The Story of District #15, Grindstone's Schoolhouses

By: Liz Raisbeck

Volume 16, Issue 7, July 2021

The two one-room schoolhouses on Grindstone Island had been centers of Grindstone activity since the mid-19th century. Shortly after the lower school opened its doors in the 1840s, an upper school (District #15) was built at the corner of Base Line Road and Cross Island Road, to serve the children at the upper end of the island. Many children walked as far as three miles to get to school through frigid weather. This building also served as a church and meeting hall. In 1885, when a larger structure was built on that site to accommodate more students, the old building was moved across the road next to the Sulier family homestead (currently owned by Carol Faust).  It also was used as a women's temperance hall. Grindstone lore suggests the fire that destroyed the old building was no accident. Teachers who were not island residents boarded with families until a tiny apartment was added to the school. In 1960, the building was modernized to include a furnace and indoor plumbing.

Lower Schoolhouse early 1900’s on Grindstone Island.

After the Lower Schoolhouse closed in 1960, all the children of the island went to the Upper Schoolhouse.  As farming declined on the island, so too did the numbers of children.  With the prospect of having only two students in the fall of 1989, District #15 also closed its doors, and the children went to school in town.

In 1999, the upper schoolhouse doors swung open again, through the efforts of the newly formed Grindstone Island Research and Heritage Center (GIRHC). From its inception, the GIRHC has had several graduates of District #15 on its board. Over the last 22 years, the GIRHC has participated in a student intern research program documenting island life; it has developed a collection of historic photos, books and old newspaper articles; it has preserved the oral histories of over 40 Grindstone natives; it has developed a digital genealogy program, and a digital history of deeds project. For a number of years, GIRHC has also sponsored a summer program for children, which continues to introduce the children of Grindstone to the island’s natural and cultural history. And of course, there is a long tradition of holding our annual picnic and auction at the Upper Schoolhouse in August, and more recently a July 4th parade and picnic.

In 2016, the GIRHC began a partnership with the Town of Clayton (which is the property owner) to restore the upper schoolhouse to look more as it had in the 1940s and 50s. Over the last four years, the original ceiling was unmasked, new appropriate lights were installed, and the original maple floor was revealed and restored.  Now the teacher’s apartment has been refurbished, to look as it did in the late 1950s.  The classroom walls will soon display a collection of historic photographs. All of this was done through an amazing effort by Grindstone volunteers, a rare floor refinisher who knew how to do an oiled floor, and the Town of Clayton municipal staff.

We hope to have a grand opening of the restored Upper Schoolhouse this summer, complete with personalized pavers at the entryway, but nothing is certain in the time of Covid.

The Upper School House on Grindstone Island as it looks today.

The Grindstone Island Heritage Museum is Coming!

At the corner of Base Line Road and Schoolhouse Road, a one-room schoolhouse, historically named District #1, has stood for 140 years. This was the first public school in Jefferson County. Hundreds of Grindstone children have flowed through its doors, gathering the foundational education for grades one through eight. Today, Grindstone is still home to former Lower Schoolhouse attendees, whose memories we treasure. The first schoolhouse on Grindstone, built in 1840, was located on Base Line Road, on the east side of the entry road to the Howard-Smith/Augsbury property, originally where the John Black Farm was located. This building was destroyed by fire in 1880 and was rebuilt farther down the road, where it stands today.

During its first century, the Lower Schoolhouse changed very little. Teachers lived with farm families for the school season and the children flowed through. In the 1940s, an apartment addition was attached, so the teacher could live at the schoolhouse.  In 1960, the school closed and the property was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Lyle Wilkie and used as a summer cottage for many years. Then it was abandoned and suffered the effects of decades of Grindstone weather. In 1991, Manley Rusho, who attended the school from 1937 to 1944, and his wife Mary Lou, bought the property from Walt Christianson, a local real estate broker, and rebuilt it to be a guesthouse for their large family.

In 2019, Manley Rusho sold the Lower Schoolhouse to the Heritage Center so that it could become a museum for the island community. Many islanders stepped up and donated generously so that the Heritage Center could purchase the schoolhouse, set up an endowment to create an annual maintenance fund, and get a good start on renovations to the building.

Under the pandemic-induced ban on the usual bustle of Grindstone events, GIRHC had time in 2020 to plunge into museum planning. GIRHC chair Roxane Pratten worked closely with Steve Taylor, a local designer, who graciously offered his time to draw up proposed building plans for the future Museum. Grindstone’s own Mike Matthews (Main Island Construction LLC) and team stepped in and renovated both the schoolhouse back rooms – formerly the teacher’s apartment, removed the existing kitchen, and built a new smaller one in one of the back rooms. He also completely rebuilt the bathroom, as well as updated wiring as needed.

The current Upper School House on Grindstone Island.

This year the GIRHC board looks forward to introducing our renovated space to the island, with at least one gathering in 2021, even if it has to be outside. We have begun planning for our first exhibit to open in 2022, which will be called The First and the Last, featuring the first and the last one-room schoolhouses of Jefferson County.

The Grindstone Heritage Center is looking for photos and artifacts related to the two schoolhouses of Grindstone. If you have any or know someone who may, please contact Kelly Rusho Boyer at info@grindstoneisland.org

By Liz Raisbeck, Grindstone Island

Liz Raisbeck  is a summer resident of Grindstone Island and chair of the Grindstone Island Heritage Museum Committee. She was a past board members and president of Save the River and has championed many conservation projects over her career.

Editor's note:  Each summer we learn about new projects that help save and preserve the history of the Thousand Islands for the next generation. This particular project deserves much appreciation as Grindstone Island's history is unique. Bravo, everyone involved.

Posted in: Volume 16, Issue 7, July 2021, History, Places, People, Current


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