Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Should this Minnesota country schoolhouse be saved? June 24, 2016

 

The Le Sueur School District 18 schoolhouse, located at 35278 141st Avenue, rural Montgomery, Minnesota.

The Le Sueur County School District 18 schoolhouse, located at 35278 141st Avenue, rural Montgomery, Minnesota.

THE WEATHERED SCHOOLHOUSE sits on a slight rise along the gravel road, surrounded by a clipped lawn bordered by farm fields.

Hardy daisies thrive next to the schoolhouse.

Hardy daisies thrive next to the schoolhouse.

On this Sunday summer afternoon when I’ve discovered the aged building just off Le Sueur County Road 26 two miles east of Montgomery in Montgomery Township, the wind is rippling grain fields and bending daises nestled into an exterior corner of the schoolhouse.

Windows need repair/replacing.

Windows need repair/replacing.

As I brace myself against the wind, I notice shingle debris scattered across the grass. I notice the weathered grey of unpainted siding, the rotted boards, the barn swallow and wasp nests. I notice how much this schoolhouse needs care and upkeep.

A rear shot of the country school.

A rear shot of the country school.

In 1888, Wencel and Mary Petricka sold this parcel of land to Le Sueur County School District 18 for $1 to build this school. In 1957, when the Le Sueur district consolidated with the Montgomery School District, the little one-room country school closed.

Consider the hands that once turned this knob opening the door to an education.

Consider the hands that once turned this knob opening the door to an education.

And here it stands, a year shy of sixty years after closure, seemingly abandoned. Except for that mowed lawn and that patch of daisies. Someone still cares. And that gives me hope. Hope that someone will find the money and the inclination to save this piece of rural Minnesota’s educational history. Before it’s too late.

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Three rooflines: entry, classroom and bell tower.

Three rooflines: entry, classroom and bell tower.

IT’S EASY FOR ME TO WRITE, Save the School. But the issue of financing often blocks the path to such endeavors. Do you have any creative ideas to fund a repair and restoration project? Perhaps I should first ask, should the schoolhouse be saved? I don’t even know who owns it.

Perhaps an American flag will fly again some day on the corner of the schoolhouse.

Perhaps an American flag will fly again some day on the corner of the schoolhouse.

In September of 2015, Le Sueur County School District 18 held its first ever reunion. With 31 alumni and guests in attendance (including a former teacher), there’s clearly an appreciation for this Minnesota country school.

© Copyright 2016 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