Mount Washington wrestles with fate of 1868 schoolhouse

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STEPHANIE ZOLLSHAN — THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE
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MOUNT WASHINGTON — The 1868 single-room schoolhouse surrounded by forest on West Street has seen better days.

Peeling mud hives bubble off the original glass windows, and the brown shingled siding slips and slumps in some places. There's more white paint flakes on the ground than clinging to the trim, and the foundation features deep cracks.

And it's not clear what the future holds for the schoolhouse, which is on the Massachusetts Historical Commission's registry of historic places. From the 1950s through the '90s, the building was used as the town library, which now resides along a wall in the Town Hall.

In October, the Mount Washington Historical Society decided to terminate its 45-year lease of the schoolhouse from the town because the volunteer group could not manage the building's serious need of repair. The society had leased the building for about three or four years.

"It's just a monumental task for a small group of people," said Dianne Salamon, acting president of the historical society. "We had to suck it up and say that we couldn't do this by ourselves."

Now, the fate of the schoolhouse is back in the town's hands. To some in the town of 160 people, the building is beyond saving, but to others, its preservation is a worthwhile link to Mount Washington's past. The historical society brought in an architectural firm to survey the building and estimate repairs. Updates, including fixing the foundation, would cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars, Salamon said.

"Initially, I was inclined to put money toward it, but now I don't know where this leaves us," said Select Board member Gail Garrett. "Some people think it would be throwing good money after bad; it's a lot of money."

Inside the schoolhouse on a recent visit, it was cold and drafty. The building's wood stove was removed years ago, but most of the facility's other equipment was left behind, including school desks, chalkboards, lots of books and the teacher's desk.

Mount Washington resident Margaret "Peggy" Whitbeck's late husband, Jim, was the last student to attend the school, in 1942, she said.

"The teacher was here for another few months to see if anyone would come, but you know," she says trailing off.

When books were being moved in the old schoolhouse, a volunteer found a homework assignment Jim had completed for a geography class. Whitbeck said she remembers when the town had two schoolhouses, the North Schoolhouse and the South Schoolhouse (which was renovated into a home), and students would attend whichever school wasn't in need of repair at the time.

"I don't know what [the school] means to the town, except to the people that were here before — and there aren't too many of those people left."

In 2015, the historical society, led by Elizabeth Kasevich, mounted an effort to save the North Schoolhouse — one of 400 one-room schoolhouses left in the U.S., according to estimates by the One-Room Schoolhouse Center. In 1919, there were about 190,000 of them across the nation. There are about 30 one-room schoolhouses in operation today, according to the center, including two in Massachusetts: Red Brick School in Franklin and the South Egremont School (which is a two-room schoolhouse).

A fundraising campaign was started, and the society raised $11,000 from residents — more than 20 percent of the population made a donation.

Salamon said everyone who donated to help the schoolhouse is being contacted to offer refunds.

Money isn't the only issue hobbling repair efforts: There is no deed for the school, which makes proving ownership difficult to establish. Typically, when banks provide loans or organizations dole out grants, the people applying for the money must own the property it will be applied to. But missing deeds are common in Mount Washington, Whitbeck noted. In the pre-internet days, the small, close-knit town didn't have much use for written records.

"Back in those days, there wasn't follow-up writing," Whitbeck said. "You just gave it over on a handshake, and that's how it was done."

Salamon said that while things look uncertain now, the historical society is going to keep repairs to the schoolhouse on the minds of people in town.

"We're so passionate, we're going to keep on top of the Select Board on this," Salamon said. "We'll be happy to work with them on this."

Kristin Palpini can be contacted at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com or @kristinpalpini on Twitter.


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