The many lives of the Birch Grove School House and other ghost stories
Story and photos by Charles Chandler
Who doesn’t love a little picturesque one-room schoolhouse? One that you know contains so many memories and local history? Like that white100-year-old Birch Grove School House sitting at the corner of N. Felch Ave and W. 5 Mile Road. The new owners Margie Moran and her family are some for sure.
The early history of the School House when it housed students of the local farming and logging families is better told by their descendants. Members of families like the Stewarts, Twings, Plank, Courts, Ditlow and others.
The history chapter that most of us hikers are familiar with begins when the beloved Genny and Art Wunch and other hikers rescued the derelict building and had it moved to its current location. Once located there the repurposing and renovations began. The Birch Grove School House would soon become the Headquarters for the North Country National Trail Association (NCTA). It is located about a mile and a half from the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT). The NCT is the longest hiking trail in the National Trails System, stretching 4,600 miles across eight states from North Dakota to Vermont. Don’t know if Ginny Wunsch and crew planned it or not but the School House is located at the halfway point of that 4600-mile trail. As the NCTA organization grew, they needed more space and access to utilities and technology. They relocated to downtown Lowell and the local Western Michigan Chapter of the NCTA assumed operations and maintenance of the School House.
The School House “did well by the Chapter.” In full disclosure, this N3 Correspondent and wife Dianne were for a time the School House caretakers. I helped maintain the building and the grounds. Dianne managed the public relations and reservations side of the operations. It was kind of like managing an Airbnb property. We took the operations seriously because the place meant so much to so many people. However, it was a case study of diminishing returns.
It was still in great shape but as we all know things change. The use and subsequent rental revenues declined while operating expenses increased and the Chapter membership aged and participation declined. A heartfelt business decision had to be made. Many locals and members of the Chapter were concerned over what would become of our School House.
Andrea Ketchmark, NCTA Executive Director issues the following letter to the membership “For close to 40 years, the Birch Grove Schoolhouse has served the North Country Trail community in many ways, first as the Association’s headquarters, and more recently as a meeting spot for the Western Michigan Chapter and rental property for trail crews and visitors. It’s been managed by the Western Michigan Chapter for more than 20 years and although it’s been a source of pride for the Chapter and NCTA, it’s also introduced challenges and has diverted both time and funds from NCTA’s mission of building, maintaining, protecting and promoting the NCT Trail. After holding a local stakeholder meeting and pursuing several options for managing it in partnership, we again concluded that the financial, maintenance, and liability burden will continue to be on the NCTA as long as the NCTA holds ownership.”
On September 18, 2019, the Western Michigan Chapter of the NCTA decided by unanimous vote that they can no longer manage the rental, maintenance, and operations of the NCTA Schoolhouse, effective January 1, 2020. Subsequently, on December 7, 2019, the NCTA’s Board of Directors agreed and approved a motion to sell the property in 2020.
Andrea concluded by saying we still have hope that the sale might be to a person or organization that will honor the history and/or provide future opportunities by keeping it open to the public. The funds generated from the sale will be put to use protecting the Trail and the NCTA’s legacy.”
We did get that wish and then some. The property did not stay on the market long. Artist Margie Moran from Higgins Lake area had some special high school friends down here that lived on the Muskegon River and owned business in Newaygo. They had been asking her to move here so they could enjoy their retirement time together in the woods and water of Newaygo County. She thought that was a good idea and put her Higgins Lake property up for sale and started scanning realtor.com for a suitable property in this area. Margie’s property sold in Higgins Lake and she bought the Birch Grove School House before the ink was dry on either listing. The big attractions to the Birch Grove School House were location and function. It was near her friends and had high ceilings, solid maple flooring, and abundant natural light from the many windows making it a perfect artist studio. As a plus, it came with tons of history, had lots of character, and Tom Birdsall, a great neighbor who loved and had cared for the old building as well.
Margie Moran is somewhat of a character herself. Soft-spoken with an easy laugh, and interesting enough, some folks have mentioned that “she favors the unforgettable Genny Wunch.”
She graciously gave the N3 Correspondent the tour while discussing her plans for the property and revealing a bit of her personal story. In her 20s Margie was a hog farmer and later took a job as a long-haul trucker to put her kids through college. She attended Kendall College as an art Major and is a working artist. Stained glass and ceramics are her mediums. She mentioned her kiln should be installed within a week. She and her son, a third-generation stained glass artist both worked in a studio in Philadelphia doing restoration work for local churches. When asked if she was related to one of our great western painters Thomas Moran? She said no, but with a laugh revealed that when her extended family gets together, her great uncles would invariably bring up one of their relatives. The infamous Chicago probation gangster Bugs Moran.
Her plans for the School House are to develop a working studio and provide a long-term refuge for her children. She plans to keep the building as original as possible and the upgrades in electrical, mechanical, and plumbing will be “period-appropriate” and environmentally friendly.
One daughter is a hiker, another a Hospice Nurse, and a son living in Washington. It
appears that the children have already taken to the place
About that family, Margie has three other kids. Three adorable rescue dogs that appear to have the run of the place. They were instructed to stay in their enclosed backyard while the company was about. That worked for most of 15 minutes and soon they were underfoot and pretending to mind Margie.
At one point during the outside tour, they misbehaved and were given time out and banished to School House. Seems some things never change. They immediately went to the large windows so they could peer out and monitor the adults. No decent artist studio would ever be without cute or interesting animals. The outside furry and feathered folk always found the Birch Grove Schoolhouse attractive. There was this little Eastern Phoebe hen that every year would build a small nest of moss under the back-door overhang. Every time someone would go out the back door she would flutter away. She always put up with the commotion and would successfully raise a small brood. When asked about her Margie said apparently, she felt comfortable enough with her and the dogs until she moved her little nest to the front porch. They were able to watch this spring’s family fledge and fly away.
After the tour, the friendly chat, and invitation to come back was over I sat in my truck for a few minutes and looked at the School House. On reflection, it kind of looked like the same place but felt different. There were petunias in pots and chairs for sitting on the front porch. Funny dog faces in the window. Murdoc the small metal flying pig sculpture in the flower bed and a new heating and air-conditioning system on the other side of the building. The inside still had some of the old cabinets but the artist touch was evident and the studio was evolving. I felt that a page had turned and the North Country Trail Association had left the building. What magic life brings to people, places, and things?
About those nine lives and other ghost stories. So many more stories have been told around the fire pit in the backyard. Did you hear the one about the time that a group of young campers was overnighting in the School House and something started tapping on one of the upstairs windows? A thorough search inside and out found nothing and as soon as everything quieted down the tapping would start again. Well, they freaked out and left as soon as possible. Reminded me of something Mr. Poe said: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As if some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.” The mystery was finally solved when it was discovered that a robin would see its reflection in the window and start pecking at a perceived opponent. When someone would go outside it would simply fly away then return to the pecking match when they left.
Or how about that time when a passing motorist was having a heart attack and pulled into the School House parking area. His car rolled up next to the front steps and the driver mashed the car accelerator to the floor. The engine eventually overheated and caught fire. Neighbor Tom Birdsall and other first responders were able to extinguish the fire and save the School House from being burned to the ground.
The Little White One Room School House has once again caught a lucky break and could be around for another 100 years. Now it has a caring committed artist and her family to watch over it. Margie has owned the School House for a month now and has had several visitors drop by with their stories. She does feel the responsibility of owning this property but also feels that she now has a studio where she can enjoy the serenity, she needs to focus on her art.
Bet Ginny Wunsch and crew are smiling. Thanks, Margie, we can’t wait to hear if you give the place a new name.
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