Former schoolhas been home for 64 years Couple transformed single classroom into 2-story family dwelling

Dream Home

September 28, 1997|By Rita Beyer | Rita Beyer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Elsie Durham can still remember where her desk was in the back of the one-room schoolhouse she attended for first, second and third grades.

Her seat was far from the room's single coal-burning stove, and the thin walls barely kept out the winter cold. She can remember how, in warmer weather, she took her turn sipping from the classroom dipper of water, drawn from the school's hand-dug well.

Since those days, the building has become less a school and more a home. Durham, 85, has lived in the school-turned-house for 64 years, ever since she and her husband, Robert, bought it at a public auction in 1933.

"When it was up for auction, he figured we could make a home out of it," said Durham, now widowed. "If we had had to pay for the work, it probably wouldn't have been a bargain, but he was a builder, and I helped him to do everything we did. It's home that way, when you do everything yourself."

Her husband was making only 25 cents an hour, working as a builder during the Depression. Still, they decided to spend $725 for the Gills Schoolhouse, which was built in 1872. The 125-year-old historic building is on Garrison Forest Road in Owings Mills.

When the couple moved into her former school, it was nothing but a single classroom with a stove at one end and a vestibule and coal room at the other. They had to use an outhouse. There was no indoor plumbing, no electricity, and no insulation.

"We had been married six years before we ever had [electric] current," Elsie Durham said. "We didn't have a telephone for years. It was very primitive, but in those days, you didn't have the money to do otherwise."

From the room that had been her classroom for three years, the Durhams constructed a two-story, three-bedroom home, with a first-floor living room, dining room, kitchen and -- eventually -- a bathroom.

"We had a big old hand-dug well that we had to clean out, so we didn't even have water until that was done," she said. And, while they made many changes -- adding dormers to enlarge the second floor, digging out a larger basement and building a side porch -- some things have not changed.

The wood floor, which for the school's first 60 years withstood the pounding of children's feet, is carpeted now. Durham, looking past the furnishings, can still recall the living room as it was when she was a student there from 1917 to 1919. She points to a place on the carpet where her desk stood more than 70 years ago.

All the schoolhouse had to offer was a room full of desks, auctioned off the same day, and a bell, which the Durhams donated to the Gills Methodist Church. Since then, the church has purchased a new bell, and returned her bell, which hangs from a post in the driveway.

Durham has seen many changes outside the house through the years as well.

"It was dirt road here, just ruts and mud," she said, adding that when they moved in, it was rare to see more than two cars pass the house in one day. Surrounding the schoolhouse were farms, including the one next to the schoolhouse where her family lived while she was a student there. "Now we have all these homes, but they don't bother me. They're very nice people."

One winter, she found that she was better off with her wood-burning stove than her neighbors with their central heating. "It was bitter cold, and I was the only one around here who didn't have pipes that froze because I had a wood-burning stove." Although she now has central heating, she still uses the wood-burning stove almost every night during the winter.

And, just as she insists that the stove produces more heat than a modern furnace, she was reluctant to stop using the hand-dug well in the schoolhouse yard.

"We used the old well. The school kids used it. No one ever got sick," she said. "I did build a new well four years ago, because [my children] couldn't sell it [the house] with a hand-dug well. The health department would not pass it."

After growing up in the former school, two of the Durhams' three daughters decided to become teachers. Durham, who also has four grandchildren and one great-grandson, says her family will probably have to sell her home eventually, especially since there is a lot of upkeep on the old house and the property's three-quarters of an acre.

She has no definite ideas for the house's future, though a friend has suggested that it should be converted to a museum.

The Gills Schoolhouse is on Baltimore County's list of historic sites, although it is not a protected site, according to John McGrain, secretary of the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission.

"We have legal powers to put things onto a protected list," he said. "This one apparently was never a controversy."

At their peak, before consolidated schools in the '20s and '30s, there were 155 one- and two-room schoolhouses in Baltimore County, according to McGrain, who said many of these have been converted to homes or churches.

"Everybody that's been in here likes the house," Durham said. "Somebody said it reminded them of Hansel and Gretel's house." The school's red brick is still there, though they placed white stucco around the windows.

Now, living alone in the converted schoolhouse, Durham has two sets of memories -- those of her time as a student, and those of her life as a wife and mother. And she remembers how she and her husband survived the Depression.

"We had something that belonged to us," she said. "It was our home."

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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