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The one-room schoolhouse, circa 2001

Taking a page from history, Southwest Greensburg re-creates a turn-of-the-century learning environment

Sunday, January 07, 2001

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

SOUTHWEST GREENSBURG -- As chief of the Greensburg Fire Department for more than a quarter century, Eddie Hutchinson has clambered across hundreds of roofs, at times in dangerous situations.

An electrical outlet provides the only modern reminder as Stephen Todaro, left, and Jason Hopkins write on the chalkboard at the just-built one-room schoolhouse alongside Amos K. Hutchinson Elementary School. The building was created to replicate an 1895 schoolhouse and serve as a center of "living history" for students and the Westmoreland County community. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

None of those climbs, though, proved quite as thrilling -- or personally satisfying -- as one he hazarded atop a new structure beside the elementary school named for his late brother, Amos K. Hutchinson, in Southwest Greensburg, Westmoreland County.

It was a fine fall day in late September, and volunteers had just finished installing the metal roof on a reproduction one-room schoolhouse. Now it was time for the finishing touch: placing a bell tower and an 1892 cast-iron bell from the former Southwest Greensburg grammar school on top.

It wouldn't be easy getting the 1,100-pound combo up there, but "Hutch," as the chief is known in this tight-knit community, isn't one to wait once something catches his fancy.

So there the grandfather of eight was at lunchtime, strapped onto the end of a 100-foot ladder extended from a fire truck, barking orders into a walkie-talkie as his son, Keith, carefully maneuvered a crane to lift first the tower and bell and then the tower hood into place.

"And every time it swayed, he'd swear," recalls Jeff Mansfield, Hutchinson principal.

But the chief, he adds with a grin, is one crusty, determined son of a gun. So no one was surprised when, 45 minutes after the operation had begun, the tower came to rest on the precise spot marked on the trusses. Or when Hutch, caught up in the moment, grabbed the rope cord and started wildly ringing the bell -- much to the delight of the dozens of children who were watching through the windows of the elementary school.

Hutch is obviously the driving force behind the One-Room Schoolhouse Project, which got under way about a year ago and is thought to be the only one of its kind in the country. A few weeks after installing the bell tower, he waves off, with obvious irritation, any suggestion he's done something special.

"Big deal," he huffs.

He spits tobacco juice from a small wad of chew into a garbage can, then wipes the corner of his mouth with the back of one of his large, callused hands.

"I was just so damn happy to get it up there," he says.

Fifth-graders from Hutchinson Elementary leave their modern school building and walk the short path to the new structure built by the Greensburg Salem School District and community volunteers who formed the One-Room Schoolhouse Project. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Back to school

Of all things American, perhaps nothing captures the imagination or fuels a sense of nostalgia like the one-room schoolhouse. As late as the 1950s, before the great school consolidation movement took hold, children in all parts of the country were being educated through eighth grade in these tiny, house-like structures.

At the turn of the century just past, more than 200,000 public one-room/one-teacher schoolhouses dotted the U.S. landscape; today, fewer than 400 are still functioning, according to Andrew Gulliford, director of the Center for Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., and one of the country's leading authorities on one-room schools.

Most, says Gulliford, are in remote parts of the country or beyond the bounds of safe school-bus travel in the winter: in fishing and logging camps in Alaska, on the islands off the coast of Maine, in the deep canyons of Utah.

Over the past half-century, thousands of the abandoned schools have been bulldozed to make way for farmers' crops or developers' plans or simply have been left to disintegrate, while a lucky few have found new lives as artists' studios, eateries, community centers and even remodeled homes. A 1900 wooden schoolhouse on Mount Nebo Road in Ohio Township, for instance, once housed a ballet school and today is home to a jewelry store, and the former Thompsonville School in McMurray, built in 1904, is now The Classroom restaurant.

Still others have been converted into museums of early education. Six years ago, the Derry Area School District moved the former Atlantic No. 40 schoolhouse, constructed in the coal-mining town of Atlantic in 1909 and used as a farm storage building from 1958 to 1994, to a site near Grandview School. Furnished with period furniture, it's used as a living classroom for educational programs and community activities.

Because many of the education techniques one-room schoolhouse teachers relied on are back in style -- such as multi-age teaching, peer mentoring and cooperative learning -- the concept of the one-room schoolhouse is still very much alive, says Gulliford, though most are out of the public school loop. He points to the home schooling and charter school movements.

"There are a great number of academic programs and country-school replicas taking place in church basements," he says.

As far as anyone can tell, though, no school district has replicated from scratch a one-room schoolhouse, right down to the pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room and raised platform for the teacher's desk up front. Even Gulliford, author of "America's Country Schools," the definitive tome on one-room schoolhouses, hasn't heard of such a project.

"It's probably unique in the nation," he says.

The idea behind Hutchinson Elementary's schoolhouse, which was designed by architect Peter Cecconi of Greensburg and paid for completely with donations and grants, was to build a "learning community" where all citizens -- young and old -- would engage in lifelong learning.

"We wanted to create a project where a lot of people got involved, got excited and worked together for the good of the whole community," says Greensburg-Salem superintendent Thomas Yarabinetz.

Mansfield had an additional goal: to provide an environment where students would be motivated to pick up a book. With the profusion of video games, computers and movies, "We're competing with kids for reading time," he says.

One of the first ideas Mansfield came up with about a year and a half ago was to build a giant treehouse a la the Swiss Family Robinson in the towering sycamore outside the elementary school. But that wasn't really practical.

Then the superintendent hit on the idea of a one-room schoolhouse. Last fall, Yarabinetz was deer hunting on Eleanor Ent's property in New Alexandria, Loyalhanna Township, when he happened upon the 1848 brick Concord schoolhouse she'd inherited when she bought the farm in the '80s. Fascinated by its history and determined to preserve it for future generations, Ent has spent hundreds of hours restoring the historic building, which had been damaged badly by vandals.

Yarabinetz had attended a one-room country school in nearby Mutual through third grade and still had fond and vivid memories of the experience. Maybe this was what they were looking for back in Greensburg.

Done correctly, "it would be like walking back in history," he recalls thinking. "The kids would be able to see and feel what it was like to go to school back then."

"It would create a mood you just wouldn't get in a classroom," adds Mansfield.

Just as important, the facility could be used during nonschool hours. A century ago, schoolhouses were the center of community life, hosting everything from political debates and social gatherings to town meetings and musical programs; occasionally, they also served as courtrooms, hospitals and even forts. Community members who had no contact with the school, such as retirees and those without children, would now have the opportunity to experience it firsthand.

Such a massive undertaking, though, would take money, maybe as much as $250,000. The district would also need a dynamic leader to rally the troops and motivate them to volunteer their time. One person sprang instantly to both men's minds: Eddie Hutchinson.

Eddie Hutchinson, far left, the driving force behind the One-Room Schoolhouse Project in Southwest Greensburg, and Bill Long carry a bench made by Long into the new building. In the background is Jeff Mansfield, principal of Amos K. Hutchinson Elementary, named for Eddie's late brother. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

Driving force

People have known for a long time that if you want to get something done in Greensburg, seek out Hutch. The son of the city's former chief of police and the younger brother of the late Amos K. Hutchinson, who represented the Greensburg area in the General Assembly from 1969 to 1988, Eddie Hutchinson is one of those people who seem to know just about everyone. A plainspoken man who peppers most sentences with language that would make a sailor blush, he isn't afraid to ask people to write checks or donate their time or a piece of equipment.

A few years ago, Hutch spearheaded the effort to build an alumni fitness center at Greensburg Salem High School. In addition to his 40 years as a volunteer firefighter, he has served as a trustee for the Westmoreland Health System since the early 1980s.

Mansfield remembers how Hutch rang him up early in the morning the Saturday after Thanksgiving, ordered him to grab his post-hole digger and meet him at the school at 9. They were going to dig the hole for the new schoolhouse's flagpole, gosh darn it!

"Well, I knew that really meant 8:30, so I ran right over and, sure enough, there was Hutch."

After digging the 3-foot shaft, the pair headed over to the local hardware store, where they bumped into Charlie Kaylor, owner of Kaylor Displays. Hutch, recalls Mansfield, took one look at Charlie and informed him the school needed a flag.

"How many stars?" he asked Mansfield.


"All right," Hutch told Charlie. "We need a 48-star flag by next week, and you'll pay for it, too."

One week later, the flag was flickering in the wind in front of the schoolhouse.

Mansfield notes that it was Hutch, chairman of the 23-member One-Room Schoolhouse Project advisory committee, who sent letters to community members and business leaders in October asking for donations; Hutch who persuaded local contractors, carpenters and plumbers to donate equipment, materials and workers for some of the project's bigger jobs; and Hutch who got local antique dealer John Mickinak to donate two of the school's most significant artifacts, the flag dating from 1898 at the front of the classroom and the 1870 potbellied stove in the rear.

As agile and energetic as a man half his age, the chief -- who still works full time at his family-owned industrial sheet metal company, Hutchinson and Gunter -- also didn't hesitate to get his hands dirty. At the school nearly every day for the past nine months, sometimes for four hours a day, he helped dig holes, put on the roof, built a special structure to hold the water tanks under the building and even constructed an outhouse (to the kids' relief, it's for show only).

Then, every day after the workers were gone, he and his wife, Dolores, would stop by and sweep the floors clean, says Mansfield.

Yarabinetz says the district might still be in the planning stages if Hutch hadn't jumped on the project after receiving the superintendent's Christmas card that pictured a one-room schoolhouse on the front and had this simple message scrawled inside: "When do we get started?"

"Most people are either dreamers or doers," Yarabinetz says. "Hutch is both. He dreams it, and then he does it."

Hutch, none too pleased at being singled out, insists people are making a big fuss about nothing.

"Listen," he says during a Dec. 13 visit to observe Lisa Porter's fifth-graders, the first group of students to have classes there for an entire day. "People want to be involved. They just don't know how Me, I've done it all my life."

"Back in the time of one-room schoolhouses, if I had corn and you had tomatoes, we'd trade," he continues. "This is no different."

Hutch spits into tobacco juice into the wastebasket and sighs in exasperation.

"Hell, I do it because I do it," he snaps, dabbing the corner of his mouth with the handkerchief. "It's as simple as that."

History lessons learned

One of the first things organizers did after gaining approval from the school board to proceed with the project was form an advisory committee. If the school was going to be a success, it would have to be authentic both inside and out. In addition to Mansfield and Yarabinetz, committee members include Judith O'Toole, director of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art; Greensburg historian Robert Van Atta; and Westmoreland County Historical Society director Jim Steele. They also consulted with Phyllis Humphreys, who taught at Derry's Atlantic No. 40 schoolhouse in the mid-'40s and now serves as its volunteer docent coordinator.

But it was Eleanor Ent, who through the course of her own renovation has become something of an expert on one-room schoolhouses, who provided most of the technical advice. A former art teacher for the Shaler School District, she provided Cecconi with scores of old photographs and her own illustrations of country school interiors and even served up her own school as a model.

Ent knew virtually nothing about America's country schools when she first decided to restore the 150-year-old Concord school more than a decade ago. But little by little, as she heard people's stories about being educated in these schoolhouses and researched their history, she fell under their spell.

"These schools were like a family," she explains. "They governed themselves and looked out for one another. There was a closeness that's missing from schools today."

In the past 10 years, Ent has visited one-room schoolhouses as far away as Alabama and New England and does presentations on the subject in schools and for historical societies and museums. Schoolhouses are becoming so scarce, she says, they could soon disappear altogether. So whenever she can do anything to promote these lone little buildings, she jumps at the chance.

"It's like anything else," she says, laughing softly. "You get addicted. You want to know everything."

Besides her expertise, Ent provided the district with one of the schoolhouse's true treasures: 24 perfectly matched antique wooden school desks in varying sizes, replete with inkwells and ornamental ironwork on the sides. Ent collected them during the past 15 years at flea markets, personal sales and antique shops in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio and painstakingly restored each one. Some of them came in pieces, tied up in twine; others were so covered with dirt, rust and carbon, they looked as if they'd been stored in a coal mine for the past 50 years.But she managed, and today the desks, bolted together in three rows of eight, serve as a testament to those simpler times, when each student -- primary children on one side, older children on the other -- was taught according to his or her own abilities.

Ent also sold the school an antique chestnut recitation bench, a working 1905 Bristol pump organ that had been stored in her granary for years and a three-legged organ stool she picked up on one of her fact-finding missions in Alabama.

Mansfield, too, pitched in to help on a more personal level. An amateur woodworker, the principal helped design the prototype for the 10 5-foot-long wooden benches on the right-hand side of the classroom. At first glance, the seats, still smelling slightly of cherry stain, look like any other old-fashioned benches. But undo the clasp on the back of each seat, and out pops a laptop computer. Power cords are hidden inside the benches' legs.

The idea, says Mansfield, was to enable students to do research on the Internet while listening to presentations.

Community members have been quick to donate other artifacts, including the 1894 picture of Abraham Lincoln hanging above the chalkboard, a Webster's dictionary dating from 1895 and a 1900 windup clock that, when properly wound, keeps time for eight days. They've also contributed antique pens and quills, primers and ink blotters. As for the massive, slightly discolored 1857 map of Westmoreland County hanging on the back wall, that came from antique dealer John Mickinak. It was one of the few items the district actually had to purchase.

Once the walls were raised and the school became a reality, "people started calling," says Yarabinetz.

Modern conveniences, too

According to Gulliford, most schoolhouses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were rectangular structures no more than 30 by 40 feet. This was the largest a building could be and still allow a teacher to control and hear her 40 or so students, and vice versa. And while most Americans conjure up images of white clapboard when they think about one-room schoolhouses, building materials actually varied quite a bit, depending on the climate and terrain. In the East and Midwest, for instance, schools were constructed of logs, wood, stone and brick, while out West, builders used sod and adobe and sometimes even dugouts cut into the land.

For the 36-foot-by-48-foot one-story Greensburg school, organizers eventually decided on 5-inch-thick, tongue-in-groove white cedar logs from Maine, a material that would have been in keeping with one-room schoolhouses in the East at the turn of the century. Dennis Pehrson of Rustic Log Homes of Pa. Inc. of Jeannette, started work on the 11-foot-tall walls in mid-July.

Though it has been designed to look as if it could have been in use in the late 1800s, the schoolhouse features the latest in technology. For starters, there is electricity as well as central heating and air conditioning, a fire and security system and intercom and phone lines. All the connections are either recessed or have been hidden behind walls. The potbellied stove is for looks only.

The six 12-over-12 windows feature energy-efficient Thermo Pane glazed glass and handmade hardware, and the large bathroom is handicapped-accessible. A small closet at the front of the room -- originally planned as a cloakroom -- serves as a video conferencing center, complete with smart boards, a television and video cameras.

"Say they're learning about the Revolutionary War," Mansfield explains. "They could be doing research on the Internet while video conferencing with someone in Concord, Mass."

Some modern conveniences couldn't be disguised. A red plastic "Exit" sign hangs over each door, for instance, and light switches and electrical outlets are in plain view. But while there are air vents and recessed lighting in the ceiling, there are also six reproduction 1915 fixtures.

The schoolhouse boasts several other items authentic to the period. The 1927 slate chalkboard, for instance, came from a the former West Pittsburgh Street Elementary in Greensburg, where Mansfield taught for 11 years. The wooden teacher's desk, estimated to be about 130 years old, was discovered in one of the district's maintenance sheds 40 years ago and taken home by a former employee; when he heard about the schoolhouse project, the employee gave it back.

Still to come, says Mansfield, are built-in shelves to hold the school's collection of turn-of-the-century textbooks and readers and display cases for artifacts.

Though the project started on a wing and a prayer -- Hutch ordered the logs before any donations rolled in -- it is now less than $25,000 away from completion. Private foundations and philanthropists covered much of the building costs, and the district has used about $20,000 of a $200,000 Vira I. Heinz Endowment Grant (for this and other projects) it received last year. To foster community spirit, the school also provided a relatively inexpensive way for residents to take ownership: For a $20 donation, residents can purchase a "share" of the schoolhouse; $100 buys an engraved brass plaque on the side of one of the antique desks.

Because so many people volunteered their time and equipment, the schoolhouse should end up costing about $120,000, or less than half the original estimate of $250,000. And not a penny came from local taxes. The school district, which holds title to the building, is responsible for building maintenance.

Although it's official, ribbon-cutting opening won't come until late February or early March, the schoolhouse has been in use since November. It has been used for parents' meetings, and teachers Phyllis Chelebowski and Darlene Frederickson held a Thanksgiving feast there for 38 second-graders. After recounting the story of Squanto and reciting the Johnny Appleseed prayer, the children dined on cornmeal mush, applesauce and sausage.

The present plan is for flexible scheduling: Teachers in the district will sign up for certain days and times, according to their lesson plan. Although school functions get, community groups can ask for use of the building on a first-come, first-served basis, with no fee charged.

Eventually, Yarabinetz says, it will be used for parenting workshops and lectures, summer enrichment activities, cultural reenactments and for "living history" presentations. And he expects there will be visits from other

"The kids and teachers can't wait to get in here," he says.

Into the past

On a recent Wednesday, Hutch stops by the schoolhouse to check on its progress and listens as Lisa Porter and her students discuss "Grandma Essie's Covered Wagon," a story in their McGraw-Hill Reader. Excited at first by their novel surroundings, the children eventually settle into a routine. Used to being grouped at tables, some of them find it difficult to hear Porter as she walks up and down between the rows, and they're all a bit uncomfortable, maybe, squeezed into the antique desks with no room for their knees.

"It's hard to keep these things from tipping over," complains Chris Horvell, 10.

During recess, a group of girls giggle over a note they discover in one of the turn-of-the-century books. Others rush to the teacher's desk to inspect the antique pens and page through the century-old dictionary.

Porter admits this will take some getting used to, teaching in a one-room schoolhouse.

"The acoustics are terrible," she says.

But the benefits more than outweigh any inconveniences.

"This creates a real interest. And anything that gets them interested is worth doing."

As the kids head back to their desks to prepare for their social studies lesson, Hutch, satisfied everything is in order, turns to leave.

"Most of the time I build something and then walk away," he says. "But to build something like this that will have such impact ... "

As he surveys the room, abuzz with activity, a giant smile spreads across his craggy face.

"This makes you feel so good."

Sunday, January 07, 2001

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