Oil Springs School ready for its Grand Opening scheduled for this Saturday in Harpers Ferry

Oil Springs School ready for its Grand Opening ... In November 2016, the Oil Springs School was moved from its original location north of Harpers Ferry to its current location pictured above, next to Tillinghast Park in Harpers Ferry. With help from volunteers, businesses and groups in Harpers Ferry and surrounding areas, the restoration process has been completed, the school is furnished and it is ready for its Grand Opening this Saturday, September 8. Photo by Brianne Eilers.

Learning history ... The inside of the Oil Springs School features a set-up that many students of rural schools will be familiar with. The black boards on the wall came from the former Harpers Ferry school, as did the small student slates. The colors and décor of the school are also appropriate to the time period the Oil Spring School operated. Photo by Brianne Eilers.

by Brianne Eilers

The Oil Springs School restoration project in Harpers Ferry is nearing completion. For the past three years, volunteers from various entities such as the Harpers Ferry Area Historical Society (HFAHS), the Harpers Ferry Booster Club, City of Harpers Ferry, Allamakee Historical Preservation Society and many other businesses, groups and individuals in the Harpers Ferry area or with ties to the area have come together to donate time, talents, money and artifacts to this project.

The finishing touches were slated to be completed in August, with a grand opening scheduled for Saturday, September 8 beginning at 10 a.m. The programming for that day begins with a ribbon cutting and flag raising ceremony. The 48-star American flag will be raised, as it was the one flying when the school was in operation. There will also be presentations at the school, now located on Vine Street in Harpers Ferry.

At 11 a.m., a presentation by Laura Ingalls Wilder as a school teacher, portrayed by actress and historian Laura Keyes, will be held at the Ethel Robinson Meehan Community Center located at Orange and Fourth Streets. Lunch will also be served from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Community Center. Throughout the day, there will be activities that pertain to the period the school was active, such as a spelling bee, quilting, sack races and bobbing for apples, among other things.

The school was moved into the town of Harpers Ferry in November 2016 from its original location, two miles north of Harpers Ferry, and now sits adjacent to Tillinghast Park. Volunteers spent many, many hours working to restore the school to its original condition, right down to choosing period-appropriate paint colors, period-appropriate curtains, as well as accessories such as old lunch pails, books, photographs, maps and much, much more.

“We had great community involvement,” noted Karen Soper, former chair of the Harpers Ferry Booster Club. Soper explained that over 100 people from the area have been involved in the project to revitalize Harpers Ferry and were split into five groups for visioning. The group focusing on tourism worked closely on the Oil Springs School project. Calls for volunteers and artifacts have yielded a large number of items that pertain to the school and to the Harpers Ferry area itself.

“Harpers Ferry has a lot of history, and a lot of it is stored in houses, garages and even City buildings,” noted Harpers Ferry Mayor Dick Smrcina. “This is a great opportunity to share that history with the public. All of the volunteers have worked really hard.”

Smrcina noted that things progressed on the project quickly, and that it is interesting to hear stories from former students of the school who stop by to visit and reminisce about their time at Oil Springs School. Current Harpers Ferry Booster Club President Sheila Diggins is one of the Harpers Ferry residents with ties to the school. Her mother, Constance “Connie” Brannan, was a teacher there for a time.

“It’s a good asset to Harpers Ferry,” Diggins said of the school. She noted that in addition to the Booster Club and Heritage Club, members of the community and area have also been more than willing to step in and help where they are needed. She also noted that it’s an opportunity for people to visit Harpers Ferry and learn the heritage of the one-room school and the area of Harpers Ferry.

As a historian, Laura Keyes explained the importance of keeping the memory of rural one-room schools alive for the generations to come. “Allowing future children, and adults, to see how children learned in the past is important as it shows the changes in all aspects of our lives,” she says. “It vividly illustrates the changes in our culture and technology. It develops an understanding and appreciation for what our ancestors went through. One of the things we lost when one-room school houses went away was the reinforcement of community among children of a large age range. Teaching children and adults about how older children would look out for and help teach the younger grades will, I hope, instill a desire to be involved in their own community.”

All the items in the Oil Springs School have been donated. HFAHS President Jane Hasek explained that the black boards on the walls and the individual student slates were made from the black boards in the Harpers Ferry school. The Abraham Lincoln picture hanging in the school was donated by former Postville teacher John O’Hara and has quite a history itself. Hasek explained that it originally came from the Postville school and had been discarded. It was in bad shape and the frame had been damaged.

“Eagle’s Nest in Lansing restored the picture,” she explained. “It is the last picture of him (Lincoln) post Civil War.”

She noted that they have also been getting many donations of books, some of which are featured on the student desks. “We’ve gotten some beautiful books,” she noted. “Lots of classics.” The historical documents have also been coming in. “People are finding them,” she said. “It’s amazing how the history is being pieced together.”

The community has come forth with so many artifacts, including documents, photos and other items, that the next project will be to find or build a facility to house all the items that are not related to the Oil Springs School. For the grand opening, these items will be displayed in the Ethel Robinson Meehan Community Center.

That display will include a stained glass window from the St. Joseph Church.

In conjunction with the Oil Springs School grand opening and in the spirit of sharing area history, George Ashbacher will be opening up his collection of historical items to the public October 13 and 14. Hasek noted that this will be a shared project.

“This falls in to part of our mission to enhance and preserve the history of the area,” she said.

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