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Out & About: Norwich’s Root Schoolhouse ready to reopen as community space

  • Jason Moody, of Geddes Building Movers stacks cribbing after lowering the Root District Schoolhouse onto its new foundation on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in Norwich, Vt. The 45-ton building was constructed as a one-room schoolhouse in 1937. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photographs — Jennifer Hauck (above);James M. Patterson (left)

  • Tom McLoughlin, of Brattleboro, Vt., re-fits windows he has restored and weatherized at the Root Schoolhouse in Norwich, Vt., Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. The window work is part of a renovation that includes a new foundation and drainage for the 1937 building. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Mary Layton and her partner Bill Clauson, of Norwich, Vt., cover a stretch of poison ivy with cardboard along the bank at the Root District Schoolhouse in Norwich, on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. They were using cut coat hangers to hold the cardboard down, covering all of it with wood chips in hopes of getting rid of the dreaded plant. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • Photographed on June 24, 2015, the Root District Schoolhouse in Norwich, Vt., was built in 1937 and closed only eight years later due to low enrollment. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/20/2021 9:09:40 PM
Modified: 8/20/2021 9:09:49 PM

As a teenager in the 1970s, Mary Layton would go to the Root Schoolhouse for potluck dinners. Afterward, the roughly 600-square-foot space was transformed.

“We’d put the tables away and there were roller skates,” Layton said. “The kids would just skate around the hardwood floors.”

By that point, the schoolhouse had long ceased being a school. It closed in 1945 after enrollment declined. But it had found a new life — or maybe a continued life — as a community center in the Goodrich Four Corners neighborhood in Norwich. In 1952, the Norwich School Board deeded the building to the Root District Game Club for $5. Then, in 2011, it was closed completely because the foundation had deteriorated to the point where it was no longer safe.

Those who loved the schoolhouse — built in 1937 after the previous building burned down — weren’t deterred. What started was a decadelong effort to raise money to restore and improve it. Those efforts will be celebrated from 3 to 6 p.m. next Saturday when the building officially reopens to the public.

“Now that we saved the building, we want it to be used,” said Courtney Dobyns, president of the Root District Game Club, the nonprofit organization that worked to renovate the schoolhouse.

More than $150,000 has been raised for the renovations from grants and individual donors. In addition to the foundation being repaired, the schoolhouse was made accessible with a ramp and railings. The schoolhouse was repainted white and the windows were restored.

“It’s a wonderful, sunny, sunny spot. The big windows facing the road just bring in so much light,” Dobyns said. “Now we need a new roof, which is the next big project.”

Of the 20 schoolhouses that once served Norwich’s schoolchildren, only two that are open to the public remain: Beaver Meadow and the Root Schoolhouse. Some were torn down while others were incorporated into residents’ homes. The schoolhouses were neighborhood-centric, meaning children did not have to travel across town for their education. Church services and other community meetings were held in the space.

“People back in the 19th century, they didn’t think of the community as the entire town of Norwich, of Hanover or Lebanon,” said Sarah Rooker, director of the Norwich Historical Society. “They really thought about their communities in the terms of their neighborhoods.”

Brian Cook was living in Goodrich Four Corners in 2011 when he became curious about the Root Schoolhouse.

“Once I took a look at it for the first time, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is the perfect place for people to gather and perform, and I want to learn a lot more about it and its history,’ ” said Cook, who is now director of Revels North. “I just became fascinated with this idea of taking care of this building and turning it back into what it used to be. It just had this incredible history of being a place for community.”

It was initially a tall order: The building sits at the bottom of a hill, which led crunoff water to harm the foundation.

“The whole back wall was tipping in,” Layton recalled.

The group got to work finding funding sources. In 2013, the Root Schoolhouse was named to the National Register of Historic Places. In 2014, the Root District Game Club became an official 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, which allowed members to apply for grants. In 2015, Historic New England and CATV partnered together for a documentary about Norwich’s one-room schoolhouses, which included interviews from people who were educated at them.

“I think that that sort of generated … additional enthusiasm for the history of these buildings,” Cook said.

Due to the lack of heating, it will likely only be usable from May to September, although the group is discussing installing a heating unit so it can be used year-round. The building does not have running water or plumbing. There is a handicapped-accessible port-a-potty outside.

“People just have to carry in and carry out” their food and trash, Dobyns said. “They can’t do their dishes anymore.”

In terms of what the space will be used for, the nonprofit is leaving it up to the community. The stage could be used for children’s performances or poetry readings. There’s talk of putting a tool lending library in the basement. It could be a place for children’s birthday parties and potlucks, for craft classes and book groups.

“They were real community centers, and we need those community centers today. Resilient communities are communities where people gather; they know their neighbors, and they depend on each other,” Rooker said. “Having these small or micro community centers helps facilitate those feelings of neighborliness and community. We need to know our neighbors and, I think, have a strong sense of place and connectedness to our world. When we have that strong sense of place and connectedness, we care for it more.”

This is especially true as Norwich’s population changes and more people become caretakers of community institutions. Layton noted that the Root Schoolhouse went through periods when it flourished and then was neglected. In some ways, it was the shared history that united people to save it.

“It was also, I think, an act of faith from people who have experienced the schoolhouse in the past and also the people who know it’s great to have community,” Layton said. “That’s part of our resilience, especially in these times of climate change and other stressful factors of society. This is a way we can meet with our neighbors and just talk about regular things, get to know them, get to know what they’re all about.”

Editor’s note: For more information, visit rootschoolhouse.org.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.




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