North Haven Has New Plans for Old Schoolhouse

Trustee Dianne Skilbred, left, along with Jessica von Hagn and Susan Edwards, are members of the committee that is exploring how to transform the old schoolhouse into a new museum. Christine Sampson photo

The old North Haven Village schoolhouse is easy to overlook. The wood-shingled structure is showing signs of age and weathering and it blends into its surroundings. The front facade with its dark-red door doesn’t even face Ferry Road, so you’ve probably passed it without even realizing it’s there. A flagpole on the lot gives the one-room schoolhouse, which dates back to 1847, its best shot at being noticed by passers-by.

But it’s far from forgotten by villagers, and there’s a plan to educate children in the old schoolhouse once again.

North Haven Trustee Dianne Skilbred, Village Improvement Society president Jessica von Hagn and a committee of community members have launched an effort to move the old schoolhouse down the street to the current village hall property and transform it into a museum that can host school field trips, library programs, weekend visiting hours and other educational activities.

Ms. Skilbred said this week she thinks it would be exciting to “teach children of today what school was like then. I think it would be fun for the children.”

The committee is considering moving the schoolhouse for proximity to the bathrooms and parking at village hall. You cannot have school field trips and other events for children without having proper bathrooms nearby, she explained.

“I think some people may not want it to move, and I understand that,” she said. “But if anybody thinks about it, they don’t just want it to sit here for storage. It’s a waste of an historic building, which as you can see is in good shape.”

This particular schoolhouse is North Haven’s second, after an earlier iteration was built sometime around 1796 or possibly earlier, according to research published in the 2006 book, “The Early History of North Haven” by Dorothy Ingersoll Zaykowski, Joseph Zaykowski and Ronald L. Lowe.The structure has had multiple locations and lives.

After children began attending school in a new, two-room school built in 1892, the 1847 building was moved and used as a simple shed for many years by Annie Corwin on her property at Maunekea Street and Ferry Road. “The Early History” book indicates it may once have been used as village hall, thanks to a community restoration effort in 1932 and 1933 led by the newly formed North Haven Village Improvement Society. By that time the 1847 schoolhouse had been moved back to its location at the corner of Ferry Road and Payne Avenue, where it sits today.

“The Village Improvement Society donated $90 toward the restoration,” the authors wrote in “The Early History.” “Local workers gave of their time and talents … the school children held a fair to raise money.”

Ms. Skilbred says in the mid-20th century, homeowner associations often held meetings there. According to “The Early History,” the 1847 schoolhouse is “the only historic community structure still standing on North Haven.”

The East End is home to a handful of old schoolhouses that serve civic or educational functions. The Old Noyac Schoolhouse is on Noyac Road and is where the Noyac Civic Council meets. The Amagansett Schoolhouse, built in 1802, is on the grounds of the present-day Amagansett School following a donation of the building to the district in 2016, courtesy of Huntington and Adelaide Sheldon. Southampton Village has the circa-1830 Red Creek Schoolhouse on Meeting House Lane, originally built in Hampton Bays, where the Southampton Historical Museum offers tours and school visits. Riverhead Town maintains the 1822 Schoolhouse on East Main Street, originally built in Baiting Hollow, but was moved and restored in 1977 and used as a museum ever since.

The 1847 schoolhouse as seen in 1933. From “The Early History of North Haven.”

Then, of course, there’s the Sagaponack School and the Wainscott School. Sagaponack’s “little red schoolhouse,” as it’s known locally, was built in 1885 and is still in active use as a school today. In Wainscott, where schools had been single-room structures since 1730, a one-room schoolhouse from the 1930s serves as an auxiliary building to the newer, two-room school that opened in 2008.

According to “The One-Room Schoolhouse: A Tribute to a Beloved National Icon,” a copy of which Ms. Skilbred has, written by Paul Rocheleau in 2003, about 450 one-room schoolhouses were in use at that time in the United States. At one time, he wrote, there were as many as 200,000. The Wainscott School is one of many featured in Mr. Rocheleau’s book.

“It was only natural that as populations grew in rural towns, the one-room schoolhouse would soon become claustrophobic,” Mr. Rocheleau wrote. “The solutions were to add other schoolhouses, expand present ones or build new two-or-more-roomed structures. … Flexibility was necessary because of fluctuating local economies in areas with volatile industries like mining and ranching.”

By the 1920s, students in North Haven had begun attending Pierson High School in Sag Harbor. The two-room school that sat vacant on the property of the original schoolhouse was destroyed by fire in 1926, with “The Early History” offering two causes. The unofficial scuttlebutt, the writers said, was that “bootleggers set fire to it to distract the authorities while contraband was being unloaded from boats on the North Haven shore during prohibition.” But the archives of The Sag Harbor Expressoffered an official account: “a party of young folks” having an evening gathering in the vestibule most likely dropped a match or a cigarette to accidentally cause the blaze.

That’s when Mrs. Eugene Hodenpyl Sr., who attended the North Haven School herself in the 1870s, suggested to the North Haven Village Improvement Society the 1847 schoolhouse should be restored to its original site, cleaned up and used as a municipal meetinghouse. The community agreed and the building returned in 1933, but it came back facing Payne Avenue instead of Ferry Road as it had originally stood.

And that’s how it stands today.

Where the current restoration plan stands, according to North Haven Mayor Jeff Sander, is an information-gathering phase in which the village board has given Ms. Skilbred, Ms. von Hagn and the committee the green light to explore all of their options. The village trustees have included a tentative budget line of $10,000 for the schoolhouse project in its proposed 2019-2020 budget.

“I think it’s a good idea. I think it would be more visible and more useful at village hall,” Mr. Sander said. “We have a lot more work to do to see if it’s feasible from a cost perspective.”

Even if the move to the grounds of the present-day village hall doesn’t work out, the mayor said, “we would still pursue using it more fully” in its current location.

“It’s a great little building and we think it should be put to better use,” he said.

Moving the schoolhouse would free up the village-owned property at Ferry Road and Payne Avenue. Ms. Skilbred said that leaves plenty of options, including a community garden, affordable housing, a potential Community Preservation Fund sale to Southampton Town and more.

Inside the schoolhouse is what is thought to be an original potbelly stove, which isn’t in good enough shape to be functional again, but remains in good physical shape. Etchings by students who long ago carved their initials into the walls are still visible. According to “The Early History,” the letters represent names like Corwin, Edwards, Kolbeck, Curry and Dutcher.

“It’s a little bit of North Haven, and we’re a small community, so it’s nice to bring awareness to the history of the schoolhouse,” Ms. von Hagn said this week. “I don’t even know if people who drive by truly even know this is a schoolhouse. It’s exciting to bring this to life again in a different way.”

An old pot-belly stove believed to be original to the schoolhouse. Christine Sampson photo