Bluffton’s last one-room schoolhouse has more than chalk dust in its background. The Barrel Landing School, standing alongside Hwy. 170 near the intersection with Hwy. 278, has sheltered many different activities since it was built.
Former Beaufort County Councilwoman Dot Gnann recalled the time she spent at the little building. “It was a very active community center – there were various activities” during her teen years, in the 1940s, Gnann said. “The county was very small then and if you needed something and the place was available to use, you could have it. It was open to the children at night for dances.”
Gnann said the building also was used in World War II as a sewing room, and later as a political stump headquarters and a polling place.
The original pre-Civil War structure burned down in the late 1880s and was rebuilt. County lore has that is was again damaged by fire and by a hurricane in subsequent years, but whether those tales are true or not, it continued to house young students.
When Bluffton built a central school in 1919, students no longer traveled by hoof or horse to the little school, and the nearby community turned the structure into whatever was needed when they needed it.
Gnann said when the county was still young, the area was busy with Okatie farmers shipping goods in barrels from a landing on what is now Harbor River.
“The real Barrel Landing was down the road a bit and that is where we packed products to be shipped to Savannah and Beaufort. I remember things being shipped like beans, farm products,” recalled Gnann.
More than 20 years ago, Del Webb, the original Sun City Hilton Head developer, bought nearly 6,000 acres that included the little building. According to former Del Webb executive Glen McCaskey, it was part of a permitting agreement with the county that the corporation promised to move the schoolhouse to a safe place in Okatie. That’s how it ended up in its current location.
As the community built up and residents moved in, the Del Webb staff created the Barrel Landing Club to honor the first 100 residents.
“It’s a designation that we hang on to,” said club member Ann Lau. “In the early days, the sales staff was sitting around talking about how to promote Sun City. They said, ‘Let’s honor the first 100 buyers and give them all a plaque.’ About every five or 10 years we get together and celebrate our good luck and good judgment in coming here.”
Lau said club members recently had an opportunity to see the inside of their namesake school for the first time when its new owner invited them to lunch.
Financial advisor Bill Sauter bought the building in 2012 from Pulte, current developer of Sun City Hilton Head, and refurbished it in 2014. It now serves as Sauter’s office, a branch of Edward Jones.
“Bill Sauter greeted us and had a lunch for us,” Lau said of the visit. “He told us about the history of the school and the building, and we had a fine time.”
The tiny structure is one of at least three other one-room schoolhouses in the county. Smaller than most single-car garages, the old building was in need of attention when Sauter bought it.
“It was listing toward the street,” he said. Renovating it as well as adding on an addition behind the school “has been a labor of love.”
Though it is called a “one-room schoolhouse,” it really had two rooms, said Sauter. An overhead beam marked where a much smaller back room had been, possibly serving as a cloak room.
The narrow planks in the ceiling are the original boards, stretching from one end of the room to the other, reinforced with a new beam to support the aging timbers.
There were other changes made in addition to strengthening the structural integrity.
At some point, the floors had been painted gray. “Back in the 1880s, if you didn’t have to paint something, you wouldn’t,” Sauter said, “so we had that stripped off down to the original wood.” The wood knots and wormholes are clearly visible.
On another part of the floor, Sauter said, a couple of patches were replaced where ashes from a pot-bellied stove had repeatedly fallen.
“The only other thing besides the floors that we touched was the windows. We replaced the single pane windows with double pane windows but we kept the frames,” Sauter said.
While there are no longer wooden desks or school benches facing the teacher’s desk, the schoolhouse continues to serve as an example of the county’s early days, something Sauter has wanted to share since buying the building.
“With enough advanced notice, we’d be happy to entertain field trips of young students to talk about early education,” he said. “There were probably 6-year-olds in here along with 15-year-olds working on their own instruction and sitting on their benches or at their own desks.”