O.J. seeks funds to restore pioneer schoolhouse

Originally constructed in 1840 as the Pleasant Hill School, the schoolhouse was donated to O.J. Neighbours in 1986. Its addition sparked the beginning of the Wabash elementary school’s pioneer re-enactment. Photo by Emma Rausch

By Emma Rausch

O.J. Neighbours’ pioneer schoolhouse is in need of restoration and the Wabash elementary is asking for the public’s help in the endeavor, according to Danielle Miller, principal.

Days prior to O.J. Neighbours’ 29th annual re-enactment on Sept. 14, the schoolhouse, a 177-year-old structure, officially sunk into itself due to decaying logs in the back, right corner, Miller told The Paper of Wabash County.

“At this point with the schoolhouse, it has to be completely refurbished,” Miller said. “The logs are 177-years-old and even though we have done waterproofing and different things, time has taken its toll.

“We’re to the point where the majority of the logs, 75 to 90 percent of the logs, are not salvageable,” she later added. “So we are going to have to do a lot of work to it. Most of the estimates coming in at this point are $50,000 to $75,000.”

Originally built in 1840 as the Pleasant Hill School in St. Louis, Mo., Tom and Shirley Sherman donated the schoolhouse to O.J. Neighbours in 1986 in honor of former educator, Ethel Smith, Mrs. Sherman’s mother.

“When Dave Sodervick was the principal here, his passion was for outside learning,” Miller said, “and he had established that outside learning lab, which we named after him, dedicated to him, and he had received a letter from Mrs. Smith’s daughter (on Oct. 6, 1986) saying they wanted to donate it. So that’s how this whole thing started with Ethel Smith’s daughter.”

Smith, a Wabash High School home economics teacher from approximately 1956 to 1968, was born Nov. 4, 1903, in Urbana and lived in Wabash for most of her life before passing away in 1988, according to Smith’s obituary.

The schoolhouse was a “catalyst in learning” for the local elementary re-enactment, Miller continued.

“Mr. Sodervick had 35 different spring and fall projects the teachers could have him sign up the kids to do,” Miller said. “The stuff he did was just amazing to me. So that’s how re-enactment began. That’s the heart of where it all started.

“When you look at that one moment that set tradition for our school and changed our school in a positive manner, it was the schoolhouse,” she later added.

On Oct. 30, 1986, 13 Wabash residents traveled to Missouri to retrieve the schoolhouse, according to a historic O.J. Neighbours document.

“After three days of dismantling and work, the logs were loaded and brought to Wabash on Nov. 2, 1986,” the document stated. “They were unloaded by O.J. Neighbours parents and other Wabash residents on Saturday, Nov. 15.”

Joe Davis, Wabash vocational school teacher, and his class of trade students poured the foundation in December 1986, and Claude Markstahler, a Wabash Middle School teacher, contracted to erect the building and laid the first logs on April 1, 1987, the document continued.

Construction completed on Aug. 22, 1987.

O.J. Neighbours’ first re-enactment would follow the next year in 1988. Since then, O.J. Neighbours’ pioneer village grew to include a church, a blacksmith’s shop and a mercantile. The re-enactment also expanded to include Native American dwellings, like a teepee and hut.

“This year was our 29th (re-enactment) and next year will be our 30th year of tradition with this,” Miller said. “This is a cornerstone of our school culture and what we do, and it began Mr. Sodervick and this outdoor area.”

At the time, the cost to reconstruct the schoolhouse was approximately $4,000.

Today, the cost to restore the structure has increased nearly 15 times that amount, according to Miller.

“There’s a lot that needs to be done,” she said. “I’m really to the point right now, now that I have that information, is to start reaching out to the community asking for people who have a passion for this to come along side us and help us. I need historical expertise. I need building expertise and then I also need fundraising expertise because there is no school-related fund to restore a one-room schoolhouse that was donated in 1986. It’s not a budget line item. I wish it were, but it isn’t.

“So this is really going to become a call to arms with our community to come along side us to help save and restore the treasure that was donated to us nearly 30 years ago.”

The structure’s restoration is “bigger than just a schoolhouse” and that’s why the school is asking for the public’s support, according to Miller.

“It goes so much deeper,” she said. “It’s the roots of our community. The Wabash community, when you look at everything we do, from the Stellar grant to Chili for Charity. All of these different things, it really speak to the heart and the spirit of our community.

“It goes deeper than just the schoolhouse. It’s the traditions and it’s connections with one another and the community support that we’re trying to build here. … And I think when you get to the ‘why,’ I think that’s your answer. It’s not the schoolhouse itself. It’s the spirit in which it was brought to us. That is the reason that we’re asking people to help us.”

Officials have established a schoolhouse restoration fund, which is a 501c3 account, to accept tax-deductible donations, according to Miller.

To make a donation toward the restoration or for more information on how to help with the cause, contact the O.J. Neighbours office at 260-563-2345 or email Miller at

Posted on 2017 Oct 10