After decades of work, Millsboro schoolhouse a national historic site

“It’s a pretty setting for a school, isn’t it?”

Golden morning sunlight slips through the shadows of tall trees and fresh-cut grass, where Margaret Mitchell stands beside a historic one-room schoolhouse.

Sitting quietly beside the road, the Godwin School looks freshly painted and as ready for students now as it did 100 years ago in west Millsboro, though the school bell doesn’t ring for children anymore and trucks have replaced horses on Route 20.

But the Godwin School lives on, added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 16, 2018, after decades of effort by the Millsboro Historical Society. 

“I think we have finished this school, as far as what we have done and wanted to do,” Society President Mitchell said of their mission accomplished. “We’ve done a lot of work. … We’re very happy. We’re very proud.”

The Godwin School, originally known as School District #190, opened around 1897 as the local student population was increasing. Sussex County had opened several new districts, as they were running out of room in the existing nine school districts — each containing a single school. Local store owner Jacob Reese Godwin provided the land, and local residents collected money through a subscription.

The Godwin School served white children in grades 1 to 8 who lived around Ingram Pond and Shortly. At the time, many children did not continue school beyond eighth grade.

For years, Godwin volunteers have highlighted the “importance of identifying and preserving a once commonplace building-type that has vanished from the rural landscape, encouraged elected officials to contribute financially to historic preservation, and ignited interest in learning about local history,” the Delaware’s State Historic Preservation Office lauded.

 “Godwin’s School is typical of the scores of such structures which once dotted the landscape of rural Delaware. At first, these schools provided all the education available for most Delaware boys and girls,” historian Richard “Dick” Carter wrote when preservation efforts began in 1988.

The Millsboro Historical Society was formed in the 1980s solely to transform what was at that time an old farm storage building, back into its original historic school site.

Mitchell was inspired by her mother, Elsie Conaway Shockley, who attended Godwin from 1911 to 1920.

“My mom went to school here. … She always loved it here,” Mitchell said. “She always talked highly about this school and how much she enjoyed coming, and I just thought, ‘I’m going to try to get a committee together.’”

A total of 11 little schools, including Godwin, had closed after Millsboro School District #23 started offering grades 7 to 12 in 1935-1936.

And as for the old Godwin school — the land reverted back to the descendants of Jacob R. Godwin, who had married into the family.

“And after the school was closed in 1936, they made it into a corn crib,” Mitchell said.

The Historical Society organized in the 1980s. Carter to wrote their charter, and they obtained a 99-year lease on the corner lot. They worked for every dollar, hosting penny-parties, talent shows and other fundraisers.

It was almost eerie, this old wooden building, before it was repainted back to its original white and forest green. The Delaware State Archives installed a historical marker in 1999, and the school hosted its first open-house in the fall of 2017.

“It’s taken so long because it was so expensive,” Mitchell said of the new brick foundation, new vestibule, flooring, weatherboarding, roof, outhouse, tree maintenance and more. They also had to follow historic-preservation guidelines.

Much research went into the effort, including interviewing former students in this very rural area.

“I think most of them were farmers and they had to work the fields, so in spring attendance wasn’t very large,” Mitchell said.

However, it’s recorded that in the 1922–1923 school year, Willa Lingo taught up to 30 students at a time. 

After entering the vestibule (which the Historical Society has added back to the structure), boys and girls parted, and they entered the classroom through two separate doorways, then sat on opposite sides of the room at wooden desks. Lunches were carried in old tin pails, and a single woodstove warmed everyone in winter.

From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., the school day included academics, a Bible reading, lunch and recess.

“They would play tag, and Raymond Conaway was running around the building, and he ran into some boy and broke his nose. … He always had a crooked nose!” Mitchell recalled with a laugh of her uncle.

Mitchell herself graduated from Georgetown High School and was a longtime teacher at Sussex Central Middle School (now Millsboro Middle School).

“I can’t say enough about the people that made this happen,” she said. “I just want to give credit to the people who worked hard to preserve this. It wasn’t just me. … We’ve had a lot of help along the way,” Mitchell said of the many volunteers who served as board members and maintenance crews.

Some major players helping to revive the Godwin School were Bill and Linda Pusey; Art and Peggy Cathell; John Mitchell; and the late Elsie Mitchell. They said they also appreciated Sussex County Council’s regular contributions.

Historian Madeline Dunn also helped with the National Register process, representing the Delaware Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs and the State Historic Preservation Office.

On July 16, the Godwin School joined the National Register, along with other historic buildings, graveyards and commercial districts, ranging from Puerto Rico to North Dakota and New York. The National Register includes more than 90,000 sites, including roughly a dozen Millsboro-region sites, old farmhouses, churches and schools that have been special to the Nanticoke Indian community and the white settlers.

The Delaware Public Archives also celebrates some 20 other Millsboro sites with historic markers at churches, as well as the old geographic hundreds, the town site and more. Delaware historical markers also denote the sites of 38 schools across the state.

The school is located at 23235 Godwin School Road, and is typically open by appointment only. A public open-house is being planned for September of 2018.

By Laura Walter
Staff Reporter