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1859 schoolhouse with abolitionist ties may be razed

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The Lenawee Intermediate School District voted in September to demolish the one-room schoolhouse and its addition.

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TECUMSEH, Mich. - A one-room Quaker school that has ties to the area's Underground Railroad movement is one vote away from becoming a vacant lot.

Located in Raisinville Charter Township, Sutton School was built in 1859 by Asa and Sara Sutton, who were outspoken abolitionists and among the first Quakers to settle in Lenawee County.

The Lenawee Intermediate School District, which owns the schoolhouse, voted in September to raze the brick school and the structure that was added to it in the 1960s.

The board delayed demolition after local historians and preservationists learned of the vote and made a case that it would be worth saving if a tenant could be found.

The school board has given them until May 5 to present a workable proposal that would address paying the estimated $40,000 needed to bring the building into compliance with state building codes, a requirement necessary because it no longer would be used as a school.

The school district will not sell the property and instead wants the prospective tenants to sign a five-year lease.

Lisa Powell, director of the Tecumseh Area Historical Museum, is among local preservationists who persuaded the school board to delay demolition and is trying to secure funding for a possible use.

While there is no evidence or documentation that the school was used in the passage of fugitive slaves to safety, its age and existence as a schoolhouse run by Quakers merit preservation, she said.

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Local preservationists persuaded the Lenawee Intermediate School District to put off demolition and are seeking funding.

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"It's not costing any money to the district to just let it remain standing," she said.

Local historian Kimberly Davis is researching the school's past and trying to find out who attended the school when it opened nearly 150 years ago.

The Suttons' homestead, about a mile from the school, contains a hidden room in the basement that is believed to have been used as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

"Asa and Sara Sutton were members of the first anti-slavery society in Michigan," said Ms. Davis, director of the Sojourner Truth Technical Training Center, which holds the archives of the local history of the Underground Railroad.

Steve Krusich, a district spokesman, said the decision to demolish the structure followed at least a two-year, top-to-bottom study and cost analysis that concluded it didn't fit into the long-term needs of the system.

"We concluded that renovating and maintaining this old building far exceeded the costs of new construction anytime in the future," he said.

The building was most recently used for the school district's teen parenting and day-care program, which moved to another site in June, 2005. Since then, the building has been empty.

Mr. Krusich said the school district, in exploring possible uses for the building, offered to make it available to nonprofit organizations, but none of the groups contacted by the district wanted it.

"The building is in bad shape, and is by far the oldest of the 14 buildings in our system," he said. "There is community interest in saving the building. But nobody has brought the needed dollars to the table."

The school district also contacted the Lenawee County Historical Society to evaluate the school's historical value.

"They concluded it didn't have any [more] significant value than any of the other one-room schoolhouses in the county," he said.

A plan was in the works to make the school into the headquarters and education center for Leh Nah Weh, a local Native American group. However, Abel Cooper, the nonprofit organization's director, said renovation costs were out of reach for his group, which works to preserve and promote Native American culture and heritage. "It was just too much money. We can't spend money like that on a building that we can't own," he said.

Mr. Krusich said the building cannot be sold because it is at the entrance to the Milton C. Porter Education Center, for students who need special services, the district's Web site says.

"We got excited when we thought the building could be saved. But, we cannot spend educational dollars on a building that has exceeded its educational use," Mr. Krusich said.

Contact Mark Reiter at:

markreiter@theblade.com

or 734-241-3610.

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