The story of a Country Schoolhouse, a schoolboy, and the world’s longest bridge 2013 -written by Dawn Stafford

Written by Dawn Stafford based on a 1977 interview by Phil VanEyl with Mr. Paine reminiscing about his school days. Published in the 2013 edition of the Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Chronicle, a faux 1890’s newspaper.

On the rural corner of M89 and 63rd street in Ganges Township sits the little brick Peachbelt Schoolhouse (ca 1867) named for the peach trees which were the predominate crop along the lakeshore during the late 19th century.  In fact, the one-acre parcel donated for the school was originally part of the Paine Orchards, one of the predominate local peach growers of that time whose homestead is still located just across the road. 

It was young Clifford Paine (1887-1983) who attended the school from kindergarten through 8th grade, who arrived early in the morning to start the fire in the round oak stove which stood in the center of the school room. “I had the job . . . I got four dollars for doing it all winter long.  I usually brought my own kindling along so it was easy to start, and then brought the day’s supply into the entry.  The season’s supply was back by the shed.”

There wasn’t a well at the school in those days so Clifford with one of his classmates would fetch a pail of water from his house, or the LaDick’s farmhouse across the road.  “We were tickled to death to do it!” reminisced Clifford.  “We had one common dipper or a tin cup.  Everyone would drink out of that dipper. Terrible, but they did.” 

Back in those days the four corners was actually a small settlement which included the schoolhouse, the Peachbelt Post Office, Gordon Spencer’s general store, LaDick’s blacksmith shop, an old fashioned cider mill and knitting factory. The hill to the east of the school was a popular sledding hill.   One student recalls, “On a good day, you could slide all the way onto 63rd street”. There was also an enormous elm tree that stood on the front corner.  “It was actually two or three elms grown together” says Clifford. One day around 1898 Clifford’s father, John Crane and Mr. Truax, who were all on the school board, met a building contractor in front of the school to discuss the addition of the Veneclausen Brick veneer“U.S. Crane and I were climbing the big elm tree.  U.S. was above me and he called down and said;  I bet you wish you were up here!  Just then he stepped out on a dead limb and came crashing down, knocking him out.  The men hurried, picked him up, gave him mouth to mouth rescucitation, and brought him to.”  

Peachbelt had an annual enrollment of 20-30 students and a single teacher taught all grades and subjects.  “When I first started school the blackboards weren’t slate, but boards painted black. We used paper, but handed in work on slates sometimes, too” recalls Clifford. “They taught arithmetic, physiology, spelling, authography, civil government, history, and elocution, to name a few. I don’t think they overlooked anything.  There might have been 6 students in a class and they would assemble in empty seats in the front of the room.  Meanwhile, the other students would study. This was a rule. Its hard to see how they [teachers] got through the day with all these classes.  They had only six minutes to a class, although not all classes met every day. During class the teacher would present a lesson/assignment, hear recitations, hand in assignments, and answer questions. The older students never worked with the younger ones”  

The school bell was used just like everyone used their bell in those days. “When I was out in the field [orchard] about ten minutes to noon the dinner bells would ring, and I could tell [by the sound] whose bell was ringing.  At school they rang the bell five to ten minutes before [class started].” according to Clifford.

One of Clifford’s favorite teachers at Peachbelt was Nellie LaDick whose family lived across the street from the Paine Farm. “She seemed to have the knack of inspiring her students to do their best.  “Whatever I did, I thought;  I hope Nellie will like this.  I hope I’m doing this the way Nellie wants it. My, she was a wonderful teacher. She lived just short of a week of being 100 years old when she passed away.  I used to go and see her at Birchwood in Holland right up to her last years. . .”

Sometimes decipline was a problem in a country school. “Up on the hill was Chancy Richard’s place and he had two sons who attended the Peachbelt.  In the wintertime those boys were pretty rough.  One winter it got so bad they hired a male teacher. Will Hawley by name.  He had to fight these boys . . . it would end up in a fist fight.  I saw some of the fights. . . ”  

Country schools were the backbone of American education for almost 250 years, and in spite of mixed perceptions of the quality of the education as either too primitive or too idealized, Clifford testified that his 8th grade examinations prepared by the State of Michigan were “. . . pretty tough . . . I think they were tougher examinations than the 8th grade students in the city schools had.”

After graduating from Peachbelt Clifford became an honored alumnus of Hope College, and 1911 graduate of the University of Michigan School of Engineering.  His first wife Myrtie Johnson died in 1957.  He later married a former Peachbelt schoolmate Ethelyn Cole(Crane) who died in 1972. In World War I he served as captain with the Army Corps of Engineers and was employed by the Navy Department early in 1942 to help rebuild facilities in Pearl Harbor. He was associated with the design and construction of a variety of bridges from Boston to Sacramento, and Quebec to New Orleans, but most noteably he supervised the design and construction of the Golden Gate Bridge which was the longest bridge span (one mile) in the world, completed in 1937, connecting suburban Marin County - the gateway to the scenic Redwoods, to the city of San Francisco. In 1941 he recieved a citation from U of M reading, “From his creative genius have come new designs and apparatus for lift bridges; devised and built by him, huge structures, sound in principle, and pleasing to the eye from the Potomac to the Golden Gate.”

Today the schoolhouse is the only building that remains of the Peachbelt settlement.  It operated as a school for 100 years, and is the oldest and best restored one room schoolhouse in Allegan County that has never been changed or moved from its original site.  In the spring of 1977 it was bought by Phil and Miriam Van Eyl who restored it into a living space, then sold and used by the Sharrard Family as a summer retirement home for 23 years.  In 2003 it was bought by local artist Dawn Stafford who has transformed it into her year-round painting studio, and is open to the public every weekend Fri, Sat, and Sun 11-5pm May-October, or by appointment.  Phone 269-857-3929 www.peachbeltstudio.com  

 

Sources: 

C. E. Paine Obituary / Holland Sentinel 7-13-83

Transcript of an Interview by Phil Van Eyl with Mr. Paine on 7-7-1977

“The World’s Longest Bridge Span” by Clifford E. Paine from the Smithsonian Report for 1937.

“America’s Country Schools” copyright 1984 / The Preservation Press