From a Class of One to 640
Remembering the one-room Popkins School
by Bonnie L. Branim
After greeting my older brothers when they came home from Popkins School, I could hardly wait to start kindergarten. The red brick one-room elementary school was on the corner of Plymouth and Earhart roads in Ann Arbor Township. (This was before US-23 was built.)
I began my school career in 1951, the lone kindergartner. My brothers and I walked up Plymouth Rd., carrying our lunches.
Popkins School was built in 1870 at a cost of $1,498.95. Named for the neighboring Popkins family on Earhart, it replaced a wooden building that dated back to 1824, when Plymouth Rd. was still called North Trail. When the new school opened, the old one was used as a barn by the Bolgos family. When I was young, my aunt Alma's family ran the Bolgos Dairy on the same property. In the spring, we would tap the maple trees in their woodlot.
The first teacher in the new school was paid $40 a year. In 1871, she taught four months of "winter school" and four months of "summer school."
During WWI the school hosted war bond drives. A furnace and flagpole were added in 1918, followed by inside bathrooms in 1921. An enclosed entryway was built in the 1930s; when I was in school, we hung our coats and left our boots there. It was cold enough in the entryway that the Bolgos Dairy left small milk cartons there to accompany our lunch.
Thirty student desks filled the middle of the small schoolroom, with the teacher's desk next to the wall. A chalkboard was mounted on the narrow south wall, and on the north wall was a small room with a shelf to set our lunch pails. Beneath the three long vertical windows on the east side was a long cupboard full of books. I remember several thick volumes of L. Frank Baum's Oz books. We took turns ringing the bell on the roof with a long rope.
Though new families continued to move into the area,
their children were never my age. All the way through sixth grade, I was the only student in my class. The kids in the older grades would help teach the younger ones.
Mrs. Muncy was our teacher for my first few grades. She said there was no reason why I would have to change from being left-handed, and she didn't make me write with my hand above the paper, either. My family once visited her family in Detroit. When her sister came to see the school, Mrs. Muncy wanted to show her how well I could read in the first grade. I didn't know when she wanted me to stop, so I just read her the entire book. (She must have been bored.)
Mrs. Cobb was our traveling music teacher from the U-M. We would go to Hill Auditorium every year to the all-school music festival. I was chosen one year to present Mrs. Cobb with a huge bundle of roses on stage. Before I walked out there in front of hundreds of children from all over the county, someone told me, "You won't have to say a word. Just hand the flowers to her." But as I stood next to the beautiful music teacher, the announcer stuck the microphone in my face and asked, "Is there anything you would like to say?" I said "No," handed the flowers to Mrs. Cobb, and left the huge stage.
At recess, we played many running games to expend some energy. A favorite was "Annie I Over," throwing a ball over the tall white woodshed. The shed hadn't been used since the oil furnace was put in, and my father had the idea to cut it in half and move part of it up against the school to protect the school bus from our long freezing Michigan winters. On snowy days, we would go sledding across the road.
I was president of our student council (there wasn't much competition). I also won the spelling bee (again, not much competition), and was the captain of our baseball team when we played other schools.
Aunt Alma stopped in one day at school. A former teacher at Popkins, she picked me up to take me to the huge auction held when the Bolgos Dairy closed. Today, the farm's Plymouth Rd. frontage is shared by Cleary University, Big Boy, and the Red Roof Inn. Our little school district was annexed to the Ann Arbor Public Schools in 1956. It was quite a shock for me to leave thirty children at Popkins country school and ride the bus into town to attend Tappan Junior High. There were several hundred students there, and it took me quite a frustrating while to find where all of my classes were located. I would go on to graduate from Ann Arbor High School (now Pioneer High) in 1962. It was a whopping big class of 640. So I went from being the only student in my class to just one of 640.
The little red brick schoolhouse is still standing on the corner, but the last time I looked in the windows there was a tree growing up through the dirt floor. And of course there were no children outside at recess, running, laughing, yelling, and playing "Annie I Over."
MAV Development looked at restoring the school during planning for the Earhart Corporate Center at Plymouth and US-23 but sold the property to the Kojaian Companies before any work was done. According to Jones Lang LaSalle broker Neal Warling, Kojaian stabilized the building with an interior steel frame, but "it was going to be so expensive to build out that the Kojaians just didn't want to bother with it."
Popkins School was sold early last year to a real estate investment trust as a more-or-less forgotten adjunct to the office building. "So it's now owned by a big REIT, which was just acquired by a larger REIT," Warling says. "I have the keys, and I'd be glad to open it up. I think if the right artist came along [who wanted to buy the school as a studio], they'd probably be willing to spin it off."
[Originally published in January, 2014.]