If These Walls Could Talk … Stories From Historic Northern Michigan Schoolhouses

They appear suddenly, tucked in the curve of a county road or nestled in a clearing on a hill. Maybe brick, maybe a faded clapboard, but always with the same sturdy shape: one-room schoolhouses live on in Northern Michigan.

Featured in the September 2000 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe for more classic stories. 

These country schoolhouses still have the power to make us sigh, slow the car a little, crane to see into the wavy glass windows. Why do they capture our imaginations so? Maybe because they embody a life and time so sweetly simple, so different from our own.

Fortunately, these sentinels still stand to remind us those times are not so very far behind us, that their stories, as gathered here, are not lost forever. Many of the North’s one-room schools operated into the 1940s and 1950s, so memories of those school days abound in our small towns.

Many Northern Michigan schoolhouses still stand, converted to town halls, private homes or living history museums. And thankfully so, because our one-room schoolhouses still have plenty of history lessons to teach. Seek them out and listen—they have stories to tell.

The Dublin School

In 1936, John Henry Connolly, a black man from Mississippi, moved his large family to the tiny town of Dublin, east of Manistee. He’d come North for one simple reason: he’d heard black children could get a better education here than in the South. Connolly was raising 10 children as well as two grandsons—one of whom was James Earl Jones. The child would grow up to be the acclaimed actor who is best known as the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars. Jones also won a Tony award for the Broadway hit The Great White Hope and further secured his fame in the movie Field of Dreams.

But back in 1936, when the young James Earl walked a half-mile from his family’s farm to the one-room Dublin school, no one could have predicted greatness. The child was a stutterer, and when he was not struggling with words, he sat silent. Still, the Dublin school provided a safe haven from ridicule until years later when an English teacher at Dickson High School in nearby Brethren used poetry to help Jones overcome his speech problems—a process that led to his love of the stage.

In the Manistee countryside of the 1930s, Jones and his family weren’t the only ones wondering about fitting in or facing economic hard times. Rose Marie Fortelka (now Fischer), who was a grade behind Jones, spoke only Bohemian when she started school. Ask her about those early years and six decades later a shadow of humility still crosses her face. Or, there was Jones’ neighbor Aileen Cronkrite, whose father died when she was six, leaving her and her mother alone to face the Depression. When Jones and his family came to Dublin, Conkrite saw not color, nor speech impediment, but only a new playmate. “We were one big family,” Cronkrite, now Aileen Carlson recalls.

Top scrapbook photo: In the Dublin schoolhouse around 1940, students included Aileen Conkrite Carlson, Rose Marie Fortelka Fischer, and James Earl Jones (first row second seat), with teacher Helen Ellisson.

Bottom scrapbook photos: The class on the last day of school. Jones recalls the time when students put pepper on the pot-bellied stove so they could be let out of school early; it worked.

Looking back, you wonder if there wasn’t magic in the glade around that wood frame Dublin school building—something extra that stirred the soul of otherwise common folk. They say the teacher the year before Jones came to school wore her evening gowns to class and wrote epic plays for the children to act.

When Jones started it was under the tutelage of Mrs. Gardiner, a bosomy, affectionate woman who gathered Jones in her arms when he wet his pants. And Mrs. Gardiner, like the teachers who followed her, found ways to imbue the crude building in the Northern outpost with academic excitement. As Jones writes in his autobiography, James Earl Jones: Voices and Silence (Simon and Schuster, 1993): “It was a hotbed of learning, a wonderful open forum. Inadvertent tutoring interceded all the time, and we were one big family.”

And what of that building that launched the youngest of John Henry Connolly’s brood on the path of education? The school closed in the 1940s, and its interior was converted to a summer cabin years ago. But the exterior remains unchanged from when the school was constructed in 1898. There it stands today, on Snyder Road just north of Dublin, a testimony to the railroad workers and subsistence farmers who struggled so their children could have an education. Truly, a building of dreams.

The Drake School

Though 73, Mary Lee Allison’s voice still rises with a girlish ring—echoes of the child who skipped to school kitty-corner from the farm where she grew up and still lives. Curls on her shoulders, she cut across the two-track intersection of Fowler Road and Benzie Trail, 9 miles north of Honor, to the tiny clapboard building that felt like home.

It was that familiar. Built in 1879, the Getchell School, as it was called then, was only 12 years old when Allison’s grandparents, Louis and Mary Drake, bought the land where Allison’s house stands. Allison’s mother, Hazel, was a year old. The Drakes cleared pastures, built a house and a sturdy dairy barn. In 1906, when the Drakes purchased the property where the schoolhouse stands, the old Getchell School became the Drake School.

The name change was fitting because the Drake family history and its namesake school are so tightly woven. It was past the schoolhouse that Allison’s father, Elmer, steered his horse just in time to see pretty Hazel Drake leaving school each day. And it was the schoolhouse bell that fell silent so as not to wake 19-year-old Hazel during the dark months when she was stricken with polio and lay near death. And could it already be 90 years ago when Elmer slipped an engagement ring on Hazel’s weakened hand—not knowing if she would die before she became his bride? She lived, and they married and had three daughters—Mary Lee and her older sisters Hazel and Vira. Like their mother, the three girls got their schooling across the road.

Allison’s first teacher was Mae Deemer. Vivacious, warm and still a teenager, she nurtured her class of about 15 pupils with motherly tenderness. When the red-headed boy—the one the school board wasn’t sure she’d be able to handle—put wild leeks in Teacher’s lunch pail, she only laughed. When she realized some of the less fortunate children weren’t eating right, she roasted potatoes on the woodstove. And almost 70 years later, teacher Mae Deemer Miller still recalls Allison as a child—quick to learn to read, and, like all the children, always smiling. “The children were all lovely,” she says.

In 1943, the Drake School closed. The sounds of children no longer floated across the intersection to Allison’s farm. The silence stayed, for the most part, until 1988 when the Benzie Area Historical Society, with help from the Platte Grange, occasionally opened the school as a living history museum. Allison herself helped outfit the place with old schoolbooks, family photos and the ribbons she won at a spelling bee in Benzonia. 

The Little Red Schoolhouse

Perhaps at one time it had another name, but as long as anyone around Gaylord can remember, Otsego County’s oldest schoolhouse has been called The Red Schoolhouse, or sometimes even more affectionately, the Little Red Schoolhouse. Built in 1884 and used until 1951, the rural school has touched virtually every family in the community.

Perhaps the schoolhouse was never so important as in the early 1940s, when, as former teacher Edna Galbraith recalls: “There were so many mothers who died that one summer.” Who knows precisely how many mothers died that year. Time has blurred Galbraith’s memory, but imagine the blow of losing even a few mothers in a school district that served a scant 2 square miles. Grief aside, Galbraith well knew what the losses meant for her motherless pupils: the eldest would be forced to drop out to care for their preschool siblings unless Galbraith took the youngsters into her class. Which she did, with open arms.

Across the farm fields, wavy in the heat of a September day, the tiny building must have shone like a refuge from a world that had suddenly turned mysterious and cruel. The school became a place where the motherless children could lose themselves in routine, surrounded by their siblings and a teacher who loved them. It must have been so. “They were anything but sad,” Galbraith remembers.

There was a problem with the preschoolers, however. There was no table small enough for them—and no funds to purchase one. Fortunately, the school superintendent came to the rescue and cut down the legs of an old dining room table he wasn’t using. And so Galbraith’s pupils established a cozy routine. While the younger children received their lessons, for instance, the older ones fixed lunch—usually hot soup made with meat and vegetables the children brought from home. Sometimes that was supplemented by government surplus food such as Jell-O or cheese. And always, Galbraith’s mother-in-law baked bread for the children.

After Galbraith left to pursue a college degree, life at the Red Schoolhouse went on much as it always had, until sewer and water problems forced its closing. In 1973 the local Kiwanis Club and the Otsego County Historical Society teamed up to move the building to a local park. Fourteen years later, vandalism forced the organizations to move the building again, this time to the gated security of the Otsego County Fairgrounds.

Come county fair time, the first week in August, the Red Schoolhouse opens its doors once again, staffed with volunteers who answer questions about what school in one room was like. A few years ago Galbraith took her turn. No one knew to ask her about the summer the mothers died, but if they had she would have told them. And she might have told them, too, about the preschooler who would rub her nylons as she read to him. A tiny hand, seeking the softness of Mama in teacher.

Port Oneida

Five years after the first German settlers set foot in the forested, uninhabited valley below Pyramid Point in Leelanau County, the community organized a school. The pioneer families had no church, the town that eventually would be known as Port Oneida didn’t exist, and a dock—that all-important lifeline to Great Lakes shipping highway—had yet to be built. But by 1860 they had a place to educate their children. And that was enough to satisfy the families who had risked so much on a new world.

That first school was probably a crude log structure—no one knows for sure. Within a few decades, they’d built a true school, replete with trimmings like a bell and a portrait of George Washington. The schoolhouse stood at the hub of Port Oneida life. Locals hosted box socials, Christmas pageants and spelling bees there. We can guess that a certain pioneer gaiety prevailed at the school, but it did so within semi-darkness. You see, glass was expensive and the school’s founders could only afford three small windows. The result—especially on gray Michigan winter days—was a dimness that the small circle of light from a kerosene lamp couldn’t penetrate. “On a dark day you couldn’t see what you were doing,” remembers 86-year-old Lucille Barratt, who attended the school.

Darkness reigned until the mid-1920s, well after the state of Michigan required more windows for its public schoolhouses in 1913. Barratt still recalls the day of enlightenment. She was 10 or 11 when she reached school one day, lunch pail swinging, to find a bank of windows stretching across the south wall. Light, glorious light. “What a joy,” Barratt says.

Port Oneida farming began to die out in the 1950s, and eventually, the National Park Service purchased the farms for the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The old schoolhouse, closed since the 1950s, is now the property of the Glen Lake School District, and school officials hope to use it for enrichment programs.

But there are problems. The building is not up to present code, and those big, beautiful windows have weakened the structure. Happily, however, the story of Port Oneida schoolhouse isn’t over yet. Recently, the National Park Service teamed up with the Glen Lake Schools to launch a renovation fund drive and work began this summer. “It will be wonderful to have children breath life into this historic building once again,” says Mary Frixen, a retired Glen Lake Schools teacher who is leading the group.

(See how the Port Oneida Rural Historic District has been preserved.) 

The Stutsmanville School

As soon as Carol Marie Costello began renovating the old Stutsmanville School in Harbor Springs, turning it into her home and a commercial kitchen for her catering business, she knew the process would be a time trip. The shelves still held old books like A Tour of the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne and Appleton’s Home Reading Books, and old-timers stopped by often to reminisce about their school days in the building. And when the plaster walls came down to reveal their lathe skeleton—and not so much as a shred of insulation—she got a firsthand glimpse of what school was like on winter days. “They must have had to keep their coats on all winter,” Costello says.

But the best surprise was yet to come. Tipped off by someone who’d come by the schoolyard with a metal detector, Costello decided to poke around the school’s cornerstone one spring day in 1995. Finding the mortar loose, she chipped and dug it away. An hour so later, Costello pulled the stone free and found a copper box—a time capsule put together the day the school was dedicated on Nov. 2, 1906, on the corner of Stutsmanville Road and State Street. 

Costello gently pulled out the box contents: three newspapers, some old stamps and a short handwritten history of the building, explaining that it was the first brick schoolhouse in Emmet County, built for $1,932.62. Finally, she pulled out a personal note, written by the schoolteacher, Mrs. Mary Cease. “…as I look in the children’s happy faces as they sing their song, I cannot help but wonder about the opening of this. May God Bless you all…”

Awed, Costello shared the contents of the box with the local paper the Harbor Light, then wrapped the contents in a special paper that prevents decay. She didn’t make copies—she’d heard the process could damage the old papers. Then, along with her own note and some 1990s memorabilia, Costello returned the box to its hiding place to wait another century, another delighted discoverer.

Four years later, the scent of gourmet dishes like brie en croute and Cornish game hen with green curry sauce wafts from the kitchen Costello made from the old Michigan cellar. But upstairs, in her living quarters, Costello has virtually preserved the old schoolroom. The wooden floor still bears marks where bolts held desks to the floor, the original chalkboard hangs where it always did—all evidence that Costello learned her lesson well: she is a tenant in a building owned by memories.