Sykesville official wants to convert 'little-known treasure' into museum


A Sykesville councilman wants to transform an abandoned schoolhouse "with strong family bones" into a museum exhibiting school days memorabilia.

"I want it here to show my children how their family came up," said Eugene E. Johnson. "They have more opportunity today to get the best education in the school of their choice."

His parents, older sisters and other African-Americans who grew up in Sykesville through the first half of this century had no such choice. They attended the one-room schoolhouse off Oklahoma Road from first through seventh grade.

To continue their education, the nearest high school was a 90-minute bus ride to Robert Moton School in Westminster.

"Carroll only had two schools for black students, and people came from all over this county and Howard County to go here," Mr. Johnson said. "A lot of successful people came through this school and made good for themselves."

Sykesville officials hope money from the Maryland Historic Trust will help preserve the century-old building where hundreds of African-American children learned their ABCs.

Members of the town Historic Commission and Town Manager James L. Schumacher are preparing a grant application that they hope will save the one-room school from demolition.

"It is the only old black schoolhouse left in Carroll County that can be restored," said the Rev. Ernest Johnson, pastor of St. Luke Methodist Church in Sykesville. "Black children came from all over to go to school here."

Rebecca Herman, chairwoman of the town Historic Commission, calls the building on Schoolhouse Road "a little-known treasure." With a little effort, the treasure could become a museum.

Ernest Johnson, who is not related to the councilman, traced the deed for the half-acre property to 1903, when the Board of County School Commissioners purchased it for a school.

The building itself may date to 1888, he said.

Ruth Gaither, Councilman Johnson's sister, was among the last students to attend the unnamed school more than 60 years ago.

She remembers about 50 children crowding into one room.

Despite what would be considered dire conditions by today's classroom standards, she was "glad for the chance to have an education.

"I have all good memories of the place," said Mrs. Gaither, 71. "I loved going there."

For Mrs. Gaither, the school was "a minute's walk" from home. She remembers racing down the hill carrying fresh spring water to the building, which had no plumbing, and settling in for lessons by the heat of a coal-fired stove.

She also remembers a Mrs. White who taught seven different lessons a day to accommodate grades one through seven.

"She would go back and forth so all those kids got their lessons," Mrs. Gaither said. "They were all well-behaved children, and the teacher had no problems."

Mrs. Gaither said she would like to preserve those memories and hopes the town where she has lived all her life can help.

The state awards a maximum $40,000 for restoration projects based on architectural and historical significance, urgency and geographic distribution, said Bill Pencek, chief of the state Office of Preservation Services.

The deadline for the application is Jan. 1, with money to be awarded by summer 1994.

The town would use the money to buy construction materials, run its sewer line to the building and install a bathroom, Councilman Johnson said.

"I hope we could do 80 percent of the work with volunteers," he said.

The town has tried unsuccessfully for grants for nearly six years, he said. "Usually, they tell us funds are not available. Now, the state has money for black historic preservation, and this building definitely qualifies."

He rates the structure "in fairly good shape. It is so high off the ground, it has never been flooded even during [Hurricane] Agnes," he said.

Councilman Johnson recently replaced the roof and has winterized the building every autumn.

While the stone foundation is "solid as a rock," many of the unpainted clapboard shingles are rotting and all the windows are broken.

"We could keep many of the [original] boards and spray them with wood preservative," he said.

The building, which in later years served as a residence, has been unoccupied for 12 years.

Mr. Johnson fears its decrepit state makes it an eyesore and a fire hazard.

"If we can't get the money, we will have no other choice but to destroy the building," Mr. Johnson said. "We surely don't want that to happen. Once it is gone, we would never be able to put it back."

Mr. Johnson said he would like to see the exterior repaired and steps and a landing built at the entrance. Inside, he sees a small office with the remaining space devoted to a classroom.

He said he knows where he can find some original school furniture and the old school bell.

"This building is definitely an important part of black history," he said. "I would like to see something happen this time."

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