Spencer Brook: Nearly a Ghost Town

Settled in 1854 by Pennsylvania native Benjamin Spencer, Spencer Brook was one of the first communities in Isanti County. During the 1850s, Spencer Brook became a favorite spot for east coast Yankees seeking lumbering opportunities. The nearby Rum River provided the flowing waters needed to float logs downstream to the Twin Cities.

The first post office in the county was established in Spencer Brook in 1857 and a school in 1858. A hotel, blacksmith shop, implement store, creamery, photography shop, general store, and a grist mill soon followed. To ease crossing the Rum River, a ferry began operation in 1870. In 1874 a bridge was built to replace the ferry, but it was destroyed by ice the following spring. The brook that splits the town was dammed for the grist mill, and the resulting millpond was a popular recreation area for the residents.

Spencer Brook became known as the largest settlement of native-born Americans in the state outside of the Twin Cities. Swedish immigrants began arriving in the area in the 1870s and fields of potatoes and navy beans began to surround the township.

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District 6 School in New Sweden

The District 6 school in New Sweden Township stands in a field surrounded by tall stalks of corn in the summer and drifts of white snow in the winter. This pretty, white clapboard building with a porch and full basement was constructed in 1929. It is the third school to stand on this site—the first was built in the 1860s and the second in 1891. Nicollet County was once home to 68 one-room school houses spread across 13 townships. Now only two remain. The District 6 school closed in 1958, and the district split three ways—students were sent to either St. Peter, Gaylord, or Nicollet schools.

After the district dissolved in 1962, the land the school sits on reverted to the landowner, who then donated it to the township. It was used as the town hall and meeting space for many years until the township could no longer afford to maintain the building. It reverted to the landowner again. A new nonprofit group called the Friends of District 6 expressed interest in restoring the schoolhouse, so the landowner signed the property over to the group. The Friends of District 6 have worked diligently since 2011 to raise money and complete renovations on the 88-year-old school.

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West Riverside School Near Cambridge

Built in 1898, the West Riverside School was originally known as District #38 School. Isanti County once had 67 rural schools similar to this. Aside from teaching children, one of the important roles of rural schools was to teach immigrants the English language and prepare them for the American citizenship exam. Most were also an important community center for social and cultural events.

Located one mile west of Cambridge, the West Riverside School is constructed of brick made in nearby Springvale Twp. The open bell tower still houses a black iron bell. West Riverside operated until 1971 when the last of the remaining rural schools were consolidated. The school has been restored to its 1900 appearance by the Isanti County Historical Society. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

District #28 School in Ramsey

The District #28 School was constructed in Ramsey in 1892 to replace a smaller, wood frame school house. Buff-colored bricks manufactured by the nearby Kelsey Brickyard cover the exterior of the school. Inside, one large classroom dominates the space. It has a pressed metal ceiling and chalkboards covering the walls. All windows and the original double entry door are arched to match the decorative brick arches above.

From 1947 until 1977 the old school house served as Ramsey’s Town Hall. One of the cloakrooms was converted into a kitchen, the chalkboards painted over, and many of the interior walls covered with fiberboard. The beautiful arched windows and front door were blocked in with plywood so rectangular windows and a standard door could be installed.

After being abandoned by the local government, the Anoka County Historical Society formed a restoration committee that concluded many of the school’s historical integrity remained intact. It was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and accepted on February 11, 1980. It continues to be one of only a handful of one room schoolhouses in Minnesota on the Register.

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Mail-a-Book

Have you ever wondered how avid readers in rural communities kept up with their favorite authors in the 1950s and 1960s? If they lived in Aitkin, Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs, or Pine county, they probably participated in the Mail-a-Book delivery program. This photo shows a patron receiving the Mail-a-Book program catalog in the mail in 1959. He would choose a book and mail the form back to the library, who would then send the requested book to the patron. When he was done, he’d simply return the book by mail.

Photo courtesy of the East Central Regional Library.

Dancing School

Circa 1890 photo of dancing school at the at the Free Press Hall in Mankato. As you can imagine, dancing school was an integral part of a child’s education–but it wasn’t just about learning how to waltz. Children also learned etiquette and how to interact socially with their peers and members of the opposite sex (all while under strict supervision of the adults who can be seen sitting in the background, of course!).

Photo courtesy of the Blue Earth County Historical Society.

The Eight Days in May Protests

For many at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus, May 9, 1972 started out like any other day. The weather was much cooler than normal, so students rushed to and from their classes. The buzz on campus concerned President Nixon’s announcement that the United States would lay mines in North Vietnam’s Haiphong Harbor in an attempt to impede the supply of weapons and material to the North Vietnamese military. Later in the day, a rally against the mining was planned, along with an off-campus demonstration at the Cedar-Riverside housing development’s opening ceremony. Tension was low on campus. However, the next few days would turn into the most turbulent in the University’s history.

The rally against the mining of Haiphong Harbor was scheduled to take place at noon in front of Northrup Memorial Auditorium on May 9th. More than 250 students and faculty attended the peaceful, but enthusiastic demonstration. About ten University police officers were on hand in case of any disturbance. Meanwhile, there was a mounting concern that this group of demonstrators would meet up with a group protesting the opening of the nearby Cedar-Riverside housing development. The combined unease could lead to an unmanageable situation for University police officers.

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Laura Baker’s School in Northfield

Laura Belle Baker was born in Chariton, Iowa on April 10, 1859. Her parents were liberal and civic-minded farmers who stressed the importance of education, tolerance, and empathy to their children. Shortly after graduating from grammar school, Baker began teaching. She would spend the next eighty-three years successfully educating boys and girls that society often feared.

After receiving her teaching degree in 1877, Baker began her first job at the newly expanded Glenwood Asylum for Feeble Minded Children in Mills County, Iowa. The facility housed and educated developmentally disabled children in southwestern Iowa. The Glenwood Asylum was only the seventh such institution in the United States at the time; the first located west of the Mississippi. Baker served as one of the two principal teachers there for seven years.

In 1884, Baker traveled by wagon to Minnesota where she had been offered the position of principal at the Faribault State School. She thrived as a teacher and administrator at the school for more than twelve years. During her time at Fairbault, her success was overshadowed by her distress at the custodial approach to housing and educating developmentally disabled boys and girls. She firmly believed these children could achieve richer, fuller lives through education and training in an environment that better suited their unique needs. From this, a greater awareness and community acceptance of developmentally disabled individuals would follow. Although Baker enjoyed her time teaching at Fairbault, she realized that the changes that needed to be made would not happen quickly in a state-run facility.

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Central School in Grand Rapids

Interior of the Central School in downtown Grand Rapids. Built in 1895, the three story building served as an elementary school from 1895 to 1972. A community effort restored the building in 1984 and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society (MI8.9 GR5.2 p4)

St. Agatha’s Conservatory of Music and Art

As the nineteenth century began to wind down, the residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul became eager to establish institutions that would nurture American culture while enhancing a reputation of philanthropy within the music and art communities of the Twin Cities. The task of enriching residents with these types of cultural institutions was taken up by notable names like William Dunwoody and James J. Hill—both contributors and trustees of The Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts, and T.B. Walker—founder of the Walker Art Gallery. From there, establishing schools of fine art and music education was made a priority. The first of these schools, St. Agatha’s Conservatory of Music and Art, was established in 1884. The Northwestern Conservatory of Minneapolis (1885), The Minneapolis School of Art (1886), and the St. Paul School of Fine Arts (1894) followed soon after.

Originally established under the name St. Agatha’s Conservatory and Convent, the school was conceived by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Paul Province, under the guidance of Mother Seraphine (a.k.a. Ella Ireland—sister of Archbishop John Ireland).  The initial school and convent was located in a rented home at Tenth and Main Street in St. Paul. It housed twenty sisters who taught in parochial schools around the city. The convent was intended to be entirely self-supporting. Classrooms were added so the sisters could teach music and needlework in the evenings in order to generate the funds needed to run the facility.

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Minnesota’s First Vocational School

In February 1915, students poured into the first vocational school in the state. Located in the mining town of Eveleth, this school was the first education building in Minnesota to be devoted entirely to industrial subjects. The Prairie School style building was designed by William Bray and Carl Nystrom of Duluth for around $48,000. The building was constructed of gray Menominee brick and terra cotta. The exterior featured an intricate cornice and a diamond pattern in the brick above the factory-style windows on each end of the building. A relief carving just under the cornice in the center of the school announced that this was the Eveleth Manual Training School.

The interior of the Manual Training School was functional and modern. It was thought to be completely fireproof because reinforced concrete was used for the floors and ceilings, and the  interior walls were made of light-gray brick and tile. The only material used in construction that would have been flammable were wooden floors in the corridors and lecture and drafting rooms. The building was wired for electricity throughout and was heated by a steam vacuum system. Skylights brought abundant daylight to the large drafting and woodworking rooms, as well as the electrical “laboratory”, on the second floor.

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