WASECA — Ever since anyone can remember, the small building located between Waseca and Waldorf in Wilton Township was simply known as “the pink schoolhouse.”
Its history was confined to the people that went to school there between its construction in 1882 and closure in 1951. During that era, one and two-room country schoolhouses were the norm – Waseca County had 94 of them – usually with one teacher fresh out of high school and a dozen pupils at any given time.
After two solid years of renovation and a new book documenting the history of country schoolhouses in Waseca County, the public was invited to see the interior on Sunday. About 300 people showed up for the open house and ice cream social.
The pink schoolhouse had no running water, no electricity and a small wood-burning stove. Students had to wear their heavy coats inside the building on cold winter days. Most kids had to walk a mile each way regardless of the weather, and that was after getting up before dawn to do farm chores.
After its closure, the new owners painted it pink with the intention of turning it into a landmark. Lois Yess, whose father bought the building after it closed, told her neighbor DeAnn Britton that the family lived in the schoolhouse for a couple years while they constructed a larger dwelling to live in. Yess continued to live on the property into her 90s before passing away in 2014.
Britton befriended Yess in the later years of her life, and was the first person outside of the Yess family to see the interior. The building had been used for storage for years, needed major refurbishing and a new coat of paint.
“We grew very close,” Britton said. “I promised that it would never be torn down, and it would always be pink.”
Decorated with artifacts, memorabilia and old school supplies from when the school was in operation, it’s a step back in time to an era when one-room schoolhouses dotted the landscape every couple miles.
Britton originally intended just to fix the basics, but it soon turned into a full scale renovation.
“One thing leads to another, just like any construction project,” she said. “We had the roof done last fall. I put part of this floor in. There were three layers of walls in there that I tore down to the studs. I’d just come over here and work, whenever.”
Britton’s daughter Cassie Meister said her mother spent nearly all of of her spare time fixing up and decorating the old schoolhouse.
“She doesn’t sit still, she never stops,” Meister said. “We call her an organized hoarder. She likes to collect things but they are all organized and they all have their own space and place.”
With her hard work, and the time and money donated by neighbors in the Wilton Township community, the schoolhouse now resembles a museum. Like Britton, local author Judy Joecks didn’t initially intend to write an entire book about the schoolhouse’s history, but kept uncovering new details about the pink schoolhouse and others like it in the county.
“She was going to just write a couple pages about the teachers and stuff here,” Britton said. “It went from maybe 25 pages to 113 pages; she did history on all of the schoolhouses in Waseca County. She put the book together and she says, ‘I think we need to have an open house when we get this done.’”
Joecks said while the renovation to finish the school took longer than planned, it gave her more time to delve further into the history.
“I did a lot of research at the historical society in Waseca looking at old newspaper films,” Joecks said. “I sat for hours and days and weeks and months in there looking at that. I dug out everything that they had and I started calling people. I have over 100 names that I found that went here.”
Joecks, who has written about the area’s history for years compared it to investigative work; finding clues that lead to other clues. She found several students who went there, and later heard stories about the teachers.
One former student told her that the kids would do pranks on Halloween, whether it was tipping over the outhouse or pulling down the school bell and placing it on the ground.
Along with the historical significance the book provides, Britton hopes that the renovated pink schoolhouse will be used for school groups and tours in the future.
“The school is for everyone,” she said. “It’s not for me, it’s for the community.”