed out that a nearby cemetery marks another piece of local history: a diphtheria outbreak in 1897. She said it was so bad, one family, the Squires, had three girls buried in the same month.
"That was a tough year for diphtheria in the area," she said. "Seventeen of the 24 people buried in the cemetery are under 10. It wasn't meant to be, but it kind of ended up being a children's cemetery."
During her research, she never discovered for sure the reason why the school was called Landfair, although she has a guess. An area superintendent in 1868 was named Edward Landfair. He also served as Celina's mayor for six years.
As far as the renovation, Houts said the outside is close to being original.
"It's authentic on the outside, comfortable and functional on the inside. I'm really partial to heat and electricity," she said. "Originally there were so many thoughts: should it be a museum, should it look exactly like the original one-room schoolhouse? I wanted to make it a bookstore because that would be a dream come true. But in the end we decided on a writing space."
She now uses it to pen her books, and a writers' group meets there as well.
Some of the original features include the wainscoting that lines the walls, restored to its former shine, the plaster and most of the window trim. Items such as the slate chalkboard and the bell in the white bell tower are not original to the building but did come from one-room schoolhouses.
Pictures of the renovation can be seen on the school's Facebook page under "The Little Red Brick Schoolhouse."