Jerry has a theory that some of the schoolhouse’s original craftsmen were French Canadian. When he was taking off the casings around the woodstove to restore them, he noticed that they were marked allez-gauche and allez-droite. “I was glad that I speak enough French to know which was left and which was right when I went to replace the casings!” said Jerry.

Jerry Johnson converted a historic schoolhouse into a fine home and finds inspiration in his Northeast Kingdom surroundings.

Most of us can remember days spent sitting in school and writing poetry when we were young, but for Jerry Johnson, writing poetry is still part of his everyday routine! Jerry is a poet in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, and his books are filled with the sense of nature seen outside his window and in the community around him. It is appropriate in a way that his home is one of the state’s old schoolhouses that was once filled with local students, all writing away.

Jerry first encountered the schoolhouse in 1970, when his parents bought the neighboring farm. Jerry asked the seller, “Does that old schoolhouse go with the farm?” When the answer was “no” he replied, “Boy, I’d love to get my hands on that someday!” Thirteen years later, the owner of the schoolhouse was ready to part with it and had remembered Jerry’s fondness for the historic, deserted building. Before long, Jerry owned the schoolhouse and was drawing up plans to turn it into the home he had been imagining.

When Jerry got to the keys to his new (but old) schoolhouse, it had been boarded up and vacant for more than 30 years. The town didn’t have any records on when the school was built, but after asking around, Jerry was able to determine that the first teacher in the school (in the late 1920s) was Dorothy Mae Bovat-King and that the last teacher was Erdine Gonyaw, who taught there in the 1950s. Jerry’s interest in the history of the building was both personal and practical; he wanted to feel a connection to the people and to the schoolhouse’s past in order to honor them with the building’s preservation.

Right away, Jerry knew that he wanted to adapt the layout of the schoolhouse into that of a comfortable vacation home. At the time, Jerry was a professor at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. With degrees in both civil engineering and structural design, he was pretty sure that he could conquer most of the design and construction of the restoration himself. He started the process by creating a series of thorough architectural drawings, focusing on the details of the building’s aesthetics and measurements. Jerry used the drawings to place the bedrooms, kitchen, and even the electrical wiring, so that he could envision what the final product of his efforts would be. From those drawings, he set to work. “As I started the restoration, I was able to figure it out,” Jerry says. “I was lucky that there weren’t many surprises. I focused on one project at a time and that kept me from feeling overwhelmed.”

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Story by Jordan Werner, Vermont Magazine
Photos by Carolyn Bates