Rick Mallinger took a leap back in time last week when he returned to the one-room schoolhouse he attended in the late 1950s.
Mallinger lives on a 72-acre farm in Hugo, just across the street from the Hopkins Schoolhouse. His family moved to the farm when he was 11, but Mallinger, 74, hadn’t been inside the building since he and some friends sneaked in when they were teenagers.
“My desk was up front, near the door,” he said. “I remember I had to go to the bathroom one time after lunch, and Miss (Lillian) Marier said, ‘At that other school, you could go whenever you want. Here, you have to go at the specified time,’ and it was only, like, 20 feet from my desk.”
The 1928 building has been sitting empty for two decades, and it shows. Mallinger looked up and saw blue sky through a hole in the ceiling on the building’s west side.
“It would be nice to have it restored and have it be used for something,” he said. “I wish they had kept up with the maintenance instead of having it get dilapidated.”
Located off of 170th Street North and U.S. Highway 61, the schoolhouse served students in grades 1 through 8 until the mid-1940s and grades 1 through 6 until it closed in 1962. In 1965, Oneka Township purchased the property for $3,500 from the Forest Lake School District for use as a Town Hall. Seven years later, Oneka Township was incorporated into the Village of Hugo, and the city of Hugo was created.
The Hopkins Schoolhouse was briefly used as a youth center and a meeting place for the Hugo Boy Scouts, but has been vacant since the early 2000s.
Hugo officials say it would cost about $1 million to restore the building and bring it up to code. A decision must be made soon, said Mayor Tom Weidt.
“We’ve literally been working on a plan on and off for 40 years,” Weidt said. “We’ve talked and talked and talked about it, and all it’s done is sit there and deteriorate. At some point, we’re going to have somebody go in there and get severely injured — that would be a very bad thing.”
The Hugo City Council plans to decide the building’s fate in the next few months; a community meeting will be held April 23.
“The only direction we’re not going to go is to do nothing,” Weidt said. “We’re not going to let it sit there anymore. It’s either got to be repaired and revitalized, or it’s got to be torn down.”
Weidt said he would love to see a community group or local business purchase the building and restore it. “I would be thrilled if some kind of plan came together from the public to figure out a way to save that building and refurbish it,” he said. “It’s a really neat building. The wooden beams in there — that’s serious lumber; they don’t build them like that anymore.”
The city, he said, is not in a position to pay for its restoration and upkeep. “That’s not a good use of taxpayer money,” he said.
The city in 2020 received a $10,000 grant from the Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund, one of a number of funds established by the state’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which was approved by voters in 2008. The amendment increased the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent and distributed the extra revenue into four funds: outdoor heritage; clean water; parks and trails; and arts and cultural heritage.
The grant enabled city officials to hire an architect to assess the schoolhouse, which is eligible for submission to the National Register of Historic Places.
Justin Brink, president of the Forest Lake Historical Society, hopes that the schoolhouse can be saved. He envisions it being turned into a local museum, similar to the Hay Lake School Museum in Scandia.
“It’s going to take a lot, but I think it’s worth doing,” said Brink, who also is administrator of the “Old Forest Lake” Facebook page. “It’s one of the few historic buildings left in Hugo. Kids from the schools could come out and learn about what a one-room schoolhouse was like.”
Said Craig Moen, a member of the Hugo Historical Commission: “Neither Hugo nor Forest Lake has a museum. This would be an ideal spot.”
The schoolhouse, which sits on a 2-acre lot, could also be used as a trailhead for the nearby Hardwood Creek Regional Trail, a 9½-mile stretch that starts in Hugo and runs north to the Washington County line. The trail connects with the 17-mile Sunrise Prairie Trail in Chisago County.
The Forest Lake Historical Society is working to raise $3,500 to cover the roof with plastic and plywood “to prevent further elements from getting in,” Brink said.
“There’s some masonry work that needs to be done, and there are several holes in the roof, and that’s only gotten worse over the past several years,” he said.
If the Hugo City Council decides to save the building, volunteers are ready to start writing grant proposals to further the restoration work, he said. If, however, the council decides not to save the building, any money raised thus far would be refunded.
The building does not have heat, electricity or running water.
“There are those who would love to see the building restored, and there are those who, when asked, would prefer to see it demolished,” said Hugo City Administrator Bryan Bear. “ ‘It’s not worth it’ is what they will say. There are very strong opinions on both sides.”
Bear said the Hugo City Council would entertain any and all ideas regarding restoration. Among the suggestions he’s heard: coffee shop, winery, brewery, trailhead and museum.
“Could it be some combination of all those things? You bet,” he said. “It’s really fun to think about what it could be. If there’s some champion who decides, ‘Hey, we have a plan for this building. We know how to get it funded, we know what to do with it,’ I think the city council will be very receptive to that idea.”
Although the council isn’t willing to spend significant taxpayer dollars on the restoration, “they are willing to be a part of the solution,” he said.
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” Bear said. “This is a part of Hugo’s history, and wouldn’t it be a shame to see it disappear? Once we make a decision to demolish it, it won’t come back, so shouldn’t there be an effort to save it?”
TOO FAR GONE?
Bob LaCasse, 89, lives next door to the Hopkins Schoolhouse; two of his four children attended the school. He thinks the city has waited too long.
“It’s so badly damaged, they should probably just destroy it,” he said. “If they had fixed it up a few years ago, it probably would have been OK. There was a lot of talk for many years about fixing it, and, at that point, it was in pretty good condition, but it’s just too badly damaged now. It’s been hit by lightning, and the roof is totally damaged.”
The recent conditions assessment report wasn’t encouraging, said Cynthia Schoonover, chairwoman of the Hugo Historical Commission and a member of the Hopkins Schoolhouse Committee.
The report estimated it would take at least $475,000 for even a “temporary occupation” of the building, she said.
“That was an eye-opener,” she said. “There’s asbestos, lead paint, holes in the roof and other chemical compounds that would need to be removed.”
Still, she said, the building is one of the few remaining representations of Hugo’s history.
“We don’t have a lot of buildings per se that you can look at and say, ‘Hey, look at that old building. Isn’t that cool?’ ”
Former student Lynn Larkey Buske, 76, of Lexington, S.C., said she would love to see the schoolhouse saved. “It’s like ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ ” she said. “It’s a part of history.”
Buske said she and the other students sat in columns arranged by grade — from left to right.
“Sixth was the first line, fifth was the second,” she said. “All the front seats in the rows were left empty for when you were called up to do your lessons.”
Her sister, Marge Aldean, 74, attended the school from part of third grade through sixth grade. She graduated in 1965 from North Branch High School.
“The local veterans would give an award to the top sixth-grade student every year,” she said. “I won the Veterans Award our year. There were four kids in my class: Richard, Robert, Ruth and me. At the end of the year, we got to have a picnic, but you brought your own lunch and you brought a lemon, and they fixed lemonade.”
Dave Fakler, 76, Coon Rapids, who attended the Hopkins Schoolhouse from first through sixth grade and graduated from Forest Lake High School in 1964, had only two other students in his class.
“It was me and Helen Martin and Nancy Jensen,” he said. “It’s weird that I can remember that.”
He remembers serving on the school’s bus patrol, pumping water from the pumphouse out back and getting in trouble for putting garter snakes in the girls’ cubbies.
“If you were out of line, you put your hands on your desk, and Miss Marier would whack you on top of your hands,” he said. “That was the last time you did that. There was no, ‘I forgot my homework.’ She’d go right to your house and talk to your parents.”
HOPKINS SCHOOLHOUSE COMMUNITY MEETING
The Hugo City Council is holding a community meeting to discuss the future of the Hopkins Schoolhouse from 10 a.m. to noon April 23 at Hugo City Hall.
For more information, go to https://www.ci.hugo.mn.us/hopkins.