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A Penniman Bungalow - in Larchmont!

March 13th, 2016 Sears Homes 1 comment

Larchmont is a prestigious neighborhood in Norfolk, filled with stately Colonial Revivals, Cape Cods, Dutch Colonials and Neo-Tudors from the 1920s and 30s. As far as older neighborhoods go, Larchmont is one of Hampton Roads’ most expensive communities, and prices range from $350,000 to $1.2 million.

If you had asked me last month, which early 20th Century neighborhood in all of southeastern Virginia is least likely to have a Penniman house, I would have said “Larchmont.”

But you might be asking yourself, what’s a Penniman house?

Penniman was a World War One munitions plant, built by DuPont, about six miles from Williamsburg. The village of Penniman sprung up around the plant, and by Summer 1918, about 15,000 people were living on the 6,000-acre site, with two miles of frontage on the York River. More than 5,000 laborers and carpenters worked long hours building dorms and apartments and cottages and houses.

Large caliber artillery shells were loaded at the plant and sent onto Newport News, by rail, where they were loaded on troop transports and shipped to the Western Front in France. Penniman was one of the largest shell-loading plants in the country and according to The History of Explosives, workers at Penniman produced more than 27,000 shells per day.

The war’s end on November 11, 1918 took many folks by surprise. Most thought that the war would go on for months if not years. When Armistice came, construction at Penniman ceased immediately and the government canceled contracts. As one local newspaper said in 1919, “Penniman was deserted almost overnight.”

The houses built at Penniman were designed by DuPont, built by Hancock-Pettyjohn, a Lynchburg contractor, and paid for by Uncle Sam. The finer houses were closer to the York, and were occupied by higher-end management, and were offered in more than a dozen designs. “The Cumberland” (shown below) was not the biggest and not the smallest, but probably leaning toward the upper tier of housing options at the plant.

When the plant closed down after The Great War, the houses (most of which were less than six months old) were not torn down but salvaged. Two Norfolk men (Warren Hastings and George Hudson) purchased several of the houses and moved them - by barge - to Norfolk.

Before last week, we knew of 20 Penniman houses that had been moved to Riverview, 27 to Riverfront and 4 to Willoughby Spit. That was it, and frankly, that seemed like a lot, but we suspected there were more. How to find them?

My buddy Bill Inge took this task on last week and had phenomenal results. While we’d been looking around waterways and inlets, Bill had a novel approach: He went looking for land records. In his searching, Bill found that Warren Hastings had also purchased a lot in Larchmont. Converting the legal description to a street address, he found the precise location. Bill then texted me and said, “Is it possible that there’s a Penniman house in Larchmont?”

When I first saw his text I thought, “Whoa, wouldn’t THAT be a story!” but I had my doubts. After all, Larchmont is a high-dollar, impressive community full of fine homes. Was it really likely that someone had moved a war-time frame house into Larchmont?

I googled the address he gave me and within a few seconds, I realized Bill was right: It was a “Cumberland” from Penniman. When I write about unusual Sears Homes, I often wonder, “Do the people living in this house know what they have?” Based on my research, about 75% don’t know that they’re living in a Sears House. What are the odds that people know they have a Penniman? I’d say it’s a lot less than one percent!

Thanks so much to Bill for all  his help and for finding this house!

If you enjoyed this blog, please share it with friends or post the link on Facebook!

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Penniman was a very crowded place.

Penniman was a very crowded place, occupied by 15,000 at its peak. The houses that were moved to Norfolk are the two-story houses in the background of this photo. Picture is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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Cumberland

The model that ended up in Larchmont is The Cumberland. Designed by DuPont for their plants, this house was also built in Old Hickory, Tennessee, another munitions plant.

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house

The Cumberland was one of their nicer homes, but it's still not very big.

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Floorplan

That's upstairs bedroom is 8x11. In the 21st Century, we call that a closet.

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Cumberland

The Cumberland was a traiditional foursquare. A distinctive feature of many of these DuPont houses is the windows flanking the front door, and a fixed transom over the door.

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Hanckcok

About 50 years ago, this metal tag was found near the site where the Penniman houses were originally built, and probably served as a chit for workers checking out tools from the tool shed. The "H-P. Co." is for Hancock-Pettyjohn, the Lynchburg-based company that built the houses at Penniman.

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house house

In December 1921, this appeared in the "Virginian Pilot," showing the houses coming from Penniman to Norfolk. To the right are two Cumberlands - back to back.

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Riverfront

Here's a Cumberland in Riverfront (on Major Avenue). Notice the windows next to the door. There's another Cumberland next door to this one. Prior to Bill's discovery, these were the only two Cumberlands we knew about in Norfolk.

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Larchmont

According to assessor records, the porch on the Larchmont "Cumberland" was removed in 1957, which is a real pity. As shown here, the house has been covered in substitute siding, and that's probably when the windows and transom disappeared (by the door). This photo was taken in 1959.

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house house house

The city records say the house was built in 1920, but in fact, it was built in Spring of 1918 by Hancock-Pettyjohn and moved (by barge) to its current site in 1921 or 1922.

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dimensions

According to the city's information, the dimensions for the house are correct.

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Google

An image from Google Maps (2015) show the house with new siding (third layer) and replacement windows.

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Penniman

Yesterday, when Milton and I drove past the house, the porch had been restored and it looks like the homeowner did a fine job. And it looks far better with a porch. Not sure what's happening with the transom.

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Penniman

Do they know that their house was born in Penniman, and then traveled by barge to Larchmont?

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Cumberland 1918

Do they know that their house looked like this in 1918?

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Location

If you look at a map of the home's current location, you can see how accessible it is by water.

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Mr. Hastings who brought this house

Here's a picture of Mr. Warren Hastings, standing in front of the homes in Riverfront.

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DO they know

And it all started here - in Penniman.

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To learn the details of how Mr. Hastings moved these homes by barge, click here.

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The Great Atlantic Fleet - Parked at Penniman

March 8th, 2016 Sears Homes 3 comments

While reading the Newport News Daily Press, I stumbled upon a little item in the 1923 paper that connected a lot of dots. In the article (from the Associated Press), Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels explained that during The Great War, the Navy had stationed “more than a dozen battleships” at the mouth of the York River, near the Chesapeake Bay. He described the location as “an ancient naval base” adding that under “voluntary censorship” this information was never published.

“We were anchored right where Admiral Rochambeau’s French fleet took its stand and cut off relief by sea for General Cornwallis,” Daniels told the Associated Press (February 11, 1923).

For the geographically challenged among us, that’s mighty close to Penniman. If you were standing on the beach at Penniman near King’s Creek (the southern boundary of Penniman), that very spot - where Rochambeau parked his fleet - would be about four  miles southeast.

Secretary Daniels described the unnumbered group of ships as “the world’s greatest deposit of battleships,” and “the home port of that part of the Atlantic Fleet” (during the war). The article also explained that metal submarine nets had been stretched across the mouth of the York River. (A few days later, another article appeared, explaining that local fishermen were begging the Navy to start removing the “huge steel nets.”)

“Penniman is on the south side of the York River, and near its mouth,” wrote George Harris, an Army private stationed at Penniman. Written October 28, 1918, the letter was published in Harris’ hometown paper (Spirit Lake Beacon, Iowa) a few days after the war ended.

“We can stand out on the beach and see the Chesapeake Bay,” Harris noted. “Several battleships are stationed in the mouth of the river and the bay. One day, I counted 14 of those ships and four more in the distance” (November 17, 1918).

Those battleships anchored at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay must have been a remarkable thing to see, because several letters written about life at Penniman mention that view.

Not surprisingly, the sailors on board those ships took their liberties at Penniman.

In June 1918, a YWCA* worker filed a report on conditions of the munitions plant at Penniman. She wrote, “There’s a [soda] fountain that dispenses drinks at all hours to a motley crowd, resembling nothing so much as a Douglas Fairbanks wild west movie. This affair is even more thrilling to the girls by the arrival every evening of the crew of a minesweeper or battleship from the fleet at Yorktown, four miles below.”

Two months later, a “confidential report” was given by M. S. Shephard on “the moral situation” at Penniman. The head man at the plant, Mr. Benesh, appealed to the YWCA for help, and it was suggested that a police woman work undercover, and that a “especially good morality worker” provide regular lectures at the plant.

“The situation at Penniman is not a simple one,” the letter continued, “for the girls and women are of all types” (August 7, 1918).

The war ended three months later, and hopefully most of those “girls and women of all types” went home with their virtue unblemished.

Why did the Navy decide to park their battleships at the mouth of the York River? Mark Hardin, a phenomenal researcher and hard-core history lover, recently discovered an old map showing the placement of four three-inch anti-aircraft guns positioned in and around Hopewell (site of a WW1-era DuPont guncotton plant). Did Penniman have anti-aircraft guns as well? It was one of two of America’s largest shell-loading plants, and was vital to the war effort.

I suspect that the Great Atlantic Fleet provided all the protection that Penniman needed.

Thanks to Mike Neal for sharing images from this wonderful book (shown below).

*Penniman-YWCA letters are courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

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Superdreadnought (Battleship)

When Private George Harris stood on Penniman's beach and looked out toward the Chesapeake Bay, did he see this? This is Superdreadnought (Battleship) Arizona, commissioned October 1916. According to Harris, he saw at least 14 battleships in the York River in Fall of 1918.

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Heres a picture of the Great Atlantic Fleet underway (1917).

Here's a picture of the Great Atlantic Fleet underway (1917).

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Sailors on board an unnamed battleship, with 14-inch shells which were just supplied by a lighter.

Sailors on board an unnamed battleship, with 14-inch shells which were just delivered by a "lighter."

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These guys look like they could show a young girl a thing or two. I hope that especially good morality speaker went to Penniman with due haste.

I hope that the "especially good morality speaker" went to Penniman with due haste.

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Vladmir

That guy on the right looks a lot like Vladmir Putin.

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ff

The caption of this photo states that fencing helped develop confidence, courage and control. That boat shown in the upper right was probably also used to get the young sailors over to Penniman.

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These images appeared in this rare book, published in late 1917. Thanks to Mike Neal for allowing me to use images from this delightful old tome.

These pictures shown above are from this rare book, published in late 1917. Thanks to Mike Neal for allowing me to use images from this delightful old tome.

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To learn more about Penniman, click here.

Want to learn how to identify kit homes? Here’s the place.

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Pottstown and Penniman and A Mystery School - SOLVED!

March 6th, 2016 Sears Homes 2 comments

We found Pottstown, and it isn’t the one in Pennsylvania.

About a month ago, I wrote a blog about a mystery school house mentioned in the Newport News Daily Press. The story, from December 1922 said that the school would soon be built for African-American children in Pottstown, using salvaged brick from the Penniman smokestack. Problem was, no one seemed to know anything about a community called “Pottstown” near Williamsburg.

Then not one, but two of my favorite researchers found a bibliographic reference in a book, mentioning Pottstown and citing a plat book at the James City County Courthouse.

I toddled down to the courthouse one day (about a 50-mile drive from my home) and went into the clerk’s office and asked to see page 31 of “Plat Book Number Three.” The mystery was quickly solved. In the early 1900s, Pottstown was an African-American community in the heart of Williamsburg, and the school in question was the James City County Training School, built (finished) in 1924, and sitting at the corner of Nicholson and Botetourt Streets.

The article in the Newport News Daily Press (December 20, 1922) said that Williamsburg School Board Chairman W. L. Jones had purchased the smokestack while it was still vertical, in hopes of using the slightly-used bricks to build a public school for black children in James City County. After discovering the location of the school in question, I was still left wondering, “Did he use those bricks from Penniman?”

After a lot of digging around, I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do have a strong suspicion. Based on the voluminous materials I’ve studied in the last three weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that W. L. Jones probably did use those bricks from the Penniman smokestack for the James City County Training School.

In short - financial reasons.

The first bids received for the James City County Training School, came in at about $30,000. The school board’s budget for building the solid-brick, six-room schoolhouse (with a center auditorium) was $13,000. Even in 1924 dollars, that was a trifling amount for a schoolhouse (about $180,000 in today’s money). There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth as school board members struggled to figure out how to reduce costs. One of the suggestions was to lop two classrooms off the plans.

Ultimately, two African-American contractors (Sylvester L. Vaughan and J. Andrew Jones) stepped forward and managed to shave the bid down to $16,650. The plumbing, heating, electricity and insurance were not factored into these early bids, raising the final price to $20,280. Local black patrons raised an additional $3,700 and the Rosenwald Fund contributed $1,500. A Williamsburg contractor, R. W. Holmes, offered to supply the plumbing and heating system (and all materials) and wait one year before billing the school board.

In 1924, salvaged bricks cost about $15 per thousand (clean) or $10 per thousand (not clean). In other words, if  you’re willing to sit down and chisel mortar off a whole lot of bricks, you’ll save about 33% on your costs. Some ciphering shows that the school would have required about 44,000 bricks. And some extra-fancy ciphering shows that the 250-foot tall tapered Penniman smokestack contained more than 150,000 bricks (and probably closer to 300,000).

In December 1922, W. L. Jones told the newspaper he was buying those bricks to use in a school building for Pottstown. Given the enormous budget constraints, it seems likely that he did just that. Other sources revealed the following:

1) In July 1922, Reverend Thomas Potts had sold two lots to the school board for $1,300. When Jones bought those bricks, a lot had already been purchased for the new school (School Board Minutes, July 1922).

2) Years earlier, Jones had given the black community a personal promise that he would build them a new brick school house. The promise was re-stated in a letter to the editor that appeared in the Daily Press in May 1923.

And there’s this: In the early 1900s, Americans were very thrifty and smart when it came to recycling quality building materials, and the bricks used in a DuPont smokestack would have been of the very highest quality. As of 1902, W. L. Jones had owned a brickyard in Williamsburg and he probably knew quite a bit about bricks. Buying salvaged bricks was such a common practice in the early 1920s that their prices were advertised in building journals and magazines. And salvaged bricks were considered a fine alternative to the higher cost of new bricks, as long as they were being used in a one-story structure. More on that below.

Bids for the new school were solicited in May 1923, and the contract with Jones and Vaughan was closed in July 1923. On Monday, September 15, 1924, the James City County Training School welcomed almost 200 new students on its first day.

Unfortunately, the James City County Training School fell into terrible disrepair in the early 1930s. The biggest problem facing the school was moisture intrusion on the interior plaster walls and non-stop leaks throughout the predominantly flat roof. Was this a failure of building materials or workmanship? Given the age of the structure, I’d have to lean toward workmanship, but it’s impossible to know for sure.

Perhaps one of the main problems was that, according to the July 1935 minutes of the school board, they’d hired “Mr. Leakey” to fix the problems in the roof. That doesn’t seem like a good choice.

By February 1935, Rockefeller’s restoration of Colonial Williamsburg had caught up to Nicholson Street and the school board decided to stop repairing the dilapidated building. The school board officially decided that ugly was good. “Money spent [on repairs] should be spent on the inside and not on the outside, in the hope that the Restoration might buy the property if its appearance were too unsightly” (February 1935).

Estimates to repair the building ranged from $8,000 to $10,000, and in early 1936, the 12-year-old school was condemned. The restoration committee stepped up to the plate and paid $10,000 for the old school building and donated a new lot for the new school (Bruton Heights). The new school would be built at a cost of $245,000 (and completed in 1940).

For a time, Penniman’s bricks lived on, a little bit more.

The school board minutes from June 1940 showed that gravel was being tracked into the shiny new Bruton Heights School. It was suggested that school board member, Mr. Byrd, contact the “Restoration People” and ask if the brick from the old building could be used for walkways around the new building. In August 1940, it was reported that the “bricks from the old building have been hauled over to the school grounds.” Children from the NYA (National Youth Administration) were sought to help remove all that mortar and lay the pavers in place. Additionally, bricks from the old school were used for the underpass walkway (a pedestrian tunnel under the train tracks, by the new school).

Last week, as I strolled the grounds of the old Bruton Heights school, I saw only concrete walkways at every point and turn. The underpass, classic 1930s Art Deco construction, is also 100% paved in concrete. Do our Penniman bricks rest quietly under all that concrete?

I can only hope.

Thanks so much to Mark Hardin, Milton Crum, Bill Inge, Pat Spriggs, Dale Wolicki and Anne Hallerman for providing research help.

And thanks to The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for providing the vintage images of the James City County Training School.

To read the prior blog on this school, click here.

And I’m eager to know - did the desks come from Sears and Roebuck?  :)

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This plat from James City County Courthouse

This plat from James City County Courthouse shows that "Pottstown" was a small community within Williamsburg, and James City County Training School was located at the corner of Nicholson and Botetourt Streets. Outlined in red (for emphasis) is the school in question. Harmon Athletic Field is in the upper right-hand corner of this plat.

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And right on the face of this plat is our answer: Pottstown.

And right on the face of this plat is our answer: Pottstown.

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Bill Inge

Norfolk historian Bill Inge found this 1933 Sanborn Map, which says that the JCCTS was built with hollow tile and brick. These were very common building materials in the early 1920s. Plaster could be applied to the interior face of the hollow tile, creating a fire-proof wall, and this was of utmost importance in early 20th Century America. In more expensive applications, the interior face of the hollow tile was glazed, creating a finished appearance that required no plaster.

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James City County Training School - on the hoof.

James City County Training School - on the hoof. This 250-foot-tall smokestack dominates most views of Penniman. According to the Daily Press, it took 35 sticks of dynamite to topple this behemoth.

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My smart friends and I are flummoxed by this view.

My smart friends and I are flummoxed by this view of the smokestack. Is that brick on the exterior? It looks very squarish. Is the brick turned "end out"? Based on contemporary building standards, we know that the smokestack walls were more than four feet thick on the first 20' section near the base, a little less than four feet thick at the second 20' section, and so on. That means that there's a whole lot of brick within this "tall chimney" (as they were then known). Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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Heres what started the ball rolling. This article states that school superintendant W. L. Jones bought the bricks to use in the schoolhouse in Pottstown.

Here's what started the ball rolling. This article states that School Board Chairman W. L. Jones bought the bricks to use in the schoolhouse in Pottstown (Daily Press, December 20, 1922).

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And

And it was reaffirmed two days later (December 22, 1922).

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ff

In May 1923, Jones wrote this letter to the editor of the Daily Press, re-stating his promise to build a brick school house for the African-American children of Williamsburg.

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Thanks

And he made good on that promise. The James City County Training School is shown here, in all of its solid-brick glory. Judging from the muddy mess, it seems likely that this picture was taken soon after the school was built (1924). Photo is courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

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Another view

Another view of the James City County Training School. The auditorium was in the center of the building, with clerestory windows (barely visible in this photo). These windows provided an abundance of natural lighting. Photo is courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

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HB

Bricks and mortar bind mechanically. That bond is compromised on salvaged brick. New mortar and old bricks don't have the same strong "bond" as new brick, because the old brick's pores can be clogged from prior use. For this reason, only one-story applications would have been recommended - even in the 1920s. Today, used brick is considered suitable only for pavers and short non-structural brick walls. The image above is from the 1927 Homebuilder's Catalog.

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Bricks for sale. Cheap.

This one is a puzzler. W. L. Jones apparently had quite a few bricks on his hands. This advertisement appeared in May 1923 (Daily Press). And why are the bricks pricier at Penniman? That's another mystery.

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Seems like he was anz

And he was offering extra-cheap bricks to people who bought his lots in College Heights. This appeared throughout March 1923 in the Daily Press.

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By February 1935, the school had fallen into disrepari.

By February 1935, school board minutes reflect that the JCCTS had fallen into disrepair, and the school board hoped that the "Restoration" might buy the property. Ultimately, they were successful, and the school and lot were purchased by Rockefeller for $10,000.

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fff

School board minutes from August 1940 show that the bricks from the JCCTS had been carted off to the new school, to serve as pavers. Are those our Penniman bricks? I think it's likely. NYA (National Youth Association) was a "New Deal" program.

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Today, every place where our Penniman bricks should appear is covered in concrete.

Today, every place where our Penniman bricks should appear is covered in concrete, such as this pedestrian tunnel under the train tracks (near Bruton Heights school) and the walkways around Bruton Heights.

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J. Andrew Jones was a professional carpenter and brick layer, and he did a beautiful job on the brick work. What a pity that it was razed a mere 16 years later.

J. Andrew Jones was a professional carpenter and brick layer, and he did a beautiful job on the brick work. What a pity that it was razed a mere 16 years later. Photo is courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

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Sears Schoolhouse specialty catalog

Did you see that part about The Rosenwald Foundation providing $1,500 in funding for the JCCTS? How fun is that? Wraps it all up in a neat and tidy bow, doesn't it? I spent more than three weeks of my life chasing down every detail on this story and it all comes back in full circle - Sears was involved! In 1908, Richard Warren Sears retired from the company he'd spent 22 years building, and Julius Rosenwald became president of the mail-order business, and also became a very wealthy man and a philanthropist. Catalog shown above is from 1926.

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Thanks so much to Mark Hardin, Milton Crum, Bill Inge, Pat Spriggs, Dale Wolicki and Anne Hallerman for providing research help.

And thanks to The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for providing the vintage images of the James City County Training School.

To read the prior blog on this school, click here.

Did you know Sears sold school desks too?

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