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TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL | Michigan man 'turns back the clock' by renovating 1876 schoolhouse

Tim Travis likes to renovate old homes. In October 2021, he bought an old schoolhouse in Grand Haven. He needs "citizen sleuths" to help find old photos.

GRAND HAVEN, Mich. — Tim Travis loves to renovate old homes.

In October of this year, he bought a house on Ferris Street in Grand Haven that used to be the old Bignell Schoolhouse, which was built on the property in 1876.

Travis has decided he wants to renovate the exterior of the schoolhouse to look as close to what it looked like around the turn of the century, but imagery and information are hard to come by, which is why he's pleading with the public for help.

"I like a challenge," said Tim Travis, Grand Rapids native who currently resides on the east side of the state. "This has been an absolute mystery on the history [of this schoolhouse]."

The story starts in 1876. The property where the former schoolhouse stands was part of 160 acres of farmland owned by the Bignell family. The school was named after the family, and operated into the 1940s, before it closed, Travis says he learned.

But not much is known about it after that.

Travis purchased the home in October 2021, and learned that it once was a schoolhouse. He immediately wanted to restore its exterior to look as close to what it looked like back in the late 1800s.

"What I'm really in need of is an actual photograph of the the outside of the school," Travis said. "That will help me learn what it looked like back then so I can reconstruct parts of it accurately."

Travis says he's posted on community Facebook pages like Grand Haven Informed. His posts have generated quite a bit of comments and interest, but very few leads on the coveted photos of the school necessary for him to start the renovation.

"A librarian from Kalamazoo did send me one photo," Travis said. "It's a 1928 class photo taken outside the school."

Credit: Tim Travis
Row-by-row, a list of names for a photo of Bignell School's class of 1928. Tim Travis hopes the public recognizes and name or face.
Credit: Tim Travis
1928 class photo outside Bignell School in Grand Haven. Do you recognize anybody in this photo? If so, email Tim Travis.

Attached, and perhaps even more important, was the list of the students' names who appear in the picture.

"That list might be a good clue to find some families that might actually have some photos of the school," Travis added.

Travis has managed to find one piece of history that will eventually help with the renovation.

Credit: Tim Travis
Soon after purchasing the schoolhouse, Tim Travis drove to West Virginia to get an 1800s school bell to eventually put inside a cupola

"I was very fortunate to find an old 1800s school bell," Travis said. "I drove down to West Virginia to get it."

"It'll be historically correct for the schoolhouse, but during a remodel by previous owners, the cupola that housed the original bell was removed," Travis said. "That's why vintage photos are so important because I'll want to rebuild the cupola as it looked 150 years ago."

Travis is hoping that a memory may trigger for people learning about this story, which will cause them to put their "citizen sleuth" caps on and help him find any imagery and/or information about the school as possible.

"I think the city [of Grand Haven] and the neighbors will be proud when it's all done, but I just need some help," said Travis.

Credit: Tim Travis
The Bignell Schoolhouse has had many residents and expansions done over the years, but none have wanted to preserve the history more than Tim Travis.

If you think you can help Tim Travis, he's asking the public with knowledge to send him an email: timtravis@goldnerwalsh.com.

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