By Cinthia Stimson
Via Wyoming News Exchange
DOUGLAS — About 14 miles from Orin Junction along WYO 20, a 100-year-old visibly weathered building sits off to the right side of the road, nearly alone in the countryside.
The paint on its stucco sides is fading under the hot summer sun. The paint on the walls inside is peeling off in large, faded blue sheets, leaving the wall looking like a map of a make-believe country.
The original school bell sits on top, but its tones haven’t been heard in a long time. The bell and the building sit quietly, the days of calling children into class long past – in fact, the last time the bell rang for school was more than 30 years ago.
It’s the old Shawnee Schoolhouse. Built in 1919, the structure has life left in it yet, supporters say.
The Friends of the Old Shawnee School want to save it. They’re a small but growing group of people who want folks to know that it’s a Wyoming landmark and they want to see it come back to life, a chapter of history to be permanently preserved.
Mary Engbretsen, Sharon Lovitt, Donald York, John Kolego and Doug Stark are spearheading the effort to preserve the old school.
“I went to school here through the eighth grade. I love this school. It means a lot to me. We have a great opportunity here to save something important to Wyoming and to the people who live here,” Kolego said at a meeting of the Friends in Shawnee.
Thirteen people sat in a semi-circle inside a classroom in the modular unit which serves as Shawnee’s current school – brainstorming about how to organize, raise funds and get the word out that the old school is worth preserving.
Despite needing a new roof, floor and foundation, the preservationists say the schoolhouse itself is sound.
Kolego and his family are willing to donate money to cover the cost of replacing the roof. The land has already been deeded over to the Friends of the Old Shawnee School by the previous owner, he said.
Contractor Donald York, who also attended classes in the old structure, updated the group about the condition of the schoolhouse.
“There are roof problems. It leaks. The main part of the building is structurally sound. We need to get it back up on stilts where it should be,” he said.
“There’s no real foundation, it’s all sitting on the dirt. When I was in there last time, there was a foot of mud in the basement.”
York estimates the cost at $20-$30,000 to jack it up, put in a foundation and fix the floor. At one time, the basement had become a rattlesnake nest, but the snakes have since been cleared out.
Doug Horner, a rancher who lives about 8 miles away from Shawnee, said the schoolhouse bell is also a piece of history.
It wasn’t just important to call the children into class, but important to the entire town on several levels, he said.
“It was used for school and also as an alarm for fires. There were different sounds or tones for different things. We want people to realize that country schools were so important to establish communities back then. They brought people in to settle,” he said.
The Alliance for Historic Wyoming’s (AHW) Program Manager Rin Kasckow attended the Friends’ meeting and discussed a few options which might help the group, such as working to get the schoolhouse added to the National Register of Historic Places.
In June, she arranged for the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office’s Architect Linda Kiisk out of Cheyenne to visit the old school.
Board members met with her and walked her through the school.
“(Linda) said it retains a lot of the original integrity,” Kasckow said.
Another architect will take a look at the school, too, “to have two sets of eyes on it. We’re trying to figure out how much it will cost to restore the schoolhouse from top to bottom.”
Once everything is lined up, there’s a good chance that the AHW will help the group raise money for its restoration.
“My organization can be a ‘piggybank’, a fiscal sponsor, if it takes longer to get their nonprofit status set up,” she said.
“Their drive to make sure the building doesn’t fall down makes it easier for us to help. They are open-minded to others’ opinions, which makes our partnership with them very strong.”
Right now, the Friends of the Old Shawnee School are in organizational mode: They’ve set up a board, are working with an accountant on obtaining a 501(c)3 status as a nonprofit, working corroboratively with Kasckow and the Alliance, and prioritizing the repairs on their restoration plan.
“I love the passion, excitement and energy of all those people in the room. All of those people coming together to restore a piece of their community. I know this is going to be a great collaborative project,” Kasckow said.
“We’re not doing it for the recognition,” Kolego said. “We just don’t want the building to go away. It means so much, to so many of us.”