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Sleepy Eye Schools History

The century old school bell in front of Sleepy Eye Elementary is a symbol of our school's past and growth. We hope the information and excerpts we have gleaned from board minutes, newspapers, and Elizabeth Scobie writings will give students and future generations knowledge and a sense of pride in the progress of our school system from a small log building to the present school complex.

Tom Allison founded the community of Sleepy Eye and built a log schoolhouse in 1867 near Sleepy Eye Lake. The first teacher was said to be Mary Kelly (later Mrs. Wiley). Later they found that Justine La Framboise (later Mrs. James Blake) was the first teacher in Sleepy Eye. School terms were offered only in the summer. Students were expected to study by themselves in the winter season. In 1872, the school was composed of a rickety old wood stove, a chair and table for the teacher, a dozen pine seats, and one and a half to two square yards of blackboard. This school had approximately twenty students. The early school served many purposes; visiting clergymen used it for religious services, the local debating society held meetings there, visiting lecturers used it as a town hall, intense political meetings took place, and the community's first lawsuit was tried there.

The schoolhouse was purchased by the Johnson family who lived there until 1886 when the building was torn down.

A frame building, two stories high, was built in 1874. Because of the increased enrollment and the growing need of the school, a 24 X 50 foot addition was built to the school on the north side, giving room for four departments.

On May 6, 1886, the board minutes reported that R.E.P. Bertrand made a motion that a building the size of the west wing of the then present school building be erected south of the west wing, giving the school six different departments.

The first vote to build an addition and issue bonds of $2,000 was on May 6, 1886. It was rejected with numbers of forty-seven nay's to thirty-eight aye's, lacking a two thirds vote. A second vote on June 18, 1886, was passed unanimously. This vote may have been the only time that voters of Sleepy Eye were unanimous about anything! On August 31, 1886, the school board accepted the building of the school by Miller & Offerman and authorized the payment of $1,725.

On June 15, 1881, Independent District 24 (now 84) was organized, and a board was elected. The six directors elected were as follows: Fritzy Koehne, J.M. Thompson, G.M. Marcellus (President), L.P. Keegan (Treasurer), L.E. Bower (Secretary), and W.A. Lyman.

Soon it was necessary to rent the lower story of the Masonic building because of the overcrowding in the school building.

At a special board meeting held on April 7, 1890, a motion was made and called to purchase land, to build a new school house, and to issue bonds for twenty thousand dollars.

A vote in favor of the new school passed, 139-93. The new school would be ready for occupancy in the spring. The schoolhouse was a model building, a ten room brick structure, and said to be one of the finest in southern Minnesota. Dedication of the new school was held on March 21, 1891.

Just four years after the district had spent $27,000 to build the immense building, the school was tragically burned. An explosion occurred at 12:20 a.m. on May 14, 1895. The cause of the explosion happened in the school's heating system and town's small electrical plant which was located in the basement of the school. If the explosion had occurred during school hours, the entire second grade would have been killed along with many other students, maybe even all the students. At first nobody could see any signs of a fire. Then suddenly the whole building was an inferno. The total loss was estimated at $35,000. Classes were then held at the Methodist, Baptist, Danish Lutheran, and Congregational Churches. Later there were rumors of carelessness in handling the equipment -- that the boiler was dry. People recall that there was no reserve water supply and that the superintendent had predicited something like this could happen. Public meetings were held on May 27th to discuss building a better, and most importantly, a safer school.

The third new school was constructed of light tan brick and Kasota stone. For a safer facility, a separate half-basement housed the new boiler room that was located in the back. A fence from the boiler room to the toilet building discouraged the mischievous from entering into the wrong door.

The girls' area was on the south, with a locked booth for the teachers. There were several cubicles for older girls and a common two-passenger facility for little girls who were not at all concerned about privacy. The new school consisted of three floors. There were great wide halls that were remodeled and made narrower in 1921. The first floor consisted of nine rooms. The second floor had an assembly hall for the top four grades. The third floor had an auditorium and carried lectures, plays and operettas. In February, school was in session, and dedication was in April of 1896.

Activities included football and basketball games. The baseball teams played at baseball park at the west side of town owned by the city. Dancing was not permitted in this era. Instead of proms, there were banquets. Students sometimes went roller-skating or paid a small fee to use the smaller hall of the Opera House, where they could dance.

In 1920 the school district purchased a track of land from the Breckenridge Estate, blocks 23, 24, adn 25, for future use. A remodeling project started in 1921. The voters passed a bond issue for $100,000 to remodel the 1896 school with 595 aye's and 78 nay's. The auditorium needed to be removed in view of the dangerous condition with no fire escapes. The wiring was faulty, heating and ventilating systems needed to be replaced, and sanitary facilities were to be relocated for better convenience. The auditorium was relocated on the west side, seating about 1200 people. Basement rooms eventually became classrooms, and a new library was added above the auditorium. In November 1921, another bond issue of $40,000 was to be used for equipment and furniture. The school was dedicated on December 15, 1921.

In 1939, the school had another almost tragic disaster. A fire was noticed by Michael Fohl Jr. when he was going home shortly after midnight on January 13. Officials found a desk covered with papers in flames on the second floor hallway. Two fires in the attic had also been started with paper and kindling. Insurance adjusters estimated $10,558 worth of damage. The school needed extensive repairs to the attic and a new room. Also, the hall needed to be replastered.

The school superintendent, E.H. Wilcox, had thought he could get himself a new, improved school, but instead got himself put into jail. He was charged on April 3, found guilty of arson, and sentenced to not more than four years in prison. He was paroled December 27, 1940.

The music teacher, Arthur Branae, was an accomplice and was sentenced up to one year. Also the school board terminated Mrs. Lavine's contract, for not informing the board that the school building was to be set on fire, until weeks after the incident. The sixth grade teacher's reply was that she had only complied with the board's policy, of not permitting teachers to talk to board members about school matters. Rumors were that Mrs. Lavine and three other people had sat on a couch at a home across the street from the school and waited for the firing of the building.

A bond issue was held on November 12, 1946 to borrow $300,000 to remodel, repair, and build an addition to the school. It passed. A new John Manville, twenty year guaranteed roof was put up for $3889 by the Welte Co. of Mankato.

On May 17, 1949, three propositions were submitted to voters as following:
1. Be authorized to use the $300,000 in bonds to provide the money for a new high school building. It passed 341-35.
2. Be authorized to acquire about 12 1/2 acres in Section 31, Township 110 as an additional school site. It passed 336-38.
3. Be authorized to sell blocks 23,24 and 25 of Breckenridge's fourth addition when it is no longer needed for school purposes. It passed 335-32.

In 1949, District #24 also acquired a 12 1/2 acre site for a school building for $8,628 from Hillesheims.

On November 14, 1950, the district voted to build a new high school for the amount of $250,000. The vote passed, 817-520. The upper six grades, 7th - 12th, were moved into a new building. Classes were added for retarded children and for Head Start. In 1966, one wing was added for agriculture and shop classes, and one more wing was added for more classrooms.

In May of 1975, the elementary school building was closed due to numerous hazardous conditions such as overloaded electrical systems, absence of a sprinkler system, and possible structural beam and roof damage. In the fall, fourteen classes of elementary students crowded in to the high school facilities. This put many restrictions on the learning process.

During 1975-1979, four bond issue proposals to finance the construction of a new elementary school on a new site failed to pass. On September 14, 1978, an architectural firm and team of engineers looked over the 1896 school building to determine a structural analysis to remodel the school. The Adkins Associated team debated that rehabilitation of the building was physically feasible. The next phase was to determine a cost figure for rehabilitating. In October, the cost was estimated at $1,608,000, which was much higher than expected. The State Department of Education reviewed the proposal and concluded that is was "educationally and economically feasible but not necessarily advisble." Then on April 5, 1979, there was a special school election for a bond issue to provide funds for renovation of the existing elementary building. It failed; 737-609. An architect, Roger Syuburk, was retained to investigate alternative plans for a new elementary. 

On November 6, 1979, a referendum of $1,890,000 was passed three to one to build an elementary school addition on to the south end of the high school. The 38,000 square foot building cost $41.38 per square foot. The general contractor was Leoffel-Engstramd of Mankato. The complex would consist of fifteen classrooms facing a large open air library and instructional center. The administration office, support staff, classrooms and auditorium measured 90 X 100 feet. An elevator was installed to provide access to all floors for the handicapped.

Near the end of April 1981, the elementary staff and students moved into the new building. On October 4, 1981, an open house was held for the community to view the new elementary complex.

The 1896, elementary building was vacant from May 1975 until it was demolished. In December of 1975, the Sleepy Eye school board led four bid options to sell the building.

There was an accepted bid from Sleepy Eye Properties, a local investors group, for $75,000 without the bell and the school fencing. This was resold in 1982 to Joe Broich. On April 12 an auction was held to dispose of obsolete items.

A referendum of 2.9 million was passed on November 7, 1995, to build an additon to the school. The new complex will have eight classrooms added to the south end of the elementary school and five classroooms on to the high school building. A kitchen, cafeteria and common rooms between the two buildings will also be ajoined. Completion date is set for March of 1997.

Throughout the years, Sleepy Eye School Boards have provided the community with a progressive school by the curriculum that has offered opportunities for all students to learn. They have also provided the space, equipment, and materials needed for classroom instruction. For instance, in the early 1900's, a state sponsored agriculture and manual course was offered to rural boys and girls, ages fourteen to twenty years. The students attended for six months and finished a project on the farm. It gave them two years credit.

Also the district has offered different curriculum courses as were needed. The last decade has brought computers and other technology into the classrooms. The federal and state government mandates that all children are to be educated from infacy to adults. Programs for early childhood, learning disabled, physically and mentally handicapped, gifted, and non-English speakers, as well as foreign languages and community education classes for adults are available at Sleepy Eye School.

The citizens of Sleepy Eye District #84 have through the years provided the children with buildings, staff and materials as they thought were needed. There is a saying: "It takes a whole village to educate a child." This saying relates back to other words from a century ago. The following was written and read by Mr. Murfin, President of the Sleepy Eye School Board, in April 1896, at the dedication of the new 1896 school building. He gave a history of the school buildings up to that date just as we are doing now in this short written piece of history. I believe these words are a tribute to the community voters.

"The vote was then taken, every voter voting to rebuild. Such, my friends, has been the spirit of the people. They have advanced from that diminutive little log house to this commodious structure. It is a credit to the peple who have demanded its erection. It stands as a monument to their public spirit and enterprises, and to them belongs the glory and honor of so mangificent a structure.

My friends and fellow citizens, this is your house. You have ordered it and now on behalf of the school board I deliver it to you. May the same liberal spirit of the past characterize your future use of it."

Compiled and written by Darlene Ebbenga, Title One Teacher, and Angie Marti, high school junior. Edited by Cindy Borth, English Instructor.