THREE OAKS — The current plan and passion of Chris Mitchell (a Three Oaks Township trustee who also serves on the Planning Commission) is to garner community support, enthusiasm and funding to enable the restoration of the historic one-room Spring Creek School that still stands on the corner of Three Oaks and Donner roads where it was built in 1886.
Mitchell’s hope is that if the project is successful the brick building that holds so many memories may find new life educating future generations about what life was like out in the countryside in the 19th Century for all grade levels of students who shared a single classroom, and the dedicated teachers who provided their lessons.
To that end Mitchell hosted a meeting at Three Oaks Township Hall on July 10 for the purpose of organizing a group of like-minded people intent on going “old school” and restoring the old building to its original state along with period furnishings.
“It’s also our intent to research the history of the school and document the stories of students and teachers from that time period for future generations to enjoy,” Mitchell said.
And, believe it or not, there are some former Spring Creek School students around to tell that first-hand living history. Tom Jelinek attended the meeting and said that his aunt, Elsie Zabel, began her formal education there.
Mitchell noted that preserving that type of history is important and a great way to connect the current and future generations to their roots.
“The school provided education for many children of farm families in the area, and I believe the source education for those children and the way of life in those times has significant historical value,” he commented. “I, and others I have talked with, also have a passion not to lose the one-room school history.”
Mitchell said that while the interior of the building is in need of quite a bit of restoration work after being vacant for a long period of time, the structure retained a very pleasing look and had “good bones.”
“It’s also been a favorite subject of artists and photographers over the years,” he said.
Another strong proponent of the project is community contributor Allen Turner ,who is now a full-time township resident at his Spring Creek Farm.
“I drive by the school nearly every day, and I’d really like to see it fixed up,” he said. “This has been talked about, but now we need to start doing something.”
He noted that Elizabeth Chamberlain, the daughter of Henry Chamberlain, was one of the first teachers in the community.
The cost for the restoration project, which could be done in stages, is currently estimated to be in the $60,000 range and would include masonry work, work on the floors, painting, framing, drywalling, insulation, ventilation, and creating a parking area. Also, the coal chute is in need of a new door, and the classic outhouse could use a little work.
Turner was quick to put his money where his mouth was and pledged $15,000 to the project, voicing the hope that other generous civic-minded members of the community would follow his example.
It was the consensus of the attendees that the first step needed to be crunching the numbers and putting a firm figure for the overall cost of the project in place.
Dan Versaw said that he felt a general contractor with a broad range of knowledge and a long list of contacts should be sought.
“I think we need to get the scope of the work laid out, and then narrow down what needs to be accomplished and at what price,” he said. “It’s not like we’re going to be doing a total rehab on a house, but we need to find the right person to do this.”
Versaw went on to suggest seeking someone older who may be semi-retired and interested in this unique and historic type of project.
Turner concurred and said he felt this would be “a fun project, and something very good for Three Oaks and the entire Harbor Country area.”
He said he would contact people who may be interested in contributing, and that he would also reach out to The Pokagon Fund in expectation that this type of project would be a good fit for the educational and historical things they were interested in supporting.
Turner also suggested that a portion of the interior space should remain open to make it more amenable to holding special events there.
Jelinek said he was optimistic that some of the materials needed for the restoration would be donated, or at least obtained at discounted prices.
Gathering period furnishings got a very good start: Township supervisor George Mangold bought a box at a rummage sale that contained the Spring Creek School clock. Like the building, it has lost a little of its luster over the years and has lost its two hands, but it still has a pretty face and is well worth trying to bring back to life.
Mitchell said that of the estimated 7,000 one room schoolhouses that operated in Michigan into the late 1800s, only 29 have been restored and and are maintained as museums, and none are in Berrien County.
“If this project is successful and Spring Creek School is restored as it once was, that would make it number 30 according to the Michigan One-Room Schoolhouse Association, and becoming that number 30 is our goal,” Mitchell concluded.
Those with comments, questions or contributions are welcome to contact Mitchell via email at: email@example.com.