Owners of historic school seek suggestions for its future

The District 138 School stands just off Highway 30 on property owned by the Hoovers. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
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“It’s just a spectacle,” said Chatfield resident Jason Hoover, standing inside the one-room schoolhouse at the foot of his driveway on Chatfield’s west side. Inside the school, one will find yellow tin-paneled walls and ceiling, three neat rows of wooden desks lined up before a teacher’s desk at the front of the room, and a 48-star flag posted in the corner, all under the watchful eye of George Washington’s portrait.

The late Harley Flathers wrote in his May 12, 2011, column for the Post-Bulletin, “‘School days, the golden rule days’ goes the song filled with memories. Such was the schoolhouse at District 138 about eight miles west of Chatfield on Minnesota Highway 30. In 1892, the building appeared where Olmsted County Road 19 joins Highway 30. It was called the Bernard School, as there were more students named Bernard than any other names. At one time, 36 students filled the one-room schoolhouse, and 16 were Bernards. My longtime friend, Harvey Bernard, attended school there, as did his six brothers and two sisters. But in 1948, the Bernard School closed, as country school districts were merging into the nearest city, in this case Chatfield.”

He went on, “The building sat idle for 31 years. Harvey, an artist of agricultural scenes, managed to secure the old school, and his brothers moved it down Highway 30 in 1981. It took on a new life as the home of ‘Country Art,’ as named by Harvey for his paintings while still retaining the old school atmosphere, with desks, blackboards and teacher’s desk included. During the next two decades, his studios took on eight people working in an underground wood shop behind the school. They turned out thousands of country scenes silk-screened on shiny wood plaques. The mail order business was very good. Harvey and his wife, Doris, and family took farm scenes to threshing shows in Minnesota and Iowa for many years, and the little schoolhouse was the cornerstone of the business. The school sits close to Highway 30. Just up the hill is the lovely home the family built on the edge of the woods that cover nearly 15 acres. Harvey always enjoyed looking out the west windows into the woods for a variety of wildlife you might find in a zoo. It was his passion, his art and his family.”

Flathers added biographical information on Bernard, citing, “Harvey’s story has been told many times: This 16-year-old Golden Gloves boxer was stricken with severe paralysis during October 1946 in the polio epidemic. It left one leg and one arm totally useless. His right arm was very limited and made his hand work harder, but he created beautiful drawings and oil paintings.”

Now, Hoover and his wife, Lisa, chose Chatfield as their home because it offered them a quieter place to raise their children, and they settled in the Bernards’ home on the hill because it was comfortable and included the schoolhouse.

“I grew up in Racine, and my wife grew up in Utica. This puts us halfway between both families,” Jason said. “At the time we moved, we lived in Rochester and we had one child, but we didn’t want to send our kids to the Rochester school system. We wanted a house we could afford, so we looked at several fixer-uppers. This property has got 15 acres to it, and the kids get adventures. The neighbors are in the senior townhomes — 55-plus is required — and they’ve all been so friendly and nice.”

Having a vintage schoolhouse has been interesting – the back corner of the classroom is home to a display case that houses everything from glass inkpots and pencils to copies of books chronicling adventures on the high seas and on horseback with Gene Autry, along with a pair of striped overalls that would have been the staple clothing for farm boys attending country school.

The Hoovers have hosted family picnics and gatherings in the Bernard schoolhouse and shown off their little yellow spectacle to anyone who’s curious about or recalls what attending school in a single classroom might have been like.

“It’s been fun to bring people in,” Jason said. “We get all kinds of comments on it, like they went to school in a building like this, or their mom or grandma taught here. We appreciate the history and hate to take that away. It’s not in great shape, but it’s far from most you’d see. People like to sign the blackboards.”

The Hoovers weren’t surprised at the amount of work that their little Bernard school would require, even as they added another classroom to the footprint, one with a poured concrete floor and framed to provide a back entrance to the Bernard structure, a newer place also used to homeschool their children.

“We bought it knowing that it needed work, and we thought that a vision for it would come to us,” Jason said. “We’ve debated whether to change it completely for our own uses or keep it as preserved history, because it’s quite a landmark. We’ve been here seven and a half years, and the entire time, we’ve talked about different ideas, but just about anything that we’d do, we’d have to completely transform the school and all the history would be gone because we can’t have it like this and use it as living space or as a business.”

Bernard left behind meticulous records of the schoolhouse’s relocation and renovation, including complete expense lists, blueprints of the site grading and drawings of the woodwork to replace the worn bell tower.

However, that was in 1981 and 1982, and the costs of renovation have risen with inflation. Jason admitted that he and Laura still do not have any idea what to do with the schoolhouse, so it’s uncertain what further work should be done on it.

He outlined what has been done to keep the building in as good of repair as possible. They replaced the old foundation — the frost had pushed the block in, and did the roof, repaired the siding on the corner, updated the electrical, re-insulated it, put a new hot water boiler in as well as fixed windows.

“The doorframes are rotting out at the bottom on the front doors. We’re trying to keep water and weather out,” Jason continued. “We’ve gotten estimates on the siding and windows, and that’s an expense that you have to know the direction you’re taking the building before you invest in it. Most of it is in good shape — the siding needs a coat of paint, and the doorframes are rotted out, but that comes with age — and if we do a renovation, it should last at least another 50 years.”

Jason has consulted Chatfield historian Nancy McMahon for suggestions, as well as conferring with City Clerk Joel Young to find out whether there might be any local interest in relocating Bernard’s little jewel box to somewhere within the city limits, as the Hoovers’ property is just outside of Chatfield’s official boundaries.

“In talking with Joel Young, he said the city could try to do whatever it can if the school is moved offsite, but the city is limited on space,” he explained. “We certainly would consider donating it to be for public use. It was suggested by someone that it could go in the green space next to the Chatfield Center for the Arts (CCA), because that would make sense for people to stop in and see it.”

He pointed out that grants were an option he and his wife perused when they first purchased their home and the schoolhouse.

“When we first moved here, we were looking at any available grants, but if we took grants, the money would dictate as to how we have to do it,” Jason said. “And with taxes in mind, it makes sense to move it to a more high-traffic area where it’s better-used.”

That’s why, in all sums, the Hoovers are seeking input from the public on how to proceed with the Bernard School’s future.

Jason Hoover invited anyone with suggestions to contact him by email at jhoover465@gmail.com.

“Feedback will help determine what happens, whether there are people interested in seeing it preserved,” he concluded. “The neighbors certainly would like to see it preserved, and we’ve gotten interest from people from elsewhere who would like to see it preserved. There’s a lot of our own family’s sentimental value and a lot for others here, too.”