After being mainly closed to the public for several years, the Little Red Schoolhouse again showed what school life and the area’s history was like in a Sunday open house, held as part of Dearborn Heights’ 50th anniversary celebration.
Garbed in the period dress of a 19th Century teacher for the event, Judi Kulchar is in charge of program opening the building to tours by local school classes.
“We thought it was a great open house,” Kulchar said. “It was a steady stream of people coming in.”
Kulchar had grown up next to the building, had graduated from Riverside High School in the 1960s, and had taught in the Crestwood School District, so when Richard Ensign had opened the building, “I came back to help.”
Richard Ensign showed up at the event to receive a proclamation his contributions to the Little Red Schoolhouse. Michele Kramarz, whose school classes visit the building each year, said that unlike having to prepare their own curriculum for visits to the schoolhouse program at Greenfield Village, teachers find that the Little Red Schoolhouse offers a teacher’s guide with the history already in it (still in use from the time Ensign began the program).
“This is an already authentic curriculum, and we’re going to present it (by the program’s own teachers), so the teacher (of the visiting class) can sit down and relax, and be part of it,” Kramarz said. “That’s a plus, that doesn’t happen very often.”
Ensign, who now lives on Military in Dearborn, and whose wife Freda is vice-president of the 25+ Club, recalled his own teaching days at Crestwood, which included tasks like having to aim the big dish at City Hall by hand to assure the district got the best cable TV channel signal, “which got to be a little crazy, especially with snow.”
After his retirement, Ensign said the curriculum he designed centered on the history of the schoolhouse and on the history of the country, which included experiences that teachers of previous generations had had. Swift Lathers was a teacher who was teaching school as an older teen, Ensign recalled, when his kids locked him out when Lathers went outside and carelessly left his keys on the desk. The farmers supervising the school had suggested Lathers go back to school, and come back when he was really ready to teach.
Instead, Lathers moved west (leaving behind the rest of the family in Garden City, where Lathers is a well-known name) to Mears, MI,which is near Silver Lake Park and the sand dunes. He became a school principal, and his children later taught school at Mears as well–but Lathers’ ambitions went beyond school teaching.
He started a little mimeographed local newspaper, in which Lathers ran stories that people brought to him on his back porch, and ran an editorial advocating that people should not be taught the history of the world and American history like “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” only, but they needed to be taught on the history of their community as well, “and that’s precisely what we’re doing (at the Little Red Schoolhouse)!” Ensign added.
Lathers also purchased an area of the sand dunes and developed it into his own village, Ensign said, having his own store and church (where he preached) besides his school.
“And it was a very nice situation, then somebody decided, ‘It’s an eyesore, let’s burn it down,’ and they did—he was ticked!” Ensign said. “His house is a museum with a typewriter on the front porch, then he won an award from Michigan State for journalism.”
While Lathers was part of the early history of the Little Red Schoolhouse, Ensign emphasize it was not the earliest. An itinerant minister (the United Methodist Church would direct the movement of these ministers from place to place, he said) had built the Little Red Schoolhouse as a church, then taught school in it, and it was converted to a schoolhouse after he left.
This minister was also the first supervisor of Bucklin Township, which Ensign said was already overcrowded with 500 people in its 12-by-12 mile expanse. He said the township was later broken down into 6-by-6-mile townships. Ensign noted that one school district in the south end of present-day Dearborn Heights kept its original “School District No. 7” name, while the school district around the Little Red Schoolhouse first became North Dearborn Heights and then Crestwood–“named after a telephone exchange, a little bit silly.”
While Kulchar was teaching inside the schoolhouse, the Rev. Bob Bull, another Riverside High School graduate from the 1960s, was giving people a tour of the neighboring cemetery. Joe Pencil, formerly of the 17th Michigan, and now a Civil War re-enactor “at large” with several units in the region whose reenactments included assignments for movies and the History Channel, said he and a companion re-enactor were providing period “ambiance” for the open house (since the Civil War occurred during the era that classes were held at the schoolhouse in the 19th Century).
Vicki Dorazio was one resident of the neighborhood attracted to the open house, after seeing something finally happening on the site after so long. Dorazio felt the event was not publicized much outside of the newspaper, because she only saw it written up there after seeing the open house taking place led her to go on the internet, “but I don’t get the paper, so…”
Visitors who showed up at Sunday’s open house were presented with a copy of the 50th Anniversary Publication 1963-2013 by Anthony J. Rzucidlo. Future anniversary events include Wednesday’s Michigan Week Luncheon at the American Legion Carl E. Stitt Post 232, 23850 Military Road. (tickets to the noon-3 p.m. event are $20 at the door); Caroline Kennedy Library repeating its April 8 presentation on the history of Dearborn Heights on May 29 (from 7-8:30 p.m. at 24590 George St.); the Sunday honoring of Golden Anniversary Residents at the June 5-9 Spirit Festival; and the July 13 open house at the historic Nowlin Cemetery (east of Telegraph on Van Born Road).
Contact the mayor’s office for further information on Golden Anniversary special events at (313) 791-3490.