“Branch School District No. 4”, once known as “Little Africa”, stands at the corner of Branch and Sherwood roads in Williamstown Township.
The Williamstown Township Historical Committee and community volunteers are restoring the white, one-room schoolhouse, originally built in 1863.
The school was in use until the 1950s, when it was converted to the township hall. In the 1961 the school ceased being used and fell into disrepair due to vandalism and weather damage. In 1973 the township supervisor scheduled to demolish the building. Lorena Martin, who lived across the street from the school, proposed historic preservation in December 1974.
She wrote the township stating, “Restoration of the building…would make it quite an attractive building. As such it would have numerous possible uses: a historical museum and library, a meeting hall for local groups, a one-room schoolhouse used once a month.”
At that time local resident organized to save the old school and established The Friends of Historic Williamstown, which later became the current historical committee. The committee’s mission is to restore the school back to its original condition as a schoolhouse.
According to Tom Johnson, a historical committee member, the committee has done work on the inside and out. They have replaced the roof, windows, interior and exterior doors and ceiling boards, removed a false ceiling, weeds and bushes, repainted boards, cleaned the attic, and built a ladder to the crawl space. The committee has also torn down an addition that was built in the 1940s and replaced it to accommodate restroom facilities. The committee is going to finish the addition with flat rock at the base of the building to look like the original foundation and replicate the siding.
“There is still a lot of work, but we plan on doing a lot of it this summer,” said Johnson, “We hope to finish and be opened this fall.”
The vision for the school is to look like the original schoolhouse with desks from the 1880s, a framed photo of George Washington at the front of the class, blackboards, maps, a wooden stove and an outhouse.
Once the school is restored the committee plans on opening it up to the community and using it for educational purposes. Johnson said they plan on using it as a demonstration building so people can see what it was like to go to a one room schoolhouse, historical site and meeting place. He said they also want to hold Christmas pageants there, which were traditional at old schoolhouses.
“We will try to get the Branch School on the state historic registry because of it’s historic significance to the area and because the building has never been moved. We may even have a chance to get on the national list,” said Johnson.
Branch School was known as “Little Africa” when it was built because of the abolitionists in the area. Some believe that the school may have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. It was renamed Branch after N.C. Branch a local farmer.
Many residents in the area can still remember their days at the school. George Lay taught at the school and reminisced about his students, the things he taught and the events that occurred over the years. “Over the past seventy years so much has changed, it seems impossible that those things [back then] happened,” he said in an interview with the historical committee.
Annie-Laurie Robinson, one of Lay’s students, has kept scrapbooks and wrote notes about playing fox and geese, softball, the school bell, pumping water from the well, the common cup and outside “johns”. Some of these memories will be put in displays within the school.
The historical committee hopes to bring singing, laughing and learning to the old country schoolhouse, a significant historic site in the township of Williamstown.
“History is important and this place is a reflection of our past,” said Steve Eyke, a Williamstown Township Historical Committee member.