For nearly seven decades, the one-room prairie schoolhouse in Wilton Township educated generations of rural Waseca County kids.
After closing in 1951, it became an eye-catching regional landmark after its new owner gave it a coat of bright pink paint.
Now the pink prairie schoolhouse, built in 1882 midway between Waseca and Waldorf, Minn., is being reborn. The two-year effort will be capped by an ice cream social on Sept. 16 and the launch of a book that chronicles the life of the schoolhouse, as well as the more than 90 other one- and two-room schoolhouses that once dotted rural Waseca County.
The school’s rebirth was spearheaded by DeeAnn Britton, who made a promise to a friend. Little did she know how much would be involved in keeping that promise.
“It’s consumed my life for two years,” said Britton, who owns a bar with her husband and serves as the Waldorf town clerk. “I’ve prayed a lot on this project. I can’t tell you how many little miracles God has given me through this.”
The project was born of long conversations between Britton and Lois Yess, her neighbor in rural Waldorf. As Yess grew frail in her later years, Britton served as her caretaker.
Yess’ father had bought the schoolhouse after it was decommissioned, telling his family that he wanted it preserved as a landmark. To which Lois said, “We’ll make sure it is always a landmark,” and proceeded to paint it pink.
“The neighbors thought it was kind of crazy,” Britton said, but over the years the pink schoolhouse became a well-known fixture in the area.
One day, Britton and Yess went out and sat in the weathered, worn schoolhouse, whose pink paint was faded and peeling, and talked about old times.
“She said, ‘The schoolhouse needs to be fixed,’ ” Britton recalled. “And I said, ‘I’ll make sure that schoolhouse is never torn down. And it will always be painted pink.’
“It just seemed natural,” Britton said. “And I had no idea what I promised or how much work it has been.”
Not long after Yess died in 2014 at age 91, Britton set about keeping her promise. She began by cleaning out the schoolhouse and Yess’ nearby home, pulling out useful items and junk that had been stored over the years. She sold it all off at garage sales and began accumulating a pot of money for the renovation.
As restoration work got underway in earnest, many local residents pitched in to help replace and repair siding, windows, the roof and the foundation. Some skilled work had to be purchased, but the workers gave her bargain prices. The township chipped in with financial support.
Meanwhile, local resident Judy Joecks researched and wrote what was intended to be a pamphlet about the pink schoolhouse. But as she dug into the topic, it expanded into a book of more than 100 pages chronicling all the county’s rural schools. Joecks is donating the proceeds of the book’s sale to the renovation project, which Britton estimated has cost more than $15,000 so far.
Another local resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, is paying to restore the bell tower and install a bell.
The renovation includes cleaning up the interior as well. Britton said many original items survived, including chalkboards, bulletin boards, coat hooks, flooring and wainscoting.
“I think it would be awesome to bring kids in to see what school was like in the old days,” she said. More information can be found on Facebook at “Save the Pink School House.”
As renovation work progressed, local residents were eager to find out more about the project, Britton said.
“We put the siding up and people said, ‘What color are you going to paint it?’ ” she recounted.
“And I said, ‘What color do you paint a pink schoolhouse?’ ”