by Britt Aamodt
Last year, Mark Claessens’ investment partner purchased a property on Nowthen Boulevard. Claessens, Elk River, is a realtor and no stranger to home improvements. He offered to help gussy up the place before it hit the market.
So last fall, he found himself in Nowthen attacking a hedge with pruning shears. Soon, a neighbor dropped by. He wanted to check on the old place and see who this stranger was.
The two fell to talking, and little by little a story spun out that transformed the house, in Claessens’ eyes, into a source of wonder.
“He told me that at one time it had been one of Elk River’s country schools,” said Claessens. “I had no idea.”
The bell tower, which the teacher rang to signal the start of the day, was ripped out long ago. The flagpole, where students gathered to pledge allegiance, was removed, as were the backyard outhouses, a water pump and a coal bin.
But the wide front steps remained. And in a certain light, in a certain frame of mind, a passerby might still imagine the ghost of an old schoolhouse emerging from the modernized facade.
“I remember everything,” said Waldo Leistico, 79. “I remember the inside of the schoolhouse like it was yesterday.”
In fact, it was nearly 74 years ago that a 6-year-old Leistico scrabbled up the front steps and took a seat in one of the rows of wood desks. To one side, he caught sight of his brother Orville grouped with the older kids.
“I probably remember the building better than I do the kids,” said the former pupil, and it’s no wonder. Years ago, Leistico and his family lived across the street from the schoolhouse.
“Of course the road was gravel then and a lot lower than it is now. I remember there was a slope as you went up to the school,” he says.
Time has passed, and Leistico has moved a couple miles down the road. But the schoolhouse endures, though altered. It was converted to a single-family residence in the late 1940s or early ‘50s.
One of Leistico’s strongest recollections is of the coal stove.
Because his family lived so near, they were given the all-important duty of keeping the coal and wood bins filled. Mornings, they crossed the road at 5:30, with a kerosene lamp to guide them through the winter dark. They got the stove humming so that an hour later, when the kids piled in, the one-room schoolhouse would be toasty warm.
The building was erected in 1896 without electricity, central heating or plumbing. The neighborhood wasn’t electrified until 1948.
“Oh, Miss Leonards was a nice lady,” Leistico said of his first teacher. “Young lady, though we didn’t know it then, of course.”
The teacher had every subject to teach and every grade from first to eighth. When it was time for a lesson, Leistico and the handful of kids in his grade would troop up front. The first row was composed of chairs with no desks. When their lesson ended, they would return to their seats and another grade would gravitate forward.
“The whole front of the classroom was blackboards. We had roll-down maps and a globe,” he said.
During recess, the classmates played anti-anti-over, tossing a ball over the roof to see how fast someone could run and catch it. They played fox and goose. In winter, they skated on the pond.
The school hosted a picnic every spring.
“The farmers competed to see who could bring the freshest radishes and lettuce,” said Leistico, whose parents, like many of the students’ parents, were farmers.
He left the schoolhouse in seventh grade to attend parochial school and eventually graduated from Handke, “the old one made of wood,” in Elk River.
In the late 1940s, the district consolidated and the country schoolhouses were closed.
This year, Claessens listed the old District No. 63 schoolhouse for sale. It’s a house now but, to the realtor, also a piece of history.
Leistico was a part of that history. “Yep,” he said, “lots of memories in there.”
What do you remember about this old schoolhouse?
If you have recollections you would like to share about any of Elk River’s old country schoolhouses, write them down or type them up and submit them to the Star News at 506 Freeport Ave. NW, Elk River, MN, 55330.
If you have pictures, submit those, too, so staff at the newspaper can scan them. We can also take submissions via email at email@example.com.