MERIGOMISH – A local community has come together to save an old friend.
It was weathered on the outside and damaged from wildlife on the inside, but thanks to the determination of the Merigomish community, the old schoolhouse is standing strong and proud.
“This has been a seven-year project,” said Pete Ratcliffe, one of the community volunteers who worked on the renovations. “We saw this building and spoke with Kelly McVicar and got together and said it was a shame to see it standing there. There were some people saying to tear it down and others were saying, ‘I went to school there.’”
The former schoolhouse first opened in 1879 and is one of only a few landmarks left in the community to remind residents of days long ago.
Since the area was in need of a gathering place to call its own, the community came together and approached the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency for funding to renovate with modern-day technology while keeping an old-school feel.
The agency came through with a grant of $115,000 while the province kicked in $45,000 and the Municipality of Pictou County contributed $25,000.
Work began last fall and continued throughout the winter with a large cleanup taking place since raccoons had been using as their home for years.
New windows and a roof were installed and the building is now filled with spray insulation to keep the wild animals and dampness out. All the electrical work has been redone and the walls have been painted while the bathrooms were brought up to building code standard.
Ratcliffe said they were also able to salvage some of the original light fixtures from the original schoolhouse.
“We are hoping to get an efficient building but maintain old-school looks and feel. That was the goal. Keep the history but bring it up to a modern heating system,” he said.
The schoolhouse originally had a large number of windows on the front of the building, facing north, so these have been replaced with smaller windows, but now there are more windows along the south end to capture the heat and light from the sun.
He said people cannot believe the difference in the building and all this work could be done within their budget of $185,000.
“We had some experts come in here and told us it couldn't be done for that amount of money,” he said. “We were told it would cost $400,000 to get it back.”
But these experts didn’t know about the dedication and commitment level of the people of Merigomish. Pete and his wife Debbie Radcliff called the community members and told them what needed to be done.
“We had to hire people for the electrical, plumbing, roofing, drywall and insulation, but that put money into the local economy and the rest of the work was done by volunteers,” Debbie said. “After we called around, we had $54,000 worth of volunteer hours committed.”
She said other Pictou County businesses have also been very supportive of the project, giving them good deals on items that would otherwise cut into their budget. For example, she said, Chediacs Furniture in New Glasgow found them an incredible price on tiles and hardwood flooring while Scotia Wind Farm donated $5,500 in supply and labour costs for a solar system to heat the building’s water.
“The small businesses in this area have really been good to us,” he said, adding that many tradespeople in the community have put their skills to good use on the project.
Pete added that the washroom stalls and fixtures came from John Brother MacDonald Stadium for only $500 and recently they had a surprise call from a local community centre that was looking to get rid of some tables.
The renovations were expected to be completed by March of this year, but because of a few construction holdups, the ACOA grant was extended for a few months.
The Ratcliffes hope to contact the county’s building inspector next week so a temporary permit can be issued because work needs to be done to the parking area before a permanent permit will be granted.
Debbie said the building can be used for many different events and people seem excited about its possibilities. She has had requests for fitness and art classes, but now the community needs someone to start organizing events while volunteers will also be needed to help with the maintenance and upkeep.
There is also an opportunity for someone to gain employment by operating a café from its kitchen on a daily basis. Interested people must have a food handler’s course and be open to providing a healthy menu, but the hours of the operator are flexible and could be shared among a few people.
Debbie said someone might be interested in running a café in the mornings and weekdays while another person might want to do it in the evenings or on weekends.
The couple believe there’s enough traffic along the busy Shore Road to support such a small business and once word spread in the community, it could attract both locals and tourists.
“There is traffic along this road and there are four bed and breakfasts in this area and they have guests looking for someone to serve them supper,” he said.
Debbie said there will be fundraisers planned throughout the year to help with the costs of operating the old schoolhouse, one of which will be the popular family funfest taking place Aug. 16, 3-7 p.m., at the Merigomish wharf.
They had hoped some events for the funfest could be held at the schoolhouse, but it doesn’t appear possible this year. People will still be parking there and are encouraged to stick their head in the building for a look at the improvements.
Facts on funfest
What: The 4th Annual Merigomish Family Funfest
When: Saturday, Aug. 16 from 3 to 7 p.m.
Where: Merigomish Wharf
What is taking place: JP Cormier will be headlining the event with performances by Brian England with his band Jug in Hand and Dave and Katelyn Gunn. In addition to the music, the funfest’s signature event, cardboard duct tape boat races, will be launching from the Merigomish wharf. Dress in your favourite character or costume. Participants must pre-register at 928-8888. The day will also include children’s games and barbecue. The funfest is $10 per person, $15 a couple or $20 for a family. Children under 12 years are free. All proceeds go to the schoolhouse renovation project.