- Associated Press - Sunday, December 21, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Drivers often stop at the wooden structure 9 miles north of Wing and open the two doors that insulate what’s left of a one-room schoolhouse.

Though it’s nearly empty today and as chilly as the air surrounding it, students who stepped inside 60 years ago were greeted with a mild temperature warmed by a coal stove and a smiling teacher who gave instruction to 17 students in eight grades.

She’d start the day by calling the first-graders to the recitation bench, where they watched what she wrote on the chalkboard.

“I would give them their assignment to take to their desk and work on, and I would call the second grade up,” said Lois Seelye, who taught at the school from 1950-52.

That’s how Seelye, who the students called “Miss Bailey” back then, taught grades first through eighth at Florence Lake School No. 3, the Bismarck Tribune https://bit.ly/1qXGbtV ) reported.

“If any child in the room needed help with something and I was holding a class, they had to raise their hand to signal to me to squeeze time in to help,” she said.

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The schoolhouse has sat mostly empty for decades, save for a raccoon family that once sought shelter inside the rotting wooden structure. After its doors shut to students in 1961, the township occasionally opened them to hold a meeting. The building was also used as a polling place on Election Day, but that stopped more than 20 years ago.

Meanwhile, Wanda Burrer watched it slowly decay from her home a mile to the northeast. The locals, who refer to it as “the little red schoolhouse,” consider the building a landmark along the highway that connects Wing to Denhoff.

“I have this thing about old buildings,” said Burrer, who never attended the school herself. “It was falling apart fast.”

So she approached the Florence Lake Township board in 2006, eager to see what could be done to save the structure. She learned that the township, which owns the building, could not use its own funds to restore the schoolhouse.

Fortunately, she had another option - if she could get the schoolhouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it would be eligible for grants.

That process had her digging deep into the building’s background, learning the stories behind the people who thought of the little red structure as school and work.

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The plot of grass where the building sits today remained farmland until 1937, when the nearby school burned to the ground after its coal and wood stove sent sparks flying.

The township needed a replacement, so it moved a schoolhouse in Sterling, 22 miles to the south, to its present location. Passersby today can still read “STERLING N 2” in bold red letters above the door.

Originally built in 1917, the facility remained a schoolhouse until 1961, when Burrer said local kids started riding the bus to the school in Wing.

School buses were not available a decade earlier, prompting some students to ride horses to class. They left the animals in a nearby barn while they completed their daily studies.

Lois Tollefson’s parents had a car. They drove her to the building for first and second grade - at least, they did most days.

“We had a storm that was so bad that my dad had to take me by sleigh on horses,” she said, remembering a winter during the early 1950s. “It was so cold, and there was so much snow. The horses had to jump through the snow banks.”

While she bundled up for the 4-mile trek, her teacher huddled around the coal stove inside. Seelye, who was 20 years old when she started teaching at the schoolhouse, lived with her parents 3 miles away and rode her bike to work. When it snowed, the roads became impassable and she spent her nights at the school.

After the kids went home, she cooked potatoes and vegetables on her kerosene cooking stove before pulling out her rollaway bed. When the sun rose, she tucked the bed away in a small closet that doubled as the school’s library.

One frigid morning, she rode her bike to work to find the room already warm and two people inside. Her student, a girl who rode to school on horseback, had brought along her older brother.

“They had started the fire so he could meet the teacher,” said Seelye, laughing as she recalled what happened next. She fell in love with the man, whose name was Del. The two eventually married.

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When Christmas rolled around, Seelye invited students’ families to fill the room for an evening of poetry, songs and a play.

Curtains made from bed sheets, wire and safety pins separated the “stage” from the audience. Tollefson grew terribly nervous when they opened.

“That was very shaky and scary,” she recalled. “I had never been in front of the room before.”

Seelye offered the kids a treat that made up for any stage fright. Each year, she asked one of her relatives or a student’s father to dress as Santa and deliver a sack of nuts, candy and apples to each performer.

In the spring, the rural students faced off against those from Wing in an event that must have, to the students, seemed like the Olympics.

The schools competed in math and spelling. Students also sang, and Tollefson remembers performing a square dance while her classmates took part in sack races, the 100-yard dash and the high jump.

“Our goal was always to beat the town kids,” she said.

Seelye still beams with pride when she talks about the two first-grade girls she sent into the math competition.

“The two girls that we entered took first place, and I said, ‘Hey, my little school went tops,’” she remembered.

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After graduating from high school, Seelye took an eight-week course in Valley City to earn a teaching certificate. At 19, she taught her first cluster of students at a nearby school before moving to Florence Lake School No. 3 the next year.

She returned to Valley City to get a new certificate every summer - each renewal allowed her to teach for an additional three years. Eventually, she received a degree and spent the remainder of her 44-year career teaching special education in Bismarck.

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Now 84, Seelye often thinks of her childhood when she recalls her days teaching at Florence Lake school.

“I went to a one-room schoolhouse all my life,” she said. “That was just like home.”

Her grandchildren laugh at that idea. They attend school in Bismarck, though they have all visited Seelye’s former workplace along Highway 14.

“They think it’s really funny we got an education where there were no more students than a handful,” she said.

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Eight years after first approaching the township board about preserving the school, Burrer is well on her way to making sure today’s youngsters can get a glimpse of how their grandparents received an education.

The National Register of Historic Places rejected her initial application, so she enlisted the help of an intern to complete a more thorough proposal. After spending hours researching at the library, interviewing alumni and teachers and fine-tuning a report on the building’s significance, they submitted a second application. The approval came through in November 2011.

The project has received two cultural heritage grants from the State Historical Society of North Dakota, as well as money from alumni and the Capital Electric Cooperative, which went toward a new roof in 2012 and new siding this summer.

The restoration’s far from done. The building still needs cement work around the foundation and a fresh coat of paint.

That’s a point of contention right now - some alumni want to see it painted white, the same color as when they attended school. But the building has sported a red wash since the early 1980s, when local farmers used cheap red paint to coat their barns.

Tollefson, meanwhile, has perused rummage sales for old books, a water pail and other antiques that students used at the school. Those items will join the old wooden desks, chair, blackboard and teacher’s desk currently sitting inside.

Burrer, Tollefson and several others working on the restoration aim to finish by 2017, when the school turns 100. Burrer envisions it as a place for people to stop, step inside and spend a few minutes learning about a prairie education.

“This building is so unique,” she said. “I just don’t want it to fall over.”

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Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com


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