Had I known how long the project would take, I’m not sure I would have ever gotten involved back in 1976 when a group of interested Oswego residents asked me to join a group dedicated to restoring the badly deteriorated Little White School. They were forming the Oswegoland Heritage Association and wanted me to be on the board of directors.
Then deeply involved in helping Kendall County celebrate the nation’s Bicentennial, I told the Oswego folks that I was interested but that any real involvement would have to wait until we’d finished the county history we were working on, got the historic plaques were placing around the county installed, and wrapped up the planned Bicentennial historical blowout planned for July 4, 1976.
But get involved I eventually did, and in the end I’m glad I did. Today, the Little White School Museum is not only a treasured community resource, but it’s a thriving local landmark.
The Little White School was completed on its site at Jackson and Polk streets in Oswego in 1850. The congregation disbanded in 1913 and in 1915 the Oswego Grade School District bought the building for use as classroom space for primary students. It housed students until 1964 when it was turned into school district storage space and allowed to deteriorate. By 1976, the roof was a wreck, pools of water collecting inside after every rain and plaster was coming down off the walls.
When I give my presentation on the museum’s restoration, I make sure folks realize how much work goes into a project like this one, especially one relying mostly on volunteer labor. We started in 1977 by stabilizing the stately Greek Revival building, getting a new roof on it, and painting it. That stopped the major bleeding, but the interior was still a wreck, and we wanted to finish restoring the exterior as well. We’d already removed the wooden shingle siding installed in the 1930s before we painted it, but we wanted to restore the original wooden front porch and get the bell tower back up on the roof.
That work was completed between 1978 and 1983, along with gutting and renovating the third classroom on the rear of the building into a community museum. We had the official ribbon cutting opening the museum in 1983 just in time for Oswego Township’s sesquicentennial celebration.
Then we started on the interior. After a lot of spirited and often heated discussion, it was decided to restore the main room to it’s original geometry, with its full 17-foot ceilings, small vestibule, and pulpit platform. That was the way it had looked from 1850 until a wall was built in the summer of 1930 dividing it into two classrooms. We started by removing the drop ceiling, the center dividing wall, and the front vestibule area added in 1936 to accommodate stairwells to the basement (which itself had been added in 1934). The room back to its original 34×50 foot size, we got to work on the restoration. Along the way we insulated the walls, completely replaced the electrical and plumbing system, restored the horsehair plaster, added a handicap accessible restroom and small janitor’s closet in the 1936 back hallway, and restored all the window trim (about half is original; the rest was created using original pieces for models).
Restoring the windows themselves was a long and complicated process. We had two pieces of the patterned glass that had been installed during an extensive renovation of the structure in 1901. It took a couple years before we figured out how to recreate the glass panes using a process called glue-chipping. It took roughly 12 hours to recreate each of the 36 panes, glaze them into the frame, and paint them, all with volunteer labor, mostly working only on Saturday mornings.
We’d found the building’s hanging lamp system still somewhat intact in the attic, so we knew where the lamps went. Counterweights up there were weighed to determine how large the lamps should be. Given the congregation’s continual financial problems, and a total lack of interior photos of the building as a church, we settled on standard kerosene store fixtures. We gradually collected antique nickel-plated brass fonts (some of which we had to have replated) and then had a tinsmith hobbyist create the shades, electrified burners, and harps for the lamps. We hung them using ¼” black gas pipe and standard hanging lamp hooks. The original lamps hung relatively close to the floor so we opted to hang them higher to accommodate taller people and brighter modern lights.
The last restoration project was the pulpit platform, which my son, Nathaniel, a master carpenter and cabinetmaker, completed in 2002. I like, in my presentation, to juxtapose the photo of Nathaniel finishing the platform with another of him at age 5 helping out as restoration got a good start. It’s a sobering contrast for folks who somehow have the idea that historic preservation is neither difficult nor time-consuming.
Over the years we received lots of financial and in-kind support from the Oswegoland Park District, and in fact, there’s no way we could have completed the project without them. Just about every community organization also participated, either with financial donations or volunteer labor. The whole project was largely overseen by my best friend, Glenn Young, a long time member of the heritage association board and a true fanatic when it comes to Greek Revival buildings.
Thanks to the park district, the museum is open seven days a week. Heritage association volunteers are responsible for maintaining and updated museum content and for operating the historical archives and research area where family historians, professional historians, community planners, and others regularly visit and take advantage of the collections, which now number more than 16,000 separate three-dimensional items, photographs, and archival papers and maps.
Regular hours are noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday and Saturday. The archives and research area is open Thursday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to noon. Admission’s always free, but we eagerly accept donations to help the cause of protecting, preserving, and interpreting Oswego area history.
For more museum info, visit the museum web site at http://www.littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.
Looking for more Kendall County history? Go to their web site to see my weekly Reflections column in the Ledger-Sentinel.