BROWNINGTON — A hilltop village near the Canadian border grew to more than double its usual population of about 900 on Monday as people lined up to see dozens of oxen move an old schoolhouse back to its original location.
The goal of the re-enactment was to move the Orleans County Grammar School, which in recent decades has served as a Grange hall, about a third of a mile back to the center of the small hilltop campus where early 19th-century scholar and legislator Alexander Twilight opened it in 1823 and was its schoolmaster. The school had been moved in 1869 to the town's population center.
While many onlookers found the parade of 44 oxen impressive, it turned out the oxen didn't actually provide the power to get the 105-ton timber-frame school building up the hill. That power was supplied by the engine on the back of a barge-like rolling platform that filled both lanes of the narrow country road.
"We were going to let the oxen take it if they could and help them out if they needed it," said Peggy Day Gibson, director of the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington. "So we're doing this for show, and we're doing it for fun, and we're doing it to get the community involved."
The impetus for the move came two years ago, when the town was told it could no longer get insurance for a building without indoor plumbing or a modern heating system. Residents voted to offer the building to the Orleans County Historical Society, which oversees the Brownington historic district.
The town's central historical figure is Twilight, said to be the first African-American to graduate from an American college or university, getting a degree from Vermont's Middlebury College.
The oxen pulling the 30-by-40-foot white clapboard-sided schoolhouse surely gave the event a 19th-century feel, but there were some more modern aspects as well. Aside from the engine pushing the schoolhouse up the hill, there were the utility crews who showed up to lower power lines and communications cables so the 34-foot-high building could have clearance.
The event appeared better attended than organizers hoped.
"We should be selling T-shirts," said Brownington resident Dawn Perry, who suggested the shirts might say, "I was there for the second moving of the schoolhouse."
Caught up in the might-have-been entrepreneurial spirit, her husband, Everett "Sonny" Perry, surveyed the crowd and replied, "Too bad I wasn't ready for our yard sale. That would have been good."
The schoolhouse was placed next to a newly built foundation and will be slid onto that later this week. The foundation will be fronted with slabs of granite, to give it a more historically accurate appearance.
The building is "solid as a rock," said Bob Hunt, education director for the museum. Once in place, he said, "it should be good for another 200 years."