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A few years ago, Gene Seipp and his wife, MaryLou, journeyed from Tomahawk, Wis., to Sherburne County on a whim, to track down the farmhouse where he had lived as a young boy.
The farmstead was long gone, the land now part of the 30,700-acre Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. But still standing, to Seipp's delight, was the one-room schoolhouse he had attended in the 1940s.
"The school caught my eye right away even though it was repainted," he said. "When I saw it, it choked me up."
Besides homework, Seipp, 71, remembers performing in Christmas shows, playing ball and doing chores. Occasionally, he and friends would sneak off to the nearby St. Francis River to gobble down their lunch. Once, the boys let loose a garter snake in the classroom. "The teacher never figured out who did it," he said with a laugh.
For the past several decades, the vanilla-colored building served as a visitor services center at the refuge, with countless meetings, classes and recreational activities happening there. But last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service condemned the site because of mold and other problems. Now it is closed.
The original building dates to the late 1800s. It burned in the early 1900s and was rebuilt. After its school days ended in the early '50s, it became a residence and then the visitors center.
Whenever people hear the quaint structure's back-story, they want to try to save it, but it's "fiscally impractical," said refuge manager Anne Sittauer.
In recent years conditions went from bad to worse. The roof is caving in, there's the mold problem, and more than 200 bats have holed up in the attic, Sittauer said. The septic system broke down some time ago. The refuge put up with it for a long time, but an inspector finally came through and "said it shouldn't be used anymore," she said.
At one point, a nonprofit group, Friends of Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, explored the possibility of historic status for the building, but it had been remodeled too many times over the years to apply.
The wildlife refuge plans to make do for now with tents for events. The situation underscores its need for a new visitor center, said Sue Hix, who leads the Friends group. For more than a decade, the Friends have been working on a proposal for a new facility.
Thousands turn out for certain educational programs and one-day events, most notably the Wildlife Festival and Winterfest events. "We've been getting good momentum with the refuge," especially with a learning program that looks at the entire preserve as a classroom, Hix said. Despite the progress, now there's the problem that "we have no way to host them."
The old schoolhouse, meanwhile, is likely to be torn down at some point, but it's unclear when. Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.