Schoolhouse secrets

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The Pueblitos Elementary School stands along N.M. 116 surrounded by homes with little remnants of its former life as a school house.

But co-owners Keith Holtzclaw and Kelly Peebles are trying to change that — one renovation at a time.

Abigail R. Ortiz-News-Bulletin photo: The former Pueblitos Elementary School was in operation from the 1930s to the 1970s, when it became a home. The building educated students from grades first through sixth, and is now being renovated by Keith Holtzclaw and Kelly Peebles.

While restoring the school house, which was built in the 1930s, the two aim to place the home on the New Mexico historical registry while learning a bit of its history and possibly publishing this information in a book.

“It’s an ongoing project, and it will probably last until I’m gone,” Holtzclaw said.

Upon retiring, Holtzclaw, 63, planned to move to Oregon and build a house on property he owned there, but that all changed when he and his friend Peebles visited the school.

Although the school had extensive water damage from a leaky roof, holes in the attic and no heating or air conditioning systems, the pair knew they had to buy it and transform the school to resemble what it once looked like.

“The first thing that grabbed us was the look of it,” Holtzclaw said. “We both thought it looked like the Alamo.”

They placed an offer on the home in May 2007 and moved in less than three months later.

A portion of the school house contains one fully intact classroom and another partially intact classroom, while the other half has been converted from classrooms into two master bedrooms, one guest bedroom, an office, a living room, kitchen, game room and bathroom.

Abigail R. Ortiz-News-Bulletin photo: When Keith Holtzclaw and Kelly Peebles moved into the former Pueblitos Elementary School, they found this wooden correction paddle hanging from a classroom wall in the building. Although most of the home has morphed from classrooms into a living space, one classroom remains fully intact.

The 12-foot high ceiling was lowered in all but two rooms to eight feet, making way for an attic and covering part of the more than 30 long windows.

Within the five years the two have lived in the home, they’ve taken on repair projects head on.

Restorations to the old schoolhouse have been slow in coming since Holtzclaw has been focusing on his health. But now he’s in the process of placing the former schoolhouse onto the New Mexico historical registry.

For this, Holtzclaw plans to have the one classroom that’s still intact ready to be shown on tours of historical homes throughout Valencia County.

“The next step is getting that room to look more like what it would’ve looked like in the past,” he said.

After repainting the peeling turquoise walls, the pair will clear the room to restore the original wooden floors, replace the crumbling ceiling tiles and highlight the room’s past.

A blackboard lines the wall closest to the original wooden door with a white “5″ painted on it. A long, green chalkboard lines the wall parallel to the door.

A wooden correction paddle hangs on the wall from a nail, along with a pencil sharpener.

Above one of the original classroom doors is a wooden board, where a window opened by pulling on a metal chain.

They plan on placing an old wooden desk in a corner of the room beside framed student artwork and homework found underneath the home.

Once complete, Holtzclaw plans on hosting a reunion for all Pueblitos Elementary School students to learn more about the school. Holtzclaw would like to learn the school’s daily class schedule, how the classrooms were set up, listen to students’ experiences and collect pictures of what the school once looked like.

“That’s why I want to have a get-together where people can come in and tell me about their experiences, to put it in a book that maybe I can publish if I can get enough information. That’s one of my goals,” he said.

The first goal of the two men was to transform the building into a liveable home while maintaining the structure’s history.

Upon completing repairs and kicking off restorations, they began to discover hidden treasurers in nooks and crannies throughout the building.

They saw the tops of classroom chimneys on the roof, but upon further inspection, they found the chimneys had been walled in and replaced with old-fashioned brick gas heaters.

A bell in the attic buzzes, alerting students of the end of class.

Classroom numbers, with one carved in and another painted on, remain on two of the original classroom doors in the building.

A large white, porcelain sink stands perched in a hallway, where students would wash their hands before going to class.

A white 1950s school bus is parked behind the schoolhouse, near the dirt road encircling the home that buses would use to drop off students.

While working underneath the house, Peebles found graded student homework and colorful artwork, along with torn newspapers, chip bags and beverage cans.

Former students informed Holtzclaw that children would sneak underneath the building through two trap doors during their lunch break.

“They would take food down there and eat and crawl around,” he said.

Part of restoring the schoolhouse, which became a home in the 1970s, is learning about the history behind it, Holtzclaw said.

“I feel like I don’t just live in a house,” he said. “I live in a historical home or historical building, so I have a duty to keep it looking good and find out as much about it as I possibly can.”

When Holtzclaw moved in, he didn’t know much history about the building, and five years later, he still doesn’t. History or information about the schoolhouse has been scarce and hard to find, he said.

“I’m a little confused and a little surprised that there’s not more history readily available in town,” he said. “There’s none that I can find.”

The little that he does know is from 33 former student accounts he heard while grocery shopping, eating at a restaurant or by reading small snippets in books and newspapers.

“I feel this drive and I’m constantly looking for new information about it,” Holtzclaw said.

His neighbor across the street said she lives in the original Pueblitos schoolhouse built in the 1800s, which he read had burned down.

One student told him that the schoolhouse had a library, but no cafeteria, making children bring in sack lunches to school.

“Many of the people I’ve talked to say how their education was wonderful and that the teachers were dedicated,” Holtzclaw said. “They were really intense about getting homework done and excelling.”

With the schoolhouse standing on the east side of N.M. 116 since the 1930s, ghost sightings are not a surprise.

A handful of times, the pair has seen movement in the home, but think it was a passing train or something shining through the window. They dismissed these sightings until they felt a sensation.

“It’s the stuff that makes the hair on your arms go up, so it’s not just seeing something it’s your body reacting to something,” Holtzclaw said.

He has felt a presence in the room that makes his skin crawl with goose bumps.

“I’m not a big ghost believer, but I can’t deny some of the things that have happened,” he said.

When the furnace was being installed in the attic, Holtzclaw was startled as he heard six grown men run down the stairs and out of the house. The foreman later told him the men working saw a women in white standing in the corner of the room watching them work.

“He said he wasn’t sure they’d go back up,” Holtzclaw said laughing.

A number of times Holtzclaw has caught his five dogs grouped together, staring at something in the ceiling and letting out a “woof!” Other times he’s seen a misty “indescribable, irregular shape” in the corner of the room and heard knocking and thuds coming from the attic.

“One time I thought it was somebody knocking and came and stood (at the foot of the stairs to the attic) and thought, ‘Oh, it’s the cat,’ but when I opened the door, nobody was there and the cat was on top of the window,” he said.

Holtzclaw describes the presence as a friendly spirit.

“Nothing we’ve ever had happen here has been from a mean spirit,” he said. “It’s just been an inquisitive spirit.”

Although the building spans 5,000 square feet on a more than three-acre piece of property, the sightings are concentrated throughout the portion of the schoolhouse that is now transformed into a home.

But the experiences are a “fun part of the house,” Holtzclaw said.


-- Email the author at aortiz@news-bulletin.com.