If you’ve driven down Crosswicks Street recently, you might have noticed the sprawling banner outside the Clara Barton Schoolhouse. Or the massive blue tarp that has covered the structure’s roof for the last several months. That’s all part of the Bordentown Historical Society’s plan to save the tiny schoolhouse.
The future founder of the American Red Cross used the building for the 1852 opening of what is considered the first free public school in New Jersey.
The group filmed a video outlining the building’s needs — a new roof, an HVAC system, WiFi, new fencing — last November and planned to start its fundraising pitch in March. But, as with most businesses and organizations, the pandemic upended operations and changed the timeline.
“All hell broke loose with COVID, and we felt like we couldn’t be asking people for money,” said Bordentown Historical Society trustee Bonnie Goldman. “Everything was scary and horrible. We didn’t do anything for a while.”
That’s where the tarp came in — the eight holes in the schoolhouse’s roof needed to be covered somehow until full repairs were able to be made. It turns out to be a sort of kickstart for the society’s revamped campaign.
Raise the Roof for Clara aims to restore and preserve the schoolhouse where Clara Barton taught up to 600 children before leaving to nurse wounded Civil War soldiers and being dubbed “the Angel of the Battlefield.”
Repairs include a new roof, HVAC, technological upgrades, and lighting. The group also hopes to replace the rotted fencing outside of the building.
Goldman uses the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Museum in Washington, D.C., as inspiration. The museum screens a short video about Barton right when guests enter the building, and Goldman hopes to establish something similar for the Bordentown City structure.
“There’s no way that we can show a video now,” she said. “We want to make some technical improvements to make it more like a museum. It would be more beneficial to students and visitors who come to see it.”
The building currently has two stories but no stairs, so the only way to access the top floor — and the heating controls that are up there — is to climb a ladder. Goldman, who portrays Clara Barton for storytelling events and other historical presentations at the schoolhouse and around town, said she’d have to climb the ladder in her Victorian hoop skirt if she needed to adjust the temperature. A new HVAC system would make the controls more accessible.
Goldman also remembers a nighttime event she hosted at the schoolhouse for a Girl Scout troop. The building has no lighting, so they had to conduct the tour by candlelight — appropriate for the original era but, ultimately, impractical.
The Bordentown Historical Society hopes to raise $50,000 for the project. They are currently working with a historical architect, Margaret Westfield, to create a preservation plan so they know what to prioritize. Goldman said they’ll have a better idea of exactly what needs to be done and how much it will cost once Westfield completes her review.
“I know how important it is to have people who know why things were built that way and why we need to restore them,” Goldman said. “We can’t be shooting from the hip with this. We need the guidance of a professional.”
The schoolhouse is believed to date back to the 1700s, based on Westfield’s analysis of elements like the building’s nails and roofing. It originally stood at Farnsworth Avenue and West Street, not too far from its current home at Crosswicks and Burlington streets.
“After she taught there, she convinced the equivalent of a school board back then that they needed to build a bigger public schoolhouse,” Goldman said. “It was the first in the state. She volunteered to teach for nothing because she believed so much in public education. When she came to Bordentown and saw kids standing idly on the sidewalk, she knew they were there because their parents couldn’t afford to send them to school.”
The new school, where Clara Barton Elementary School stands today, was completed in 1854.
“But because the community had a new two-story building, the little original went to wreck and ruin,” Goldman said.
About 70 years later, a local educator named Minnie Flynn recognized the historical importance of the structure and wanted to help preserve it. She started a campaign to raise money for the restoration, not unlike the Bordentown Historical Society. She asked every student in New Jersey to donate a penny to the cause and ended up raising $3,700. The revamped building was dedicated by the governor in 1921.
But it has been largely untouched since then.
“What it looks like now, on the inside, particularly, is the way it was restored 100 years ago,” Goldman said.
As with Flynn’s campaign in the early 1900s, the community has been supportive of the society’s efforts. One nine-year-old resident used her birthday to host a lemonade stand and raise money for the project. She recruited some friends over the summer, and they got to selling. The “lemonade brigade,” as Goldman calls them, presented the society with a check for $920.
The girls were rewarded with a socially distanced and masked private tour of the schoolhouse. Goldman hosted the tour as Barton. Each girl also received a Clara Barton stamp, originally issued by the United States Post Office in 1948, and a children’s book about Barton.
C.J. Mugavero, owner of the Artful Deposit gallery in Bordentown City, is donating a portion of the proceeds from each painting she sells that depicts a roof back to the project. Other local businesses are running similar efforts.
This has all been a huge help to the group, Goldman said, especially as all of the society’s biggest fundraisers — fall house tours, summer garden tours, peach and blueberry-themed socials — were cancelled due to COVID-19.
“We’re a small nonprofit with a limited number of volunteers,” Goldman said. “There’s only so much we can do. The community support has been very uplifting.”
Goldman said the society had plans to celebrate Clara Barton’s 200th birthday in 2021 with events at the restored building, but those are also on hold, for now.
“I just think that we’re so lucky in Bordentown City that someone who was such an amazing American icon visited us and made her mark on New Jersey with this desire to institute the public school,” she said. “It’s really not just a local landmark, it’s statewide, it’s national. It’s definitely something that everyone in the state should be able to participate in.”
For more information or to donate to the Raise the Roof for Clara campaign, visit www.bordentownhistory.org.