Saving the Claymont Stone School
Maris Grove resident fought demolition of local historyBy Heather Leah Huddleston
Buildings sit silent on land. They can’t speak, they can’t feel, and yet sometimes we wish they could—so much life, so much history happens within them. History that, unless someone stands up to speak for and honor it, will be lost.
Carolyn Burlew didn’t want the history of the Claymont Stone School to disappear within its demolished walls—after all, she believes in history and that it’s the people’s responsibility to preserve it—so she did something about it.
A community’s history
Burlew is the executive director at the Claymont Stone School in Claymont, Del. Originally a one-room schoolhouse built in 1805, it has since been added on to in 1905 and then renovated in 2005. But in 1995, when Burlew first saw that it was being scheduled for demolition, she began the campaign to save it.
Located in the Brandywine School District, just ten miles from Maris Grove, an Erickson Living community in Glen Mills, Pa., where Burlew lives, the building—and the land surrounding it—is rich in history. It was the first integrated school in Delaware when Willy Wilson, an African-American boy thought to be from a surrounding farm, attended the schoolhouse in 1895. The land itself was donated by John Dickinson, who signed the Constitution for Delaware, and Felix Darley’s house (the father of illustration) is on the corner next to the school.
But just because something is rich in history doesn’t mean it can survive unattended. When Burlew found it again in 1995, the Stone School was “structurally unsound” and unsafe for anyone to even walk into it. “Vandals had broken in and even stolen parts of the beams that keep the building up,” Burlew says.
True, it was deemed a historical building by the National Register of Historic Places and the Heritage Commission of Delaware, but the building was, in fact, dying. So Burlew worked tirelessly to get the community involved. She wrote letters to government officials, including then-senator Joe Biden, who had attended the Archmere Academy, located across the street from the school, and got his “right-hand man” Tom Lewis involved. Burlew also had contractors assess the building.
Eventually, three women—Burlew, Donna Carter Lewis, and Ruth Govatos—sat around Lewis’s kitchen table with a purpose. “We knew we wanted to do something,” Burlew says, “and when the three of us got together, we were launched.”
With people’s renewed interest in the Stone School, they were breathing life back into the building. They raised money and slowly the school was rebuilt; in 2005, it was a functioning community center.
While it may take a village to resurrect a building, it takes just one person to save it.
Coming full circle
Burlew’s mother reminded her of an important event when Burlew was in elementary school. She was supposed to attend the Stone School, but for some reason, they didn’t have kindergarten that year. So Burlew ended up attending Claymont High School from kindergarten through graduation. One day, her mother told her to start walking back from the high school and she would pick her up along the way. When Burlew arrived at the corner where the Claymont Stone School was, her mother pulled up across the street and motioned for her to cross Philadelphia Pike. At the time there was no traffic light, so Burlew looked both ways, saw it was clear, and started crossing. In that moment, a motorcycle came racing around the corner and almost hit her.
Years later, when Burlew told her mother about her project to save the Stone School, her mother remembered the bike incident, saying, “Since you were saved in front of the Stone School, you were destined to help renovate it.”
It’s important for a community to know its history in order for it to have a future. And though the Claymont Stone School’s main focus is education, it also serves as a community center where people can gather for meetings, parties, and celebrations of every kind. The Girl Scouts and DAR meet there regularly. Every year, the school houses the summer history camp as well as the annual gingerbread house contest. “It’s important to keep the building active,” Burlew says.
One of the reasons Burlew chose to move to Maris Grove was because of its proximity to the Claymont Stone School. She didn’t want to give up one community to create another; she wanted her roots to expand rather than shrink. And that’s exactly what’s happening. By honoring her past—and the past of a nation—she is, in fact, enriching her future.