Sterling’s 19th Century Schoolhouse: Endangered But Savable

By Mark Gunderman

Before Sterling Park there was Sterling (earlier, Guilford), a thriving farm town in eastern Loudoun in the 19thcentury. The heart of Sterling was its schoolhouse, a building that survives, but is in jeopardy. Here is a brief recounting of its history.

In 1870, the Virginia government mandated the establishment of public schools and complete systems of education by all political subdivisions. Loudoun complied with this mandate. In Sterling, after accommodating students for several years in a one-room frame building, Broad Run School District No. 6 in 1879 purchased a one-acre lot on Church Road (now Ruritan Circle). It there built the first public schoolhouse in Sterling, which began its first term in spring 1880.

The one-story, two-room detached frame structure with a metal roof and oak and pine floors still stands. It is an extant 138-year-old piece of history, but its continued existence is tenuous.

In those early years, many people opposed public schools, believing education for all was not a function of government.  Instead, they maintained such training came within the scope of the home as a family responsibility. On the family farm, parents needed their children for planting and harvesting crops, tending farm animals, and a multitude of other survival chores.

Consequently, parents had little motivation to send their children to school, and attendance was light. Nevertheless, the new Alexandria, Loudoun and Hampshire Railroad (later, the Washington and Old Dominion Railway) had brought prosperity to Sterling, creating a demand by others in the farming community for public school education.

County records reflect that in 1890, Loudoun had 92 public schools, most with good furniture, student desks and outhouses.  At the Sterling school, the front room was used for classes, and the larger back room was devoted to recess, and activities such as school plays, spelling bees and square dances. Around 1900, recess included both boys and girls; the popular games they played were London Bridge, Drop the Handkerchief and Fox and Hounds. Some years later, outdoor activities included volleyball and baseball played across the road on the Guilford Baptist Church property.

During the early 20thcentury, the school was in session just seven months a year. Even so, attendance remained a serious problem; parent cooperation, integral to getting children to attend school, was less than robust. The state responded to the problem in 1922, when the General Assembly enacted legislation requiring student attendance, and providing for the distribution of textbooks. Also, large vehicles called auto-buses began transporting students to school; by 1925 attendance increased.

Through that time and for several more years, teachers at the Sterling school focused on the “three Rs” fundamentals:  reading, writing and ’rithmetic. By the 1930s, the curriculum improved to cover math, English, geography, spelling and health.  Each student had his or her own textbooks for each subject.

The greater number of students at Sterling meant some reconfiguration: the smaller room was assigned to grades one through three, the larger room used for grades four through seven. At lunch period, mothers came to the school and took turns preparing soup and cocoa in the cloak room which divided the classrooms and served as a tiny cafeteria.

In winter, only a coal stove heated the schoolhouse. The 15-foot-high, tin-lined ceilings and the absence of wall insulation kept the classrooms cool, so students wore their coats all day long. Maintenance of the building required the buckled walls to be pulled back “into square” by squeezing opposite corners with cable winches and chains, then stiffening the structure with metal bracing.

In the 1940s, two double burner kerosene stoves were installed, and greatly enhanced the students’ comfort. When it snowed, the hill behind the school was a popular location for sledding. During recess, students would run over to Floyd Crosen’s grocery store for penny candy. Young girls wore dresses made from 50-pound feed bags. Back then, the bags bore flower patterns in pink, green, red or blue. About five bags were enough to make one elementary schoolgirl’s dress. After school, children wandered freely around fishing holes on Cabin Branch Creek and Broad Run.

The school closed in June 1947, and the county sold the building in November. The building was converted into a rental unit for 30 years, and leased as Sterling Schoolhouse Antiques until 2007. Since then, the property has been used by a variety of entities.

Preservation-minded people in the community have made, and are making, efforts to save the schoolhouse by having it incorporated in a redevelopment project for Old Sterling. The Loudoun Design Cabinet formulated three alternative plans described in its report published in November 2017. To view this report, go to loudoun.gov/design cabinet.

But time is of the essence. The schoolhouse property could be sold, and the building demolished, at any time.

Recent and scheduled meetings with county and state officials demonstrate Sterling area citizens’ continued determination to alert the community about the plight of the school.

Anyone wishing to join the campaign to save one of the last vestiges of 19thcentury Sterling should contact the author at gunderman2001@aol.com.

Sterling Park resident Mark Gunderman has written extensively about Loudoun historic preservation issues. Sources for this column include notes written by Peggy Testerman, a teacher at Sterling school in 1936-1937, whose son Hugh Ball maintained the notes; the Virginia State Library; University of Virginia Library; Dorsey Ford’s University of Richmond honors thesis, “History of Education in Loudoun County” (1937), and files in the office of O.L. Emerick, Loudoun School Superintendent from 1917 to 1957. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. For more information about the organization, go to loudouncoalition.org.

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