Alysa Hawkins was browsing real estate ads on Kijiji when one offbeat listing sparked her curiosity. For sale: South Marysburgh Central Public School, $256,000.
Ms. Hawkins and her husband, Jesse Parker, had never talked about buying a decommissioned school before. They had been ruminating for years, however, about leaving Toronto for a more free-spirited life in the country with their three young daughters.
The school, located in the 19th-century hamlet of Milford in pastoral Prince Edward County, had been shuttered in 2011 because of low enrolment.
But this was not the sort of Victorian one-room schoolhouse that city dwellers have been turning into charming country homes for years.
The red-brick institution was built in 1960 in the typical style of the era: A 10,600-square-foot building with a flat roof, coloured panels below the windows and rows of classrooms with cinder block walls. It sits on a gentle rise, surrounded by eight acres of land, including a baseball diamond and a playing field.
The couple had already visited the area to see an “executive’ home with all of the modern conveniences when Ms. Hawkins spotted the ad for the school. They showed the two listings to their friends and asked which one they should buy.
“They all said ‘go for the school,’ ” Ms. Hawkins says.
Of course, their friends know them well, they acknowledge with good humour. They agree they have a history of making unconventional life choices.
Once they bought a large sailboat, despite never having sailed before. After a few lessons, they navigated from Toronto to the Bahamas.
On their return from that adventure, they needed a house, so they bought one at a silent auction. Once inside, they discovered it had been used as a crack den.
With those experiences under their belts, retrofitting a school didn’t seem so daunting. They bargained the price down to $190,000, sold their house in Toronto and ended up with enough left over to fund the renovation. In 2013 they packed up a rented trailer and moved to Prince Edward County.
Figuring out how to make a living would come later.
First they had to make the school livable. They arrived to find homework assignments still pinned to classroom walls, abandoned skipping ropes and a box of trophies from the 1970s. They dealt with the alarming brown sludge bubbling out of the plumbing in the boys’ bathroom and scoured every surface multiple times.
“The building was in dire straits,” Mr. Parker says.
To keep friends and family updated on their progress, Ms. Hawkins launched a blog called Letters from the Lunchroom.
“We didn’t move here to get rich. We moved here to get living,” she wrote in an early post.
They often put down their tools to explore the county, which is about two hours east of Toronto and juts out into Lake Ontario.
They hiked wooded trails with the dogs and took picnics to the rolling dunes of Sandbanks Provincial Park until they discovered the hidden cobblestone beaches that only locals know.
“It’s enormous and it has an enormous coastline,” Mr. Parker says of the surprisingly large area.
They also hosted a non-stop stream of curious visitors from the city. Prince Edward County’s rolling landscape of dairy farms and vineyards has given rise to a thriving tourism scene that offers farm-to-table dining, artisanal cheese makers and cycling tours of the wineries.
About mid-September, they realized they’d better get to work on getting the heating system up and running.
In the last year of its operation, the heating oil bill for the school was $38,000 and the electricity was another $10,000. They needed a better system.
Mr. Parker had already ordered a pellet-fired boiler from China and planned to use it to generate under-floor heating but they found installing the piping more complicated than they expected. They also weren’t entirely sure the heat would radiate through the school’s thick concrete floors.
In the meantime, the family survived by living and sleeping in two rooms. They managed to rig up the plumbing for hot showers in the boys’ bathroom but the air was icy.
Mr. Parker’s fallback – reverting to the school’s old oil-fired boiler and electric heaters in the classrooms – proved to be unworkable.
“It became obvious that the main heater would never go back on,” he says. “That was our lowest point.”
After much searching he found a plumber who was willing to make the drive to the south-east corner of the county to help him get the new system running. Loads of insulation and 60 new windows were in place. Suddenly everything came together and they were all blissfully warm.
Soon the girls were riding their scooters and roller skating down the corridor, Ms. Hawkins says. Walls were brightened with fresh white paint and new closets were built in all the rooms.
They bought a showroom kitchen from an ad on Kijiji and turned the former gym into a great room with the added perk of a stage for musical and theatrical performances.
Reya, Wini and Ruby each have a full-sized classroom for a bedroom. The former kindergarteners’ area has been repurposed as a mud room and the staff lounge has been turned into a guest kitchen.
By the summer of 2014 the place was so transformed that neighbours with a bed and breakfast suggested they start one of their own. Local businesses had more visitors than they could accommodate.
“The community was great – they would send their excess.”
The school’s layout turned out to be ideal. Their B&B, called South in Milford, now has three suites open to guests in the summer months.
Two classrooms each have ensuite bathrooms, kitchenettes, sitting areas and doors to the outside. A massive two-bedroom suite combines the former library and offices.
Many inns in the county won’t accept guests with children or dogs, Ms. Hawkins says, so they accept families with both.
Another novel enterprise was the launch of the annual Old School Bluegrass Camp with their musician friend Jenny Whiteley. Teachers and students camp on the school grounds and gather together for workshops, performances, and bonfires.
“The stage is perfect. We have concerts every night,” Ms. Hawkins says.
They did have some resistance from some members of the community, says Mr. Parker, because some were concerned about the impact from crowds of musicians descending on the quiet town. But they limit attendance and make sure not to play too long into the night.
Local politicians have worked to smooth things over, they say, because the officials are aware that small communities need to stem the flow of people out of rural areas.
The “creative rural economy policy” strives to loosen up regulations that prevent entrepreneurs and artists from making a living.
People in the area also knew that a sister school in another part of the county had also closed due to low enrolment. No buyer stepped forward and the building fell into such a state of disrepair, it is now beyond saving, Mr. Parker says. Milford residents were relieved that the couple wanted to save South Marysburgh school from a similar fate.
“People are happy that we bought the school,” Ms. Hawkins says. “We had incredible community support.”
The couple also enjoys reducing the family’s environmental footprint and living in a more sustainable way. Their cost of living is lower and they figure they can find inventive ways to augment their income.
“The economy out here is just what you make of it,” Mr. Parker says.
Ms. Hawkins finds she has more free time to volunteer at the school and learn new skills, such as painting and cheese making. Mr. Parker has built a skating rink right outside the back door and this winter’s project is to finish turning the former boys’ bathroom into a new family bathroom with a huge tub for the girls.
They still have a long list of things to accomplish, including keeping bees and brewing beer. They already raise chickens and Ms. Hawkins is thinking about selling eggs this summer. Maybe they’ll get some sheep.
Ms. Hawkins has offered their land to a local group that plants butterfly-friendly gardens around the area in a bid to protect the vanishing habitat of the Monarch.
The parents also enjoy seeing how resourceful the girls are becoming.
Last summer, for example, all five of them planted seeds for growing organic corn. When the corn was ripe, the girls earned their own money for new tablets by selling it at a roadside table.
“We want to grow as much food as we can,” Ms. Hawkins said.
They have already planted 1,000 trees and aim to plant many more.
“We are treeing the land just as quickly as I can possibly do it,” Mr. Parker says.
As for family life, the move has meant leaving their leafy street near High Park and they all miss their friends. But on the upside, they can invite groups of their city friends to visit at the same time, Ms. Hawkins says.
“We can have multifamily weekends – and there’s enough room for everybody.”