Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, May 25, 1998

Recalling the old District 5 school

By Russell Victorian

The wooden shingles on the District 5 country school just south of Lester Prairie on County Road 9, are weathered. Many are missing and the holes in the roof get larger with each year.

The wind blows freely through the old schoolhouse. Its windows are all broken out and some of the glass is strewn about inside on the hardwood floor, which is now bowed and rippled from years of storing corn.

Inside the front door, the entryway burns a picture in one's mind of children laughing and bumbling about as they hung their cloaks on hooks along the wall at the beginning of a new school day.

Then the students made their way into the one large room where they shook off the chill of a cold Minnesota morning. Two older boys passed through the door, their hands loaded with wood from the shed out back. They filled the wood box near the pot bellied stove enough for a day at least.

Just then the teacher walked in with a jug of water he or she carried from the neighbor's place. It would be used throughout the day for drinking and washing.

In the early years, the children took their seats on unplaned half logs, with wooden pegs for legs, which were located along three walls in the room. All of the furniture was hewn from logs, most likely from trees of the surrounding "Big Woods." The teacher had a roughly constructed table for a desk and a homemade stool.

At the turn of the century, about 30 to 40 pupils, from 6 to 20 years in age, attended the District 5 rural school. The school also served as a meeting place and a place of worship for several denominations.

As the years passed, chalk boards, desks and other improvements were made. The number of students decreased to around 20 to 25 when only grades one through eight attended the rural school.

But most of the rural school aura remained. Students still had to clean the chalk board and erasers, sweep the floors of the school and the "his" and "her" outhouses, bring in plenty of kindling and wood for the stove and to get rid of ashes from the stove.

"Most of the older children helped with the tasks," said Russell Laraway of Hutchinson, who taught at District 5 during the 1941-42 school year.

Laraway said they would hold an election once a week to see who was going to help with chores around the school that week.

Besides teaching, he said it was his job to start the wood fire in the morning and keep it going.

Laraway said there was a stage, about 10 inches higher than the rest of the floor, at the front of the school where the teacher's desk was and where students would recite their lessons.

A wood burner was located in the back corner of the room. The burner had a metal jacket around it to keep children from getting burned, he said. A Red Wing water jug was always kept full in the back of the room.

There was a chalkboard and pull down geography maps behind the teachers desk, Laraway said.

Outside, the one-acre grassy school yard was fenced in to keep the cattle out, he said. Inside the fence there was a ball field for the children to play on.

Laraway said he often played games with the children while supervising them.

When he first started teaching at District 5, there was a bit of a discipline problem. Laraway said some of the boys refused to get off the top of the woodshed in the morning to come to school. He solved that by allowing them some responsibility and being friends with them as well as an instructor.

Louella Schuette of Lester Prairie taught at the District 5 school the year before Laraway.

Schuette said it was at the beginning of the war, and she and her husband shared a car. So there were times when she walked from her home to the school house.

It would be early in the morning because the fire had to be started and water brought in from the neighbors before school was started, she said.

Schuette remembers it being pretty cold in the building in winter, despite the large pot belly stove in the back of the room.

The District 5 school was one of the first country schools in McLeod County. It was originally located on the William E. Piper farm in Section 11 (later owned by Albert Breyer, Alan Olson and Vernon Wroge), according to the Lester Prairie community history book.

It was in 1884 when the school building was utilized by several denominations as a place of worship, including the Church of God, according to the Lester Prairie history book.

Teaching records show in 1897-98, there were 38 pupils enrolled with William Wilson Kirkpatrick as teacher.

In 1899, the schoolhouse was moved to the Gerhard Fruetel farm, (property later owned by Edward Fruetel, then Virgil Fruetel, then Mike Fruetel, and a 10-acre site, which the school is on, was recently sold to Brian and Robyn Hennen of Lester Prairie).

In 1905, the building was brick veneered, according to the history book.

In 1907, a teachers salary at the school was $35 a month. Laraway said he was paid $125 a month during the school year he taught there, which was the about the highest wage paid throughout the school's history.

In 1954, District 5 consolidated with Lester Prairie. Soon after, all of the school furnishings and supplies were sold at a public auction.

If one looks hard enough, one can still see numbers on the chalk board. Standing in the door of the old District 5 schoolhouse one can imagine the neat rows of desks, the children and the smell of burning wood.

That image is soon blown away by the wind coming in broken glass windows. Chains hanging from the ceiling, that once held lights, sway back and forth. If those walls could speak, they would certainly tell a good story.

District 5 school on endangered list; may soon face destruction

The District 5 rural school is a good example of a historic rural one-room school house.

That quality it has was recently recognized by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota when they included the school in its 1998 top 10 endangered historic properties in Minnesota list.

But it may be a little too late to save this one.

In April, Brian and Robyn Hennen of Lester Prairie purchased a 10-acre lot south of town. The District 5 country school is on it.

Brian Hennen said they loved the look of the building and thought they could restore it and operate some type of business out of it.

But due to the poor condition it is in, it would cost too much to refurbish it, Hennen said. The floor, ceiling, roof and much of it would have to be replaced.

The bricks also hid the deteriorating condition of the building, he said.

So the Hennens had a condition added to the purchase agreement stating the previous landowner was responsible for cleaning all the structures off the 10-acre site by June 1.

Due to its condition, Hennen said they wanted it down to eliminate any possible liability if someone would get hurt in or around it.

So, around Easter, they started removing the bricks from the old school building. Hennen said several bricks had initials and names scraped on them.

The Hennens were careful to save the bricks with markings on them. It did not take long for people to get word of the markings on the bricks, Hennen said. He has given at least two dozen bricks away to local people.

After the bricks were off, the Hennens received a letter from the Preservation Alliance about the school being on the endangered buildings list. About the same time, Hennen saw the old school house featured in a newspaper.

"If we would have known sooner that it was being considered for that distinction, we would have reconsidered. We had no idea," said Hennen, who figured preservation efforts would have occurred a long time ago if that was what people were interested in.

Unless there is some assistance from the Preservation Alliance or someone else wants to purchase the building for preservation, the plans are to take it down, he said.

George Edwards, director of the Preservation Alliance, said people in the local community nominated the District 5 school, and the alliance then chose the school for this recognition.

Edwards said the state is losing these historic school buildings, which define education in the state's early years.

He said if Hennen is interested, the Preservation Alliance would point him in the direction of assistance, but Hennen would have to do the ground work.

There are tax credits and other incentives available for those who preserve an approved state historic building. It currently is not approved by the state registry, Edwards said.

He said the original location is considered when noting a buildings historic value unless a move is approved for special reasons.

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