By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
JENERA — A brick marker now stands near the intersection of Ohio 103 and Van Buren Township 60 — the site of the former Wilson School near Jenera. It’s all that’s left of the one-room country school where children were educated for more than 50 years.
The marker was built by descendants of farmer and carpenter George Wilson who donated land for the school. Family members thought it was a good way to remember a piece of Van Buren Township’s history.
“It’s a neat history to pass on to anybody that cares to listen,” said great-granddaughter Esther Spaeth, 74.”Some of our kids and grandkids are interested, and then some of the neighbors ask questions.”
Spaeth, along with brother and sister John Wilson and Mary (Wilson) Coldren, are first cousins and live in the area. Darwin Wilson, a second cousin once removed who also lives nearby, came up with the idea for the marker and did most of the building using bricks salvaged from the school when it was razed in 2008.
Darwin Wilson, 82, said the actual beginnings of the school are lost in history.
“But some of the other township areas, we have records where they started in the 1840s with a log cabin and then built a wooden building. And some of those wooden buildings were the last schools to survive here,” he said. “We don’t know if it started out in a log cabin. It may have, but the wooden building was built and survived until it was replaced with this brick building.”
The Wilson school was built in 1883. Darwin said it was a typical one-room school for children in first through eighth grades.
“There was one every two miles out in the country,” he said. The school was used until Hancock County closed all of its one-room schools at the end of the 1935-36 school year. John said the original school was situated about where a Morton barn now sits nearby.
“They added a corn crib on the west end, and I remember the blackboard in there yet, but that’s been gone. It was used for machine storage, just small machine storage,” he said.
John said his mother’s brothers, the Griesers, owned the building at the end, while the Wilson family owned the land.
Darwin said he once talked to one of the owners about restoring the school.
“He went over in another room of his house, came back with the tax bill which was about $6 and said, ‘Here, you can have the school,'” he said. “So I guess I owned it for awhile.”
“Darwin likes to restore things, and he was hoping to restore it until he went up on the roof, and it didn’t look good,” added Spaeth.
A wind storm later came through and took off part of the roof, she said. The building was then razed.
According to the cousins, it was sad to see the building come down, and they talked about placing a marker at the site.
“And finally, without too many meetings, we dug a hole and pretty soon, there it is,” said Darwin. “We tried not to spend any money but ended up spending a little bit. But the bricks are from the old school, and the top piece with the engraving is from St. Paul (Evangelical) Lutheran Church.”
The Jenera church was torn down in 2013.
The marker is engraved with the words “Wilson Schools 1840 — 2008.”
“So that’s why ‘schools’ is plural, because there’s been multiple buildings on that site, at least two,” Darwin said. “And the first date, 1840, is just a guess.”
A time capsule was also placed inside the marker. It contains a 2017 penny, a picture of the building and information Spaeth wrote up about the school.
John, 73, who has served as a Van Buren Township trustee for 16 years, said there are just two one-room school buildings still standing in the township: one at the intersection of County Road 28 and Township Road 60 and the other at County Road 28 and Township Road 65.
Many Wilson family members live in the same area as the school. Spaeth said 22 attended a dedication service in August.
“We wanted it remembered because it was important for the area,” she said. “We talked with descendants all around here, and they all had ancestors that had walked to that school.”
Dubbed the family historian, Spaeth has collected a shopping bag full of memorabilia from the school, including a small wooden piece that was found when the belfry was taken down. Unlike some of the other one-room schools, she said the Wilson School didn’t have a round sandstone plaque in the gable end of the building identifying the name of the builder and the date.
The message on the wooden piece, written in pencil, reads “B.G. Bibler built Oct. the 24th 1883.”
“It told the year and the builder, but other than that, we would have had no clue who made it,” she said.
Spaeth’s mother, Florence (Wilson) Smith, would visit schools and talk to the students about life in a one-room school, taking along the items she used when she was a student including a lunch pail, collapsible drinking cup, ink bottle and pen and her slate board and slate pencil. In addition to her mother’s collection, Spaeth also has class pictures, newspaper clippings, books from the school and a record book that contains the names of all of the pupils, their attendance and grades. The book contains an inventory of school property along with a rating. In it, the walks around the school are described as “fair,” while the outhouses at the time were “good.”
“There was a boys’ outhouse to the right and the girls to the left, and I don’t remember those. Those are things I’ve heard from neighbors,” said Spaeth.
Both of her parents were students at Wilson School. Her father, Byron Smith, lived about a mile away.
“It was a Wilson School romance,” she said. “They met at the school, married in 1936. That’s why Mom always could remember when the last class was, because it was 1935-36. That school year was the end, and they got married in October of ’36. So when they got married and built the house back here, then there was no more classes.”
The cousins are proud to be Wilson descendants and also have a family member who was a passenger on the “Famous Dove,” which was shipwrecked off the East Coast on Sept. 17, 1831. During a storm, they prayed and sang hymns while on the wrecked ship and when they safely reached land, they promised to observe Sept. 17 annually in thanks to God. Most of the immigrants eventually made their way to northwestern Ohio.
“George Wilson’s mother was on the ship, so we’re really fourth generation,” said Spaeth.
“One of the big Bibles that was on the ship, we were able to track down in the Southern states a few years ago,” added Darwin. “And we’ve donated that to the (Hancock Historical) museum.”
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