The last time Ruth Katzsco saw her childhood school, it was packed atop a flatbed truck -- shabby, tattered freight due to be carted down Route 108 in the spring of 2003. She worried what fate awaited the one-room school that her parents, aunts, uncles and cousins had attended.
Katzsco will learn the answer Wednesday, when Howard County plans to celebrate the completed restoration of Pfeiffer's Corner School.
Is Katzsco eager to see how Pfeiffer's Corner looks now, with its curved gravel driveway, varnished wood paneling and two small outhouses, much as it was before? "I am," said Katzsco, 84, who attended the school from 1926 to 1933. "After all it's been talked about."
The restored building, relocated to Rockburn Branch Park, will become a historic exhibit portraying the rural origins of the county's schools.
While county officials have labored to move and renovate the 120-year-old wood-frame building, Pfeiffer's Corner School would have become just a scrapbook memory if not for a highly visible campaign by some impassioned middle-schoolers in the 1980s.
"I don't think anyone thought we could just leave and wave goodbye to it," said Lindsay McCaskill, 28, who visited the school on a seventh-grade field trip in October 1988. She remembered how the students said to each other, "We can't be the last people to see this."
That was the sad message McCaskill and 27 of her classmates heard during a historic tour of the county when they were in a social studies class at Hammond Middle School in southern Howard.
Developer Jim Newburn, who bought the property along Route 108 west of Interstate 95 to build homes there, said at first he didn't think the schoolhouse had much value. Nor did county officials.
But to the 28 middle-schoolers, Pfeiffer's Corner School was an exotic relic that embodied fanciful stories about children walking through the snow to school long ago.
"I just imagined the people who really did that," recalled Brandi Dickman Ulrich, a former Hammond student who lives in Annapolis.
The students convinced their teachers, Clara "Doby" Tordella and Patricia Greenwald, that they were serious about saving the school.
They quickly converted Newburn to their cause and began piecing together the history of the school, which the county built in 1884 to serve a German immigrant community near Elkridge. It operated as a school for 52 years, closed in 1936 and became a private residence in 1940.
The students hit up everybody they could think of for money, from banks to community groups to PTAs. They trained their increasingly assured lobbying skills on local, state and federal officials.
"They didn't realize it wasn't normal for a seventh-grader to have a U.S. senator call them during school hours," Greenwald said.
Within months, they raised $10,000, but bids to move the old schoolhouse were thousands of dollars higher. So they raised an additional $6,500 by having fellow students donate 50 cents in a "Fifty for Pfeiffer's Campaign" and with an auction of donated goods.
On May 21, 1989, the middle-schoolers gathered in front of Howard High School on Route 108, and noisily celebrated as two flatbed trucks, one carrying the schoolhouse roof, the other carrying its weathered gray body, rolled slowly past on an eight-mile trip to parkland near Clarksville. There, the school would find new life as a nature center, students and officials said.
"We let out lots of cheers. Then we kind of left, and that was it," said Ulrich, 28.
Although the students continued their lobbying the next year for government restoration money, the momentum of those heady days slackened. Months stretched into years, and still the schoolhouse sat off Route 108, draped in a blue tarp.
County officials were involved in time-consuming negotiations with the Rouse Co., the developer of Columbia, to acquire the land where the school sat for an environmental area. Then there was a recession, and the county couldn't afford to restore schoolhouses when it was laying off employees.
It's a familiar story, according to preservation advocates.
"Whether in bad economic times or good economic times, there's never enough money," said Fred Dorsey, a member of Preservation Howard County. Although he praised the diligence of the county's Recreation and Parks workers, he said: "There has not been a commitment to preservation by the upper level of Howard County government."
In 1994, parks officials decided to move the schoolhouse again, to Rockburn Branch Park, where they have planned a complex of historic buildings.
"It was an effort to speed things up," said county planner Clara L. Gouin, who added that she sympathized with the former middle-schoolers, who graduated from high school in 1994. "We have learned with other historical projects that it does take awhile."
Nine more years passed as county officials worked on details of the restoration. Many of the former middle-schoolers graduated from college, launched careers and got married. Some of Greenwald's other middle-school students continued the push for Pfeiffer's Corner, but the teacher gradually lost enthusiasm.
"I didn't want to leave the kids frustrated," said Greenwald, who has since retired.
Then, in May 2003, the schoolhouse was on the road again, getting hauled 10 miles east to Rockburn Branch Park.
The building's $442,000 makeover this year incorporates some original flooring and exterior wood siding, along with such modern amenities as air conditioning, ceiling sprinklers and accessibility ramps. But even spiffed up, it seems humble compared with its modern-day neighbor, the 85,000-square-foot, $8 million Rockburn Elementary School that houses 535 students.
The schoolhouse, however, is already a draw to some of Rockburn's fifth-graders, who are composing scripts during recess to stage inside the renovated building.
Katzsco understands their enthusiasm. She fondly remembers Pfeiffer's Corner, even though its heat came from a potbellied stove, its water came from a spring in the woods and electricity arrived only in her last years there. She's eager to see whether Wednesday's ceremony, scheduled for 10 a.m., draws any of her former classmates.
"It's been years since I've had any contact" with them, she said.