Volunteers toil to fix old Canajoharie school
CANAJOHARIE The old West Hill School’s vaulted attic was alive with pigeons Monday as the Canajoharie noon whistle blew.
“We have to get this buttoned up before winter,” said Adam Bermas as he pointed out the rotten floorboards to avoid.
Chinks in the roof shone beams of light down through flurried wings.
Bermas removed a bent and rotted hatch from the roof and climbed out to a tar-papered valley 65 feet off the ground. It was a great view of the village to the east, but Bermas was more concerned with the roof.
“This is our first order of business,” he said, motioning to an arm-sized hole in the shingles, right through to the attic.
Ownership of the historic West Hill School was officially transferred to the village last week.
The 120-year-old limestone building was on the county tax foreclosure auction block a few months ago. The high bid wasn’t enough to justify a private sale, so the county agreed to hand it over to the village if volunteers stepped up to save it.
Community members formed The Historic West Hill School Committee to organize the project and now they’ll have their chance to work. A volunteer cleanup day was held Saturday. About 10 people showed up to mow the lawn and get the building presentable on the outside.
“In my understanding we’ll have a year to get it to a place where it can be bought and put on the tax roll,” Bermas said.
Bermas works for Hein Kraak, who owns The Elephant Bistro and New Amsterdam Contracting and is spearheading the West Hill School project. Since the deed was signed over, Kraak has been all business.
“Everyone has big ideas about what the school should be,” he said. “That’s not the priority. We have to get it fixed up so it doesn’t go backwards. Then we can daydream about hotels and malls.”
Right now they need to patch the roof, finish boarding up the windows and clean — each job more complicated that it sounds.
The roof alone will cost a few thousand dollars to patch, even with donated labor, and over $100,000 to replace entirely if a paid crew is brought in.
“I think there are 126 windows in this place,” Bermas said. “That is a lot of plywood to cut and fit.”
He estimated the building could be readied for winter for about $10,000 and a few dozen willing volunteers. Then comes the cleaning.
The floors of each of the three stories are covered in pigeon excrement and decomposed pigeon carcasses. It’s not a pretty sight, or smell, but the structure of the place is sound.
The big limestone blocks are as solid as ever, and even the wooden beams look to be in good shape, but most importantly, the volunteers are resolute.
“I have two businesses in this town,” Kraak said, “My two kids go to school here. Everything I have and do is dependent on this community. That’s my motivation.”
He said that making the hulking stone building useful again would help the community both economically and psychologically.
“This is a monument of what the village once could do,” he said. “If it goes down, that is a little piece of its soul ripped out.”
Even with volunteers, materials cost money, and though dates haven’t been picked out, Kraak said fundraisers are in the works.
They might even hold a haunted house over Halloween if the place is in good enough shape by then. Another volunteer day will likely be held Saturday.
“A lot of stuff is going to start happening,” Kraak said.
For more information on the West Hill refurbishment project, visit volunteers on Facebook at www.facebook.com/HistoricWestHillSchool or at www.historicwesthillschool.com.