Proposed sign would share story of old schoolhouse
| 10:44 a.m. September 4, 2014
West Orange Times & Observer
WINDERMERE — When Town Council Member John Armstrong was growing up in the 1960s, his father’s former home — the oldest one-room schoolhouse in Orange County — was used as a rental house.
But the history of the small wooden building at 113 W. 7th Ave. goes way back to the late 1800s.
In addition to serving as a school, the structure was the headquarters for the local board of trade, and a women’s club, Union Church, polling place and social meeting hall. Outside of the building are a well and a citrus grove that are as old as the schoolhouse. And in the back stands a 1930s New Deal, Works Progress Administration outhouse.
Now, town officials are getting closer to obtaining a durable, two-sided sign that will help tell the story of this historical treasure.
The schoolhouse “might be one of the oldest buildings in Orange County,” said Theresa Schretzmann-Myers, secretary of the Windermere Historical Preservation Board.
While a temporary sign outside of the building lists the structure as being from 1890, recent research has found that it’s from at least 1887. The 1887 Historic Windermere Schoolhouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.
Schretzmann-Myers spent the last two years at the Orange County Regional History Center, in Orlando, finding documentation on the schoolhouse. The records were needed to apply for a $1,055 grant from the Florida Department of State Division of Historical Resources, Bureau of Historic Preservation. If approved, the grant will pay for half of the $2,110 cost of the sign, and town funds would pay the other half, Town Manager Robert Smith said.
He said officials could find out in a couple of months whether the grant application has been approved. If it is, the sign could be ready for installation sometime next year, Smith said.
The Historical Preservation Board is raising money to rehabilitate the interior of the schoolhouse, purchase a hand pump for the original well and replenish the citrus grove. The overall site is less than an acre.
Town officials and board members hope to later host field trips for local students to the schoolhouse, where the children will learn what it was like to attend school in the late 1800s and early 1900s. For example, students back then used to sit on orange crates while learning their lessons, Schretzmann-Myers said.
Side one of the sign would include details about the schoolhouse’s building materials. For example, “Local people built the board and batten structure of locally milled heartwood from the Florida Long Leaf Pine and installed a metal roof,” according to Preservation Board information. “Early teachers educated generations of settlers and town builders within these humble walls.”
The first students at the school were in grades K-12 and the children of citrus grove owners, workers and farm hands, the marker would explain. The building stopped serving as a schoolhouse in 1916, when the larger schoolhouse complex was built at the corner of Main Street and 6th Avenue.
Side two of the sign describes how, in 1918, Lloyd and Minnie Armstrong acquired the schoolhouse and surrounding property from real-estate developer Cal Palmer. The Armstrong family created a cracker-style structure by attaching two sleeping wings and a broad covered porch, and the schoolhouse became the heart of their home as the kitchen and dining room. Eight of the nine Armstrong children, including John Armstrong’s father, were raised here.
John Armstrong’s aunt, Eunice Armstrong-Parramore, acquired the property after the death of her parents, and she and Manual “Perry” Parramore deeded it as a historic legacy to the Town of Windermere in the 1980s. The additions were removed in 2000, and the structure was restored to its original form.
In 2011, residents successfully campaigned against a plan — supported by most of the Town Council — to move the schoolhouse between the library and Town Hall.
Schretzmann-Myers said some of the council members claimed the schoolhouse would be safer and more visible in the new location. But the real reason they supported the move, she said, was because a developer of a proposed planned-unit development wanted the original schoolhouse site for a parking lot.
On Jan. 3, 2012, Windermere voters overwhelmingly passed a charter amendment to preserve the schoolhouse at its original spot.
John Armstrong, who is the council liaison for the Historical Preservation Board, said his father — also named John Armstrong — was the only one of the nine Armstrong children who was born in the schoolhouse/home.
“He was born in 1921, in the addition,” he said. “The rest were born in North Carolina.”
Armstrong recalled his aunts and uncles telling stories of how they loved growing up in Windermere because of the seven lakes that surrounded them.
“Back then, Windermere was even less built up,” Armstrong said. “But the schoolhouse wasn’t really impressive to them. It was their kitchen, and it wasn’t really historical.”
The possible relocation of the schoolhouse in 2011, however, stirred something inside him.
“That’s when I got involved in politics,” said Armstrong, who began his first two-year term on the council in 2012. “We fought to keep it on its historical site. That was my family’s purpose (in donating the property to the town).”
Windermere native Roger Seidner, 88, said his father and former Windermere Town Council Member, Frances L. Seidner, attended school at the 1887 schoolhouse for about two years, from around 1913-1915.
“His sister and her husband had the first store in Windermere,” Seidner said. “He was staying with them when he went to school. It was small, but probably more efficient than some of the schools that we have now.”
Seidner’s mother, Jessie White-Seidner, taught at the larger 1916 school from about 1927-1930 and from 1936 until she retired in the 1960s.
Roger Seidner attended the 1916 school and served as pastor of the old Windermere Union Church from 1968-1988. The 1887 schoolhouse became the first meeting place for this church in about 1912, said Seidner, who was a good friend of Council Member Armstrong’s father.
The preservation of the schoolhouse “means more to the Armstrong family,” Seidner said. “I have had memorial services for half a dozen members of that family.”