Class resumes: Restored 1881 schoolhouse offers a glimpse into the past

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By Heather Lusk

On an acre of land in Perry Township, tucked between farmland and an old cemetery, sits the last unaltered one-room schoolhouse in Boone County.

It could have been demolished or converted into a home, but in 2004 the owners of the property at 4555 E 750 S and adjacent farmland in what is now Zionsville offered to donate the building and the land to anyone who wanted to restore it.

Perry Township resident Jack Belcher rallied friends for a meeting to see if anyone was up to the task. A group of seven people formed, and soon the Howard School Restoration Group received tax exempt status.

“Jack made us commit to no tax money, just volunteer donations,” said Bill Coan, adding that they received grants from groups such as Boone County REMC and the Boone County Community Foundation.

“When we had our dedication, we didn’t owe any money,” Belcher said.

When a structural engineer first surveyed the property, a tree was growing in the middle of the building. There were no windows or floor. Plaster had fallen to expose the lathe below, and the roof was unsalvageable. But the engineer said the foundation was solid, so solid that a few years later it was unaffected when a cement truck driver accidentally backed into the side of the school during restoration.

The group relied on their own skills and contacts to restore the property.

“Usually, when we didn’t know what we were doing, someone would come in and help us,” said Belcher, who had a vision for the property.  “We never ran across anything we couldn’t overcome.  If we didn’t know how to do it, Dave (Sherrieb) went on the computer.”

Sherrieb learned skills such as replacing the shake shingle roof through an online video.

“It was kind of enjoyable,” Belcher said. “It was a challenge.”

Very little was salvageable in the building aside from some inkwells and a patch of original floor near the door, but restorers were able to collect items from similar-era buildings, including a dilapidated schoolhouse that was being used to store farm equipment. The group was able to use the bricks from the collapsing building for repairs at Howard School and repurposed the remainder for restrooms, in lieu of the outhouse, and the walkway.

During the restoration, a bricklayer determined the top of the windows with an arched brick detail had been filled with white mortar, which was recreated.

After nearly seven years of labor, the restored building was dedicated May 1, 2011.

“We started with seven people, and when we had our dedication we still had the same seven people,” Belcher said.

Among those at the dedication was Hazel Tharp, who had been a student at the school when it unexpectedly closed during Christmas break in 1916 when Perry Central schools consolidated.

Tharp, born in 1903, was instrumental in answering questions about the school’s interior and exterior as the Howard School Restoration Group attempted to recreate the furnishings. She died in 2012.

The school was officially known as Perry School No. 1, but the locals called it Howard School because the property was originally owned by John B. Howard, an early settler in Boone County.

“As a community, the people who lived in the area and sent their kids here never really called it Perry School No. 1,” said Coan, who lives in Perry Township.

The school was built around 1881 to replace a wooden school in the same location destroyed by fire. After closing, the building sat empty for nearly 100 years.

The Howard School Restoration Group continues to raise funds to cover roughly $3,000 per year for lights and insurance for the building. It sells engraved walkway bricks for $100, hosts chili dinners and a yard sale in July at the school. All proceeds are used to maintain the property. Groups such as the Community Foundation for Boone County, Miss Boone County and Boy Scouts rent the school for meetings or programs.

The restoration group also offers field trips, with two volunteer schoolmarms teachings students during a full or half day of school. Students learn math, health and spelling interspersed with recess and lunch.

“We really enjoy doing it,” said Elaine Dickerson, a retired teacher who serves as one of the schoolmarms. “We feel really good about the program we put on.”

The interior recreates what students in grades one through eight would have experienced. Period desks face the slate chalkboard with bookshelves lining the walls. Dickerson said students rely on imagination to create games outside.

“When Jack and I interviewed Hazel Tharp, we asked if they had any playground equipment, and she said, ‘Heck, no. When we went to school, we went there to learn,”’ Coan said.

Historic Places

The Howard School is one of 11 buildings in Boone County listed on the National Register for Historic Places. They are:

  • Maplelawn (Zionsville)
  • Town Hall/Castle Hall (Zionsville’s original town hall)
  • The Pryor Brock Farmstead (west of Zionsville)
  • Traders Point Hunt Rural Historic District
  • The Boone County Courthouse (Lebanon)
  • Strange Nathanial Cragun House (Lebanon)
  • Oak Hill Cemetery (Lebanon)
  • Andrew B. VanHuys Round Barn (south of Lebanon)
  • Scotland Bridge (Clinton Township)
  • Thorntown Public Library
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