Hearing on Harrisburg school's historic value set for Friday

Friday, August 9, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:22 a.m. CDT, Friday, August 9, 2013
Restoring the 135-year-old Harrisburg school building is a driving reason behind trying to get it on the National Register of Historic Places. A hearing to consider the Harrisburg school as well as 10 other Missouri sites for the registry will be held at 9 a.m. Friday in the Lewis and Clark State Office Building.

HARRISBURG — The Harrisburg school on the town's main drag is so rickety that it creaks with every step inside and every tug of a door. On its outside, white paint chips flutter to the grass at the slightest gust of wind.

The windows are boarded up, but Masonic symbols are still clearly visible above the frames. The Masons' emblem, a square and compass with the letter "G" in the middle, face the street from the top of the building, still intact. 

"If a Mason dies, typically that's on his grave," said Jill Williamson, chairwoman of Harrisburg's Community Betterment Association.

The Masons put these emblems on the building when it was constructed in 1878. The organization partnered with the school district — now known as Harrisburg R-VIII School District — to build the one-room schoolhouse. The catch was that the Masonic lodge would be on the second story, and it still is.

But in 2010, the Masons had to start holding meetings elsewhere; the building was just in too bad of shape. "If they got a lot of people up there, it would move with them," Williamson said.

The students had moved out long before as the community built a new school  in 1937, just a bit down the road. 

Restoring the building is a driving reason behind trying to get it on the National Register of Historic Places. A hearing to consider the Harrisburg school as well as 10 other Missouri sites for the registry will be held at 9 a.m. Friday in the LaCharrette Conference Room of the Lewis and Clark State Office Building, 1101 Riverside Drive, Jefferson City.

Laverla Comegys, who is married to a Mason and is a member of the related Eastern Star, said there are still chairs and podiums in use from when the lodge opened. 

"A lot of people wouldn't know they were there," Comegys said of the old chairs. "They mean something to us."

The women of the Eastern Star still hold some of their meetings on the second floor — because "the women weigh less than the men," she said.

Compared to the bottom floor, the second floor is in much better shape.

The first floor opens into a wide hallway that used to have hooks on the left side for children's coats. The right-side wall has fallen apart to the point that you can see through it into a main room.

In the main room, light-up reindeer and other Christmas decorations used to decorate the town during holidays seasons are stacked against a side wall. Cobwebs hang from the ceiling, which is original to the building; and sawdust that had been used as sound insulation between the first and second floors has fallen and made little piles across the wooden floor, also original to the school.

The building could be fixed up and used for more than just storage if it gets National Register of Historic Places status. Williamson, along with Steve Miller, a volunteer from Columbia, nominated the Harrisburg schoolhouse. Williamson has been trying to get the school recognized nationally since 2004. 

"They told me it was eligible," Williamson said of the National Register, "but they said it's nearly impossible for the first application to be approved."

The building is already registered as a historical place in Boone County, but that isn't enough to validate its importance.

"We're down to 'something needs to happen,'" Williamson said. "It either has to get on the historic register where possibly we can come up with some help with money, or we need to tear it down."

Tearing the building down is the last thing Williamson, the Masons and the Eastern Star want.

"If the building gets redone, we'll be the first to be happy about it," Comegys said. 

Williamson is a lifelong resident of the community northwest of Columbia and is unabashedly fond of its history; her family has owned a general store there since 1972. It was built in the early 1900s across from the school.

She has a vision for what could happen to the old school.

"My dream would be to see the Masons have their upstairs fixed, and then downstairs be Harrisburg's historical museum," she said.

Harrisburg lacks a town historical society, and Williamson thinks the first floor would be a perfect place for one. 

"The history of Harrisburg is being lost fast," she said.

The town was founded in 1872 by John Harris and other investors. It was built along what was supposed to be the Louisiana Railroad, but the station did not end up being built. Yet, the town "grew overnight," in anticipation of the railroad, Williamson said, and without it, residents took up coal mining. Now, the town's biggest employer is the school district, she said.

Williamson has been collecting various pieces of town history for years. She said residents have been handing over memorabilia to her because they know of her particular interest. She has collected scrapbooks of old photos, mementos from the town's coal mining days, family documents and old newspaper clippings.

"It's in my closet — nobody sees it," Williamson said. "I save it because I keep hoping that some day I'll have a place to put it."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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