BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – Names like Gehle, Hasenclever, Winke, Smutzer and Wilmesmeier hang in the air and are still written on a decades old chalkboard in the front of the room.
A heavy wooden organ sits with less than expected cobwebs, and rows of desks that had older students to the teacher’s right, and younger to the left, fill an empty room that for some reason still smells of old books and wood and fresh country air.
The Brush College one room school house on 330th Avenue just north of 190th Street, is remarkably still conducive to a spring day of learning for a class of 30.
Andy Andrews, the perpetual steward of the North Lee County Historical Society, opened the building Thursday afternoon for a quick look before the Society opens the building for an Open House from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 26.
The open house is to showcase the good bones and history of the brick building sitting on just a tenth of an acre on the west side of 330th Avenue, just up from 190th Street off the west shoulder.
A brightly painted red water pump, that Andrews says “will” be operational for the open house makes a nice warm napping spot for a Woodhouse’s Toad on the cool Thursday afternoon.
The whole scene runs one back 80 years to when 1st through 6th graders all bundled into one of more than 100 Lee County one-room school houses, according to Andrews. Now there are just two that have been restored.
“They used to say you went to high school, after you went to College,” Andrews laughs under his all-too-familiar bib overalls and camo Kansas City Chiefs hat.
The historian said he thinks the name Brush may have come from the family of George Brush, but some think, as a sign erected near the school as part of a 2011 Eagle Scout project reveals, the name comes from the “surrounding flora”.
“They have a family bible in Connecticut that says the Brush Colleges in this area were named after that George Brush family,” Andrews said.
But a I wide-eyed look, smile and a nod says there’s no proof of that.
The open house is part of a renovation for the school’s bell tower. NLCHS volunteers Mark and Austin Haas have been working on the bell and got it ringable again after it had seized up. Now a red nylon cord drapes down the front of the building for people to ring, what Andrews calls, the Jaybird bell.
The bell was apparently brought over from the Jaybird school that was torn down in the central part of the county. Andrews said someone stole the bell after this Brush College was closed.
“We think it sits up here in somebody’s front yard,” Andrews chuckled pointing to the north.
“We had to get the bell off the Jaybird School which was next to Sheaffer Golf Course. So that bell come off the Jaybird School in 1966 when a major restoration took place here.”
Sometime before 1871, a log cabin was built as the college and then in 1877 land was purchased from Martha and William Richards to build a one-room brick building. At some point after 1935 someone built an enclosed front porch on the large top step that goes into the building.
Teachers ranged from a 17-year-old Grace Roger (later Lange), in 1897, to B.H. Pranger who was director at the school starting in 1907 with students numbering in the 50s ages 6 to 13. Dorothy Cook and Lucille Staff, and other names like Kellems, Benson, Schroeder, Steeples, and Parrish all led instruction.
Andrews said for decades schools would come out to the old school for field trips and tours, but those days are fewer now as funding woes plague school systems and field trips are more of a thing of the past.
Andrews said Robert Hasenclever, a student in the building at one time is scheduled to be on hand to help with the open house and talk with visitors.
Andrews hopes to raise $10,000 to repair the bell tower and said about $2,000 has been secured so far. Other needs would include replacing some old wood pane windows and sealing up the front porch ceiling.
Information on how to donate can be found by contacting the historical society by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 319-372-7661, or by mail at NLCHS, Brush College Fund, P.O. Box 285, Fort Madison, IA 52627.
(Article updated to reflect fund post office box address.)