New Brunswick

Little Red School House saved from wrecking ball by daycare owner stirred by history

Saint John's historic Little Red School House has been saved from the wrecking ball after a local daycare owner offered to take ownership of the iconic building and move it to her property on the west side.

Heather Hamilton will move historic building to her Saint John daycare, restore it as educational museum

The Little Red School House has been part of Saint John's uptown since the late 1960s. (CBC)

Saint John daycare owner Heather Hamilton is a self-professed history buff with a special interest in education, coming from a long line of teachers.

So when she heard the historic Little Red School House that has been part of the uptown area for nearly 50 years, since the teachers' association her father chaired gave it to the city, was at risk of being demolished, she jumped at the chance to save it.

"It was a gut reaction right out of the gate," she said. "It was like, 'I could do this. Let's make the offer … and see what happens.' If you don't try, you don't know."

Today, Hamilton is the proud new owner of the 19th-century one-room schoolhouse, which is just like the ones her grandmother and great grandmother used to teach in.

She plans to move the building to her daycare on the west side and restore it as an educational museum, complete with school artifacts, to be enjoyed by the children at her daycare as well as the general public, for free, by appointment.

"The completed project will offer children and adults of all ages a place to read about, experience the history and explore in a setting that reflects the very roots of education in New Brunswick," Hamilton said.

"When past meets present, the possibilities are endless."

Earlier this month, the city called for expressions of interest for the old schoolhouse, located at Loyalist Plaza on the waterfront.

The city said the structure had to be moved by Aug. 3 or demolished to make way for the new New Brunswick Museum to be built on the adjacent Canadian Coast Guard site.

Heather Hamilton says she's passionate about history and is excited about taking over the old schoolhouse. (CBC)

Hamilton is excited the city accepted her proposal to put the schoolhouse in the backyard of her daycare, Hamilton Homestyle Daycare & Club House, on Gault Road.

"Having the opportunity to once again hear the voices of children inside the Little Red School House is a privilege," she said.

She plans to create an environment where people of all ages will be able to move around freely and discover "education as it was."

"Kids don't even know what a chalkboard is. They use smartboards. So you know chalk … is something that they can feel the grit of chalk in their hands rather than just see it on the board," she said.

"It's just a different way of learning of being able to touch it and feel it and remember it."

Heather Hamilton's father, Gerald Mabey, who was a teacher in Saint John for 45 years, was chair of the teachers association that donated the Little Red School House to the city in 1969. (Submitted)

The schoolhouse will contain the original teacher's desk, students' desks and pot belly stove, along with some of her grandmother and great grandmother's teaching books and an old schoolhouse bell owned by her father, Gerald Mabey, who was a teacher in the city for 45 years.

"He has a strap, too," she said.

Some of the donations she has received include old geometry sets, homework from the 1930s and science sets from the 1950s and '60s.

Hamilton is now on the hunt for a copy of the iconic photograph of Queen Victoria that used to hang in every schoolhouse in the country.

The city received a number of proposals from the community and neighbouring towns, according to spokesperson Lori Lambert.

"It was evident that there is a shared community desire to see the school house safely moved and rehabilitated," she said in an email.

Hamilton's "comprehensive" proposal, prepared with the help of local historian Harold Wright, was selected based on several factors, including the intended use, financial means and the commitment to plan and initiate the move on schedule, she said.

Children at Hamilton's daycare were building Popsicle stick models of the Little Red School House on Thursday. (CBC)

The schoolhouse, which originated in Pleasant Villa, about 16 kilometres south of the Queens County village of Gagetown, was given to the city in 1969 by the local branch of the New Brunswick Teachers' Association, which was chaired by Hamilton's father.

It fell into disrepair over the years and is currently being used as storage space for patio umbrellas.

The city has described the building as being structurally in poor condition.

"The floor is rotting and sits on the ground," spokesperson Lisa Caissie has said. "There are no window sills, and the roof is in need of repair."

A little rough but solid

The bright red clapboard siding "is also in rough shape in several spots," she said.

Hamilton had the building inspected by a historical architect, who crawled under the building and was in the attic. He told her it's "very sound and solid," but needs "a little bit of TLC on the inside," she said.

The school house will be moved on a flatbed truck in the coming weeks.

"The community has been phenomenal," said Hamilton, noting her only cost will be maintenance.

"We've got people willing to truck it, we've got people willing to lift wires through Saint John Energy. We've got people committed to sending cinder blocks for the foundation. We've got donations coming in for a roof when we need it, paint when we need it."

Some New Brunswick Community College students have also volunteered to put footings down for the building, she said.

A grand opening is being planned for late September.