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District 25 school house renovated, open house scheduled (with video)

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news Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

For eight years Nancy Peterson Salmi walked about a mile from her parent’s rural New London farm home to a one-room prairie school house where her love of reading was stoked and where she drew inspiration for her own 34-year career as a teacher.

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Two of her four siblings also went to the school until it closed in 1963. Her grandfather and father served for decades on the Lake Andrew Township board of directors, which used the building as the town hall until 2012.

Today the old school/township hall sits on the farm of her late parents, Earl and Eldora Peterson, and the five Peterson children are finishing a year-long project to restore the 101-year-old building.

“It’s so wonderful seeing the school looking the way it should look. The way the builders back in 1912 wanted it to look,” said Salmi.

The labor of love — which was the wish of Eldora Peterson before she died in late 2011 — involved moving the building from its original site, setting it on a cement slab, re-siding and painting the exterior, ripping out old plumbing fixtures, fixing and painting interior plaster walls, giving the hardwood floors a new luster, restoring a boarded-up window, finding light fixtures to replicate the original style and snagging an old school bell at an auction to replace the one that was stolen from the building’s bell tower in the 1970s.

“It has just been so much fun,” said Salmi, of the time she and her siblings have spent working on the restoration.

“Mother wanted to do this for the community and we just followed through,” said Salmi, who lives in Grand Rapids.

The family is hosting a community open house from 2 to 5 p.m. Aug. 10 and 11.

Special invitations were sent to former students from School District 25, as well as current and former Lake Andrew Township directors.

The event will be an opportunity for people to see the renovation, share memories, look at historic photos and page through school and township documents in the former school library that will now function as a museum.

“We want people to enjoy this building,” said Lorna Peterson of Willmar. “It’s such a big part of the community.”

Saving history

For 100 years the building sat on Kandiyohi County Road 5 as a major landmark for people heading to farms and lakes in the northern part of the county.

In 2011 the Lake Andrew town board decided the building was too expensive to maintain and opted to build a new town hall on the site and looked for a buyer for the old building.

That’s when the Peterson family started talking about what they could do to preserve the building.

After a proposal to move the school to the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center fell through, their mother suggested buying the building and moving it to their farm.

The proposal was quickly endorsed by the township in November of 2011 and the Peterson clan moved quickly to clear the plan with the county zoning office and then began planning for the move and restoration.

“It all fell into place,” said Lorna Peterson, who estimates the project cost about $20,000 and an incalculable number of hours of labor.

The family used money left to them by their parents to fund the work.

“Mom and Dad made it possible,” said Helen Peterson Gronli of New London. “The kids carried it through.”

Unfortunately, Eldora passed away a month after the Peterson’s bought the building.

“She would’ve been so excited to see this happen,” said Mary Peterson Jeseritz of Kerkhoven.

Lorna Peterson wonders aloud, with a laugh, what her dad would think of having the old school in his cow yard.

New home

Moving day on July 17, 2012, was the most exciting and emotional day in the process for the Peterson family, said Jeseritz. It was a “mix of emotions” as they grieved the departure of the school from its original post and eagerly watched as it moved down the road to the family farm.

Community neighbors watched the caravan a year ago and have been eyeing the exterior work that’s been steadily progressing ever since.

But most haven’t peeked inside and will no doubt be eager to see it during the open house.

When the Petersons, which includes the four sisters — Nancy, Mary, Lorna and Helen — and brother Richard, began working on the interior and picking out wall paint colors they knew they wanted something warm and inviting.

That’s the way Jeseritz remembers the school when she went there for grades 1 through 5.

A small library with built-in shelves and cabinets on both sides, and a bay window at the end was where Jeseritz and Salmi fed their love of reading that their teacher, Mrs. Arnold (Alphie) Gustrud, nurtured.

“We wanted the library to have a cozy, warm feeling,” said Jeseritz.

Throughout the renovation project the goal was to preserve the original integrity and look of the building.

The original blackboards still hang on two walls, with pull-down maps of the world anchored at the top.

The original hardwood floor was cleaned up and given a coat of polyurethane, but the worn spots and scratches were not sanded out.

There are some new items to replace original features that disappeared over the years, like the light fixtures in the classroom and the bell from the outside alcove above the porch.

They got into a bidding war for the bell with another interested party at an auction in Hills. After winning the bid they hauled it home in their van. It fits perfectly and has a solid ring when the red rope is pulled.

Although the school was built in 1912, early settlers established the school district in 1868 and held classes in a cabin.

“They worked so hard to have a school out here,” said Lorna Peterson. “It’s important for people to see what they did.”

Restoring the old school is one way to honor the dedication those early farm families had to provide an education for their children and the care they took to build a new school to last into the future, she said.

The Petersons are focused on finishing the final details before the open house next weekend and say they haven’t thought about future uses for the building. But, at the very least, it will be available for viewing by appointment.

“The idea wasn’t to move it here for us, but for the community,” said Gronli.

Individuals with memorabilia pertaining the school and township are also invited to consider donating or loaning items to the museum.

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