When Sandra Lundin Valleen and her family moved to Scandia in 1960, it was like stepping back in time.
She went from an all-grades elementary school in Sauk Centre, Minn., to Goose Lake School, a one-room schoolhouse that was separated by a partition — a combined third- and fourth-grade class on one side, and her combined fifth- and sixth-grade class on the other.
“It was a simpler time,” Valleen said. “Kids are so over-scheduled now. They have many, many fun activities that they’re involved in, but they have very little downtime. It seemed less complicated back then. I would go home and ride my horse after school.”
Valleen, 73, of Chisago, was one of about 45 alumni of rural schools in Washington County who attended the first Rural School Reunion at Hay Lake School Museum in Scandia on Saturday. The event, sponsored by the Washington County Historical Society, was open to anyone who attended a one-room/two-room school anywhere in the county.
Washington County had 79 rural school districts and one joint district with Chisago County that were slowly consolidated during the 1940s and 1950s. By the early 1960s, all of them had closed, said Brent Peterson, the society’s executive director.
Valleen, who taught at Scandia Elementary School for 44 years, every spring brought her fifth-grade students on a field trip to the Hay Lake School Museum. They would dress in old-fashioned clothes, play games like Red Rover at recess and attend class in the one-room schoolhouse, which was heated by a wood stove.
Valleen said she always had to arrive early to light the stove. “I’d keep my fingers crossed that the flue was open and all would go well because I didn’t want to be the one who burned down Hay Lake School,” she said. “There was no phone at the school back then and no cellphones, so if something went wrong, it would be really hard to alert anyone.”
Former Hay Lake students John Johnson, Roger Lindell and Jim Lindberg swapped stories on the school’s front porch.
“The outhouse was out back,” said Lindell, 77, of Scandia, who attended the school from 1953-1958. “The boys were on the right, and the girls were on the left, and there was a woodshed in between.”
Lindell said he sat at the second desk from the front on the right-hand side of the schoolhouse. There was a bigger desk in the back for Billy Lind, who needed the extra room, he said.
“When we had our lessons, we went up front with the teacher,” he said. “We learned a lot of basic stuff here. I liked everything about going to school here, but I didn’t have a choice. I lived here.”
The main “gym” activity was softball in the field behind the school; the field is gone now, Lindell said, replaced by mature trees.
“When I went to Forest Lake, they laughed at me,” he said. “Because out there they only played baseball, and we played softball.”
Some alumni brought photos and mementos to share with other attendees. Mary Pierre Anderson, 81, of Forest Lake brought a black-and-white photo of Hudson Road School’s 1950-1951 class. The Oakdale school’s teacher that year was Miss Gonzalez, she said.
“When you were done with your schoolwork, you went into the library and you did flash cards with the younger children,” she said. “You just helped them do things. Everything was just so organized. We went outside. We played ball when it was warm. We went sliding in the winter. It was just heavenly.”
Anderson’s siblings went to the same school, and their family knew all of the other families in the area, she said. “It was a tight-knit community,” she said. “Most of us went to Guardian Angels Church, and we were just all really close.”
Rita Palmen Haim, 81, of New Richmond, said she read about the reunion online and decided to attend. “I loved my school,” said Haim, who attended Valley Creek School in Afton in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “We had such a good time playing in the snow. I remember kids chasing us with snakes. I lived about two miles from school, and we would walk every day. I’d pick up my friends as I went along. We had a great time.”
Once, she and her best friend got caught in a rainstorm on the way to school, and their teacher made them strip down to their undergarments and hang the rest of their “sopping wet” clothes on a clothesline by the wood stove. “We had to take off our long socks and as many clothes as we could without getting naked,” Haim said. “She’d hang them up over the stove, and our little legs were there blowing in the wind. We were like a couple of little damp rats.”
Haim said that as she and her classmates moved up in grades, they would help the younger children learn to read and help care for the school. “We all felt a sense of ownership,” she said.
During the winter, when the snow was so deep it was difficult to walk, Jim Lindberg’s father, Randolph Lindberg, would pull out his horse-drawn bobsled to take the kids to Hay Lake School. “We sat there on the hay, under a horse-hair blanket, and we would pick up the other kids along the way,” said Lindberg, 76, of Scandia.
Lindberg’s favorite teacher, Marjorie Holt, taught from 1946 to 1955; she was paid $1,800 a year when she started. “She was unbelievable,” he said. “She was able to maintain order, but she wasn’t mean. She was very, very interesting and always had our attention.”
Holt prepared the Hay Lake students for Forest Lake High School, said Duane Erickson, 84, of Maple Grove, who attended Hay Lake from 1944-1952. “She did a good job,” he said. “When I went to Forest Lake, I wasn’t lacking anything. I had everything I needed.”
During the gathering on Saturday, Erickson took the opportunity to ring the school’s bell — a chore he used to do decades ago.
“I like to tell people that my grade school is now a museum,” he said. “I brought some visitors here from Taiwan recently, and they were shocked that we had eight grades all together with one teacher. I told them, ‘It worked fine. You just get used to it.’”