In addition to beautiful brick buildings, formal education of the youth in Houston, Minn., has taken place in church basements, a log hut, an opera house and a schoolhouse that not only swayed in the wind but also provided a path for floodwater.
Education in the village began in 1855 in a log shanty in lower Houston on the south side of the old Root River bed. As enrollment increased, a frame school building was constructed. When the village was relocated about 1866, the schoolhouse moved, too.
In the winter of 1869, the first public school met in the new Presbyterian Church at Sherman and Spruce Streets. That same year, a two-story frame schoolhouse was built on two lots at the south edge of town. But it was known to have swayed in the wind and placed directly on the ground, flooded more than once. Floodwater would flow through the main floor.
The beautiful 1903 brick school was completed in 1904 next to the unsatisfactory school building it replaced. The same year, Common School District 16, west of Houston, consolidated with the town. That called for a bus
route. A horse-drawn lumber wagon was converted into a school bus driven by Mr. Mills. It was replaced with a covered vehicle, again pulled by horses, owned and driven by L. P. Johnson.
In that old 1903 building, the first floor was for grades one through eight. The superintendent’s office was on the second floor, where there was an assembly room, which was the homeroom for grades 10 through 12. Freshmen were in Room C. Along with Rooms A and B, there was also a cloakroom. On the third floor were Rooms D and E, the latter used by chemistry and biology classes.
Students ate lunch in the basement, which also had restrooms, a furnace room and a shop. The basement was chilly enough that diners grabbed their coats before descending to the lunch room.
Students from Hokah had a 12-mile ride to school in Houston on a bus, which lacked adequate heat in winter. To avoid the drafty floor, students rode with their feet on the flat tops of their dinner pails. And many of them had already walked quite a distance before meeting the bus. Therefore, winter lunches could feature very cold sandwiches consumed in a very chilly basement lunch room.
In this era, boys athletics became part of the high school experience. A baseball team played in 1904 with a basketball program following in 1905. However, it was two decades later in 1924 that coaches were hired. Houston won the first district basketball tournament in 1924, played in Preston.
Construction had begun in the autumn of 1938 on a new school building with the old 1903 Houston School building being razed in early 1939. In addition to the passage of a $75,000 school bond issue, the new facility was also funded by the Works Project Administration (WPA).
All autumn before the old building was torn down, students could hear the constant banging of the new construction, especially when pilings were being driven for the gymnasium. “It was not conducive to studying,” wrote Anita (Hartman) Palmquist about her senior year in high school. But there must have been some anticipation, since there was no gymnasium in the old 1903 building.
In February 1939, there was a large carnival in the old 1903 school building before it was razed. Several students comprised a small German band, which whenever business was slow at the concession stand, would play to attract a crowd. Among the band members were Palmquist, Warren Grasby (sp), Howard Lee, Bob Moore, Charles Green and Jean Laugen (sp).
After the carnival, the building was torn down and before the new school was completed, education resumed elsewhere in the city. High school classes were moved to the Opera House with grade school classes conducted in the basements of two churches, the Baptist Church and St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. Ninety-six-year-old Roger Johnson remembers attending that year at the Lutheran Church.
On the main floor at the Opera House, partitions were positioned to make three classrooms. The partition walls began about two feet from the floor and were about eight feet tall. The rooms were open on one side where there was a hallway about four or five feet wide. With those open spaces, a student might follow what was happening in all three classrooms along with hearing the band practice on the stage.
With no laboratory at the Opera House, the students had conducted all the experiments before departing the old building and could read about them during their days at the Opera House.
A basement room provided another classroom and a place for the agriculture class to store their grain samples. Those samples attracted rats, which when visiting a class in session would be chased out by boys armed with wooden sticks and baseball bats.
“Money was still, tight,” wrote Palmquist, ”but we were just beginning to pull out of the (Great) Depression. I don’t know how my parents managed to find money for a class ring, pictures and five new dresses. One was made by my eldest sister, Sardelle Hartman. One in which I had my picture taken was purchased at Spurgeons in La Crosse, Wisconsin for $3.00. Girls wore white for graduation, so that accounted for a third one. A blue flowered one was worn for Baccalaureate.
“Our girls sextet won the district contest and went on to state. We purchased pink dresses which were all alike. I had never had such a wardrobe.”
The Class of 1939 graduated at the Opera House. The following school year, on December 4, 1939, the new school opened its doors, housing all grades with departments for industrial arts, home economics, vocational agriculture, music, business education and physical education.
In the late 1950s, a new grade school was built near the football field (dedicated October 1958) while the high school students remained in the 1939 building. In the late 1960s, the students switched campuses with elementary students going back to the 1939 facility and the high school scholars moving to the newer 1950s building near the football field.
Sources: Houston County History, compiled by the Houston County Historical Society (1982) and handwritten remembrance of Anita Hartman Lee Palmquist (2009)