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Reflections: Museum's story provides template for saving local landmarks

Oswego's Little White School Museum as it appeared in 1977, prior to its restoration.
Oswego's Little White School Museum as it appeared in 1977, prior to its restoration.

This month, the Oswegoland Heritage Association will celebrate the 35th anniversary of opening the Little White School Museum’s community museum room.

The story of how a community museum came to be and how the historic building in which it is housed is perhaps a useful object lesson for communities throughout the Fox Valley looking toward saving continually disappearing community landmarks.

Oswego’s Little White School began its life as the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church. The congregation was established in the mid-1840s and late that decade they began construction on their own church on a triangular lot at the intersection of Jackson and Polk Street.

From 1850, when the building was finally completed, until 1913, Methodist services were held in the church building. But that year, the congregation, never financially secure, voted to disband.

The move was approved by the Methodists’ Rock River Conference, and Oswego’s Methodists began attending services at the German Evangelical Church – today’s Church of the Good Shepherd United Methodist – just a few blocks away. To accommodate them, German-language services were cut back and English-language services began to predominate.

Two years later, in 1915, the Oswego School District acquired the Methodists’ old building for use as elementary classroom space. And for almost 50 years grade school students attended classes there. To distinguish it from the larger Red Brick School a block away, the building became known to generations of students as the Little White School. The last classes – overflow junior high classes –were held in the building in 1964. After Oswego’s new high school opened in the fall of ’64, the building was used as school district storage space.

For the next 10 years, the building was allowed to deteriorate with little spent to maintain it. So by the early 1970s, it was in deplorable shape, and school district announced plans to dispose of it. But that’s when something significant happened. A group of Oswego citizens decided that every old building in town didn’t deserve to be torn down and figured that some, which were considered local landmarks, deserved to be saved.

In fact, the school board’s action came on the heels of the demolition of the old Oswego Railroad Depot, which stood at the intersection of South Adams and Jackson Street for 100 years. Although abandoned by the railroad, efforts spearheaded by the local Jaycees were ongoing to preserve it as a community museum when it was abruptly demolished before anyone had a chance to intervene.

There was a general community consensus that should not be the fate of the Little White School.

So a group of concerned citizens established an informal “Save our School” group. Fortunately, the effort was being undertaken during the run-up to the celebration of the nation’s Bicentennial, when historical interest was at an all-time high. The upshot was the formation of the nonprofit Oswegoland Heritage Association in 1976, established to preserve and restore the Little White School and open a community museum there.

Between 1976, when the OHA was formed, and 1983, the building’s exterior was restored to its 1901 appearance, including the bell tower – removed in the 1930s – complete with its Meneely Bell, cast in 1901 by the Meneely Bell Company in Troy, N.Y.

The school district had saved the bell when the bell tower was removed in the 1930s, and volunteer Stan Young, with his two sons, had refabricated the bell tower on the front lawn of the Little White School.

With the help of a donated crane from Garbe Iron Works in Aurora, the tower and bell were hoisted up onto the roof in November 1980, restoring the building’s 1901 appearance.

The OHA made use of a combination of volunteers, money from dozens of fundraisers, in-kind donations from local business, and significant support from other Oswego civic organizations in its restoration efforts. And it was done with the cooperation of the Oswego School District, which maintained ownership of the building; the Oswegoland Park District, which helped significantly with maintenance of the building’s grounds (renamed Heritage Park) and paying utilities and other costs; and the heritage association, which coordinated the restoration.

Volunteers, led by OHA Board Member Dave King, had renovated the 1930s vintage third classroom into a modern museum and on April 12, 1983, as Oswego began its Sesquicentennial celebration, King and Janis Hoch, the OHA’s first president, cut the ribbon and opened the community museum for the first time.

Restoration on the building’s interior started that same year, not to be completed until 2002. In 2009, the school district finally transferred ownership of the building and Heritage Park to the Oswegoland Park District.

Today, 35 years later, the cooperative effort between the park district and the heritage association is still going strong. In fact, it’s stronger than ever.

The park district maintains Heritage Park (the building’s grounds) and pays for building upkeep as well as salaries of museum assistants who keep the building open 47 hours a week, while the heritage association is still responsible for operating the community museum, whose exhibits interpret the history of the 68 square miles encompassed by the school district. Its archives and artifact collections now total nearly 30,000 catalogued items.

In addition, the building provides community meeting space. It is currently the meeting site for the Quilter’s Dozen Quilt Club, the Hilltop Gardeners gardening club, along with the heritage association itself. The park district also extensively uses the building as a site for programming appropriate for a building nearly 170 years old.

The keys to the success of saving the Little White School were many including the strong desire to restore the building in the first place; the cooperation of local individuals, organizations, and governmental agencies; and an idea of what it could be used for after restoration.

The success of the project, started more than 40 years ago, could be a template for other communities and other projects.

This Sunday, April 15, from 1 to 4 p.m., the heritage association invites everyone to stop by and help celebrate both the 35th anniversary of the museum’s opening and the successful restoration of a real community treasure.

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