Farm Horizons, February 2014

Schoolhouse to home in four years

By Jennifer Kotila

The consolidation of school districts in the mid-1900s left multiple country schoolhouses abandoned throughout the area. However, some of those schoolhouses survived by being transformed into homes.

The William Fiedler house, located on Wright County Road 35 just east of Wright County Road 5, is one of those schoolhouses that became a home. The house is the former Maple Grove schoolhouse, and was moved to Fiedler’s property to replace an old, deteriorating farmhouse.

The Maple Grove school was located 1.5 miles south of Fiedler’s property. It was called the Maple Grove school because the area used to be covered in maple trees, Fiedler noted. “This area was all solid maple,” he said. “My dad used to talk about cutting wood here all year long.”

After local districts consolidated, Fiedler obtained the schoolhouse in 1971. He noted the building was selling for the right price, and it didn’t cost that much to move to his property. It was built in 1940 by the Works Progress Administration.

Clyde Tomlinson of Dassel constructed the foundation for the schoolhouse right next to the deteriorating farmhouse it was to replace, and the building was moved in. The entire interior was gutted, and Fiedler went to work turning it into a home. Other than hiring an electrician, a plumber, and a cabinet-maker, Fiedler did most of the work himself.

“It was handy,” Fiedler said of having the old house and the new one side-by-side during the transformation of the schoolhouse. “I would come out here, work, then go take a nap.” As photographs of that time show, Fiedler also had no problem napping in the schoolhouse as he worked to transform it. He noted the people taking the photos always seemed to catch him napping.

For the next four years, between milking cows, taking care of other animals on the farm, and working in the fields, Fiedler worked at turning the schoolhouse into a home for his family. The transformation was complete by the fall of 1975. “We had an exchange student coming in the fall of 1975 – it had to get done by then,” Fiedler said.

Throughout the reconstruction, Fiedler relied on the skills and input of many people. He also scouted out and used many recycled materials in the transformation from schoolhouse to home.

He and his wife, Irene, now deceased, wanted a fireplace in their new home. She found a photograph in the Better Homes and Gardens magazine of the fireplace she wanted. Six windows and all the siding down one side of the schoolhouse were removed to make way for the large chimney the fireplace required. Vern Jones, a retired bricklayer, was hired to design the plans from the picture and construct the fireplace.

“They spent two weeks on the chimney,” Fiedler said, noting how the bricks were counted in order to get the proper dimensions. “Oh, they had a ball here; they had never built one like that, they said.”

All of the material needed to construct the fireplace was obtained through Fiedler’s own labor. The bricks were gathered from the former Albright Store, which stood where the Albright County Park is now located. Fiedler and a friend used a pry bar and rope to pull the bricks off the building. He noted river sand from the Crow River must have been used to hold the bricks together, because they fell off so easily and did not have to be cleaned. The mantle of the fireplace is a nearly 10-foot long log timber which came from an abandoned cabin located on Irene’s parents’ property.

A bay window was also installed on that side of the house to replace the windows that were removed.

Former county historian, Marion Jameson, assisted the Fiedlers with the interior design of the house. She was able to locate two stained glass windows from a former house in Anoka, amongst other antiques to be used.

Three large hand-hewn poplar beams were attached to the ceiling of what would become the dining room. Although the beams look very heavy, one man is able to carry them, Fiedler said. Poplar is a light wood that does not sag, he noted. He obtained the beams, which came out of an old cabin in French Lake Township, from Cliff Sundblad.

A balcony-type upstairs was created in the schoolhouse, and Fiedler constructed the staircase; the banister on the staircase came from his own mother’s house. The original hanging lights from the schoolhouse still light the upstairs hallway.

The front door of the home was rescued from a house that burned down near Cokato. The original etched glass of the door was broken accidently by a family friend, but some of its ornateness remains in the carved flowers located in the middle wooden panel of the door. A tall, gothic, stained glass window next to the door came from the German Lutheran Church in Howard Lake. A bullseye window that was installed on the back of the house came out of Irene’s home church in Clarissa.

When the house was finally ready to move into, Fiedler’s youngest daughter was the only one of his four children remaining at home. She was a senior that year, and it had been her idea to host a foreign exchange student. She and the foreign exchange student, a girl from Italy, graduated together from Howard Lake in 1976.

Fiedler noted the exchange student was kind of a tomboy, and his son was impressed with how well she could throw a football. Since that school year, the girl has been back about a dozen times to visit her host family, Fiedler said.

The schoolhouse Fiedler purchased had been at least the third one to be built for the Maple Grove school. The first building was called the Red School House, Fiedler noted. He has an old photograph of that schoolhouse from 1892, with bare-footed children posing in front of the building with their teacher. He also has a photograph of another building from the mid-1920s. In that photograph, all the school children are wearing shoes.

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