Craig High School senior Chance Neumueller snapped a piece of wood-grain flooring into place in a corner closet with obtuse angles that gave it the shape of a baseball home plate.
Neumueller patted his split-leather tool apron, searching for his carpenter’s square. He had left the square somewhere in the 1,780-square-foot house on Cumberland Drive that he and 22 other Janesville School District high school students have spent the school year building.
Neumueller had just walked himself through cutting a piece of flooring to fit an odd angle.
Now he was pondering an ancient carpenter’s puzzle: Where did I set down the tool that I now need?
“It’s all learning, every step of the way. And the first thing you learn is it all takes a little more thinking and patience than you think it will,” Neumueller said.
Neumueller and 11 other students made up the afternoon group of Craig and Parker high schools’ advanced construction class, a program that for a full school year drops industrial arts students, mostly seniors, into the middle of a new home build. Several days a week, the students spend half their day working on site, building a new home.
The Janesville School District has run the advanced construction program since the 1990s, earlier on as an annual build for Habitat for Humanity but in more recent years through a partnership with South Central Wisconsin Builders Association.
The builders association sponsors the program, and a different local builder each year opens a new home build to the students.
For the past 15 years, Parker technology education teacher Joe Kruser has run the advanced construction program, which is split into a morning and an afternoon group. Kruser took over the student build class after a year teaching wood shop in the Janesville School District.
Kruser is seldom in his office at Parker. His classroom, for the most part, is the building site. He supervises and instructs students who handle much of the framing and exterior and interior finish work of building a different house every year.
The past few years, as the economy has begun to tip upward, Kruser said he has had no problem getting students signed up for advanced construction.
For local builders, that might be good news.
Now, builders are seeing a growth in demand for new home construction and renovation in a local housing market that’s stretched thin on homes for sale.
Despite demand, many builders are finding themselves hunting for workers. Kruser said the advanced construction program has for years worked as a pipeline for students interested in getting into carpentry and construction trades, but the program now might play a more crucial role in getting new workers in the construction pipeline.
“The local builders we’re consulting with on this program are really calling for more workers right now. So, basically, what we’ve got here now is a workforce development program,” Kruser said.
Kruser said students involved in advanced construction have learned through coursework how to safely handle tools, and they qualify themselves for the student build program by focusing on coursework on construction. After a year building a home, some of the students go on to college, sometimes for construction management. Others funnel into construction trades apprenticeships.
“Some go to college for other things not tied to construction. But if things change for those students, we sometimes see them coming back to Janesville. They get back into the trades they started to learn in this program,” Kruser said.
Neumueller said he has been attending trades job fairs, and he plans after graduating high school to go into an apprenticeship program, either for carpentry or electrical work. He said he hasn’t decided which.
Another student, Valic Gritzmaker, a senior at Craig, has been in the advanced construction class for two years. Gritzmaker remembers getting a plastic “Bob the Builder” tool set as a young boy.
He moved from that to building his first table with his grandpa when he was just 4 years old.
In advanced construction this year, Gritzmaker picked up experience working with plaster on a kitchen island. He found plaster work challenging but fun.
“I got pretty good at it. It’s sort of like painting with mud,” he said.
Gritzmaker said instead of studying construction in college or apprenticing with a local builder, he wants to go straight into business. At 17, he’s trying to launch his own remodeling business—for now, a one man company without a name.
He’s networking for customers through his uncle, a landscaper who he said has a large customer base in Beloit.
“Right now, I’d like to do remodeling and additions. I really like kitchen work, doing backsplashes and that kind of thing. There’s lots of work people want done in remodeling right now,” Gritzmaker said.
Tom Naatz surveyed work going on at the Cumberland Drive house. Naatz, a Janesville-area general contractor who operates Naatz Construction, is building the home the students are working on this year.
Once students finish installing cabinets and woodwork, the house will go on the market.
That ought to be in early April, Naatz said.
He said the Cumberland Drive home will hit the market with a $330,000 price tag. For a home its size and type, that’s about $20,000 less than the going rate, Naatz said. The main cost saver, he said, is that students have provided a big source of labor.
Naatz said Wisconsin school districts have had few lasting student build programs like Janesville’s in part because most districts are unable or uninterested in budgeting for a full-time instructor to run the programs.
The Janesville School District pays Kruser’s salary, and the South Central Wisconsin Builders Association funds the program, in part by donating the lot for the home. Builders, subcontractors and local suppliers ante up with donated time, material and time to keep the program running, Naatz said.
In a few years, he said, the program is on pace to be mainly self-funded by the builders association.
The students building the home are mostly unpaid, but as they work on the program, they earn credits and learn the processes that will help them land work later.
Kruser and Naatz said local builders every year pick up a handful of apprentices who are students in the advanced construction program.
Naatz is on a state panel of builders association members. He said others on the panel tell him Janesville’s student build program is the envy of builders around the state.
“What sets it apart and makes it continue to work is the support that everyone continues to give this program. It’s good for the students, the school district and the builders,” Naatz said.
Neumueller said as he was hanging siding on the Cumberland Drive house last fall, he had a thought.
“Every time I drive by this house, even if I’m 50 years old, I’m going to remember putting on that siding,” Neumueller said. “Even if some day someone changes the siding or everything, it doesn’t matter. I’ll always look at it and know that when I was in high school, I built that house.”
Walter Shannon suggested 14 years ago that the building at 104 W. Main St. would make a great law office.
Shannon and Nancy Greve-Shannon had just started dating at the time, Greve-Shannon said.
It became an ongoing joke in their relationship; “One day when we own the hall,” they would say.
The couple have since married and turned their ongoing joke into reality.
Shannon and Greve-Shannon will open the rejuvenated John M. Evans Hall at the end of April, as long as everything goes as planned, Shannon said.
The hall will reopen as a shared space between the Shannon Law Office, community rental space named Emma’s Table and meeting space for the Evansville Community Theatre group, Shannon said.
The Shannon family is the third owner of the home since it was built in 1884 by John M. Evans, the first doctor in Evansville and the man who Evansville was named after.
When John. M. Evans arrived at what is now known as Evansville in 1846, the settlement was known as The Grove for its grove of Burr Oak trees, said Ruth Ann Montgomery, Evansville historian.
Soon after settling, an epidemic of ague—a disease similar to malaria—devastated the area, Montgomery said. Evans cured as many of those afflicted as he could, gaining the respect of many in the area.
His notoriety led first to the post office being named Evansville, Montgomery said. That carried on to be the village’s name once it was incorporated in 1855.
Montgomery believes Evans was a nice guy in his time.
While working in the 13th Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, Montgomery said, Evans helped slaves get out of the war and get paid jobs in Evansville.
Evans lived in the home until he died in 1903, leaving the house to his son John Evans Jr., Montgomery said. Evans Jr. sold the house to the Masonic Lodge 19 years later.
The hall changed hands to Shannon and Greve-Shannon in 2016.
In a space soon to be a conference room laid a leather-ish bag that appeared to be chewed past the point of use.
Shannon believes it was one of Evans’ medical bags.
When the Masons moved in they kept a lot of Evans’ family artifacts in the attic, Shannon said. They also left behind many of their artifacts.
The room looked like a poorly kept antique collection that included the Masons’ pool table, a projector machine, the medical bag and a box of papers.
Much of Evans’ leftover paperwork and medical equipment was donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society, Shannon said.
The house acts like its own time capsule. A wall has some of the original wallpaper from the Evans family, and the house stands on its original foundation.
Stories have poured in from community members about visits with Santa in the Masonic Lodge and the space serving as last-minute classrooms when the school was not available, Greve-Shannon said.
Shannon and Greve-Shannon have worked with experts to preserve as much of the structure as possible, Shannon said.
But some things had to be changed, such as adding the building’s first central heating and air conditioning units, Shannon said.
Owners and workers had to displace a menagerie of woodland creatures that had gathered in the attic over the years, Shannon said.
Scott Brummond has helped the restoration with countless hours of work, most notably his efforts to preserve the numerous large panel windows on all levels of the house.
Windows in the former Mason altar room had been closed for decades, Shannon said.
Shannon-Greve will run Emma’s Table, a community rental space available for events, she said. The name is a nod to Evans’ wife, Emma, who also was well-known in the community.
The hall has already served the community since the Shannon family took over, Shannon said.
The family created a haunted house in the hall to raise money for the owners of the Night Owl Tavern after a fire scorched the restaurant beyond repair.
A young couple held a wedding ceremony in the hall in November, Greve-Shannon said.
The building was made entirely of locally sourced bricks, with the exception of the addition from the Masons, Montgomery said.
Shannon and the rest of the team believe each brick represents an act that has occurred in the heart of the hall.
“Each such act then moving on to touch so many local lives in a positive way,” Shannon said in an email to The Gazette. “This, in our view, is the truest measure of the old hall.”
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