School#8217;s out, home#8217;s in

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 3, 2008

BRANCHVILLE—Anyone who has tried to perform renovations on their own homes, those who have grand plans and even grander ambitions, know what a huge mountain of details they face.

Consider trying to renovate a four-room school building with huge ceilings but incredibly thick brick walls built more than 100 years ago into a home for a family of six.

That’s what Scott and Michelle Campbell are trying to do, and they admit it’s a long, uphill climb to meet their expectations.

They and their four children moved into the old Branchville school in the summer three years ago. And the house, they admit, is a long way from where they hope it will be.

They have a vision, one they realize will take a long time to accomplish.

What there is now is a brick structure with four rooms with 12-foot ceilings, incredibly large, single-paned windows that don’t stand up to hail very well, some unfinished floors and a ton of work ahead of them.

“We’re not looking for anything fancy,” Michelle said. “We want it to work for us.”

And work may be the operative word. The history of the building may be debated, but its present is not.

Perhaps ironically, in such a history-conscience place as Southampton County, few, if any, know the details of the building.

It may or may not have been built in the 20th century, perhaps before.

Branchville’s first public school, according to the 50th edition of The Tidewater News was a one-room building on the Peter Ellis property on the outskirts of town. It has been identified as having been on the site where “The Pete Ellis” house now stands.

Thee benches were rough boards; the drinking water that supplied the school came from a spring in the woods, and wood for the pot-bellied stove that supplied the heat was cut from the woods nearby. The students, of course, had to walk or drive a horse and buggy to school.

After the school was abandoned, believed to have occurred in the mid-1930s, the students attended school in the “Beaton Community Hall.”

But now, for a family, it’s a behemoth that requires a lot of heat from space heaters, patience because the floor in one room at ground level has been removed to expose the dirt, and even more patience and scheduling, because there’s one bathroom.

“We’ve got four kids,” said Steve, “ and one bathroom. That isn’t going to work.”

Three of the four attend Southampton County Schools, one in high school, one in middle school, one at Meherrin Elementary. So, in effect, the three leave school to go to school.

Some of the other kids on the school bus admire the size of red brick house with white-trimmed windows.

“Our kids say others on the bus say,” Michelle said, “’Oh, you live in the rich house.’”

For the adults in the house, they know better.

“It’s been fun so far,” said Steve, a fleet manager at a trucking company in Garysburg, N.C. “It’s had its challenges, of course.”

Michelle’s father bought the property in 1999.

“My dad was just riding around looking for a place,” said Michelle. Her parents bought it, but gave up on it not long thereafter.

The sale to the next generation was made not terribly long thereafter.

“The in-laws,” said Steve, “warned us about the expenses.”

But there was a romance about the Branchville place and its potential, and a practicality of moving from Virginia Beach.

“We were in Virginia Beach,” said Steve, “And it just wasn’t going to work.”

So they took the plunge into what could be a money pit.

“When you want something bad enough,” said Michelle, a stay-at-home mom with their infant daughter,” “You make sacrifices.”

And some of those sacrifices include balancing finances with the demand of improvements that Steve is trying to make by himself, with the help of family.

“We went through a lot of money upstairs alone,” Steve said. That’s where the older kids have their rooms, on the upper floor, where framing work was done and some finishing work still needs to be done.

“I’m not a contractor by any means,” Steve said. “I was a handyman around the house. That’s about it.”

Reading books or renting fix-it videos have been a staple of the learning curve.

“When you own your own house,” said Steve, “You learn. You get a book or a movie, and you learn.”

By hiring outside contracting help, Steve said, “you spend a lot of money on labor.”

They talk about researching the possibility of getting loans to maintain an older property.

So, the couple makes do, for now.

The first floor of the building contains the front door to the school. There is a medium-width hallway that leads to the steps to go upstairs, and to the back where the kitchen is located.

The one schoolroom on the left is the living-dining-family room.

In every location are reminders of its use many years ago as a school. In the front room are the mouldings attached to the walls that held the chalkboards. Tin panels look down from the ceiling.

“We’re going to keep it as original as we can,” said Michelle.

And then there are the very thin windows embedded in the very thick walls.

A recent hail storm — yes, that one — blew out every large window but one when Michelle’s parents owned the property. At some point, they’ll have to be replaced again with double-paned, weatherproof windows.

But the thick brick walls… Well, they’ll be in place for quite a while.

“Do I cringe every time a storm is coming? Sure,” said Michelle because of the windows. But, in an earlier moment, she said, the building is supported by walls three bricks thick. “As far as this building is concerned, it’s not coming down.”

But there were some old-house moments.

One point, not long after moving in, the kids found that birds were flying to the many crannies of the old place.

Only they weren’t birds.

“It was a bat,” said Steve. “I’ve never had to deal with bats before. It’s a matter of seeting you mind to it.”

The bat, apparently, was not on a solo mission.

“I don’t think I’m exaggerating,” he said. “There were a hundred.”

Then there were the wasps to chase off the property.

“It’s been a nightmare,” Steve said.

“But, when you have a house like this,” he said, “Something’s going to happen.”

Somehow, the romance of the place seems to take over for the couple, where that dream of what will be seems to trump most everything else.

“We’d like to open it up to people for an hour or so a week” once the work is done and see the old school, Michelle said. “We get people who stop by [now] and talk.”

And, it’s home in the country.

“Once you’ve got a taste of it,” Michelle said, “you don’t want to give that up.”

And, she said the house instills pleasant memories.

“I feel like a lot of children have laughed in this building.”