In the late afternoon of April 21, Karena Efthimiou was driving by 20 Liberty St. in Spencer and noticed smoke coming from the house. She immediately called 911 to send the fire department. The house is owned by Nicole O’Connell and Mark Avery. O’Connell and their three children live there but only the oldest, Calum, was home at the time.
O’Connell was out horseback riding on that warm, clear spring day. When she heard the news that the house was on fire, she galloped back, leaving a daughter to tend the horses. Calum escaped the burning house, along with the family pets.
The fire department arrived quickly and worked hard to save the structure. Fire Chief Andy Speer said that the downstairs was untouched by the fire but the upstairs, where the fire started, was ruined. Though not burned, the downstairs suffered severe water damage as waterfalls from above cascaded down. It, too, will have to be gutted and rebuilt. The beams and basic structure of the house are very solid, however, and held up well, despite the flames.
The little house on the corner of Liberty and Harrison Streets was the Nurmi home for many years. The house has an interesting history, as one might notice walking by. There is a plaque over the door that reads “Barker Schoolhouse, Dist. No. 4, Spencer, NY, c. 1800-1816.”
During the warmer months, there is usually an old school desk out front, too. I asked Mark Avery about the building’s history, as he watched his house burning. He told me that he and Jean Alve, Spencer’s former Town historian, had dug through old clippings and records to learn the following information about the structure. He emailed these details:
In October of 1815, Joseph Barker (first commissioner of Spencer Schools) purchased a half-acre lot on West Tioga Street, the present site of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, for the purpose of building a public school. Up to that point, there were a few plank and frame schools in the outlying areas but there wasn’t one in the village, although Barker did run a small school from his home, which was located on the east side of Main Street, just north of the intersection of Brooks Street and Main Street.
In the early spring of 1816, the school board hired Andrew Purdy to construct a school on the half-acre lot on Tioga St. It was originally called the “old log school” because all of the beams and corner posts were built of felled logs.
The building served as the first public school in the village; however, as the population of Spencer increased, the school board soon realized that a larger school would have to be built in order to accommodate the increasing number of students. A two-story school was built on the east side of Main Street, across from the Federated Church, in 1824. The new school was called the “red school house” to distinguish it from the “old log school.” The red school house has been painted white for many years now, as it has a long history, too. When it ceased to be a school, it was a parsonage for the pastor of the Federated Church. After the church sold it, it has been a private residence ever since.
The future of the old log school was in question after the red school house was built. There were also plans in the works to build a church at the Tioga Street location. Instead of tearing down a perfectly sound structure, Joseph Barker took possession of the building and had it moved to its present location at 20 Liberty St. Jean Alve thought this probably happened in 1826. At that time, 20 Liberty Street was part of Barker’s farm. The Lutheran Church was built in 1827.
Once the building was relocated to the northeast corner of what are today Liberty and Harrison Streets, it served as the private residence of Barker’s son, Joel. In 1864, the house was purchased by 21-year-old Marvin David Fisher and his new bride, Susan Catherine Ferris, and served as a “starter” home for them. Marvin’s father, Leonard, resided at the property just west of them, at the present home of Bea Murray.
Avery added that the two long windows that face west were once a big open door (a sliding door) that was the main entrance when it was a school and he did have, at one point, a sketch that was done of the place as it looked, when it was a school. Fortunately for Spencer’s history, and thanks to the quick and effective response of the Spencer Fire Department and all of the other departments that responded in support, they put a quick stop to the fire before the “old log school” burned to the ground.