After fire, Little Red Schoolhouse goes up for auction

The Little Red Schoolhouse in Conewago Township, Adams County, Thursday, May 31, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

When customers came to the Little Red Schoolhouse Restaurant, it was for more than just a bite.

"It was a gathering place," owner Joyce McMaster said.

Grandparents would meet up with grandchildren, people would recognize relatives in photos on the wall from the establishment's schoolhouse days, pairs would play checkers on the glass-top checkerboard tables, or some would simply sit at the counter watching McMaster and her relatives cook hometown favorites.

"It had a spirit to it," McMaster said, "and I’m hoping someone else can see that in it and bring it back."

The inside of the restaurant was destroyed in an electrical fire March 1, but the structure is sound — and it has a lot of surviving history. The building will be up for auction through Thomasville Country Auction on Saturday, June 9.

Two outhouses still sit on the back lawn. The building has the original slate roof, bell tower, blackboard and old wooden floors. 

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An outhouse near The Little Red Schoolhouse in Conewago Township, Adams County, Thursday, May 31, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"Small children would ring the bell, and they didn't understand why we had the bell," said McMaster, who would tell them it was to signal it was time for recess.

That's the history she hopes can continue.

History: The property is located in Brushtown, a community in Conewago Township, Adams County, about four miles from Hanover.

It was likely farmland originally, McMaster and auctioneer Sheryl Hooks said.

Jacob and Mary Hostetter sold it in 1866 to Peter and Eliza Eyster before it landed in the hands of Conewago School District in 1884 for a sum of $148.75 — "quite a deal for a piece of property," McMaster noted.

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That same year, the district built a one-room schoolhouse on the property, calling it Locust Grove after a grove of locust trees growing there, some of which remain.

The schoolhouse held all 12 grades, which is "quite amazing when you think of what education is now," McMaster said.

McMaster, 73, started in a one-room schoolhouse herself.

She remembers walking to the Nace schoolhouse, south of Hanover near the Sheppard-Myers Dam, in first grade before it and five area one-rooms combined to form a school in the new South Western School District.

Her school had 18 students, with the younger ones sitting in the front and the sixth-graders in the back.

"We were afraid of older boys," she recalls.

They recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in front of an American flag displayed above the blackboard and a photograph of George Washington — a photo also present at the Little Red Schoolhouse to preserve one-room traditions.

Now living in Penn Township, McMaster said she is still within the South Western School District, so she's back to her roots.

Joyce McMaster, current owner of The Little Red Schoolhouse Restaurant in Conewago Township, Adams County, talks about her class picture from her only year attending a one room schoolhouse, at her home in Penn Township, Thursday, May 31, 2018. McMaster is not in the picture because her mother kept her home from school on picture day because she was sick. The Little Red Schoolhouse will be available for sale at auction June 9. Dawn J. Sagert photo

From learning to eating: After the school closed in 1947, it was purchased in 1969 by two women named Dot and Deede, according to a restaurant menu, and the women turned it into a roadside deli and candy store.

By 1989, it had made its way to yet another owner, Sharon Kerchner — the first to make it a restaurant.

As a kid, Kerchner had washed dishes at the restaurant her parents had owned, and she wanted to bring the same family recipes she learned from her mother, Hooks said.

McMaster said Kerchner was "quite accomplished," landing the Little Red Schoolhouse Restaurant in national news, including The New York Times, for qualities she said were unique — down-home foods, home fries in cast iron pans and an open kitchen area where customers could watch the cooking process.

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Kerchner died in 2012, and McMaster and her family took over in 2013, according to Hooks.

But they continued with many of Kerchner's traditions, McMaster said, including local specialties such as scrapple and certain kinds of puddings, as well as homemade foods.

"We served 200/250 pounds of potatoes a week, and we sliced them and fried them all there," she said.

And with those, they added new recipes — eggs Benedict, different styles of French toast, shrimp and grits, red velvet and pumpkin pancakes — and a handicapped ramp to make the restaurant more accessible.

"You want to always keep it interesting," she said of the dishes.

McMaster also said she started teaching pie-making at the restaurant because it was in a schoolhouse, so why not learn?

Joyce McMaster, current owner of The Little Red Schoolhouse Restaurant in Conewago Township, Adams County, shares photos and clippings about the structure from past years at her home in Penn Township, Thursday, May 31, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

In her blood: Starting the restaurant venture was not too far of a reach for McMaster, who formerly owned the Penn Villa restaurant — now The Landing — in Penn Township.

"Once it’s in your blood, you can’t let it go," she said.

A retired nurse, McMaster drove by the schoolhouse one day and realized she wanted to keep the restaurant tradition alive, so she and her granddaughter, Erin Nell, who enjoyed being customers at Kerchner's restaurant, decided to go into business together.

"It was an undertaking we believed in," McMaster said, adding that she wanted to preserve the schoolhouse.

It soon became a family affair, with Nell's brother, Alex, and other family members helping with cooking and day-to-day operations.

"People enjoyed seeing us working as a family," McMaster said, calling the customers appreciative of the sense of community the family atmosphere created.

The Little Red Schoolhouse in Conewago Township, Adams County, Thursday, May 31, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Going once, going twice: Now up for auction, the schoolhouse awaits its next venture, but McMaster hopes the next owner will continue to preserve the history.

She said she would have kept the restaurant going if not for the fire. She and her family were overcome by the prospect of rebuilding it, but she feels the possibility is there for someone else.

"Hopefully someone will feel the same way that Sharon did, and we did," she said. "It was quite an adventure."

The property, at 5705 Hanover Road, will be up for auction at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 9. 

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It will be sold "as is," with no inspection by owner, but some restaurant equipment — such as a grill and deep fryer — are included.

Hooks said it's "not an absolute auction," meaning McMaster will have final approval on the sale.

The buyer must pay 10 percent of the selling price within 30 days.

The auction will take place at the property, and doors will open at 8:30 a.m.

Editor's note: This story has been changed to show that the auction will take place at the property.