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Bob Vary wishes there were a way to compel the bare walls of the old schoolhouse in Springfield West to talk.
“It would be kind of interesting to hear all the stories that happened in this building,” he said.
That old schoolhouse was just one of the farm buildings Bob and Toni Vary acquired when they purchased a three-acre retirement property in 2017. They soon discovered the building, neatly tucked between a potato warehouse and barns, had served as a one-room schoolhouse from the 1880s to 1947.
After it was decided the building would be moved and replaced by a then new two-room schoolhouse it, by chance, became a farm building.
Keith MacDougall had just returned from the war when he and Doris (MacPherson) married in 1947. He was about to take over the family farm when the old schoolhouse, just across the way, near the Springfield West Baptist Church, became available. He placed it on skids and, with a horse and capstan, hauled it over beside his parents’ house, intending to turn it into his and Doris’s new home.
But when his parents, Edward and Lena MacDougall, decided to move to O’Leary, Keith abandoned those plans and moved into the homeplace. That same year he moved the old schoolhouse out back and turned it into an equipment and grain storage shed.
The MacDougalls lowered the 12-foot ceiling to eight feet to create an overhead granary. A sliding door was installed across the front so that farm equipment could be kept indoors. The lath and plaster was gradually removed from the walls, exposing the bare studs, albeit with the nails from the laths still showing. Seventy years later, that’s how the Varys found it.
“I looked at the old building and it was in rough shape,” said Vary. “I didn’t want to tear it down because it had a lot of stories and I have to find them.”
He anticipates a few trips to the provincial archives are in his future.
Just months after acquiring the property, the Varys had a crew in to raise the building so rotting sills could be replaced. They let it back down onto a new foundation.
The floor joists and subfloor have also been replaced.
Vary has been puttering away ever since. He removed the sagging four by six-inch beams and returned the ceiling to the original 12-foot height and installed new windows, the same size as the originals.
If these walls could talk
Reached in Charlottetown where he and Doris now reside, Keith, 95, said he’s pleased the old school is being saved.
“I think it’s a really good idea,” he said. “Otherwise what would become of it? It would just fall down.
“He’s making good use of it. It’s going to cost him quite a lot of money, I would say, but, when he’s through, it will be a good-looking building.”
MacDougall learned of the renovation project through his daughter, Paulette, who discovered a photo the Varys posted on a ‘We Love P.E.I.’ website.
MacDougall said he’s hoping to visit this summer to see what the Varys have done with the building.
“I just wanted to get back to the 12-foot ceilings which the school was,” said Vary.
The eight-foot ceiling had covered part of the old windows.
Vary expects it would’ve been faster and less costly to put up a new building, but not as enjoyable or as meaningful.
“I’m loving it.”
As he putters along, the former owner of an Ontario roofing company is reminded of his late father, Alvin, who was a skilled carpenter.
“He’d be here helping; he tinkered for years.”
Vary had the building wired and has run water lines from the nearby house. He’s also greeted neighbours and former residents of the community who are interested in the old school’s gradual restoration.
He will continue to pick away at the project, including getting the walls insulated and covered and getting the exterior walls re-shingled. He is hoping to have the old school available as a cottage property by the summer of 2020.
The old school had boys’ and girls’ cloak rooms on either side of the main entrance. Vary plans to enlarge the cloakroom spaces and turn each one into a bedroom and leave the rest of the main building as an open concept kitchen, dining room and living room.
Straight inside the entrance, he hopes to hang a portrait of King George VI as would have been the custom in the 1940s when the school hosted its last students. The woodshed across the rear of the building will be made into a bathroom.
And he’d like to decorate walls with photo reproductions of the schoolhouse and of the students and teachers who attended – if he can find them.
“It’s really going to be interesting to see it. I can hardly wait to get up there,” said MacDougall who recalls the cloakrooms, the classroom with the double desks, the teacher’s desk on a raised platform and a woodstove in the middle of the room.
“The janitor would arrive early to light the fire before we got there, and we’d all stand around and try to get warm.”
He estimates about 30 students in Grades 1 to 10 attended the one-room school.
“There were big families back then.”
Families helped keep the attached woodshed full.
“Times were hard; money was scarce, so people would bring a cord of wood and put it in there to pay their taxes.”
Keith and Doris MacDougall’s children attended the two-room school that replaced the original. Doris was one of the first teachers at the two-room schoolhouse. Keith later served as a school trustee.
Once the old schoolhouse is fixed up, Vary said he hopes to organize an open house so neighbours can drop in to reminisce. Then he will turn his attention to other buildings on the property.