ROCK, W.Va. (AP) — In a small mountain community above Montcalm in Mercer County, a one-room schoolhouse that possibly predates West Virginia itself stands on a ridge overlooking the mountainous landscape.
Old-timers on the mountain knew about it. Property owner Brian Pigg and his father, Nelson, knew about it.
But the structure's existence didn't become widely known until this month when Brian began dismantling the school's guise — sheets of tin metal and boards attached to the outside of the structure that gave it the appearance of a barn — revealing the huge, hand-hewn chestnut logs beneath, preserved from the elements.
The building had been hiding in plain sight. Nelson estimated the schoolhouse has probably been used as a barn for about 100 years. It was still used to store hay until recently.
"It's been really not a secret," Nelson said. "Just not a lot of people knowed it. More or less, just the community."
The Bluefield Daily Telegraph first reported on the newly found schoolhouse. Since then, the quiet community atop Browning-Lambert Mountain has seen a flurry of attention.
A few mountain residents recently milled about the property taking pictures. Kevin E. Spicer, vice president of the Mercer County Historical Society, took measurements and meticulously photographed the building, taking a picture every few feet. He found some initials inscribed on the outside of the 20-by-18-foot building and on the backrest of a lone desk that remained inside.
"Probably, when this was built, either it was still in Tazewell County (Virginia), or it was just a few years into Mercer County," Spicer said. Mercer County, Virginia, was formed in 1837 from parts of Giles and Tazewell counties.
Mercer County became part of West Virginia when the new state was admitted into the Union on June 20, 1863.
Spicer also took notes as Jack Johnson, a Browning-Lambert Mountain resident and retired high school history teacher, talked about the history of what was known as Mullins School. Johnson has been digging into the history of the school, tracing old deeds and interviewing those who have secondhand knowledge of Mullins School and those that followed it.
"This property was sold to a James H. Mullins . . . the date for that transaction was April 13, 1887," Johnson said. "Mr. Mullins bought it from somebody named A.J. Young." Johnson said Young's wife, Esther; J.S. Young and Susan Young were also listed as grantors.
The deed indicated Mullins purchased the 220-acre plot, including the school, for $1,425.
The paper trail picks up again in 1900, when Susannah Mullens, presumed to be the wife of James H. Mullins, began selling the property off in pieces. It is thought that Susannah's last name may have been misspelled on official documents when the property was signed into her name.
Johnson has found the grave of James H. Mullins on Browning-Lambert Mountain, but the part of the headstone containing the dates is missing. A nearby headstone with the name missing has the dates July 17, 1819 to 1889.
The Mullins School was replaced by two others. The Browning School was a two-room schoolhouse on a lot adjacent to the Mullins School, built on stilts on a steep incline.
According to mountain resident Velma Marie Lambert, her grandfather built the Browning School, and she and her father attended it. Johnson said Lambert's father was born in 1904, so he believes the school was built on or before 1910.
Lambert wrote about the Browning School in a short story titled "The Prophecy" that was included in a book titled "We Don't Just Sit in Rocking Chairs," published by Etowah Area Senior Citizens in 2010.
"The Browning school had two classrooms and two teachers," Lambert wrote. "We had to walk to the spring to get water and bring it back to class where we used drinking cups made of paper. Of course the ever-present outhouse was out back near the woods."
The Lambert School was built a mile and a half away to serve students on the other side of the mountain. Those two schools were later recombined into a two-room brick structure called the Browning-Lambert School that still stands today. The dates have been lost in history — at least for now. Johnson hopes to continue digging through courthouse documents to find the origins and endings of the schools.
The Mullins School could be the oldest standing one-room schoolhouse in West Virginia. Debra Basham, assistant director and records archivist for the state Division of Culture and History, said the oldest known standing one-room schoolhouse in the state is the Mission Ridge school in Mason County, built in 1870.
The big question still remains: Exactly how old is Mullins School? Nelson Pigg hopes to narrow down the date of the school's construction by clearing the hay out of the building and searching the dirt floor.
"I'm going to run a metal detector through it and hopefully find a coin or something with the date that would help date it more," he said. "Even if you could just find a penny from the 1800s — anything. What I intend on doing is taking a scoop of dirt out at a time, taking it out here and going over it with a metal detector hoping to find at least a coin."
In the meantime, the Piggs are still weighing their options over what to do with the building, which is made of valuable chestnut logs. A blight began eradicating Chestnut trees to extinction around 1904. Its resiliency to rotting and limited availability makes it one of the most sought-after woods in the world.
Brian Pigg wants to build a garage where the schoolhouse is located.
"The value of the chestnut wood, I'm going to check into that, to see if the wood itself may be worth more than it does historic value," Pigg said. "But that is a piece of history there. At this point, we don't really know which way we want to go. One thing for sure, we want it gone. We don't want it left on the property."
The Piggs said they are open to selling the building to a party that would be interested in relocating it, and would provide ample time for relocating the building.
In the meantime, Johnson and Spicer will continue their search for more information on the schoolhouse that history forgot.
Information from: Charleston Daily Mail, http://www.charlestondailymail.com