Preservationist Theresa Schretzmann-Myers has devoted three years to trying to give a historic schoolhouse in Windermere the special recognition it deserves, and Friday, Dec. 11, will mark its official dedication.
The 1887 Windermere Schoolhouse — one of the oldest buildings in Orange County and the only remaining single-room schoolhouse in the area — is getting its official marker that signifies it is a historic site on the National Register of Historic Places. It was added to the register in 2003.
Schretzmann-Myers, secretary of the Windermere Historical Preservation Board, has spent countless hours at the Orange County Regional History Center in Orlando researching documents pertaining to the schoolhouse. This information was presented with an application for a grant from the Florida Department of State Division of Historical Resources, Bureau of Historic Preservation. The board received approval to apply for the actual grant money. In the meantime, local residents and organizations donated toward the purchase of the historic marker.
It wasn't enough to have the house on the national historic register. The schoolhouse deserved to be restored back to its 1887 glory days. The Windermere Historical Preservation Board vowed to breathe life back into the building that once educated many of the town's future leaders and business owners.
“This place matters,” Schretzmann-Myers said.
The board talked to restoration experts and landscape specialists. Members researched schoolhouses of that era to determine how it would have been set up. And they got busy with their massive project.All of the windows and doors have been redone by Sanford's CCS Restoration. The painstaking process involved steaming and scraping off nearly 130 years of paint and putty. The weighted pulleys on the windows were replaced, too.
Another challenge was restoring two of the original doors. Schretzmann-Myers said when the house was about to be relocated, movers used these doors as work benches so there was a great deal of damage that had to be repaired.
When it looked like the building was going to be moved to a more visible location between the library and Town Hall, the board collected petitions to keep the schoolhouse where it belongs: on it's original site. The building was temporarily hoisted up on a trailer; when the town decided to keep the building on the original site, it was set down directly on the gravel ground and moisture crept up the walls; so the siding will have to be replaced on the east and west ends. But that project will take money.
The gable boards on the north and south sides of the building still have to be restored because Pileated woodpeckers, a protected species, made nests there.
And not only has the schoolhouse been brought back to much of its 1887 glory, but the surrounding grounds have been, too. The historic orange grove was restored by the Windermere Tree Board with assistance by Josh Arnold of Showcase of Citrus. Fifteen varieties of citrus were replanted. Nehrling Gardens donated 100 Amaryllis, and the Windermere Garden Club and Tree Board worked together with volunteers from Windermere Preparatory School to plant 100 varieties of camellias on the perimeter. Native palms, magnolias, mahoganies and laurels that were cut down have been replanted.
“We are being mindful of putting back the plants that were native to the site,” Schretzmann-Myers said. We kept all the plantings that were still there — orange trees, landscape trees — and we restoration-pruned.
Another project the Windermere Historic Preservation Board has started is restoring the privy. The Works Progress Administration outhouse, built in the 1930s, sits at the end of a trail that runs from the schoolhouse’s back door.
The board wants to redig the old well and install an old hand pump like the one that would have been there more than a century ago — but this requires someone skilled in the work. It will also take money.
A LOOK INSIDE
The interior of the schoolhouse will be replicated as it would have looked like 128 years ago.
Gotha historian Kathleen Clare donated a wood-burning stove from the Wilkening family, as well as a stack of original school books dating back to the 1880s. The preservation board located a free-standing chalkboard and a teacher’s desk from the 1800s. The children’s seats were handcrafted by master woodworker George Poelker.
“There would have been no fancy desks,” Schretzmann-Myers said. “The students probably would have sat on orange crates (since they were) in the middle of the orange grove.”
Poelker used heart pine that was salvaged from the recently demolished Palmer Luff house on Palm Street, in Windermere, to make the crate seating, complete with space for students to store their lunch pails, books and chalk slates. The preservation board made scans of citrus labels that would have been placed on local crates, including those from Chase Groves and Isleworth Grove.
The board is still searching for an 1800s barristers bookshelf — shelving enclosed in glass that would have protected books from moths.
All of these props will enhance the schoolhouse tour, which is currently given to Windermere Elementary School fifth-graders but will be opened up to a broader audience. Children will be able to sit on the orange-crate seats, take a handwriting lesson and learn from one of the primer books.
This restored schoolhouse is important for many reasons, Schretzmann-Myers said.
“It helps interpret how people lived back then, it was the first voting and town assembly hall, the first school, the first church; every Windermere ‘first’ happened on that site, so it was critical that we saved it.”
Windermere Mayor Gary Bruhn, who will be at Friday’s dedication, is happy with all the work that has gone into restoring a piece of the town’s history.
“This is a culmination of a number of years of preserving and protecting a part of our past,” Bruhn said.
Much research has gone into the history of the 1887 Windermere Schoolhouse, which sits on a National Register of Historic Places site at 113 W. Seventh Ave, on the edge of downtown Windermere.
This is one of three undeveloped, wooded lots containing the historic tree canopy, orange groves and original hand well.
The history has been provided by the Windermere Historical Preservation Board. The building is the only surviving one-room schoolhouse in Orange County and one of its oldest buildings. The building is a simple 16- by 22-foot front-gable, frame-vernacular, one-story schoolhouse built prior to 1887 by local persons to provide rudimentary facilities for a rural school building.
It is made from the heart of the Florida Long Leaf Pine cut and milled by Lawrence “L.J.” Griffin, who operated the local sawmill. The building has a metal roof.
The 1886-1893 Orange County Record of Teachers Reports shows the earliest record of Windermere School “#75 School House Lake” with teacher Mip L.E. Davis teaching pupils from 1887-88 and Maude Adams teaching in 1890.
Students were from the small, undeveloped 12-block town of Windermere, the adjacent Chase and Isleworth grove workers’ families and a few from the farms to the north and west. Enrollment from 1887 thru 1910 varied from 12 to 23 students, “depending on the harvest schedule and the citrus season,” Schretzmann-Myers said.
A superintendent’s document from 1888 lists the monthly public school salary as $22 per month. Two years later, when the town was named and platted, the 1893-1910 School Exhibit Book of Orange County shows Adams was earning $30 monthly.
U.S. President Benjamin Harrison issued a land grant Homestead Certificate to Jesse B. Greaves in 1891 for 133.85 acres in this area eventually called Windermere. This schoolhouse served as headquarters for the local trade board and Windermere Women’s Club, a social meeting hall and the first religious facility and Sunday school for Union Church of Windermere.
In 1918, Lloyd Armstrong, who worked for Chase Groves, and his wife, Minnie Belle Armstrong, acquired the old school and surrounding property from Cal Palmer and added two sleeping wings, living quarters and a broad covered porch to accommodate their large family. The house was a cracker-style structure attached to the old school building. The former schoolhouse became the Armstrongs’ kitchen and dining room. Eight of the nine Armstrong children — including the father of Town Council Member John Armstrong — were raised here. Citrus trees and ornamental plants on the property were planted by the Armstrongs.
A daughter, Eunice Armstrong Parramore, acquired the property after her parents’ death. In 1995, she and her husband, Manual “Perry,” donated it as a historic legacy for the town of Windermere. The additions were torn off, and the structure was restored to its original look as a schoolhouse. In 1916, it was replaced with a larger schoolhouse annex, now used as the town office buildings.
Attempts were made to relocate the schoolhouse off its historic site in 2011. Town historic preservationists collected legal petitions, called for public hearings, wrote appeals and led a campaign to preserve the school at its original location. In November 2012, voters approved a town charter amendment to preserve the schoolhouse on its original site.
Contact Amy Quesinberry Rhode at [email protected].