Back to school
Barbara Schudel saw a world of potential in a rough-and-tumble, 19th-century schoolhouse once known for its troublemaking kids that in recent years had become home to raccoons that clawed their way in through its crumbling structure.
So when a “for sale” sign was posted in front of the former Jug Corners School, named for the failed pottery factory located near the site at West D Avenue and North 12th Street in Cooper Township 180 years ago, Schudel and her husband, Mike, snatched it up without any thought of what she would use it for.
“I called that very day” in the spring of 2017, she says. “We purchased it within 24 hours.”
Schudel, 58, who lives just a few doors down, had driven by it daily, dreaming of what it could become; her greatest fear was that someone would buy the historic structure and demolish it in order to use the acre it sits on for some other purpose.
“You really have to want to save a building,” Schudel says of her spontaneous decision to purchase the deteriorating structure. At one point during its recent restoration, it had to be lifted up to fix the massive holes in the foundation. “You have to do it because you love the building and what it stands for.”
Five years after Schudel purchased the old school at 4700 West D Avenue, just east of U.S. 131, it is now a thriving event center, which she has named The Bellflower.
It is rented out for any number of purposes for up to 50 people, such as for private tap dance classes, as well as parties like bridal and baby showers. This month alone it is hosting two spring wreath-making workshops, a watercolor art class, a meditative breathing class, and a self-care workshop and book fair for women featuring a local chiropractor, life coach, and counselor. A market for local artists and artisans is scheduled for next month.
The Schudels, along with a contractor, had spent a couple of years returning the building to its former glory as a schoolhouse before she finally decided how she was going to use it.
The Bellflower opened in February 2020 and was used only twice — for a bridal shower and a baby shower — before it shut down for several months during the height of the COVID pandemic.
Schudel didn’t skip a beat, though, using the time to continue to put her special touches on the building.
She proudly explains that it has its original wooden floors, with each board pulled up and meticulously cleaned, as well as its original shiplap walls, now painted off-white, and ceiling.
She added a blackboard to the front of what was the original school’s single room, and restored the nonfunctioning bathrooms in the back, on either side of the main entrance, where they had been located since indoor plumbing was added, probably sometime before the mid-1900s.
“We did not change the footprint,” Schudel says.
In back of the schoolroom are a kitchen, sitting room and storage area, all added on after 1954 when the one-room school closed and was purchased by a church for its worship services.
According to late 1800s editions of the Kalamazoo Gazette, a red brick school stood on the site from at least 1871, the year from which the earliest records of the school were kept and most likely the year of its founding, until 1878. The first teacher, Albert Fosdick, was paid $1.25 a day.
The school was officially called District No. 2, Fractional, Schudel says, explaining that the addition of “Fractional” was because the school brought in children from both Cooper and Alamo townships. The line between the two townships runs along 12th Street.
The original school made way for the current structure in 1878.
“The old brick schoolhouse in Dist. 2 has been torn away, and the foundation is being laid for the new one on the same site,” the Gazette reported on Oct. 22 of that year.
It didn’t take long, because on Dec. 31 the Gazette reported: “The new school house in district No. 2 is nearly completed and our school will commence Monday, Jan. 6th, Miss Mary Walker as teacher.”
The roads forming the intersection in those early days were Cooper Center and Otsego roads, later referred to as Alamo and Otsego roads.
In the latter half of the 19th century the four corners were commonly, and somewhat facetiously, called Jug Corners, and thus the name of the school became Jug Corners School.
A pottery factory briefly operated near the intersection in the 1840s, explained Tom Dietz, Kalamazoo Valley Museum curator emeritus, in a 2008 presentation on how various “corners” in Kalamazoo County got their names.
“From that pottery factory, which failed, it got its name Jug Corners,” he said.
At the first, and possibly only, reunion picnic at Jug Corners School in 1938, as reported in the Gazette, former teachers and students were told the factory had been so unsuccessful that it only produced one jug before the owner abandoned it and skipped town.
Another story, printed in the Gazette in June 1949, said pioneer teachers labeled Jug Corners School students the “orneriest” to be found anywhere, and that in one year, 1875, six teachers came and quickly departed, one after only two days.
But that reputation didn’t stick around long. According to a March 1881 story in the Gazette, teacher Charles Barbour reported a successful winter semester, with 43 students enrolled, and two of them, Jessie James and Fred Newton, had no tardies or absences while Ada Thayer and Emma Truax missed only two days each.
The school held many good memories for former student Ellen Haskell, who purchased it from the Church of the Nazarene in 1980 and maintained it as the “Hickory Stick Shoppe” from which she and her daughter sold handcrafted items, such as paintings, woven rugs, ceramics and pottery, on consignment from 1981 to 1985.
After that, Haskell, referred to by her daughter in a Gazette article as “the ultimate recycler,” operated it as an antique store.
As a child, Haskell, who died in February 2017 at the age of 92, traveled by pony cart from her home on West C Avenue to attend the school from first through eighth grades, according to her obituary.
“She wanted it to be here and continue,” Schudel says about Haskell’s reason for purchasing the old school.
When Haskell was no longer able to care for it, the school became a home for raccoons and other wildlife, which is when Schudel stepped forward to purchase it from Haskell’s trust.
Restoring an old school was an eye-opening experience for Schudel, who spent 33 years in the chemical industry before retiring at the end of 2019. Structurally, the building needed a lot of work.
The south end of the building, where the entrance is located, was 4 to 6 inches lower than the north end, Schudel says, with holes that exposed the Michigan basement and served as an entry point for animals.
“We had to lift the whole thing and rebuild the foundation,” she says.
When Schudel reopened the event center after the worst of COVID had passed, word got out and people started making reservations for bridal and baby showers, celebration-of-life services, and weddings.
“It’s a tie between bridal showers and weddings,” for the most popular use, she says.
Schudel charges by the hour, with a three-hour minimum, and allows groups of no more than 50 people. She sets up tables and chairs, as needed, and has many accessories, including table settings, in a back storage area.
“Everything in the building is included in the rental,” she says.
The cost to rent is $85 an hour ($95 starting in 2023) Friday through Sunday and $50 an hour Monday through Thursday.
Schudel offers a discount to police officers and their families in honor of her daughter, one of the Schudels’ three adult children, who is a police officer in Kentwood.
In addition to the typical showers and weddings and the occasional life celebrations, the Bellflower has been rented for birthday parties, the wreath-making classes, yoga, and tap-dancing, which has become a Tuesday morning staple.
Schudel says the Bellflower is booked well in advance on weekends, with Fridays scheduled into August, Saturdays with only a couple dates left in November and December, and Sundays booked into September.
“It’s all social media and word-of-mouth,” she says. “I have done no marketing.”
Schudel doesn’t expect to get back what she has invested in the Bellflower, however. “We’re not going to get our money back even if we do two events a day for the next 10 years,” she says.
But she measures success in a different way. “It’s not about the business,” she says. “It’s all about the building.”
“People love this building and that’s all that matters to me.”
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