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James Brown had to think hard about what he likes about working on the old Shell Pond School.
“It hasn’t hit me yet. It hasn’t jelled,” the 56-year-old carpenter said, gripping a handsaw and standing in front of a pile of salvaged timber. “That’s a tough question. It’s such a simple structure. What it can become, I guess. That’s what it’s about.”
Built in 1873 by sawmill owner John Francis McDonell as a school for his children, the Shell Pond School is as old as some of the massive, sprawling oaks that shade and conceal most of its East side from County Road 335.
“It’s the oldest public building in Levy County, although it’s private now,” Brown said about the school he’s been working to preserve for the last two years.
Dr. Hugh Popenoe bought the building, along with 220 surrounding acres a few miles outside of Raleigh, in the mid 1960s. It served as a public school until about 40 years prior.
“I lived in it for 10 years,” said 81-year-old Popenoe, a soil sciences professor at the University of Florida who now lives in Archer. “There was no insulation. It got really cold on some of those winter nights.”
During his stay, he said he had to replace much of the siding and fumigate for termites, which began their assault by chewing at the heart pine and oak piers the building rested upon.
It took them, the termites; about 40 years to bring the framework back to Earth.
“Ten years ago, it was brought to my attention that it needed to be raised off the ground,” Brown said. So, a house moving company lifted the structure, and Brown constructed new piers of brick, all capped with a metal termite shields. “The house mover said he was amazed at how good a shape it was in.”
On steady legs again, the building sat for a few more years until Popenoe requested that Brown start an extensive effort to save the building.
“It makes me feel proud to save a relic from the past,” Popenoe said. “Two years of my high school were in a one-room schoolhouse,” he added. “I’ve always been interested in restoring early things. I’ve always been interested in history.”
Brown describes his own efforts as conservative. “I’m trying to do a soft-paw approach, not really changing.”
He’s added support joists where the roof, complete with a hanging-style brick chimney, had started to sag. He’s also replaced much of the cedar siding with local longleaf pine planks, the type of wood that originally sided the building. He’s done some work on the flooring structure, and he’s restored many of the window openings to their original size and location. Although, he admits, he’d like to see the new metal frame windows he’s installed one day replaced with custom wooden frame windows. “The windows are the soul of the building,” he said “It won’t look right until it has custom windows. But right now, the main concern is to preserve it.”
Preserving the Shell Pond School is important, according to local historian Toni Collins.
“This is a part of Levy County’s heritage,” said Collins, founder of the Levy County Historical Society. “As far as old buildings in this county, we don’t have many of them.”
People need to be reminded of where they come from, she said, “Because you don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you come from.” You can’t plot your path to the future, She said. “Today, people have lost sight of that.”
And what of the past?
John Francis McDonell, the builder of the school, was born in 1820 on Amelia Island, according to a written account by his great great-grandson, Wilson Sistrunk. The account, published in “The Search for Yesterday”, states McDonell was one of 14 children belonging to an affluent family. In his younger years, he was a slave overseer for a woman in Wacahoota, whom he later married.
When the two settled at Shell Pond, sometime in the 1850s, the land was still in Marion County. Shell Pond became part of Levy County by order of the Florida Legislature in 1877, four years after the school was built. The McDonells moved to the area just a few years after the end of the Second Seminole War.
According to Sistrunk, McDonell and three women were attacked by a band of Seminoles in 1842 while on a wagon. McDonell, the driver, was shot in the chest and escaped by hiding in the underbrush. Two of the women also got away. One was killed. Sistrunk wrote that McDonell, who later in life became a judge, carried the bullet in his chest for the rest of his life. He died in 1895 at the age of 74—years after most Seminoles in the area were forced onto reservations West of the Mississippi. McDonell’s wife, Margaret, even received an Indian Wars pension until her death in 1932 as a result of the attack, Sistrunk wrote. The attack is said to have happened near Brooksville, though one account claims it happened near Paines Prairie.
Descendants of the McDonell family populated a large area between Shell Pond and Raleigh, according to Sistrunk.
McDonell’s great-great granddaughter, Billie Sue McDonell Johnson, is one of those descendants. Her grandfather was the last person in her family to attend the Shell Pond School, and she said she remembers an uncle who used to store crops in the building in the 1950s. Johnson, who lives on farmland in Raleigh, said she’s spent her whole life in the area. And even though more people from other places have started to move there, it’s still rural, the way she likes it, she said. “We love it the way it is.”
She said she’s comforted seeing the old weathered schoolhouse she’s seen since she was a girl. “I’m glad to see it’s still there,” she said.
“I’m very pleased that Dr. Popenoe felt like it was worth the history to preserve it. I’m very happy about that.”