Students haven’t attended Fremont Township’s North Grove School for 50 years, but it’s continued to play several roles: magnet for artists, historians, and vandals, conversation piece, unique part of the landscape.
The structure’s 106-year run, however, appears near an end.
“I thought I would have a good story for you,” Lonnie Weiler told The Advertiser, standing in the middle of the school surrounded by piles of debris that had been neatly swept. “But it’s just not salvageable.”
Some have thought the structure – a mile or so south of M-46 along M-24 at North Grove Road – was a church.
Many have used it as a centerpiece for photographs, typically in the fall or winter when it takes on a particularly ominous appearance set against a dark gray sky and/or snow.
Others have used it to illegally make a few bucks – specifically, trespassing scrappers stealing old radiators, piping, or anything else of potential value. And vandals have used the school as a preferred target of rocks and beer bottles.
But for Weiler, 66, the school means even more. It’s been part of almost his entire life – from his first day of kindergarten to his attempts during the last few months to clean the site and explore potential uses for the building built in 1910.
Weiler – who lives near the school – said he was given permission by current owner and neighbor, Phil Bodeis, to clean up the site and explore possible options for the future of North Grove. Since Weiler has been working on the site, he said there has been a constant stream of people stopping by, curious about the activity.
Bodeis confirmed to The Advertiser that Weiler has been leading efforts to clean up and secure the site. He also confirmed plans to have the building razed due to its hazardous condition, but didn’t want to comment further.
Weiler said he became interested because he attended North Grove from kindergarten through sixth grade, and had a vision of possibly restoring all or part of the site to resemble its original state.
“We wanted to see about getting it fixed up,” Weiler said, adding that potential ideas included rebuilding part of the playground where it originally stood, complete with picnic tables. “People could come and enjoy it, maybe open (the school) up once in a while, use it to have a wedding or baby shower or reunion and that.”
Putting old one-room schoolhouses to use is fairly common in Michigan.
According to the Michigan One-Room Schoolhouse Association, an estimated 7,200 schoolhouses are in Michigan. The organization’s website at www.one-roomschool.org lists 119 schoolhouses that have been converted into museums.
A good local example (not on the list) can be found at the Mayville Area Museum & Genealogy, 2124 E. Ohmer Road (M-24), where the West Dayton School has been moved and restored and is open to visitors when the museum is open.
Denice Smith, operator of the blog “Michigan One Room Schoolhouses,” said schoolhouses such as North Grove are important to the history of rural America.
“Attending a one-room school is a way of life that no longer exists,” Smith said. “We need to keep history alive and the best way to appreciate history is to experience it.”
But Weiler said it isn’t in the cards for North Grove.
A thorough assessment of the building’s structure was conducted within the past two weeks and Weiler said it’s become clear that the best days of the106-year-old structure are long gone.
And those days were a long, long time ago.
According to “The Country School Houses of the Mayville School District,” by Karen Coller Curell, North Grove’s history dates to 1871, when local officials officially formed district six, centered on North Grove. That’s to what the “No. 6” on the bell tower refers. The district’s boundaries were generally the northern half of Fremont Township.
Weiler said North Grove was a small village along the road that would eventually become M-24.
The current standing structure is the third incarnation of North Grove. The site of the first North Grove School – originally a log cabin – is unclear. Like much of Michigan’s Thumb region, the original school succumbed to the devastating fires of 1881.
School officials then decided to build the second North Grove School near its current site on land owned at the time by William Whittemore. The district paid a man $11.37 to clear the site. The second North Grove School was built for $400. Between 1871 and 1888, the number of students at the second North Grove Sschool increased from 19 to 55. It would later be sold to Gleaners for $55.50. Weiler said he believes two sections of the foundation of the second North Grove school can be seen immediately south of the school.
In 1909, school officials decided they wanted to buy the land from Whittemore and build a new school. Whittemore granted a conditional deed to the district for $1. Conditions included the new schoolhouse be used for school purposes, “any orthodox religious purpose,” and “any fraternal organization.” The building also had to cost at least $1,200. That could explain the architectural detail, along with above average materials used in construction and even why it’s still standing today.
“I’ve seen quite a few schoolhouses in Michigan and I’ve noticed that in the Thumb, particularly, they’re often built with brick,” said Mike Sonnenberg, a Saginaw-based photographer who runs LostInMichigan.net, a website dedicated to finding historical and unique structures throughout the state. Photos he took of North Grove in 2014 are at his site.
The current building was finished in 1910 and operated until 1966, when students began attending Mayville schools. The school changed hands a number of times before Bodels acquired it in 1989.
Weiler said over the years and before it closed, there were a few changes, such as the addition of a new furnace in the basement (it has been removed and scrapped) and relocation of the school’s chimney to be in the central part of the building (the chimney is dated 1925 near the top). Bathrooms and running water to a sink also were added later. The sink and toilets (one for boys, one for girls) are still in the building.
In the 1970s, Weiler said, the school building was bought and used by a local farm as a kind of dormitory for migrant workers. Newer electrical outlets, including a heavy-duty line for a large stove, were added. There’s a spot on the schoolhouse floor that appears darker than the rest of the floor and Weiler said he believes it’s where a mattress sat for years.
But for about 40 years, North Grove has been vacant and unused.
Smith, of the blog “Michigan One Room Schoolhouses,” took a picture of North Grove almost exactly a year ago for her website. The lot of the building is thick with brush, weeds, and other greenery. Several large trees – big enough to take several decades to grow – are at the base of the school’s foundation.
Sonnenberg, of LostInMichigan.net, said he had to stop and take some pictures of North Grove when driving by, too.
He went so far as to include it in a 2015 calendar he sold through LostInMichigan.net.
“That one stands out because it’s right there on M-24 so it’s highly visible,” said Sonnenberg. “There was just something about it.”
But in recent months, Weiler has been working hard to clean up the site, which is why North Grove is more noticeable lately.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough, he said, and within the last two weeks the school has been deemed beyond repair.
Weiler invited The Advertiser to see the inside of the school.
“All of the windows were smashed out,” Weiler said. “Rocks, beer bottles, you name it. I picked up all that stuff.”
There are wide, gaping holes in the roof where harsh weather conditions have worn through the ceiling of the main floor. Piles of crumbled plaster, broken wood, and bird feces have collected on the cement steps that was the first thing so many students saw upon arriving to school for the day.
A huge nest built by barn swallow birds sits right above the main door. Writing is on the walls in several areas, including one corner where someone or some people appear to have been playing Tic-Tac-Toe.
Weiler said the floor tiles are likely asbestos-based, due to their size.
The basement area, once used to house the school’s furnace and even doubled as a recess area during inclement weather, Weiler said, had about 6 inches of water recently.
Anything of value has been taken from the schoolhouse. The bell is “long gone,” Weiler said, as is the elaborate wainscoting along one entire wall.
Weiler was able to salvage one of the four globe lights that once lit up the school room. He also was able to get a piece of the original slate chalkboard framed. Both the globe lamp and chalkboard are in his house.
Those things, along with Weiler’s memories, are the reason he was hoping to save the school.
He smiles when recalling great memories, including the schoolhouse being packed with parents attending the annual Christmas pageant, complete with a curtain that was rigged just for the performance and where the piano was located to play music along with the show.
Or where the picture of George Washington once hung on the wall.
Or intense baseball games on the field to the west of the building.
Or how the roughly 8-foot-by-8-foot windows let in so much sunlight there was hardly ever a need for the lights to be on.
Or even how the schoolhouse seemed to never be cold, even in the depths of winter and despite its location right near an open farm field.
“We were hoping we could’ve done more with it,” Weiler said. “It’s unfortunate that it’s made it 106 years only to have to come down and that.”
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org