Friday, August 19, 2022

Abandoned history: the story of the Brick Bat School and the family who lived there

The Brick Bat School, located next to the driveway to Mallardee Farm, was originally built in 1885 and was abandoned sometime in the 30s or 40s. (WYDaily/Photo by Gabrielle Rente)

JAMES CITY COUNTY — Anyone who has lived on or travelled along Brick Bat Road probably knows about the abandoned building standing beside the road. It’s visible only during the winter months when the trees’ foliage has fallen and can no longer conceal the rotting wood and splintered planks.

The abandoned edifice is a one story, front gable, central passage building with a cupolaed bell tower and a pyramidal roof. The windows are long gone, the doors were taken off their hinges, and the walls are full of holes. A tree some years ago fell on the crippled building, taking out its entire back wall and exposing the insides to the elements.

It’s creepy and fascinating, and it’s called Brick Bat School.

Or Brick Bat Church, depending on who you ask.

Mallardee Farm sits right next to the foreboding structure on over 50 acres of land. Kelly Supplee, the farm’s owner, said that many cars are usually found parked along the road by Brick Bat Church; vehicles belonging to explorers fascinated by the abandoned.

“People are always poking around there to take photos and check out the insides,” she said. “But you have to be careful because there are broken bits everywhere.”

A tree took out the back wall of the school house some years ago, exposing the insides to the elements. (WYDaily/Photo by Gabrielle Rente)

According to a 2008 historical structures survey conducted by Stephen Del Sordo, Preservation Planner MAAR Associates, Brick Bat Church dates back to 1885. “It is thought that the Brick Bat School once served as a school for black children. The building is in a deteriorated conditions, however, it is one of two or three one-room schools that remain standing in the county.”

And the last part of that statement is definitely true. There are only a handful of one-room school houses left in James City County. Some, like the Five Forks School, were converted to fit the needs of modern society. However, others, like the Peach Park School, are now barely eligible to be called a pile of rubble.

Once upon a very long time ago, Brick Bat School was probably a school house for African-American children.

According to research done by Fred Boelt, a member of the James City County Historical Commission, a neighborhood that was once known as Jerusalem within the African-American community lived along Brick Bat Rd.

Within that community was the congregation of the Jerusalem Baptist Church, which, at some undetermined time, began using the Brick Bat School for a place of worship, and it was there that a formal church was established.

Inside the bell tower of Brick Bat School. (WYDaily/Photo by Gabrielle Rente)

“An exact date for the origin of the Jerusalem congregation is speculative at best. It is thought that this church was a progression from earlier African-American groups worshiping in James City County before the Civil War. Without permanent facilities, meetings were often held in brush harbors in secluded locations. One of these meeting grounds is said to have been near the location of Jerusalem Baptist Church,” Boelt wrote in an article featured in the two volume book, “James City County, Virginia Church Graveyards.”

According to Boelt, there are a number of miscellaneous records marking the church in history. For example, in 1918, an Ezeikel Howard was issued a certificate authorizing him to solicit funds for the church. The extant records mainly cover 1910-1919 and 1933-1942. There are a few marriage records but the bulk of the records available list deaths related to the property.

So the obvious question for any abandoned building is why was it abandoned in the first place?

The answer can be found on the Mallardee Farm property, and some of the residents are still there…

…in a way.

Oscar Howard, a Williamsburg resident and member of the First Baptist Church, was born in the Jerusalem area. While he doesn’t remember living there, he said that his mother, Katherine R. Howard, attended the church. His grandfather was Rev. William “Billy” Howard, of Jerusalem Baptist Church. Howard said that his family owned the land that the farm and the school sit on.

The Howard Family Cemetery sits just about a hundred yards from Supplee’s barn. Howard said that his family used to have an automotive shop. Supplee said that the shop used to be under a walnut tree that stands in the middle of the property’s field. A small fenced-in area near the tree marks where some of Howard’s relatives are buried.

The Howard Family Cemetary. Family members still visit and clean up the headstones. (WYDaily/Photo by Gabrielle Rente)

Why doesn’t the Howard family live there anymore?

It came down to a matter of taxes.

“When my grandfather died, his son took over, but he lost the land because he couldn’t pay the taxes on it,” Howard said.

Supplee confirmed this, saying that the county wanted to push the African-American community out. “Like many places did, they raised the taxes and pushed them out of here,” Supplee said.

The land was then bought up by white owners, who then passed it along to another set of owners. Supplee, whose family hails from Pennsylvania, inherited the property after her mother and step-father passed away. She then turned the farm into a bed-and-breakfast in 2016 and uses the land to house rescued farm animals.

The Howard family’s automotive business once sat near the walnut tree on the Mallardee Farm. Supplee said her family still finds scraps of metal around the tree. (WYDaily/Photo by Gabrielle Rente)

After the Howards lost the land sometime in the 1930s or 1940s, the church was abandoned. According to Boelt, the congregation for Jerusalem Baptist Church may have survived a few years longer after the death of Rev. Howard, but for how long, is uncertain.

Howard said he did not grow up in the Jerusalem community but over by Five Forks, so he has no memories to tie him to Brick Bat Road.

The Howard family continues to visit the cemetery and to provide upkeep of the headstones, but the school house remains abandoned; slowly falling apart as the years go by.

So the next time you venture down Brick Bat Road, keep an eye out for the cupolaed bell tower of the Brick Bat School and remember its history before another tree comes down and takes that out, too.

“James City County, Virginia Church Graveyards” is available to read at the Williamsburg Regional Library. Boelt’s article, “Jerusalem Baptist Church,” can be found in this book.

Mallardee Farm Bed and Breakfast is located at 3703 Brick Bat Rd. Visit their website to book a stay.  

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