Vale Schoolhouse, Center of Community

Vale Schoolhouse, Center of Community

The Oakton building continues to serve the community after over a hundred years.

For Maryan Smith II, her memories of growing up in Oakton are forever tied to the Vale Schoolhouse. Known by many as "the Community House," it was at the Vale Schoolhouse that Smith gave her first speech, attended 4-H meetings, and had her first crush.

Now that she's older and this year's president of the Friends of the Vale Schoolhouse, she and the members of the Friends group want to preserve the Schoolhouse so that their children may have similar memories.

"We are one of the few areas in Northern Virginia that is really a community," said Smith. "Because of this building and this group, we have a sense of community that others don't have."

As the Schoolhouse celebrates its 115th anniversary in Oakton, community members intent on seeing it through another 115 years have been busy renovating the structure to make it more sound. By strengthening the building and bringing more members into the Vale community group, they also hope to pass along the sense of civic heritage to their children.

"I think they've done well. They've tried to go back and research and find out the original color," said longtime resident Wilma Rosch on the recent renovations.

In its 115-year history, the schoolhouse has seen hundreds of children and their families pass through its wooden doors. Throughout the whole period, from when ladies met for sewing circles to today's wine-tasting groups, area residents have remained intent on preserving the structure for future generations.

Opened in 1888, the Vale schoolhouse served children throughout the Oakton area until its closing in the 1920s.

While many of the remaining students no longer live in the area, a few still remain nearby. Rosch, whose maiden name is Fox (for which Fox Mill Road is named), recalled walking about a mile to the schoolhouse for half of first grade, until she moved with other students to Fairfax Elementary.

"There weren't a whole lot of students," Rosch, 79, said.

While memories were hazy, Rosch recalled a two-room schoolhouse with a stage and long tables. When they did math exercises, they used colored corn and bingo cards.

One time, the teacher made Rosch say "yellow" instead of "yaller," but Rosch couldn't do it. Upset at the teacher, Rosch stomped her foot.

The teacher sent Rosch to stand at the corner as punishment.

When the school closed in the 1920s, 12 women purchased the building, and the schoolhouse became home to the Vale Home Demonstration Club. The purpose of the club was to instruct home economics to the rural locals. At the club, members learned sewing, upholstery, canning and cooking, among other activities.

Smith's mother, Maryan Smith Sr., moved to Oakton in 1944 as a young bride. A native Washingtonian, she came into the area when it still had dirt roads and no electricity or running water.

The elder Smith was grateful for the home demonstration club, where she learned about budgeting, freezing and canning peaches and sewing garments and curtains from feed sacks.

"This was the central nervous system of this community," the elder Smith said of the schoolhouse building.

But the Vale Schoolhouse was not only home to the Home Demonstration Club but also the site for many community gatherings.

The Home Demonstration Club sponsored many of the gatherings, which included old-fashioned country fairs, where judges picked the best canned vegetables or quilts, and Christmas parties.

"I just remember that being a special time," said Rosch, recalling that her mother was very active in the club and that they would host meetings in their home.

The ice cream socials drew people from all over, including Vienna. Rosch liked the socials because she could play with the neighborhood children.

"That was the main entertainment of the community. ... That's how we got the community together," Rosch said.

On Labor Day, citizens celebrated the end of summer and the start of the school year with a community-wide picnic. They had contests for pie eating and hoop rolling. One competition asked the local men to roll up their pants to see who had the nicest looking legs. Another contest had men bidding for lunch and the person who made it.

"We polled the neighborhood for their talents, to see what their interests were," said Smith Sr.

Smith Sr.'s daughter also remembered the Labor Day festivities as the time to meet one's neighbors. Those celebrations, as well as the Halloween and Christmas parties and the square dancing, brought the community together.

"It was practically that people were coming out of their fields and bringing out their picnic baskets," said the younger Smith.

The Home Demonstration Club continued to meet monthly throughout the years, even as Oakton was changing from a rural landscape to a suburban one in the 1960s.

As the neighborhood was morphing, so did the club's name and activities. Many new members coming into the club were stay-at-home mothers temporarily out of the work force. The club changed its name to Friends of the Vale Schoolhouse and became a nonprofit in 2000. While the group's meetings still discussed topics like flower arranging, members expanded their scope to include health issues and current events. Several years ago, they invited a local astronaut to come in and talk about his adventures. Members also began hosting book clubs, gourmet cooking groups and yoga and tai chi sessions.

"It's a remarkable group of women," said the younger Smith. "Everyone here is so dedicated."

The country fairs continued, except now they include moon bounces and pony rides. A Neighbor Day held earlier this September was host to some contra dancing inside the Schoolhouse.

They also began renovating the building, which had been repaired hodgepodge throughout the years. They replaced the window shutters and some of the glass on the windows, repaired the silt beam, excavated the crawl space, and painted the interior walls. They also changed the roof's color from red to silver, which was the original color.

"It was about making sure everything was structurally sound," said the younger Smith. "Our goal was to be historically correct, but also functional."

Now that the building is more sound, the group wants to create a more permanent performing space in the back of the Schoolhouse. They hope that all this work will preserve the Schoolhouse for future generations, as well as serve as a model for their children on the importance of civic duty.

"I think it sets a really great example of citizenship and community, and I'd like to think we're [setting that example] for the kids now."