Reading, 'riting and restoring at historical schoolhouse

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 8, 2013 - 4:44 PM

Efforts to preserve what is likely the oldest schoolhouse in Minnesota, which got underway last year in Denmark Township, are at a critical point in 2013.

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Nestled on an easy-to-miss hillside at the southern end of St. Croix Trail, a graying white wooden building standing on a stone foundation is probably the earliest school building in the state.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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With all due respect to Stillwater -- its larger urban neighbor up the St. Croix River dubbed the "Birthplace of Minnesota" -- Denmark Township can lay claim to its own significant pieces of early state history.

It's home to the state's first family farm (founded by Ephraim Whitaker in 1846 on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River); the first post office outside of Fort Snelling (built by two enterprising young men in 1840 in Point Douglas, a once-thriving city where the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers merge); and the starting point for two of the state's five first major roads (the remnants of the most important one, built in 1851 to link Point Douglas and Duluth, can still be seen in a cliffside gash along what is now Hwy. 10 heading into Prescott, Wis.).

And nestled on an easy-to-miss hillside at the southern end of St. Croix Trail, a graying white wooden building standing on a stone foundation is probably the earliest school building in the state.

Efforts to save and restore the Valley School -- which dates from 1852, when it was built to replace a log cabin that had burned down -- reached a turning point last year when the small but dedicated Denmark Township Historical Society purchased the building.

The group aims to make its final payment on the building this year, then start the work of restoration.

"We've made a lot of progress," said Mavis Voigt, who, with her husband, Bob, are part of the society's efforts. "We're going to be successful, but it's kind of an uphill battle to raise funds."

Thanks to a lot of sweat equity by society members -- in the form of bake sales, raffles and other fundraising efforts -- and the worthiness of its cause, the group is looking to leverage some help with their goal, she said.

A little more than a year ago, society members realized a long-held dream when they reached an agreement to buy the building, including its nearby outhouses, and surrounding one acre of land for $80,000. The first payment, $40,000, was made last May 1, making them the building's owners. Since then, three payments of $5,000 each have been made, with another $25,000 to go by this coming May 1.

Then the real work begins.

The society has set an initial goal of raising another $45,000 this year for restoration costs, a figure based on discussions with other groups doing similar types of projects, Voigt said.

Along with $58,000 raised over the past year, they have a $4,800 grant from the Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Fund (from the dedicated Legacy funds backed by voters in 2008) to prepare a nomination for the schoolhouse to the National Register of Historic Places. Another $3,000 grant is paying for an architecture report to support that nomination.

Listing on the register could open avenues for grants and bring added protection to the site, but it also would bring strict guidelines for how the building is restored. The building has its original tin ceiling, slate blackboards and a foundation of rocks taken from nearby fields or perhaps the nearby riverbed. It was used as a school until closing in 1946.

"It's an amazing building with just incredible intact surfaces and details," said Carole Zellie, principal of Landscape Research LLC, who, with co-principal Amy Lucas, is doing work to prepare the nomination and the architecture report.

The building, contructed six years before Minnesota became a state, has changed little in its 161 years, and is a classic representative of the types of schoolhouses that dotted the state's landscape for generations.

It's also important in the context of its role in the development of Point Douglas, a city that at one time rivaled Stillwater as a gateway for pioneers and seemed destined for growth at the junction of two great rivers.

Sturdy pioneers, mostly from New England, arrived before 1840 (Denmark Township takes its name only indirectly from the Scandinavian nation -- towns in Maine and New York took the name in a gesture of solidarity after the British attacked Denmark in the early 1800s). They set to work creating a community that included sawmills, warehouses and other businesses.

But a fateful decision to route a rail line through Hastings, plus a decline in the lumber business, brought the town's decline and gradual disappearance.

Still, the little schoolhouse survives.

"It's amazing that it's still standing," Voigt said.

Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson

  • ABOUT POINT DOUGLAS

    What: A free program to help people learn more about Point Douglas and the Valley School, led by Mavis and Bob Voigt, board members of the Denmark Township Historical Society, and Mayme Johnson, program director and assistant interim director at Carpenter Nature Center.

    When: 2 p.m. Feb. 17, Great River Road Visitor and Learning Center (Freedom Park), 200 Monroe St., Prescott, Wis.

    More information: The Great River Road Visitor Center website at www.freedomparkwi.org, Denmark Township Historical Society website at www.dthsmn.org or Carpenter Nature Center website at www.carpenternaturecenter.org.

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