Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Little school on the prairie July 8, 2013

The former Little Prairie School District 15 country schoolhouse near Dundas in rural Rice County Minnesota.

AS THE STORY GOES, and I’ve no reason to believe it’s been embellished, the teacher kept the students inside for recess one afternoon because of coyotes roaming the school grounds.

True story from the one-room Chimney Butte School, rural St. Anthony, North Dakota, in the early 1960s.

Scrape the mud from your shoes on the metal scraper, left, before stepping inside the Little Prairie school.

This tale, which I suppose does not make it a tale if it’s the truth, flits through my mind every time I step inside a country school, like that at Little Prairie. My husband, one of the Chimney Butte students sheltered from the ranging coyotes, and I came across the 1885 Little Prairie School District 15 country school as we traveled the back roads between Faribault and Dundas.

We’ve previously driven Rice County roads 8 and 77 through the heart of Little Prairie. But I’d only noticed then the historic Little Prairie United Methodist Church and not the old schoolhouse kitty-corner across the tar road.

As I always do, I tried the schoolhouse doors, hoping to get inside, knowing they would be locked. So I cupped my hands around my eyes to reduce the glare and peeked inside the windows, then lifted my camera and shot a few photos.

I’ve never seen or ridden a merry-go-round like this one in the Little Prairie school yard. It gently swayed up and down as we circled.

And then, as we spun on the merry-go-round, we noticed the car parked by the church and the man sitting on a bench outside with his back to us. We contemplated that he might be the pastor, a man with a key. Randy even went so far as to suggest that he likely was waiting between appointments to counsel couples engaged to be married.

A blackboard, with pertinent historical info about the school.

Eventually the man spotted us, crossed the road and we were in. Pastor Gordon, as he introduced himself, wasn’t leaving us outside for the coyotes, not that we saw any lurking in the vicinity. And, yes, he said, he was between pre-marriage counseling sessions.

Like us, Pastor Gordon Deuel did not grow up in Rice County. Like me, he’s from southwestern Minnesota, except farther west than me, from the prairie town of Hendricks on the Minnesota-South Dakota border. He feels at home here, where he’s pastored Little Prairie for seven years.

I tell you this because he cannot recite the detailed history of the Little Prairie School as a local would. But he possesses, like Randy and me, a deep appreciation for the preservation and history of old buildings such as country schoolhouses and churches.

A back and side view of the school, surrounded mostly by cornfields.

Just that morning his congregation had planned to gather in the school yard for a worship service and community potluck picnic. But the heavy dew moved the event into the church. The school is opened several times a year for public touring and occasionally for solo stops like ours or group tours by former students.

Looking to the front and one side of the school.

We came away from our chat with a realization that the people of Little Prairie care deeply for their little country schoolhouse. Although owned by the church, the school is really a community project embraced by those who live around Little Prairie and/or attend the Methodist church and also by members of the local Full-O-Pep 4-H Club, Pastor Gordon informs us. They form the informal “Schoolhouse Committee” which maintains the building and property.

Pastor Gordon remembers how several terminally ill individuals from the Northfield and Faribault areas wanted to give back to the community. So, for a small fee, they were hired to paint the exterior of the school.

Many old books were lined precisely on a table behind the teacher’s desk.

Such care for country schools is shown likewise at the 1881 District 20 Millersburg School to the north and west near Millersburg. There members of the Christdala Preservation Association have converted the one-room country school into a museum. Randy and I discovered it two years ago, during the annual association meeting and worship service at Christdala Evangelical Swedish Lutheran Church just down Rice County Road 1.

Minnesota photographer Doug Ohman, in his Minnesota Byways series book Schoolhouses of Minnesota, features “120 color photographs that illuminate the simple, often abandoned, sometimes refurbished, and nearly vanishing Minnesota pioneer and early schoolhouses.”

That’s Little Prairie School on the cover of Doug Ohman’s book.

Gracing the cover of that volume—Little Prairie School District #15.

The school entry, with a place to hang coats, right, and a sink to wash up, left.

Another view of that same entry with the water fountain to the left of the sink.

The school treasurer’s bookkeeping register from 1929.

If only I’d had time to peruse all the wonderful old books inside this school.

Looking toward the back of the school.

An old shed, I think the outhouse; I did not peer inside.

FYI: These images were shot last summer when my husband and I stopped at the school while on a Sunday afternoon drive.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling