"I still remember going there for the first time after we closed the deal. As I was sitting in the middle of an empty floor looking at all that needed to be done, I was hoping that someone would knock on the door and offer me a $1 for the place. I might have taken it."
As a protective worker for the Michigan Department of Social Services, Miriam traveled the highways and byways of Allegan County. Over the years she became quite familiar with every shortcut, lots of interesting landmarks and places of scenic beauty. Every now and then she'd tell me about a new discovery or insight and how she felt about it. One time she talked at length about the many one room schoolhouses that were still around. She thought it such a shame that they were being abandoned, torn down or converted to store houses. One day she offered, "Wouldn't it be nice if we bought one of those places and fixed it up?" I didn't quite know what she had in mind but consented to go take a look. As we spent a few Saturday and Sunday afternoons driving through the countryside observing and taking pictures, it didn't take me very long to begin sharing her interest and enthusiasm.
The schoolhouse we selected was a few miles west of Fennville, Michigan on M-89. It was called Peachbelt. It had a lot of charm but obviously also needed a lot of work. It was no longer a school but an antique store. As Miriam traveled by it, she never found anyone home. Our next move was to engage Jim Snook, a friend and realtor, and let him track down the owner and initiate negotiations.
Jim was successful although he had a difficult time getting us the offer we liked. He discovered that the schoolhouse belonged to two men, one living in the Saugatuck area, the other near Lincoln Park, Michigan. He also discovered that our timing was right because the two men were in the process of ending their relationship. Neither one wanted to hang on to the property by himself. Even so, it took several weeks before the offer was right. The delay was primarily due to the time Jim had to spend looking for Bruce, the Saugatuck owner. An interesting aside is that near the end of the negotiations Bruce had a different kind of proposition for Jim!
Our down payment for the Schoolhouse was made possible by the $2000 Dad left me when he died in the winter of 1977. Therefore, we decided to dedicate the entire restoration project to the memory of my parents. In addition, because Miriam had been in elementary and high school education for 15 years, the project was also an attempt to help preserve a physical reminder of an important era of American education.
As it turned out, the acquisition of the property was the easy part. I still remember going there for the first time after we closed the deal. As I was sitting in the middle of an empty floor looking at all that needed to be done, I was hoping that someone would knock on the door and offer me a $1 for the place. I might have taken it. Where were we going to get the money to do it justice and was it going to be worth it?
We got started that same year. Miriam knew someone at work whose husband, Bob Knaack, was a small-time contractor. Bob was interested. He began by putting new cedar shingles on the roofs of the main structure and bell tower. The bell tower also received aluminum siding. New doors were put in. He sub-contracted the installation of a hanging gas furnace and a sump pump in the crawl space (Michigan basement), the repair of the brick walls and the construction of a new, angled chimney. To pay for the work and materials Miriam took out a $10,000 loan from the credit union.
Before the outside walls were repaired, I looked for old orange-red brick and yellow brick to match the ones used before. Most of them came from a demolished, three-story Brouwer Furniture store at the corner of River Avenue and 9th Street in Holland, Michigan. To recycle them I hired son Paul to chip off the old cement. I think I paid him two cents a brick. I am sure that he felt underpaid.
During the summer of 1979 the loan money was gone and work came to a practical stand still. When we wanted Bob to restart a few months later, he had taken a full-time job with the prison system and was no longer a contractor. We turned to the Vander Meulen brothers to finish the job, which they did in the spring of 1980. To pay for the work we took out a $28,000 mortgage on our Holland home on 31st Street.
Most, if not all, the steps taken to restore the schoolhouse are described in a cover letter to the Michigan Division of the Michigan Department of State to support my request for a historical marker. Some aspects of the restoration - particularly some personal experiences - were not mentioned, however. But they are still uppermost in my memory and need to be described. One interesting aspect was the curiosity of the people who lived in the neighborhood. First, they'd just slow down and look. At last, one brave soul, Al Koning, actually stopped, introduced him self, and carefully inquired what we were doing. When I told him that we wanted to restore the place, he smiled broadly, and cheerfully informed us that he always wanted to do the same thing. From then on other area residents followed. Almost without exception they told us how pleased they were and that they also had wanted to restore the place where they and their children had gone to school. The only people who had been quite serious about restoration were the Cranes of Crane's Orchard. They wanted to move the building to their property but had not gotten the State's permission to move a brick-veneer structure down M-89.
It was so much fun getting to know so many people who were quickly becoming our fan club. They told me stories and gave me photographs and other mementos. They were also my voluntary watchdogs. In all the years we owned Peachbelt, the pride of the community was never vandalized.
One of my most precious resources was M. Clifford Paine. He was well in his 80's when I met him. In his retirement he lived with his son right across the street form the schoolhouse. He had also lived there as a boy and attended school the school. Because of the proximity, he was given the job of firing up the Round Oak stove during the cold winter mornings. One day, when we were sitting on his front porch, I suggested that we walk across the street and take a look inside again. As we did so I probed his student-day memories. What was it like to be a student at Peachbelt School? I recorded much of his story on audio tape.
What I remember best about our talks is how 20-30 students used to be taught in groups of two, three or four according to their 1-through-8 grade level. As one group was being taught, all others had to work on assignments. Of course, as students worked on their assignments, they observed what their teacher was doing with the other students who had her attention. What a wonderful way of letting the lower grades in on what lay ahead and for the higher grades to experience repetition!
He also told me that during recess the kids threw a ball over the roof for others to catch on the other side. The boys liked to hang out behind the woodshed which is still on the premises.
After graduating from Peachbelt, Mr. Paine attended Fennville High School, the Hope Academy and the University of Michigan where he studied engineering. He became the engineer who designed and supervised the building of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. He told me that the bridge authority still called him now and then for advice. The latest contact had been in regard to the feasibility of adding train tracks for the San Francisco BART system.
After purchasing the schoolhouse, our first order of business was deciding how to restore Peachbelt. We settled on a small, comfortably equipped home while maintaining or reintroducing historical features. Our planning was greatly facilitated by pictures and talks with school alumni, local historians and older educators. A particular thrill for me was drawing up the floor plans. It was the closest I ever came to fulfilling my childhood dreams of becoming an architect.
Miriam and I also had great fun looking for the right parts and accessories. We went to a large Grand Rapids junkyard to buy the door that now separates the hallway from the living area. It was in good shape and still had its original, somewhat uneven glass panes. While in Grand Rapids, we also selected and purchased all the wall paper. As we made our selection we tried to keep the previous century and children in mind. Window shades and sheers became special order items because of the required lengths. We also discovered that the bathtub setup (tub and walls) could not be some standardized, ready-to-install model because of the room's window configuration. We gave the tiling job to a retired person who had already done good and inexpensive work at our rental apartments.
The five-panel front doors became a very special and time consuming project. The old ones were so rotten that there was no other option but replacement. My contractor and other people in the building trade advised me to get some sturdy steel ones. That kind of door would be as flat as a pancake, lacking any appropriate character, a radical departure from the five-panel look. I scanned dozens of catalogs but found none of them featured what I needed. I also pursued retired furniture makers hoping that they could make me a couple from scratch. When I did find someone he told me that he no longer possessed the necessary tools. But, when I was about to give up, I got lucky. During one of my last attempts a sales rep. at DeLeeuw Lumber overheard me complain about the limitations of the same standardized stuff that was part and parcel of every lumber yard's order books. He thought that he had recently seen what I wanted at a Chicago lumber yard. A quick phone call proved the accuracy of his memory. They were five-panel doors all right! One remaining problem was that the doors were five inches too wide. But I bought them and anyway after the DeLeeuw people assured me that they could take them apart, size them and put them back together again. The finished product all painted and white and with appropriate hardware, always looked authentic and beautiful.
We also tried to do some of the work ourselves. The construction people were very good at letting us do so. Often they'd ask if they should do it or if we wanted to do it ourselves. We bought gallons of paint, stain and varnish from Repcolite. Outside I burned and scraped layers of paints off window frames before repainting. Speaking of windows, I also constructed new window screens. Inside Miriam and I painted the ceilings and all the walls that were not papered. We also stained and varnished the floor in the main living area. Daughter Chris helped painting the bathroom.
The ceiling was also a particular challenge. When the construction people cut a hole for the planned staircase, we discovered four layers of acoustical tile. My original plan was to put new tile over the old but when we realized how many layers were there already, we made the decision to remove the old ones first. It was such a pleasant surprise to discover that the original ceiling, consisting of wood siding, was quite unique and in good condition. It took many hours of filling thousands of nail holes, sanding and painting. When finished the effect was quite nice. However, it left me with a tennis elbow that bothered me for weeks.
Another special challenge was the floor. When we bought Peachbelt the floor was covered with 10-inch, vinyl tiles. Son Paul and I worked hours and hours to remove them with chisels and hammers, often one square at a time. Underneath the vinyl was a maple floor. It was rather obvious why it had been covered with something new and better looking and easier to keep clean. Because holes had been cut for furnace ducts, we had also discovered that there was an oak floor and two pine floors underneath the maple. Because the maple was not in the best shape, my first thought was to remove that layer and go for the more original, tongue-in-groove oak planking. But, as I thought about it, I realized that the oak had been covered for a good reason. I decided to leave well enough alone and just finish the maple. Earl Siems and I spent an entire Saturday and part of Sunday running a sanding machine almost non-stop. We tried to remove most gouging and burn spots (from hot coal) and make the floor less wavy. When we stopped working we had a very nice floor and four garbage bags full of sawdust.
The inside of the Peachbelt was stripped of everything inside. The exceptions were an old pull map, a Franklin stove and a worthless church pew that dated back to the days when the building was the Macedonia Baptist Church for migrant workers. What we missed most was the school bell. Because so many people in the community were interested in our project, I had hopes that someone would come forward with the missing item or give us information leading to its discovery. We were particularly hopeful when Kit Lane wrote about the restoration and the missing bell in the Fennville Herald. But, unexpectedly, the widespread awareness of the missing bell helped when a friend called to say that he had seen a school bell for sale along 56th Street just outside of Holland. Could it be a good bell for the Peachbelt? When I got out there it didn't take me long to conclude that it was in good condition and could work. I paid $65 for it. To my delight the screw holes fit and the pull rope, when dropped, fell precisely through a still existing hole in the ceiling. Maybe it wasn't the original bell, but it was just like the one that used to be there. It had a beautiful sound.
Another person who helped a lot was son Paul. I already mentioned how he chipped cement off old brick so we could fix the outside walls. There were several Saturdays when he and I and the Vander Meulen pickup truck hauled loads of debris to the Fennville dump. The loading and unloading was quite labor intensive and progress slow. It took several loads before the huge pile in front of the schoolhouse went noticeably down in size. When all the construction was finished and we began to just maintain the place, Paul also helped with her weekly mowing of the one-acre lot. When I was out of town Paul, Miriam and Sonia went out to do the mowing
*Other details of the Van Eyl restoration include:
Repair of the field stone foundation with cement.
Burial of the electrical and phone lines and removal of a telephone pole (that was located at the front corner of the property) to give a more 19th century look.
Restoration of two windows on the front north side which had been installed when the building had obtained indoor plumbing. They were rebuilt to match the eight other windows in accordance with an 1896 photograph.
Restoration of the chimney per 1896 photograph. The existing one was not original.
Addition of metal plates above the windows to support the brick.
Venting of the sewage gas escape pipe through the bell tower rather than the roof.
Sealant applied to the exterior brick.
Removal of all lath and plaster and addition of new wiring, insulation and dry wall.
Removal of all indoor plumbing and addition of new pipes, fixtures, etc.
New point and motor on existing well.
*from Peachbelt School 1981 by Phil Van Eyl
To celebrate the completion of the Peachbelt's restoration, we held an open house in the early summer of 1980. The weather cooperated and it became a wonderful weekend. Many of our friends, colleagues and neighbors came out for the event. Interestingly, most of our friends showed up on Saturday and the community on Sunday. It was so enjoyable to hear and see the reactions from the former students. It was like a reunion! There was much laughter as they relived experiences with teachers, class mates or 4-H leaders. No one was in a hurry to leave. We kept refilling the punch bowls.
After that we began to enjoy our accomplishments, the quiet, and the neighborhood, we tried to use the place as our home away from home, a retreat, a place to relax. But just "relaxing" was easier said than done. There was nothing to stop us from sitting in the sun or reading a book but I was so used to fixing something that just being there made me feel uneasy. I always felt I should be working on something and began to realize that so much of the love for Peachbelt had been in the process of getting it all done. I often felt bored just being there. Miriam did better but she also had moments when she felt that she should be doing something. A couple of times she mentioned that she should buy a sewing machine just for the schoolhouse. We also discovered that we enjoyed Peachbelt best when we invited company. Our most pleasant times became dinner parties. Peachbelt seemed to be tailor made for that sort of activity. One cold day in 1981 I also scheduled a one-day retreat for Hope's Psychology Department. In the following spring Miriam and her office crew met at Peachbelt for a mid-morning staff meeting. It also pleased us when others asked to use it. I recall that Paul and a few of his friends got together and stayed for an overnighter. Jim and Von Gemmill and their two boys made Peachbelt their base of operations when they came to visit Holland. It gave Jim a great deal of satisfaction to see and hear his one-weight clock in action. He had given it to us as a housewarming gift.
In the meantime Miriam's cancer began to be a factor in what we did or didn't do. The net effect was that we did less and less, including with the schoolhouse. Miriam was not up to cooking or entertaining. Gradually the idea developed that we should sell Peachbelt. We contacted Jim Snook again to see if he could find us a buyer who would appreciate Peachbelt's historical value and current use. To minimize the risk of vandalism, we requested that Jim forgeo the customary For Sale sign. Probably not having the sign in the yard was the main reason why it didn't sell that year which didn't seem to bother me. I also knew that Miriam had mixed feelings about selling this charming object of our joint efforts. It had been a labor of love and became so much part of our lives.
Peachbelt wasn't sold until the summer of 1983, eight months after Miriam's death, to George and Anne Sherrard, a wonderful couple from Massachusetts. Their daughter and husband, who lived down the street, spotted the For Sale sign we finally put up and called home. They knew that dad was about to retire and Peachbelt seemed like an ideal summer cottage. They were right. As intended, the Sherrards come every summer and love being there. It helps that George is an antique buff with a deep appreciation of history.
The Sherrards made only one minor change in the appearance of the building, a skylight on the east side of the roof. Internally, they turned the upstairs storage into a bathroom. Unfortunately, about a year ago it became necessary to replace the front doors again. They also acquired a historical marker which became affixed to the right of the front doors. George added to the charm of Peachbelt by putting a tall flag pole with the American flag on the front lawn. Over the years the Sherrards brought in their own, often antique, furnishings. Still present, however, are some of our early American furniture and big, braided, early American rug we bought in 1959 when I joined the Hope College faculty and set up house on Holland's East 12th Street.