Historic, decaying one-room school to see new life as museum, event center
photo by: Chris Conde
Travelers between Lawrence and Lecompton, along North 1800 Road, may have noticed an old building slowly losing its battle with time, but thanks to descendants of one of the area’s oldest families, new life is being bestowed on the decaying structure.
The old building is known as Winter School House No. 70, named for the Winter family. It’s a 149-year-old one-room schoolhouse, and the Douglas County Commission has recently approved it to be renovated and used as a museum and event center. The project will bring the old school up to modern building codes and add a heating and cooling system. A courtyard will also be built with accessible bathrooms.
School District No. 70 was established in 1869 by the voters of Douglas County, with R. T. Richards as its first director. In 1870, the land for the school was donated to Douglas County by one of Lecompton’s earliest settlers, Mathias “Ship” Winter. It was the first public school in Lecompton, and one of three schoolhouses built in Douglas County that year.
The schoolhouse — described as a “24×30, 12 foot story, railroad cornice and other things ditto” — cost $875, according to an article in the Lawrence Daily Journal on July 28, 1870. It was constructed “in a night as it were,” and was hailed as “one of the most commodious country school rooms north of the Kansas river.”
After donating the land for the school, Winter served the school as its clerk in 1871. He was elected to the Douglas County Commission as a Democrat in 1893 and again in 1895. He served until his death in a cable car accident in Kansas City in 1896.
The first classes were held in 1871 with instructor Alice Colman. Among its first 27 students was Milton R. Winter, Ship Winter’s 11-year-old son. Later in life, Milton served as school board director, from 1898 to 1903, according to the Lecompton Historical Society.
The school remained in operation until 1946, when Douglas County combined some of its smaller school districts. Until that time, the school also had served the community as a meeting hall and event center, often hosting pie suppers and ice cream socials. In 1912, it hosted the opening campaign rally for the Douglas County Republicans, which filled the room wall to wall, according to news reports from the time.
The school changed hands several times before officially shutting down. It was first sold to the neighboring farm owned by Max McClure, who was a school board member when the school was operational. The McClure family still owns the adjacent farm. The McClures sold the school in 1968 to Jerry Smith, a car collector from Kansas City who had seen it while traveling along I-70 and wanted to restore it, according to Goldie Piper Daniels, author of “Rural Schoolhouses of Douglas County, Kansas.” However, Smith never managed to renovate the building, and it began to fall into disrepair and was vandalized.
Finally, in 1984, the property returned to its original owners, the Winter family. Wint Winter Sr. and his son Wint Jr. established Winter School Preservation Inc. and purchased the land from Smith with the intent to preserve the building. By 1988, the preservation group had installed a new roof and was lobbying for donations to continue work on the interior of the school.
Wint Sr., born in 1930, was the third son of Milton R. Winter. Wint was a Republican Kansas senator from 1969 to 1980. His small bank in Ottawa eventually grew to be known as Peoples Bank. When Wint Sr. died in 2013, the dream of preserving the Winter schoolhouse fell to his son, Wint Jr., and granddaughter Katie.
Wint Jr.’s personal interest in the property dates back more than 40 years, to the late 1970s, when he was a law student at the University of Kansas, where he took a class in preservation law.
“Most of the grade centered around a paper to pick some real historical property and propose a plan for preservation utilizing the different techniques and laws we learned in that course. I picked the Winter School,” Wint Jr. said.
The paper inspired the Winter family to create the WSPI and buy the property.
“It was obviously pretty cool to take my law school academic paper and turn it into a reality,” Wint Jr. said.
Additionally, he sees poignancy in the timing of the renovation, which is on the heels of the Kansas Supreme Court’s rulings on the state’s obligation to adequately fund public schools.
“It is kind of an icon of the spirit to the commitment that the pioneer people made to public education,” Wint Jr. said. “It’s the constitution of the state of Kansas, that was approved not much before that building was built, that contains the provision that requires the people of the state of Kansas to maintain a public education system.”
Now, with the help of the Lecompton Historical Society, the old schoolhouse will live on as a little monument to public education. Plans for the museum include rotating exhibits and guided tours. Construction is expected to be finished by the end of this year, and the first scheduled events are set to begin in 2020.