The giant draft horse Ellie emerged from the woods, dragging a bouncing red pine with little visible effort. Chains rattled on the ice. A pack of curious fourth-graders, their red faces beaming under hoods and stocking caps, hurried behind.
This was a science lesson. And history. Math, too. All accomplished in nature's classroom on a once-upon-a-time farm behind O.H. Anderson Elementary School in Mahtomedi.
More than 60 years ago, Boy Scouts planted thousands of trees on three sides of school land. Their work became a forest of towering red pines -- and an educational gem.
"Our focus has been to get the kids outside," said Julie Henricksson, a retired teacher who spent 27 years in a fourth-grade classroom at the school. "We like the kids to have experience with natural resources."
Ellie's owner, Keith Stainer, logged with horses for 50 years. While the kids watched from a safe distance, he felled a red pine and hitched Ellie to the log. The 1,800-pound Percheron, after pulling the log beside several others cut for previous classroom demonstrations, stood obediently as Stainer measured the log into proportional lengths and then fired up a chain saw.
He also talked about tools used in horse logging, comparisons with logging by machine and the selection of trees for cutting. The finale involved the chance to pet Ellie. Stainer stood behind her for safety, shooing the kids toward her shaggy head and massive shoulders.
"This whole school, discipline-wise and everything else, has been top notch," said Stainer, who until recently cut logs on his 120 acres in Menomonie, Wis., for sale at sawmills as far away as Finland and Sweden. All of the school's 670 students were involved in the horse logging curriculum over several days of demonstrations. On the last day, students presented him with a huge banner showing him with Ellie. All the kids signed it.
The O.H. Anderson Nature Trail, which runs for about a half-mile through the forest just west of Hilton Trail, has been used for many learning purposes over the year, Henricksson said. One course used it for student photography of the forest to learn about legendary nature photographer Ansel Adams. In winters with adequate snow, students learn cross-country skiing. Other classes have taught students about prairie grasses.
The trail remains open for community use. Boy Scouts continue to do projects in the forest for advancement, she said.
Most of the two dozen or so logs cut for Stainer's demonstrations were thinned from stands of pines planted too close together. Most will go to Mahtomedi's middle and senior high schools for woodworking. Some go to sawmills.
At Anderson Elementary, on S. Warner Avenue and serving third to fifth grades, the robust forest offers endless possibilities for outdoors learning, said Julie McGraw, a school parent and volunteer.
"There's a great outdoor classroom here for them," she said.
Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles