Historic building's future uncertain as Lake Andrew prepares to open new town hall
NEW LONDON -- Softball games at noon, heart-pounding spelldowns, Christmas programs, painstaking cursive writing exercises and a teacher who taught eight grades in one room with a strict hand to make burly boys tow the line are just some of the memories Steve Nelson has of his education in the District 25 country school building.
It's the same building where his father went to school. They even had the same teacher although there's a 39-year gap between father and son.
"That's what you call tenure," said Nelson, who lives just down the road from the four-square country school building that still stands in Lake Andrew Township and now serves as the town hall.
With a wide porch, bay windows and a bell tower left empty after the mysterious disappearance of the school bell some years ago, the 1912 building holds memories for many adults who got their first eight years of education there.
But the future of that building is now in question.
A buyer is being sought to purchase and move the structure from its landmark site at the intersection of Kandiyohi County Road 5 Northwest and County Road 29 about 15 miles north of Willmar.
If that doesn't happen in a timely manner, there's the possibility the structure could be demolished.
"I can't see tearing down a landmark that has so much history to the community," said Nelson, adding that there would be an "uprising" if it were torn down. "It's historic and it absolutely needs to be preserved."
Classes ceased to be held in the building in the 1960s when the independent country school was closed and students began attending classes in New London. The building has served as the Lake Andrew town hall ever since.
Faced with a crumbling basement foundation, the high cost of heating the structure for their once-a-month meetings and the occasional bats that interrupted town board meetings, township residents voted last year to build a new town hall on the same property.
Construction on the $150,000 structure is nearly done and the township supervisors hope to move in this month.
But what to do with a building full of memories that's dear to hundreds of people is weighing heavily on the town board members, who discussed the issue Tuesday night at their September meeting.
Ideally, they would like to see the building moved to the nearby Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center to be used as part of the time travel exhibit there. The township made the offer, but it was rejected by Prairie Woods, said Morrie Evenson, chairman of the town board.
"It should be saved for posterity," said Evenson, especially considering that it's one of the few remaining country school buildings left intact in the county.
The second option is to sell the building to a private individual and have it moved off the site, preferably to a location in Lake Andrew Township. With a slab foundation under it, the solid structure would make an attractive building, said Evenson.
The board hinted that the selling price would be reasonable.
"The state requires us to get a dollar," he said.
The third option the board may be forced to consider is demolition.
"I think a lot of people would be upset if it got demolished," said Gordon Hjelle, a township supervisor.
But Evenson said leaving the building at the site is not an option because it would deteriorate and eventually collapse without constant upkeep. He said the board would like to find a good home for the building and have it moved off the site by next summer.
When asked what action would be taken if that timeline isn't met, Evenson said the board would "cross that bridge when we come to it" but said the board will be flexible and that "nothing is written in stone."
Nelson rejects even the idea that the old school could be demolished.
"If we lose our landmarks, we lose part of our culture," said Nelson, adding there would be an "a full-scale rebellion" if the building is torn down and that he would lead efforts to prevent it from happening.
It was Nelson who made the motion at the 2010 annual township meeting to pursue construction of a new town hall that could be used year-around and better meet the needs of the township. The motion was approved unanimously by the 25 or so people who attended the annual meeting. No one voted against it.
But Nelson said he made the motion with the understanding that the old building would not be demolished. That provision, however, was not included in the motion.
Nelson said there is a need for a new town hall, and the township had been saving for years for the project and had the money in the bank to pay for it.
But he said construction of a new town hall doesn't mean the old one should be demolished. He said it's important to preserve the history of District 25, which started in 1868, and to preserve an architecturally unique building that served as the district's cornerstone for so many years.
As the site where local government has had a strong voice for many years, the township supervisors say there are also many memories of past board members and community decisions that echo in the old building. They agree it should be preserved, but said someone needs to step forward to make that happen.
Anyone who's interested can call any of the township supervisors, said Evenson.