Old Miakka’s 103-year-old schoolhouse is a vestige of East County’s pioneering past. Two former pupils walk us down that dirt path.
If you head south on Verna Road, past a yawning canopy of mossy oak trees, past the dead-end of Fruitville, you’ll find yourself at the Old Miakka Schoolhouse.
This white clapboard building with its craggy screened porch, freshly burnished bell and rusty seesaw might stick out in other communities. But nestled among the pines in sleepy Old Miakka it makes perfect sense.
Like the residents of this East Sarasota settlement, the one-room schoolhouse harkens back to Florida’s oft forgotten pioneer days. At 1,700-square-foot, it is the community’s crown jewel, a testament to Old Florida’s southern grit and roots; tranquil and charming down to the wasps living in the eaves.
“When you walk in the ghosts say hey, and you say hey back,” says Becky Ayech, President of the Miakka Community Club. “The fact that it’s still standing, when everything else old in Sarasota County gets torn down exemplifies our community spirit.”
SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
The Old Miakka Schoolhouse went up like a barn raising in 1914 to accommodate the children of Miakka – or Old Miakka depending on who you talk to. Founded in 1850 by a party of cattlemen, Miakka – not to be confused with Myakka City 15 miles to the northeast –– is loosely located at the bend of County Road 780. A tightknit rural colony with no stores, no post office and no gas station; it is the oldest and least developed settlement in Sarasota County.
“Any time there’s mention of a store going in, we vehemently object to it,” says Ayech, who grew up in Indiana and moved to Miakka 40 years ago. “It’s like Green Acres out here. New people move in and spend all their time going into town, so they move away. The rest of us live here until we die.”
The school hasn’t been in session in 73 years. County officials shut it down in 1944 because there weren’t enough kids in Miakka to keep it open. The few students that lived out east were bused to Fruitville Elementary. Only two of these pupils are still alive: ranchers Tony Carlton and Callie Alderman Ballard.
The two Miakkans are neighbors – or at least neighbors on a country map – they live about two and-a-half miles apart. They don’t see each other all the time, but they keep in touch; sometimes because Ballard’s cows end up on Carlton’s land.
They remember bits and pieces about their two years together at the Old Miakka schoolhouse. They remember their old classmates, Lois Crawley, Howard Berry, Annie Bess and Charlie Conyer, who had a “little stub of a nose,” according to Carlton and died in a rabbit hunting accident when he was seven years old. They remember their mothers and aunts bringing food in to cook over a cast iron stove, and the outhouses tucked behind the building. They remember that all six grades (and all 15 students) were taught in one room.
Carlton, 83, remembers their old teacher, Helia Loudermilk; how he adored her and wrote her letters after he was transferred to Fruitville, and how she used to slip her shoes off at her desk when she sat down to teach.
Ballard, 84, remembers walking to school barefoot from her home on Lena Lane; how her mother told her to lay branches across her feet in her school picture so no one would know she wasn’t wearing shoes. “A lot of kids went without shoes,” Carlton says. “The school nurse, Miss Hazel, was always testing us for hookworm. It got into your intestinal track and you’d get this little pot belly.”
Both classmates remember their beloved principal, Jasper Crowley, a Miakka pioneer and farmer, who was also transferred to Fruitville in 1945. “He was very strict, fair and good,” Ballard recalls.
Far removed from Sarasota’s budding performing arts and circus scene, the school’s sole classroom also doubled as an entertainment venue, playing host to dances, musicals, plays and holiday concerts. Ballard, a painfully shy child, was once cast as Little Bo Peep in a school show. She remembers her Aunt Lou made her costume out of paper and she just stood there with her hands over her eyes pretending to look for lambs. “It wasn’t much of a part,” she jokes.
Carlton has an even better memory of a schoolhouse production –– an all-women’s wedding parody, in which some of the townswomen dressed as men, including one woman who got on stage with a shotgun and pretended to be the fuming father-of-the-bride. “I knew the bride,” Carlton says. “She was a large woman. She’s dead now of course.”
PRESERVING THE PAST
When the school closed in 1945, the Miakka Community Club purchased it for one dollar from what was then Manatee County. With the exception of the 130-year-old Methodist church, there are no other buildings left from the original settlement. The Crowley General Store, which doubled as a post office for decades, burned to the ground when Hurricane Irma hit in September.
“We have a couple nurseries, a farm market stand, a dairy and a blueberry farm,” Ayech says. “That’s it, and we’re fine with that.”
Ayech, who raises sheep, chicken and hogs, has run the Miakka Community Club for over 30 years. A 64-year-old former hotel manager, the schoolhouse is her baby. She’s organized and laminated the minutes from every community club meeting dating back from 1975. She stores the records in an antique refrigerator sitting in the back of the schoolhouse.
“You use what you have,” Ayech says of the makeshift filing cabinet. “Unfortunately this means I save a lot of crap.”
Ayech spearheads the town’s popular Fall Hootenanny every October. An all-day fundraiser on the schoolhouse grounds, the hootenanny features live music, kids activities, 4-H cloggers, food and craft vendors and civil war re-enactments. Although admission is free, the event still brings in about $5,000 to $6,000 a year. For five dollars, attendees can burn or carve their initials into one of the old desks. “A lot of people wanted to do that when they were in school,” Ayech says, “But they were probably too good to break the rules.”
The club has used Hootenanny funds to repair and refurbish a laundry list of things at the school, including the roof, school bell, ceiling fans, windows and electricity.
It has yet to install restrooms or running water in the building.
“We used to let the 4-H club meet here,” Ayech says. “But the acoustics were terrible. The parents didn’t stop talking.”
She wonders out loud how in the school’s heyday, one teacher was able to keep six grades quiet in one room. “I was told you could hear a pin drop,” Ayech says. “It goes to show you that in those days you sat in your chair and didn’t talk out of turn.”