If you ever take a drive through rural Isanti County, I recommend Hastings Street north of the Cambridge Lutheran Church. Beyond 357th Avenue and before County Road 6, lies a piece of Isanti County history that has all but been forgotten.
As a deputy sheriff with the county, I have passed this structure for the past 12 years always wondering what stories it could tell. In the mornings the rising sun reflects off the peeling white paint making it very easy to see from the road as it sits on a hill of overgrown trees. As the sun sets, the yellow and orange rays of light are able to sneak through the tree canopy highlighting its outer walls and tall steeple above its front door. Recently, I was able to learn exactly what this building is, and in doing so was given much more than a history lesson.
Nearing the completion of my bachelors degree, I was enrolled in a Minnesota geography course at the Cambridge Campus of Anoka Ramsey Community College.
The final project in the class was to locate a structure, such as an old barn or abandoned farm house, and research the property. Naturally, I chose what I believed to be a church with a grand steeple from which the bell is now missing.
I began my quest at the Isanti County Historical Society. I was saddened to learn through the Historical Society that all the history of this building was lost in the 2011 arson which destroyed most every record the society held. I was told that this was not a church, but a one-room school house, often referred to as a County School, and that it was one of 69 similar building which served as now day Elementary, Middle and Junior High Schools.
The schools were in operation between the 1860s and 1971. This particular building was Oak Hill School (District 18), otherwise known as the Strom School, which is believed to be named after the family name of an early settler. Today it’s also referred to as the Gable School, named after the Gable family who purchased the land in 1959 and who still own the property today. Records of the remaining 68 schools houses, including photographs and artifacts, have also been lost in the 2011 fire. Unfortunately, the Minnesota Historical Society also has no historic records or photographs which could be shared. It had seemed as though this part of Isanti County history was completely lost.
After a check with Isanti County Records and a search on the school house at the Cambridge Library, I learned the property holding the Oak Hill School was purchased in 1878 and that the school was in operation from 1870-1950. I was amazed at the age of this building. To put its age into perspective, remember that the Battle of Gettysburg was fought in 1863. This school was put in operation five years after the Civil War and it still stands today. It was a wakeup call for me that what seems like eons ago in our history books was in actuality not that long ago and that traces of that history aren’t far from our own back yards. Even more intrigued by its history, I felt I was at a dead-end being the history was no longer preserved — or was it?
My only real option in learning the history of this property was to find (and to hope) someone living in the area would know its history. In doing so I met Wendell “Sweed” Fridstrom and his wife Pat. I was invited into their home when they heard I wanted to learn about this school house. Pat attended the Oak Hill School from 1938-1946. I can’t describe the excitement in Pat’s voice as she told her childhood story to a stranger who showed interest.
Wendell, who attended the Nessel Schoolhouse in Chisago County, which has long since been gone, was equally eager to recall and recite his past. I was taken aback by their stories, stories so vivid and told with so much enthusiasm that it made them very easy to visualize.
In speaking with Pat and Wendell I was told that they were not the only surviving classmates and that others lived nearby. Captivated by the Fridstrom’s recollections of the school, its students, its teachers and day to day activities, I made phone calls to Bill Becklin (Oak Hill School 1941-1949), Doris Sanquist (Moody School 1930-1938) and Shirley Ecklund (Oak Hill 1941-1949) and her husband Duane Ecklund (Grandy School 1947-1949) and asked if they’d be interested in meeting a complete stranger, me, for breakfast at the Park Café in Braham where I’d hoped to have the same willingness as the Fridstrom’s, and I did.
Though I asked questions from these amazing people, I mostly sat back listening and picturing their stories. I was invited into their lives, a complete stranger, and was welcomed as if though I was family. I learned that as they spoke of old classmates and school rivals were actually related, Bill and Doris were cousins to Pat. Not only was I witnessing a 1940s school reunion, I was also watching family who’d not seen one another for some time. I can’t put that feeling into words and to try would be a feeble attempt that would never accurately describe it. I was given photographs from each person and also given and shown actual memorabilia from their school days. Doris still has an original kerosene lantern from the Moody School, a building once proudly representing the city of Cambridge. Bill had a school program with the names of students and teachers. Pat had a perfect attendance award made of wood.
I was able to take photographs and make copies of them to donate back to the Isanti County Historical Society. Everyone let me into their homes to be interviewed. Everyone wanted the chance to be remembered and to be listened to. The current property owners of the Oak Hill School, Dan and Theresa Gable, allowed me to see the building and its former schoolyard.
Amidst the now overgrown forest floor I found an original school desk, just as described by the former students I shared breakfast with. It was given to me and donated to the Historical Society by the Gable family; it’s the last of its kind from this school and is now in a safe place to be viewed and remembered. The original bell is also safe. Removed from its steeple after an attempted theft in the 1970s the Gable family has preserved the bell.
I can go on and on about a typical school day, how it began with the Pledge of Allegiance (remember that?) and ended with more than a mile walk home. I can detail how life was, based on their stories, without electricity, with unreliable vehicles and on mixed farms. And I can try to put the images of their laughter and smiling faces into your minds as you read this article, but why do this when you can see it and hear if for yourselves? I truly believe we live better today buy knowing something of yesterday.
Please, I urge you; ask the stories of the senior citizens in our area. Listen to our parents, our grandparents and let them not be forgotten. For they and their lives can still live through us. Donate to our historical society to replenish was has been so tragically lost. Doris said something to me one of the last times I met with her; she thanked me for listening to her and told me she felt “special.” Doris, special doesn’t begin describe any of you or the admiration and respect I have for each of you.
Thank you, Dan and Theresa Gable, Pat and Wendell Fridstrom, Bill Becklin, Doris Sanquist and Shirley and Duane Ecklund. You gave me memories I will never forget.