Once the Albert Pike Schoolhouse made its way back to Crawford County and the courthouse grounds, the next step was to get it restored where it was again more presentable for visitors.
And when that item was checked off the to-do list Christmas came early to Crawford County Judge Dennis Gilstrap.
“This is an early Christmas present for me,” the judge said following a ribbon cutting ceremony for the newly-restored building to kick off the Dec. 1 courthouse lighting ceremony. “I told Sheila (Bell) probably six or eight months ago that I would love to have this building restored so Santa Claus could actually be in here when we had our lighting of the courthouse. We’re very thankful to the River Valley Museum and Sheila Bell has done lots of legwork on this project as well.”
Bell was more than happy to take the reins of the restoration project, even though a lofty financial goal had been set.
“This building and the courthouse is just a real love of mine, along with the history it speaks to of Crawford County,” she said. “This is a piece of it that was saved by some wonderful people in Crawford County. The judge had asked me a year and a half ago to try to find somebody to do this work and it took me almost a year to find somebody. It tells me that the county takes a great love when we were able to gather this money together - no grants, only a small loan - but then the community folks giving anywhere from $20 to $10,000. It takes every penny.”
Bell said the response told her “the community cares about this facility” and that the citizens “recognize the importance” of the schoolhouse.
“This building has been a landmark and a tourist destination in Van Buren for as long as I can remember,” she said. “It came back to this property in 1974. It was a community effort that brought it back and, since that time, it has been a consistent draw on the courthouse lawn.”
Bell said about 31 different people contributed funds to the project, including such bigger groups as the Van Buren Women’s League, the Clara B. Eno Questers and the Crawford County Literary Society.
Every bit helped.
“One lady wrote us a $20 check and that was just fine,” said Bell. ” She wanted to be a part of it and that’s what she could give.”
The fundraising drive met its goal of $30,000, but the group actually ended up spending about a thousand more dollars.
“As (the contractor) took off the roof, as he told us, there were more rotted timbers than what you could see from underneath. So we spent right at $31,000. We had borrowed some - Citizens Bank was kind enough to loan us money - and the River Valley Museum had taken some money we had and used it to make sure we had enough to cover the expenses, but now we’ve got to pay off the loan.”
After meeting the initial goal in just a few months, Bell believes additional donors will again step up to the plate.
“We raised this in three months,” she said. “We’ve still got some other folks that we know are going to make contributions. People can definitely continue to contribute to this project.”
And why wouldn’t they want to help fund a project that draws visitors from all over the United States.
“When we were standing here with all of the construction going on a lady from Wisconsin and another lady from New York and a guy from Illinois were on these courthouse grounds and had come to see the Albert Pike Schoolhouse,” said Bell. “How cool was that! So this shows that the tourism of Main Street, Drennan Scott, Albert Pike, the courthouse, all of this has so much history and people are interested.”
Terry Carson, president of the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce, said he is most impressed with how Van Buren is working hard to maintain some of its history.
“Albert Pike is a name most historians know about and we’re just fortunate to have this cabin here on this location,” he said after the ribbon cutting. “This is a part of Crawford County and has been for a long time along with this beautiful square and courthouse. You can see by this crowd people here tonight respecting our history. We don’t dwell on it all the time but we do respect it and enjoy it.”