One Man's Story
Let me Start this off by saying I dislike School. Almost as much as I dislike change. Which made walking through the doors of Dannemora High School in September of 1975 twice as challenging. It was in fact a big change and I was not happy to be here. My name is Stephen Coulon, and this is my story.
I went St Josephs previous to my attending Dannemora High School. We had one of the largest classes coming through those doors and were divided into two. I was mixed with a lot of my friends from St. Josephs and a lot of new faces as well. I was not a real popular person, I didn't play sports, or take part in other extra-curricular activities, but I had to make the best of it. I was stuck here for the next four years of my life. I didn't know any of the teachers, but our neighbor Margorie Wimmett was the school secretary. That only made things harder, as I had to be extra careful not to get sent to the principals office. One slip up, and my parents would know right away.
There were two buildings that stood on this land. The elementary wing was wooden, with creaky floors and stairs. And the High School left me unimpressed as well. It was dirty, musty and old. The colors were bland and unappealing. It was the character contained in these walls that that brought this place to life. Especially the teachers.
Al Rose, what a guy. He and I had a rough start, but it didn't take long before I realized all he wanted from me was my respect, and to learn. After that we hit it off fine, and had a great joking, student-teacher relationship. We were the Mort and Pesty of the school. I still consider him a special person to this very day. I had a tough time with grades in his class. Thank god for that little thing known as "Extra Credit". That pulled me through just fine.
Leigh Walpole was one of the most remarkable people I had ever met. His teaching method was unique in that he'd incorporate his life into what he taught. He would teach us, and tell us such an thoughtful story that it drew us in and made us take that much more of an interest in what he was teaching. Mr. Walpole was not the kind of man you wanted to upset though. He was a towering man, with hands that matched his stature. Goofing off in his class meant you got popped in head with the big ring he wore on that big hand.
Then there was Mr. Garrow. All Five Feet of him, and built as solid as the prison walls. Larry was a great teacher, he made you listen and learn. Rumor has it the man did push-ups under Volkswagons. If there was any horse play in his class he would simply stop everything and just glare at you for about 10 seconds, and would resume his lesson. That stare said more than most disciplinary actions could, thats for sure. Awesome teacher, amazing person.
Mr. Bilow, my science teacher, was one of the sharpest tools in this old shed. He knew his stuff and made his class one of the most interesting of all. No one ever failed - because no nonsense went on in the four walls of his classroom. Everyone paid attention, everyone learned something, even me. Floyd was a good man, and an irreplaceable teacher.
Mr Harrica. One of the most headstrong teachers and finest persons ever. He was a Business and Typing teacher here at Dannemora High School. Typing's one skill I've yet to master but Mr. Harrica knew that although the precision of typing wasn't my strong point, that I was good at working with my hands. Working with Pete Barber helped fine tune my skills, and Richard put me to the test. Each and every day I would fix at least one typewriter. I loved it and that passion drove my interest to learn from him. Usually once a week, he would excuse me so I could go up street to get something to satisfy his insatiable sweet tooth. I think I loved it twice as much as he did.
And Mrs. Connery, a sweetheart of a person. You had to love her, if not it was definitely your fault, and your loss. I didn't have the pleasure of taking her classes but she was my homeroom teacher. She had a heart and personality that helped make the rest of the day enjoyable. She had more life in her than anyone I've ever met. She was indeed a person you could never forget.
Mrs. Mayette was the schools special reading teacher. Special is hardly the right word for someone who became like a grandmother to me. I took her class because I was, and still am a very slow reader. When Mrs. Mayette discovered my technical skills she also came up with many small projects for me. I remember she had a panda clock in her office that she loved and one day it was broke. I told her I could fix it for her, and from that day on, there was a new project waiting for me every day.
Then came Gym Class. With "Coach Harrica" or "Nutler". The difference between man and beast became known here. This guy was the incredible hulk and if you weren't strong and crazy you were in trouble. These gym classes were awesome. Times were different back then. You could really go all out against your peers and not get in trouble. we used to beat the living daylights out of each other and coach would sit up on stage and laugh at us. He had his lines too, and if you crossed them, there was no turning back. He was the greatest and I would never take back one day spent in his classes.
Connie, Coach Harrica's wife, the poor soul, I remember looking back at when she first started teaching us. She was just 21 years old and beautiful as the day is long, with a build to match. And here she was teaching Twenty to Thirty hormone driven young guys in health class. The poor girl, every time she mentioned a single sex organ the whole building went into an uproar. She was awesome though and always kept her cool. Such a great teacher.
Our Librarian, Mrs. Rowe, was and is still to this day a very dedicated and wonderful person. She possessed the most wonderful personality, and had more patience packed into her small frame than anyone I've ever known. She always wore a smile and made you feel welcome in her presence anytime. Going to the library was always that much easier, just because Mrs. Rowe was there.
Last but far from least was Mr. Riley. In my book,Bernard was one of the greatest people ever to live. In such young years I wasn't aware of just how great he would become to me. He was a big man. He was very tall and wide. His look alone demanded respect. In my four years as a student in Dannemora High School I was only ever called to the office once. He was very dignified and treated me great. If only I had been aware then of the future in front of us.
Ninth Grade started hard for me. Like I said, I hated school and was just too stubborn to learn. As soon as the last bell of the day rang I was out of there and off to Pete's Sales and Service. It was like a second home to me. I loved every day there because They made me feel so special there. Pete Barber was the most patient man I've ever known, especially to have taken me under his wing. There was no reason to take us kids in and train us to fix anything that came through his doors, but he did. Not only did we work with him but he took us to car races and then to Ronnie's for michigans afterwards. He was so good to us and his training alone allowed me to become what I have today.
Everyone in life has their very own "something special". Little did I know that mine was just about to happen. I think I was in Tenth Grade, and feeling very lonely. I played with CB radios in my spare time. I used to listen to a little girl talk to everyone but I could never say a word. All I had was a walkie talkie that allowed me to listen to whatever was being said. That year I asked for a genuine CB radio for Christmas. and thats just what I got. I set it up right then and sat there, and waited for that familiar voice to come on. When she did I introduced myself and we talked and talked for what seemed like forever. One day she invited me to come and visit her, and when our eyes met, it was love at first sight. I was so deeply in love with her I had to do whatever it took to make her mine. I married Jenny, bought a house in town, and brought three baby boys into this world with her.
I made a living working at the Ford garage in town, and at night I painted cars and fixed bikes at my own home. I remember one night my brother unloaded a shipment of new cars off the hauler and said 'boy you aughtta try out that new T-Brid, its got balls!'. I couldn't resist, so I did, I hopped in and burned rubber from the parking lot to the garage and I should have kept on going cause they sent me packing for it!
I went to work at the hospital for three years. At first I worked the grounds and then secured an office job. Picture that, Steve Coulon in an office job. Iworked with a man who was very bbitter because he ran the whole maintenance department at C.V.P.H. for many years and was demoted to an office job doing purchase orders along side me. Roger Blanchard was his name. and its a name I'll never forget. This man was going to help me fulfill all my dreams, I just didn't know it yet.
I worked With Roger for four months until one day I went into work and he just looked up at me. I'll never forget what he said. "Son, Theres a job in the paper today and you're going to get it!" He didn't want me to put thirty years in at the hospital and receive the same treatment he did. So, I took his advice and returned to the doorsteps I left just a few years ago, to apply for a maintenance supervisor at Dannemora High School. I spoke with Mr. Riley about my capabilities, and asked him if I could look through the buildings.
The Buildings were in horrible condition. I explained to him that I would clean them up and fix them up to as high of a standard as I could hold and he was impressed. He told me he would do whatever possible to see that I got the job. Just a few days later I was called in to attend a board meeting for an interview. The Board members were George Mattoon, Keith Shatraw, Mary Laura Barber, Scott Kanally, and Theresa Rible. People who I knew and were all very impressed with me. It only took one night and Mr. Riley was on the phone telling me that I got the job. It paid from $9,000.00, to $12,000.00 per year. They started me at Nine and said if I did a good job I would see an improvement in my raise. It was a step down from my hospital wages, but I only had to drive less than a mile. The convenianance was worth the cost.
I went to work September 15th, 1983. The place was a disaster. My first job was to clean out the boiler room. Seventeen truckloads of junk later, I was nearly finished. My hard work paid off and it sparkled when I was finished. There were a lot of electrical, plumbing and cleaning issues in the school that needed to be dealt with. I busted my back to accomplish whatever I promised in those buildings. My work alone felt so rewarding. I loved my job.
Being back in the building again allowed me to take to the students again. They were great kids and they appreciated everything I did as much as the staff of the school did. I spent five years fixing up the schools and they did shine. There were so many great times and great people I would have to write years to incorporate them all. Our Basketball teams, Baseball teams and cheerleaders were the best. The DHS Knights were number one in everything.
Early in 1988, the issue of Annexation came up and I was scared. Little did I know just how scared I should have been. It was an aweful situation but it did happen. On July 1st, 1988 Dannemora High School closed its doors for good. I was to report to work for Saranac Central School that day, and I was not happy about it. Not only did they take away my schools, but I was demoted as well, from supervisor, to worker, with a pay cut that equalled my starting salary.
I had my wife and three little boys at home, so I had to adjust to their frustrating changes, and believe me, there were many. My very first job under their direction was to board up all the windows and doors of the old Dannemora High School. I couldn't help but resent everyone at Saranac. I fought every day, kicking and screaming, refusing to accept the inevitable. This was real. And there was nothing I could do to change it.
By the end of my first work week with Saranac, DHS was boarded up solid. Every window, and every door. They kept the building heated the first winter at a dangerously low temperature. I remember going out to the building the following spring to finish emptying it when I witnessed the first of many heartbreaks. The gym floor had started heaving in places and paint was coming off the walls. This was my final trip inside Dannemora High School for almost thirteen years.
Shortly after that last visit, the building was sold to Bernie Momot for $85,000.00. His plans for the building were to transform it into a senior housing development. Before he even finished the blueprints, Mr. Momot died of a massive heart attack. At that time, Mrs. Momot requested her nephew shut off all the heat and drain the water pipes.
Many years went by that I would drive by the school. Watching the grass grow into fields, seeing how the brick deteriorated. My heart grew heavy each time I passed by, seeing the vacant lot, and the space that was once the old elementary building. I hoped that the high school would never meet that same fate. Time passed, and February of 2001 came. I had been searching for a large solid building to invest in for real estate purposes. when I passed the old school on my usual trip through town my curiosity reached its peak. It was in rough shape, I mean really bad, but the surface of the building could not have prepared me for what was about to come.
I called John Momot, and asked him if he still owned the building. He replied yes, and I told him I might have interest in purchasing it. I asked if he could let me in to take a look around and he didn't think that was necessary. He told me to unscrew the boards on the front doors and I could tour the building at my convenience. I was really excited, returning the the place I had loved and lost many years ago. I grabbed my screw gun and my flash light and headed over to the good old DHS.
I shook with anticipation as I removed the board. John told me there was a padlock and that I could cut through it, so that was my next step to unhinging those old doors. As I pulled back the door the stale air rushed to get out of the building. The whafting scent of mildew and decay almost knocked me over. I took a deep breath, stepped inside, and turned on my flashlight. I never expected just what lay before me. I climbed the first set of stairs to the top of the hallway and froze. My mouth was agape, and my heart was in my stomach. I had to will myself just to go further into the building.
Staring down the hallway, it was hard to make out what was what. The entire cieling had fallen to the floor, the staircases were completely rusted. Light fixtures were hanging vertically by their electrical wires, and the ones that weren't hanging were smashed on the floor. It was very damp, and cold in the school. it felt like a cave, there was absolutely no light coming in the building at all. The moisture had even caused the plaster to unhinge itself from the walls. Everything was on the floor. I shook my head in disbelief, turned around and walked out the door. I boarded the building back up and jumped in my truck and went home.
My wife, Jenny, was in her office on her computer when I told her about what I just saw. I couldn't stop describing the destruction I witnessed just within a few steps inside the building. I couldn't stop going on and on, I was wild about the devastation. Finally she asked me to take her to see it for herself. I made a quick phone call to Jenny's brother Brian to invite him along. So Jenny, Brian and my son Steve and I, all went back up to see. I unboarded the doors again and propped open the front door to help the air circulate through the musty old place. Its hard to find the right words to describe the things we saw. The place was totaled.
Together we proceeded down the hall. Mr. Bilow's old room looked like a shipwreck just on its own. The two cielings (the original, and the lowered one) were on the floor, all the lights were smashed, and the insulation hung all over. All the shelves that held Mr. Bilow's science equipment had rotted and fell to the floor. The clutter and disaster was so bad you couldn't walk into the room. We were left in awe at the doorway. Ice had formed over everything and chilled our spines as well.
Looking down the hallway to the old main office was like looking down a mine shaft. We peered into Mr. Garrows and Mr. Germains room and it was all the same. There are no words to describe it. Seeing a place you grew in, learned in, a place that helped shape you into who you are today, lay in rubble before you.
The gymnasium doors were shut and I couldn't have been prepared for that shock either. the wooden doors had swollen and sealed themselves so tight that we struggled to pry them free. The floor of the gym looked like the ocean on a rough day. It heaved and sunk and the only way through was to climb over all the buckled wood. The ceiling of the gym had fallen also. and the entire front of the stage had crashed to the floor. All the paint was off the walls. It just seemed too hard to comprehend how all this could have happened in 13 years time. I made the decision then and there that this building was irreparable. We proceeded to the second floor only to be discouraged by the continuing sight of floors that were cluttered with ceilings and walls.
As I left the building I couldn't have been more disheartened. DHS was gone and there was no saving it. I pulled away from the building and said my final good byes and drove home. The feeling of being in such an old neglected monument like that was infectious. It stayed with me and never left my mind within the days and weeks to come. I felt I needed a second opinion on this disaster.
The following day I had invited my friend Darin Dupraw to re-enter the building with me. This time was more thorough. We spent hours surveying every corner of every room. Some of the things he had to say scared me. I guess I had hoped for some positive reinforcement from him, some glimmer of hope. When we finally concluded, he looked at me and said "You could probably fix this buddy, but if it doesn't take you down, nothing ever will." My financial status and ability alone made up my mind for me. It was way beyond my reach as an individual to undertake such an overwhelming project. I had to admit defeat before I even began. It just didn't seem possible.
Days passed and the eyesore of Dannemora High School wore at me. I grieved for its loss all over again, with a new anger at just how much they allowed it to be destroyed. I became restless at night with grief and uncertainty. Now, they say no one really knows where dreams come from. It could be our subconscious, it could be the one thing that stays with us throughout the day, or even something much deeper. One long night after exhaustion had finally taken over I closed my eyes and sleep came almost immediately. When I was awake all I did was think about DHS, so you can place a safe bet that when I was asleep, I dreamt about it as well.
In this dream I found myself walking through the rubble in the dark hallways. I had given up and given in to all these feelings of doubt when the rear doors opened to reveal an old familiar face. Mr. Riley walked through the hall over to me, placed his arm around me and said "Steve, if there is anyone who can fix this mess, its you. You can do it Steve." He smiled at me and as his arm came down from around me he slowly faded away leaving me alone in the disaster, with a renewed sense of hope.
I awake that morning with a different attitude. My anger about the condition of DHS no longer discouraged me, but fueled me. I was motivated to do something about it. If I had let it get the best of me the building would have fallen in on itself. Dannemora High School would be no more.
I spoke with my wife Jenny about my decision. I reassured her I could do this, and that it had to be me. I told her all I needed was her love and support. She looked back at me and said "Let's do it babe." With that I just about ran out the door, I was ready to go. Excitement and fear had me shaking as I picked up the phone to call John Momot. My plan was to first clean the building up as much as possible, at my own expense to see if it was worth the purchase. John was very cooperative. he just said "Sure Steve, have fun!"
Jenny and I, our three sons, Stevie, Brad, Phillip, Jenny's brother Brian, and a handful of others all went into the building to start cleaning almost immediately. John had reassured me that the electric to the building was still on, I just had to hit the switch in the basement. That was a fearful experience in its own, considering the condition of the building, but I hit the switch anyways. All the downed lights sparked, of the hundred lights in the building only 2 worked. One outside the gymnasium and another in the upstairs hall. We had to take a great deal of caution due to the now live wires hanging from the ceiling. My first job was to cut out a lot of the bad lights and wire in temporary lights so we could see what we were doing.
The electrical panels themselves were in terrible shape. As much as it takes to blow a 400 amp fuse, that was well gone also. All the breakers were rusted from water damage, as was all the metal in the building. It took us a week in itself just to get enough light inside to be able to work. The building being very cold and very wet provided a difficult work place, especially in the cold winter months we began working. So, we made the decision to try to bring some heat in just to make it comfortable. The boiler that was in the building ran off water, which we had none of. That put that possibility out of question, as well as all the broken pipes. As another temporary fix, we decided to get an old wood stove from my father in-law. We knew it wouldn't heat the whole place, but that it might take off the chill at least. After it was all hooked up we lit it up and went back to work.
Sometime later that day we heard the village fire siren go off and paid no mind to it. Its something you grow accustomed to. Soon after the last ring I heard someone banging on the front doors to the building. I bolted from the boiler room and threw open the front doors. My jaw dropped and my eyes widened at the site of three large fire trucks, the lights going off and sirens blaring in my face. Everyone was ready to put out the fire that I spent the day lighting. Apparently, someone saw the smoke coming out of the chimney for the first time in over a decade and called the fire dept immediately. I was so embarrassed I wanted to crawl in a hole and die right there. They still needed to come in, and inspect the building, just to be sure. I was surprised that they let me stay there, knowing the condition of the building. but they soon left me to get back to my work.
Jenny and the kids were working on removing the gym floor. That was such a massive undertaking. Each little tiny board buckled tight to the next. It was thousands of strips of wood in the end. They were hand carried to the basement where they were stacked to be burned for heat. I remember coming back from the basement to get another stack of the floor strips when I saw jenny walking across the gym with her hand on her forehead and a large smile on her face. As she got closer to me I realized it wasn't a smile but a large wince in pain. The crowbar she had been using to pry the boards apart had slipped and taken her across the face. She was bleeding pretty good, but the pain from the hit was the most overwhelming. I gave her a huge hug, cleaned her wound up and she went right back to work.
This was no small job. Many people ask if I hired a contracting company to handle it but one man could never afford to hire it out himself. This Job was taken on solely by myself, with my family and friends by my side. After We had finished rewiring our work lights we Started to remove the plaster from the walls and take out the debris that cluttered the floors. Tons of plaster and brick had to be removed - by hand. The landfill fees were out of control but I had to see what the place would look like cleaned up. Days, weeks, and eventually months went by. As I was cleaning the building a lot of people stopped by and wanted a tour. The place was dangerous in that condition and I didn't want anyone to get hurt. so I sent a lot of them away.
I especially remember one occasion where Lori Mattoon came barging in the front doors and wanted to see her old school. I told her that it was unsafe and not a good idea for her to be in there, but she was adamant. "No" wasn't something she would accept so I finally put my work aside for her, and gave her a brief walk through. She asked me to hold on for a minute as she retreated back to her car. When she returned, video camera in hand, we started through the building and she recorded every moment of it. I think she was a little unsure of my ability to bring this back. She was in awe about everything. Even an experts eyes needed convincing to see the possibilities of the buildings future.
My Next visitor was Mickey Bennet, and Jeri. I've known Mick for years and always enjoyed his company. I very happily guided him through the building and our little made progress. He was very quiet for the most part, feeling the weight of having a piece of his childhood lay before him in wreckage. We returned to the front of the building where he had come in and he looked at me and christened the place with a new name. "The TItanic". No one, Nowhere, could have given it a better name. In many ways this was very similar for me. Wet, cold, completely destroyed, something that went down and time forgot.
DHS had two roof levels. The gym roof was completely flat. Ninety-five feet long and Fourty-five feet wide. with four foot parapet walls all around it. So when you're up there its like a large pool. Flat roofs in the North Country are not a good idea. These roofs have drains, four inch pipes, that go from the roof all the way to the basement, down through the walls and into the village storm drains. Every bit of rain and snow that accumulated passed through the building. In 1989 when Mr. Momot shut the heat off and left the building, the temperature of the inside had dropped below freezing. There was snow on the roof, and when the sun came out it melted and started to empty into the drains. Sometime on its way through the building the water froze inside the pipes, it built up inside them until they could no longer contain it anymore. The pipes shattered like glass.
When Spring came all the snow melted and went directly into the building. Hundreds of gallons of water for 13 years poured into the old DHS and obliterated this place. Now these pipes needed to be replaced before anymore water had a chance to make it inside. The building had been brought to a point now, where I could visualize its potential. I called John back and I told him the building was relatively cleaned but my main concern had shifted from the aesthetics of the building to the roof. The only way I could tell just how bad it was, would be to go into the walls and change those pipes, from the roof to the basement. John told me to go for it, as I still promised to cover all the expenses. So I embarked on my next journey.
I took a two week vacation from Saranac Central and got an air compressor and a small jack hammer, and started in. The building was build around these drains, and the walls are Twenty-four inches thick. The pipes themselves were directly in the center. I started at the very top of the building jack hammering my way through the walls. After only a half an hour my hands were numb but I couldn't stop. After six long hours I had only made it about six feet. At Fourty feet per pipe, with four pipes, I had approximately One Hundred and Sixty tedious hours worth of jack hammering in front of me.
I now started to feel the true weight of the burden I had taken on. I was growing depressed and overwhelmed. The brick was very strong and it wasn't coming apart like I thought it might. The moisture had not effected the foundation of the building at all. It was going to be a long two week endeavor. Not exactly the "vacation" I had imagined it to be. I would go to bed every night and my hands would be numb all through the night. I was restless with discomfort and over-exhaustion. It took me the entire two weeks to expose the pipes and only a few hours to install the new ones. Just a half an hour after we put the last pipe in, coincidence struck. We had a down pour like never before. I ran back and forth through the building like lightning checking every pipe over and over. I couldn't be more thrilled and relieved that they were completely dry. There wasn't a drop of water coming into the building.
It was now time to make my final decision. I had seen the buildings potential, I had poured hundreds of hours of labor into it. and I knew I couldn't spend another dime until this building was officially in my possession. I was sure that the biggest problems were over with, so I made another call to Mr. Momot, asking him to set up a closing on the property.
On June 28th, 2001 - Dannemora High School officially belonged to me. It was the scariest moment of my life. Before the closing I could have walked away at anytime. But signing that paper was a commitment, to myself, and to everyone that had put their faith in me. My heart stopped for a moment, and I shrugged off all the doubt and accepted what fate had in store for me. Now that the building was mine, it was time to start unboarding the windows and fixing them. The first light to shine through the windows in thirteen years was through two windows in Mr. Rose's old classroom. I took down the boards, replaced the glass and painted them. it looked so awesome and people were really please to see a noticeable change on the outside of the building. My financial stability was weakening under the pressure of DHS, so I chose to mortgage an apartment I owned in Cadyville, NY.
With the money I received I immediately began buying materials. The very first project I wanted to complete was the gymnasium. So we bought One hundred and ten sheets of pine select plywood for the gym floor. One hundred and Twenty-two, two by six by sixteen's to frame the new ceiling and a truckload of insulation, and one hundred and ten sheets of luan. The cieling was the first undertaking, as I cut, fit, and blocked out all the wood across the existing beams. Spaced two feet apart with insulation up in between each one, the one hundred and ten sheets of luan were ready to be hung. When that was complete it looked great. We could really see the place starting to take on some shape.
We spent the next several days scraping all the walls, top to bottom in the gymnasium to prep them for painting. We kept the same colors as the day it was closed. A deep blue that extended seven feet up from the floor, and a slightly blue-tinted white that covered the rest of the walls. After the painting was done things became more paced, we immediately moved to the gym floor just so we could see what it would look like next. This is where the one hundred and ten sheets of tongue and groove pine select plywood came in. This wasn't too bad of a job because it was on the ground. we had scaffolding to do the ceiling and I must have went up and down at least five thousand times. Its hard to believe that all this work was done part time, after an eight hour shift at Saranac, while running my personal business, Steve's Bike Shop.
I started laying the plywood on the floor, it only took me about a week or so to get it all down and screwed into the floor. Now it had to be sanded before I applied the polyurethane coat. What a mess that was. Dust shrouded the gym in a haze. I bought two large pails of polyurethane to coat the floor with and put my first coat on finally. It was absorbed right into the wood and was hardly noticeable. After seven coats of poly, it looked flawless. Our last endeavor in the gym would be the stage. The stage itself was a disaster like the rest of the building.
Three to five days were spent cleaning the stage curtains. They were covered in mildew, mold and god knows what else. After they were cleaned I installed a new ceiling on the stage and carpeted the stage floor. Now the gym was almost complete. There are so many more details to actual construction, but if I went into every one of them this story could last forever. It was time to move outside the gym into the main hallway.
When I started reconstructing this area I built a wall just past the gymnasium. I knew I wouldn't be able to fix the whole hallway in the time I was giving myself and I didn't want people wandering down that way because of the severe damage in the remainder of the building. The ceiling, like many others in the building lay in rubble on the floor. My first attempt at rebuilding was to frame in a new ceiling. A few dozen 2 x 4 's later It was insulated to preserve some heat and sheet rocked. The double doors at the end of the hall where the teachers and staff entered had been stripped of all their working parts. The crash bar, handles, locks and hardware had all been scattered on the floor in many pieces. I somehow managed to find every part and screw and bring them back together in working order.
Now it was time to fix the hallway walls. These walls had formerly consisted of solid brick, with an inch of plaster spread out on the outer layer. I went out and purchased a few bags of plaster and applied as much as I could that night. By the time I had come back the next day it had all fallen to the floor. I went back out and bought 30 more sheets of sheet rock. it was very hard to mount it to the brick wall itself, but it was much faster than trying to bring the walls back to their original design. I sheet rocked the hall, painted it, and taped it in a very short time. It looked incredible, everything was taking on a very familiar form to me. The only step to bring what would be the new bike shop here would be to complete Mr. Garrow / Mr. Germain's old classroom.
This room was ewasily the second worst in the building. Both ceilings, the original high ceiling and the suspended ceiling below it had fallen to the floor. To make a long story short I completely renovated the room back to its original condition, keeping the blackboards in place and the lab sink still at the front of the room. I went outside and uncovered three of the five windows to the classroom. I fixed them all, and repainted them. It was just about time to move the bike shop, when I made a decision that almost broke me.
It was getting cool out, and I knew there wouldn't be much more time left before the cold weather settled in. I headed up on the roof to make an inspection on how the building might make it through the winter. I backed my truck up to the newer main office, put a ladder on my truck to get on top of that. From there I used an extension ladder from the office roof, to get onto the gym roof, then another ladder from the gym roof up onto the main roof. Both the gymnasium roof and the main roof were in rough shape, and needed to be re coated with a sealant before winter hit. I went to plattsburgh and picked up Fifty, five gallon pails of tar. The next day I hand carried all 50 pails from the ground to the rooftop. Around the Fourtieth pail my hand was so sore I couldn't even bear the thought of ten more. There was no other way though, and on my way down from number fourty-one my friend Brian stopped in and brought the last nine up for me.
The day was so hot about Ninety-Five degrees and I was going to seal coat this roof. My son Phillip was scheduled to watch the bike shop for me that day so that I could handle the job at task uninterrupted. It would take about six straight hours to finish the job and I was already tired and hot from a long day at my previous job when Phillip stopped by. He told me he couldn't watch the shop that day and with those words I fell apart. I don't know if it was the heat or the stress of the roof on top of everything else I had undertaken, but I collapsed underneath all the weight. I sat in the corner of the roof and cried. For Fourty-Five minutes I let it all come out. I was overwhelmed with everything that this place had in store for me. After that I brought myself to my feet, and went right back to work. Somehow that night I beat the odds and finished off the roof.
As fall was settling in it was time to think about heat. The water had been turned off in 1988 so I contacted Tom Tripp to have it turned on. When we turned it on water was shooting everywhere. The most important part was to get the water to the furnace so we could get some heat in the building. I spent a few days fixing the leaks and breaks in the pipes and got the water to the boiler. Now I needed to bring in a Two Hundred and Seventy-Five gallon oil tank because Momot removed the Ten Thousand Gallon tank that was in ground by the old main office. I hooked up the tank and filled the boiler with water. I turned it on and nothing happened. After a few tests I discovered the main control was shot.
The building was cooling down fast. I had a couple kerosene heaters, so I decided to put one on in the gym and one in the hall. That did next to no good at all. I found a new control available for the boiler but with a hefty price tag of Four Hundred Dollars. That was a lot of money but it had to be done. I bought it and hoked it up and that didn't work either. While I worked on the heating system I was putting new ceilings in upstairs and insulating them to keep the place warm. Let me take a second to remind you that there was Six Hundred sheets of sheet rock put into this place. Two by Fours and Two by Sixes were bought by the hundreds. New ceilings in every room and hall in the building.
While I was working at Saranac one day there was a man who was there working on the schools boiler system. I spoke to him about the troubles I was having and he recommended a new style control that would work fine for only One Hundred dollars. He sent me the control and I installed it. Finally the 1985 boiler fired up and ran like a dream. When the old boiler started to build steam we discovered leaks all over the building. I shut the boiler down and spent another week repairing broken pipes. One Monday night I had filled the Two Hundred and Seventy-Five gallon tank and turned the old boiler on. Thursday morning when I entered the building at Six A.M. I felt a chill. Sometime during the night the boiler had ran out of fuel. Two Hundred and Seventy-Five Gallons of fuel, for Two and a half days, Sixty hours. Ouch.
I didn't know what to do at that point. The building was only occupied by myself so I decided that it wasn't worth it to heat by that method at that time. I went back to the kerosene heaters for the meantime. I bought about six more of them and put them all over the building. Between those and the hot air wood stove, I had a long, long winter ahead of me. The boiler Room had plenty of heat from the wood stove which was great for some things but there was a nightmare in store for me that really hurt.
A couple days of running the wood stove I walked into the gym and noticed a very small wave to the beautiful new gym floor I had laid down. I figured that a little moisture had gotten in and settled so I didn't worry too much. The next day I went in and the gym floor had raised even higher. The third day it had heaved about two inches every foot all the way across the gym. There had been water under the second floor where I couldn't see it. The dry heat from the wood stove was causing it to push up through the floor. There was only one solution, drill holes through the floor to release the moisture. I brought up my hammer drill with a Twenty-four inch 3/8 bit and drilled six holes through every sheet of wood down through to the basement. I was too late though. The water had worked its way up into the floor and I could just peel off all the polyurethane I had applied to the floor. It was ruined.
There wasn't much I could do now. I let the water run its course as I watched my floor twist and distort. About a week later, it subsided, and my troubles went from the heaved floor to the ceiling. I noticed a small wet spot on the wood in the new ceiling now. I grabbed my lift and went up to the ceiling and took down a sheet of lean and removed the insulation. I shined my light across the ceiling and all the moisture from the whole building was going up and condensing in the ceiling now! If anything would ever drive me to drink in my life it would have been this building.
Now there was only one thing to do, and that was to get fresh air in between the two ceilings in the gym. So I moved my lift to the outside wall, took down a section of the ceiling and started to drill. I had to go through two feet of solid brick to reach the outside of the building. After four hours of steady drilling I had one small hole in front of me. That wouldn't allow the building to breathe enough to exhaust the moisture it was building up. I decided to go see young Ed Breyette. Eddie let me borrow his large electric hammer drill with a one inch bit. This drill was my savior and my destroyer all in one. It blew holes through the wall, large and fast. The gym had four large beams in it that divided the gym into five sections. I had to remove the ceiling in five different places and drill holes through to the outside. After about two weeks that job was complete and the moisture no longer built up.
Heating with those kerosene heaters was cost efficient but it was frustrating to plan your day around filling them on three separate occasions. At Six A.M., Three P.M, and Nine P.M. every day until warm weather was in sight again. I had a very fourtunate winter in that the temperatures never dropped below twenty degrees in 2001. All this time from February to November,I still hadn't hooked up any sort of restroom facility. There was water that ran at a steady stream through the boiler and out of a hose and I had carried water from the boiler room to the boys bathroom upstairs to flush the toilets and to wash my hands.
My next project was to fix Mr.Bilows room. This was the single worst room in the entire building. Between the room being a direct onslaught of wind chill for man years his room contained one of the four broken ceiling drains. Water had emptied into this room for over a decade now. The shelves that formerly held the lab equipment had rusted and rotted collapsing to the floor. Looking in I imagine it looked like the wreckage of The World Trade Center, post 9/11. I went in and gutted the whole room and rebuilt it top to bottom. At the time there had been a lot of mold and mildew in the place. Little did I know what it was doing to me.
A few days later I was feeling poorly, I could barely breathe and I thought I had a bad cold. I sat on the couch gasping for air and by the time I looked at the clock it was nine p.m. I never got very sick but I was definitely a train wreck. Between breaths I told Jenny that I had to go to the hospital and if I was going to the hospital, she knew it was serious. She rushed me down to CVPH where they told me I had pnuemonia. They put me on oxygen and inhalers so I could breathe. After about an hour I was ready to go home but they wouldn't let me. They said I had to stay a couple days and I was so furious. If I hadn't been completely exhausted I would've walked home.
The next morning a cute little nurse came in who just happened to be Becky Snider. She walked over to the foot of the bed and picked up my chart and looked back at me and said "Your dad used to drive my school bus, when I went to Dannemora High School." I looked back at her with an inquisitive look and said "Becky?! How old do you think I am!?" She thought I would've been an old man by now. Come to find out there was only 6 years between us. I had to stay for three whole days, and fought the doctor each day to let me leave.
While I was in the hospital my wife put together a little homecoming surprise for me to help me recover. She went out and bought a television, a nice recliner with some comfortable blankets. She had a room of the school cleaned out and heated with kerosene, put in a microwave and a small refrigerator. What a sweetheart, and she knew me so well, because the day that I was discharged I demanded to be brought directly to the high school.
I could not leave this sinking ship something just kept drawing me back. When I got there I was really surprised at what she had done. She made it very comfortable to be there even though I still wasn't one hundred percent. I was still very weak and work sessions were kept to about ten, to fifteen minute durations. I would rest in my little break room on and off for a few days before I could finally go back to my usual rate.
With spring approaching and plans for a grand opening in the bike shop, I needed to fix a bathroom up for public use. The boys bathroom on ground level was to be my next challenge as it was very trashed. I put in a new ceiling right away, and an exhaust fan. This was followed by a new set of lights all new toilets and sinks, and I had to replace all the pipes because they froze and broke. I applied tons of plaster to the wall and a fresh coat of paint. It sounds so simple to write it out, but just that was a months worth of work.
Because the winter was mild I was able to pull through the winter on kerosene heaters alone. I was very lucky it never got below zero like our winters here are famous for. I remember one morning I was filling the kerosene heaters and one in the hall outside Mr. Bilows room was giving me trouble. I spent about ten minutes getting the wick up a little higher at about six a.m. before I went to work at Saranac. I was running short on time so I filled it up and headed to work. When I came back to DHS around Three P.M. I walked over to the kerosene and while I was at work it had caught on fire and burned so hot that it melted itself right down to the floor. I looked up the staircase and the whole wall and ceiling was black from smoke. I couldn't believe that no one saw smoke coming from he building. When I went upstairs everything was black. I was so relieved that I hadn't gotten that far yet in my remodeling. You can bet after that experience there was a high maintenance on all my kerosene heaters after that.
Spring of 2002 was approaching fast. One warm day I was up on a ladder that extended up to the second floor of the school and I was uncovering the windows to Mr. Walpole's room. I had removed the boards and there was a broken window that needed to be fixed. I headed back up the ladder to the very top, where I set a putty knife, a tub of glazing push points, and a twelve by twenty-four inch piece of glass. I started removing the old glass and I slipped, dropping everything and fell about three steps down the ladder. I grabbed ahold for dear life while my heart raced around my chest. I was froze completely stiff while bits of my life seemed to flash before my eyes. That could've been the end of me right there. I waited until my heart calmed down and slowly descended the ladder. I called my wife and told her what happened, and why it was time to spend more money. I needed to get a lift, if I didn't I knew I would be taking more chances just to get the work done, and I would probably end up dead. I went into town and purchased a brand new Genie Lift to help continue the progress on the building.
We had our grand opening of the bike shop and spent big money to have "99.9 The Buxx" from for a remote broadcast for the day. We had huge BMX jumps on the side of the building, food from Auggy's Pizza, tons of prizes and more. Shortly after the grand reopening a woman by the name of Marilyn Kretser came in looked for a biike. The summer before I had helped her out when she was in a bind and she was here to return the favor. When she first came in she was just looking but soon came back and picked up a new cyclocross. A week or so went by and she came back for an adjustment. I had been working upstairs and was covered in dust and debris. She asked what I was doing and I told her I was trying to fix the rest of the building. She inquired about how much was left and asked if she could see it. I told her that it was dangerous and couldn't show her at the time. She was very aggressive in her approach and didn't let up. She wasn't a student here, nor a teacher, so why she was pushing me so hard I didn't know. I finally gave in and said c'mon and brought her up the stairs.
She Seemed like she was in a daze as I showed it to her. Only she knew what she was up to in that head of hers as she invisionsed each wall finished and each room done up in a way I had never thought. I was lucky if a weeks time had passed when she came back again asking me what my plans were for the building. I told her I would probably make it into small business offices or apartments. She asked what I thought about making it into a fitness center. My main purpose of rebuilding DHS was to keep it a school or as close to its original layout as possible. I thought the fitness center was a great idea. Not only would we not have to change the appearance of the building, but we could also open it up for the public and all the old students that were still in this area.
I told Marilyn that I would continue to working in the direction of putting the building back to its original state which would be ideal for her plans. I started at the end of the upstairs hall, near the fire escape. I headed down the hall with new ceilings and repairing all the sheet rock . Marilyn returned again and noticed the progress, we talked more and came to a verbal agreement. She asked if this was something I could finish for Christmas. THough I knew it wasn't something I could take on alone, if I gathered the right help it might be possible.
The following day while at work for Saranac I asked my best friend Darin Dupraw if he thought he could help me for a couple months to get the fitness center up and running. He came to work faithfully the very next day. The original plan was to get the upstairs completed, and the staircase that goes from upstairs down to the front doors. Marilyn only wanted to rent the upstairs three classrooms and the old guidance office, so we began our work. For me to go into detail about every ounce of work we did would take too long, and be too monotonous. So, I'll just give you a brief run down. We started in Mrs. Connery's room, framing in a new ceiling altogether. We patched up the walls using about twenty pails of joint compound in that one room. We painted it up and it was nearing completion.
We did the same process for Mr. Murat's/Mr. Grover's room, and Mr. Walpole's room. The only difference upstairs now is that the original ladies bathroom is now the boys room, and where ethe old principals office was at the end of the hall upstairs, is now the ladies bathroom. In both bathrooms we had removed everything. We moved the sinks over by the entrance and installed two toilets and two showers in each bathroom. As we were well into construction Marilyn's husband, Dave came over to check out the facility. At this time he was not too happy with her. we joke about it now but he would have bought her anything in the world to just walk out of this deal.
Of course the place was a disaster when he came in and I'm sure it was hard to comprehend what it would look like finished. We kept on going in a forward direction at as steady of a pace as we could, but didn't meet our deadline. All the hurdles had hindered us but we were persistent. When we were near completion and the end was in sight Marilyn came to see me one more time bearing some overwhelming news. The upstairs of the school wasn't enough. Her dream facility needed more. She told me the two rooms that sat at the front of the building would be perfect. The old science room and Mr. Rose's room needed to be rejuvenated as well to meet Marilyn's plan.
On February eighth, Hometown Fitness and Health opened the front doors of DHS to the public again. And in came the masses. For the first couple months I felt lost. Up until now I had the entire building to myself and I didn't feel contained. Now I was bound to just the gymnasium and a classroom, Mr. Garrow's room. I had to do something to keep my mind off it or I would go stir crazy, and there was still plenty to do, so I wasn't too worried.
My next project was to convert the new main office into an apartment. I had to do it just to earn the extra income to help heat the building. The apartment was to consist of Mr. Riley / Mr. Cringle's office, the secretary's office, a bathroom at the end of the hallway, and use of the hallway as a kitchen and dining room. I turned the principal's office into a bedroom, installed two closets, new cielings and new carpet. The secretary's office was made into a living room, with new ceiling, and carpet, with a gas fireplace. The hallway came along nice as a kitchen, with a small closet at the other end of the dining room. All new cabinets were installed, as well as a small stove, and refrigerator. A stand up shower was put in the already existent bathroom. The end result was a beautiful little apartment.
The Fitness Center was now in full gear and was a busy place. Some of their special classes were getting crowded and the Bike Shop was starting to lag. I blame it on myself mostly, for not giving it the attention it needed, but I told Marilyn that I would consolidate the bike shop to half its current size so they could utilize the space for their crowded classes. The people loved using the gym and they filled up the space quite frequently with attendants. My work on the school was less of a priority and more of a hobby right now. I though the major obstacles were over and headed down to the basement hallway.
I applied nearly thirty pails of joint compound to the hallways walls alone. And I still wasn't even close to done. they were totally trashed to begin with. I moved around the mess and made room to work and before i knew it spring was right around the corner. Snow was melting, rain was falling. Roofs were leaking. I wasn't prepared for that, and it sent me reeling. The leaks were so bad I had no other choice than to design plans for a new roof. There was already several hundred dollars worth of damage that had happened to the building, and if I was going to save my work, I had to act fast.
The plan was to put a pitched tin roof over the flat, pool like roof of Dannemora High School. As previously mentioned there were two roofs, the gymnasium level and then the classroom level. The upper level was about fourty-five feet off the ground. And the height seemed to be the biggest problem, at first. I purchased Six Hundred, two inch, by six inch, by sixteen foot boards. Four hundred, two inch, by four inch, by sixteen foot boards. And on top of all that, five tons of steel. That was just for the roof above the classrooms.
I just want to take a second to explain, I've had so many questions about the financial aspects of this project. Through the whole operation, there wasn't one grant, one government aid, no tax break or donation received. The entire project was funded from my own pockets. There wasn't a contractor hired, no carpenters, or employees, outside of myself, friends and family. The job I was about to undertake would finally break me. I had drained just about every asset I had and would feel the strain of what I was about to do very soon.
The roof was a huge project for one man to do. I again called upon my friend Darin, who isn't fond of heights to begin with. It was a good fourty-five foot drop off the top of the building, straight down onto the paved parking lot. Its a good thing there was a four foot wall up around the flat roof or he would never have gone up in the first place. The first evening of the job I went up onto the gym roof. Darin was on his way up just after me and he got about halfway up and my son Steve Jr. was on the ground handing him board after board while he passed them on up to me. I ran to different places on the roof with the boards to evenly distribute the weight. Each board was hand carried from the ground to the top of the roof.
After about five weeks of part time work, weather permitting, Darin and I had completed the roof over the upper level of the Dannemora High School. I have to say that the worst part of the entire job was hanging over the side of the building to put the soffit and facial on. So with all the tons of materials, which included three hundred pounds of nails, we were half way done the whole roofing project.
There will always be new and exciting stories about this place and will definitely always be a pile of work to do. A lot of people ask me why? Why would I take on such a large task, a disaster. In my heart I just could not let this ship sink. if I would have not rebuilt this school it would have collapsed to the ground and there would only be memories left. I couldnt have dealt with that.
Today, Dannemora High School is back and some say looking better than ever. Its still a school, your school and as long as I have the contract over it, it was always be a public building for the students to return and reminisce, to relive parts of their childhood. Having the school back together is great but this web site that my son Steve has created for me and you is one of the greatest gifts anyone could ever ask for. It allows the students who live far away to reconnect with everyone and to visit DHS anytime, from anywhere in the world. So, the deepest thanks to my son, Steve Jr, for giving back a spirit that was long lost. Thank you Steve, I love you.
Also, as much as I may have beaten myself up and tortured myself throughout this project there was someone else who felt every pain I endured. My dear wife Jenny. She put up with so many lonely nights, days, evenings, weekends, not for just a couple months but for three long years. I apologize my dear for the time not spent with you but you are loved deeply for all of your support.
I remember when I first was looking at this building my mom and dad were really scared about the decision I was about to make, I tried very hard not to show them the building. They had only heard bits and pieces of the gossip, of just how bad it was inside. Luckily I kept it from them until it was somewhat cleaned up. One day while I was working in the gym they came in and I was shaking with uncertainty. They started to enter the gym when I stopped them because the ceiling was falling and I didn't want them to get hurt. My mom and dad are my idols, My inspiration. Their pride in me gives me the strength to accomplish such large tasks. In my eyes, there are no better people on the face of this earth. To my Mom and Dad, I love you both, thank you for being the best parents in the world.
My son Phillip has been by my side since he was a mere five years old. Working in the bike shop was never really a job to him, it was spending time with his father, learning trades, and doing something that had always been a second nature to him. Phil was able to assemble bikes for me, service them, and pitched many sales that I hadn't the strength or time to do myself. He worked hard with me on the building for about two years, and I appreciate everything he has done. Thank you, I love you Phil.
There are a long list of people who made this all possible, Steve Burnell, Thank you for all those wonderful yearbooks, you are a true knight, and I enjoy all of your visits. Lori Mattoon, for the video you had taken of the school. You preserved a moment in time where I do not have the words to say just how bad some of the wreckage was, where there were little pictures taken that are still around. I was lucky to be able to contact lori through this web site and she mailed me a copy of the tape. You, also are a true knight, thank you.
Along the long road of rehabilitation, I made it a point to bump into Mrs. Mayette. She told me she had some old memorabilia for me. Mrs. Mayette donated to me some of the most wonderful pictures of graduating classes and a brand new Dannemora Knight jacket, all of which are in our museum for everyone to enjoy. Thank you Mrs. Mayette, you too are indeed a true knight.
If it weren't for all the people we would not have our museum. So many people have donated wonderful things. Gary, and Nocia Lee, The band uniforms and jackets are such a magnificent highlight of the museum. There are so many people that make this dream a reality for everyone. Patty and Butch, thank you for the coat and hats and your support for doing a stand up job. Perry Barber, Gert Jordon, Hal Recore, Steve Pierce, Tina Cumm, you are all very special, I know I wont remember everyone, so many people have come forth with piece of their past to help others preserve parts of theirs.
Recently Dannemora High School has been home to several concerts of all different styles in the gymnasium. Some felt just like the good old days like we had never really lost our school. It has been a privilege for me to host these concerts. I don't ever want this to end. I also want to thank Rick Scholl, not only for his cooperation but for appreciating every step of my work. I want to thank the village of Dannemora for their cooperation, and for allowing the reincarnation of our beloved school. Yes, it is still our school, and will always be our school.
Welcome Back D H S
~Steve Coulon, Sr.