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Bringing the schoolhouse back

Bringing the schoolhouse back

Washington County family renovating 1850 building where their ancestors once attended school
Bringing the schoolhouse back
This schoolhouse in Greenwich, Washington County, dates to 1850.
Photographer: photo provided

It’s the schoolhouse that won’t stop teaching.

The Tefft family of Greenwich has been working to turn an old schoolhouse into a home for the past few months and they’ve learned more about their family (and history) than they expected.

“There’s a ton of family history [here],” said Jill Tefft. She’s the eldest of the four Tefft siblings, with a toddler of her own. She and her father, Richard, first got the idea to renovate the 168-year-old school house (which was called the Center Falls schoolhouse) last year, when Jill noticed it was up for sale.

They’ve always known that Richard’s father attended the school in the 1940s and growing up, the Tefft siblings always thought of the schoolhouse as Gramp’s school. They also learned that their great-grandmother, Martha Dewey Tefft, also attended the school in 1915. When Jill saw that it was up for sale, she couldn’t shake the desire to go look at the place.

“It was covered in vegetation,” Richard said. They had to cut a pathway just to get to the door and push it open a bit. He expected the floor to be just about gone and the roof to be done for. But beyond a hole in the roof and floor (and a few raccoons and other creatures that had made the school their home), things were mostly intact.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Richard said.

After a few months of consideration (which included talking to town officials to see if their plans to turn the schoolhouse into a home would even be possible), they bid on it and bought it in October of 2017. The Teffts plan to turn the schoolhouse into a single family home.

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The renovation work needed to bring their vision to life is nothing short of extensive. Luckily, Richard has a background in project management and construction. The schoolhouse, which was built in 1850 and closed in the mid-1900s, needs everything from a well, to a kitchen, to flooring, to a bathroom, etc.

Working on the project has become a family affair. Although most of the family members already have a full-time job or two (or they’re still in school), they come and help out whenever they can. Jill and Richard are there most frequently and together they’ve discovered a number of artifacts that reignite their passion for the renovation process.

“Every time we work here we find something new,” Richard said.

During the second stage of renovation, they were clearing off the floor from what was probably around six inches of debris and dirt. After hurriedly sweeping the first few shovelfuls of dirt into a wheelbarrow, they noticed a little bit of paper sticking out of the dirt.

It turned out to be a drawing from Richard Tefft Sr.

After that, they cleaned a bit more carefully and found report cards, old school books, dental records, math homework, letters and a slew of other documents from former students. Many of the students’ family names are familiar as some of the families still live in Washington County. They’ve collected the documents and carefully preserved them in a binder or two.

Due to the building’s age and how much history, the Tefft’s have found in it, they’re working on getting the house on the National Register of Historic Places. They’ve had a representative out to look at it and it seems like it would certainly fit the criteria.

Although the renovations will be extensive, the Teffts plan to keep as much of the original infrastructure as they can.

“We want to keep the schoolhouse feel,” Richard said.

That includes the chalkboards which line a couple of the walls, the brick on the outside, the sink, the windows (which they found are from 1810), and the thick wooden beams and whatever else they can salvage.

“Dad keeps talking about getting a bell,” Jill said. He’s also thinking of putting a flag and a swing set in the yard.

Once the renovations are complete, they’re thinking of either renting it out on Airbnb or configuring a long-term lease, though nothing is yet final.
Jill, who is interested in documentary filmmaking, is chronicling their renovation journey on a blog Gramp’s Old School (grampsoldschool.com) and on social media.

“We can’t stop talking about it,” Jill said.

It’s becoming a problem at family dinners, with Jill and Richard talking on and on about different project ideas and things they’ve found in the schoolhouse and other family members trying to (not so politely) change the subject every once in a while.

But Jill and Richard aren’t the only ones who are passionate about the project. More and more community members are following the blog to keep updated on the project. People from around town also stop by the schoolhouse when they see the Teffts working on it just to ask about updates and see the progress for themselves.

“Everyone has been so interested in the project that we want to make sure people get a chance to check it out. We’re not sure exactly what we’re going to do yet but maybe [we’ll have] a few open houses when it’s done,” Jill said.

They don’t have a set finish date. Indeed, they keep expecting something major to slow them down or hold them up.

“We keep waiting for that uh-oh moment,” Richard said.

When renovating even newer buildings, as any HGTV watcher or house flipper knows, there’s usually an “uh-oh” moment where the renovator finds out that the house needs much more extensive (or expensive) work than expected. But so far, they haven’t run into that.
Instead, they’ve had more moments like these:

When they first cut through the vegetation and could get inside the building, Jill’s son (Richard’s grandson), Philip Schultz, was the first to go in. It marked the fifth generation of in the Tefft family to experience the schoolhouse and for both Jill and Richard it reinforced why they’re working on the project in the first place: to put life back into a schoolhouse that’s been a part of their family for generations.

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