Restoration progress continues to be made on Oil Springs School in Harpers Ferry; Sneak preview of restored rural schoolhouse scheduled for this Saturday

The interior of the Oil Springs School now relocated in Harpers Ferry has also been restored and furnished back similar to its previous existence as a one-room schoolhouse with desks and other materials. Many of the historic items have been donated and others found at auctions or elsewhere. Submitted photo.

The Oil Springs School has been restored and repainted at its new location in Harpers Ferry, with a Paint Iowa Beautiful grant from Diamond Vogel Paint and Keep Iowa Beautiful assisting with the paint costs for the project. A sneak preview open house of the one-room schoolhouse is being planned for this Saturday, October 14 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Submitted photo.

by Brianne Eilers

Progress continues to be made with the restoration of the Oil Springs School, located next to Tillinghast Park in Harpers Ferry. Last November, the Harpers Ferry Area Heritage Society (HFAHS), along with the time and talents of many volunteers, moved the one-room school from its former location two miles north of Harpers Ferry to its present location.

Throughout the past six months, volunteers have spent over 500 hours working on various projects to get the school as close to original condition as possible. A "Sneak Preview" Open House is scheduled for this Saturday, October 14 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and the public is invited to stop by and see the work that has been done so far.

During the move last fall, the entrance to the school had to be taken off, and that has since been reattached. A concrete foundation was poured for the outhouse, and that has now been set in place. Signage has also been installed in the front of the school to alert visitors that they are at the right place. A life-size cut out of a school teacher was even made for any RAGBRAI or River Rumble visitors that might have wanted to insert their own face for a photo opportunity.

Volunteer Jane Hasek explained that one of the major projects this year with the Oil Springs School has been painting. She said HFAHS received a Paint Iowa Beautiful grant from Diamond Vogel Paint and Keep Iowa Beautiful. The HFAHS received seven gallons of paint through the grant, and the grant is geared towards community improvement projects. Painting was done both inside and outside of the school.

Hasek said that inside the school, volunteers scraped down to the original paint, and then took chips to match the original color with the new color. She noted that school houses were generally a light blue or light green inside, and the Oil Springs School has a light blue interior.

The outside of the school is white. Hasek also pointed out that during the process of painting the exterior, the door and entrance they noticed where former students had carved their initials into the school on the back exterior wall.

"There are no windows on that side (the back exterior wall) and the outhouse would have been back there," she explained, and the teacher probably wouldn't have seen the mischief that the students might be up to.

Several volunteers stopped by over the summer to help with the painting process. Julie O'Brien, a retired police commander from Austin, TX, was one of those volunteers. She and her brother, Dennis O'Brien, were visiting Harpers Ferry over the summer. Dennis is a teacher in Hilo, HI and can appreciate the effort of the one-room school teachers.

"He has immense respect for the work of one-room schoolhouse teachers providing superior education to a group of kids of varying ages and in the confines of one room. Supplies may have been limited in a one-room schoolhouse, but not the imagination and effort of the teacher to help students learn," said Julie.

Both of their parents are from the Harpers Ferry area, and the eight O'Brien children visited many times with their parents, Raymond and Mary Irene (Melavin) O'Brien. "Harpers Ferry was a magical place for the O'Brien children. We visited Harpers several times a year with my parents. During that time period, they seemed to know everyone in Harpers, and the best part of visiting was all the stories my parents told about Harpers," O'Brien said.

She explained that while visiting, their parents would tell stories about the old houses and people who lived in them, where businesses used to be located and all kinds of things. She noted that she found the stories of how the people of Harpers got through the Great Depression very compelling.

With their parents passing away, Julie and Jim like to visit Harpers Ferry to retell the stories that their parents told them. While on a visit this summer, the O'Brien siblings decided to lend a hand to help out with the Oil Springs School restoration, to help preserve part of the history of the small town that is so close to their hearts.

"I am in complete awe of what Jane and Wayne and their friends and supporters have accomplished. What a tremendous gift to the memories of Harpers folks gone by and to those in the present and future who cherish Harpers. Every small town has a unique story. The Oil Springs Schoolhouse and the Harpers Heritage Society's growing collection of Harpers memories will preserve that unique story," said Julie.

In addition to the painting, the window glass in the school has been replaced, as some of the pieces were broken. They are also working on putting up some of the original coat hooks and will be putting on storm doors and screens that will be the same style as the originals. Hasek said that she spends a few hours at the school three to four days a week, and they have three or four people stop by during the week interested in the project. Some are local, and some are from further away, and many have some kind of tie to the Oil Springs School.

HFAHS received several donations of items appropriate for a country school. There are now several student desks in the school room, in varying sizes. "We have a Phonograph, as the classrooms either had a piano, Victrola or a Phonograph," Hasek said. She explained that music was part of the curriculum and students would have to memorize certain songs.

They have also begun to acquire a collection of primers and other school books, some from former students and others picked up at antique stores or auction. There is also a larger teacher's desk that came from the old jail at the Allamakee County Courthouse.

The curtains in the school house are original to when the school was shut down in the 1950s. They have been carefully cleaned, and look like almost brand new. Hasek said that the HFAHS has received documents, including report cards, that are helping to fill in some of the gaps in the school's history, like who all the teachers were.

"The project is really connecting a lot of people to the school," she said. The outhouse, while not functional, will even display an old Sears and Roebuck catalog, as it would have during its use as a school bathroom. The blackboards in the school came from the former Harpers Ferry school and a school in Quincy, IL.

As with any project, there is still a lot on the wish list, like getting period appropriate pictures to hang on the wall of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, as most school rooms had that as part of the décor. Hasek noted that they are hoping to get a sidewalk and steps, cement porch stoop and parking area done. There will be a split rail fence around the school, and they have been working with Master Gardeners on designing beds with "old-fashioned landscaping" and appropriate plantings.

The HFAHS was also the recipient of a mini grant through the Allamakee County Community Foundation that will allow them to purchase software in order to track the donations that are coming in. One of the next steps they will take is going to be looking for office space.

The Oil Springs School will be featured in a story in the Iowa History magazine's November/December issue, as the last of a three-part feature on country schools.

A grand opening for the Oil Springs School is anticipated sometime in 2018. Fundraising continues for the restoration and furnishing of the school, as well as additional space for a museum collection. Anyone wishing to donate can contact Jane Hasek at 319-240-2460.

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