George Armstrong had hoped that a former school he was helping to restore would one day become a place where children in the area could relearn. But now all that’s left is a blackened hole surrounded by charred bricks.
âThis place was just an absolute gem,â Armstrong said, looking at the remains of the building near Virden, Man., Wednesday afternoon, three days after it burned to the ground.
Armstrong and his friend Jan Mainland, the building’s owner, had spent the last three years restoring the old Ross Consolidated School, sometimes referred to as Two Creeks School, north of the town of Virden, about 270 kilometers west of Winnipeg. .
They planned to turn the first floor of the two-story school into a World War I museum, complete with artifacts, a collection of books and other artifacts. The second floor was to be transformed into a living space.
But those hopes were dashed early Sunday morning when Armstrong was awoken by RCMP officers, who were making sure he and his friend were not in the building at the time because it was on fire.
“The big question is why,” he said, adding that he had not received an update on the RCMP investigation. “There was no legitimate reason for the building to catch fire in the middle of the night with overcast skies and rain.”
CBC News has requested information about the fire from the RCMP.
Construction began in 1913
Construction of the two-story brick and plaster building began in 1913. The school opened in 1915.
Perched on top of a hill, it was a local landmark visible from Highway 83, a major thoroughfare that runs west of Virden. It had not been used as a school since 1966 and was eventually sold to a private owner, according to the Manitoba Historical Society.
Armstrong said the building was uninsured, calling the loss “catastrophic.”
He and Mainland were first drawn to the building because of its age and old world charm.
âShe loved the building,â he said. “She didn’t even want to come to Virden because that meant leaving her beautiful apartment building behind.”
While some of the artifacts he had hoped to include in the first-floor museum were not in the building at the time, Armstrong said a collection of ancient jewelry from three generations and a collection of around 300 books historical items were among the items lost in the Fire.
Some of the books were from the 1870s, he said, while others were about World War I and the evolution of guns. War correspondence and a collection of cameras were also lost, he said.
âThey would all have been on display and in perfect condition,â Armstrong said. “We wanted [a place] where people could study, manipulate if necessary. ”
Thousands of dollars in tools and supplies also caught fire, he said.
Armstrong said he was most upset to have lost a collection of books on the same battle of World War I written by soldiers who were on different sides of enemy lines.
âA huge amount of historical material,â he said. “A historic library that will be … extremely difficult to try to rebuild.”
The school fire started less than 24 hours after another fire razed three buildings in downtown Virden. The RCMP are currently investigating this arson attack.
Armstrong is not sure what started the fire, but would like the RCMP to investigate the school fire further.
âI have a lot of questions,â he said. “Absolutely nothing is known.”
Armstong is not yet sure what to do with the rest of his collection, but knows that rebuilding the old school is out of the question.
“I have no idea,” he said. “We’re abandoning the museum, I guessâ¦ dispersing the collectionâ¦ Seems to be the only thing left to do.”