By Kristin Hackler
“Completed by 1869…the Walnut Hill School was a classic one-room school house, approximately twenty by thirty feet, with wood frame construction and a central flue for a wood burning stove. In November 1868, there were 138 eager students, the oldest sixteen years and all children of slaves, enrolled and learning to read and spell and do arithmetic. The average daily attendance was only seventy-five…but in the spring of 1869, average daily attendance exceeded one hundred…” – A Place Called St. Johns, by Betty H. Stringfellow and Laylon Wayne Jordan
Since early 2011, the little schoolhouse known as the Johns Island Museum has stood alone on the lot that used to comprise the Rosebank Farms produce stand off the Betsy Kerrison Parkway. Tucked into the back of the property, the building was a sight to see in the spring and summer with the contrast of deep blue and magenta hydrangeas blooming against the white clapboard walls. Since the stand moved up the road, however, vines, weeds, and quick-growing trees have sprouted up and closed in around it, making it almost invisible unless you know where to look. Luckily, this past month the schoolhouse caught the eyes of some people who could help.
In the course of introducing the new Johns Island Conservancy to various long-time residents of Johns Island, Conservancy founder Colin Cuskley met with Betty Stringfellow, owner of the former Rosebank stand property, and found out about the plight of the old schoolhouse.
“It’s one of only two left on the island. About thirty years ago it was about to be torn down in Walnut Hill and I said ‘Give it to me!’ I didn’t pay a nickel for the building, but I had to pay to move it,” said Stringfellow.
Since the Rosebank stand moved, Stringfellow has approached various organizations about moving the old schoolhouse off the property and taking responsibility for its upkeep, but the cost has been a stumbling block. Estimates range from $50,000 to $100,000 to move and reestablish the building, let alone the cost of long term maintenance, and few organizations currently have that kind of funding on hand.
“It’s up to Betty what she wants to do with the place, but in looking at estimates on the value of the land where the schoolhouse is located, it would cost about as much to buy the land and leave the schoolhouse where it is as it would to move it,” said Cuskley.
Though the Johns Island Conservancy has no plans at the moment to raise funds for the schoolhouse, Cuskley almost immediately volunteered to have the Conservancy help clear away the overgrowth around the building. A few weeks later, on April 18, five volunteers arrived at 9 a.m. and for three hours worked at trimming, tugging, and cutting until the building was once again not only visible, but exposed to the warmth of the sun.
“At least it’s not deteriorating now,” said Cuskley.
Fortunately, the interior was still intact, though a bit musty. The old schoolroom exhibit with chalkboard, 1800s school desk, and excerpts from old learners on the wall was still there, as were the glass cases containing a depiction of the Battle of Haulover Creek as well as various Civil War items found in the Rosebank fields.
“We hope to come back, hopefully with the Seabrook Island Natural History Group, and power wash the sides of the building and clean up a little inside, as well as replace the front steps,” said Cuskley.
The Conservancy also plans to have Jane Ellis, a member of the Conservancy Board of Advisors and Associate Professor of Biology at Presbyterian College, come out and identify several of the plants around the building to ensure they aren’t removing anything flowering or fruiting. As it was, they were able to identify a loquat tree and a grapefruit tree on the south side of the structure and were careful to leave those untouched.
“We’re just working to get people involved because this is a great place,” said Cuskley.