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Saving history in a small town: Martell Schoolhouse hosts concert

Inside the schoolhouse, original features can be seen everywhere: An image of President George Washington hangs on the wall, the lights have been untouched, the floor has not been replaced but restored and a small desk students used sits near the book shelves. Rachel Helgeson / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 4
A Martell Town Hall sign once hung where this updated Martell School sign hangs. Rachel Helgeson / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 4
(Left) A class from the early 1900s stands in front of the original building with their teacher. Notice the wood design is missing and the yard lacks landscaping. One of the two front doors was the boys' entrance and the other was for the girls. Photo courtesy of Thomas Meyer. (right) A recent photo of the Martell School, featuring the added porch and landscaping. Rachel Helgeson / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 4
A couple original windows are still intact at the rear of the building. These are old-fashioned douple-pane windows. The rest of the windows on the building were replaced. Rachel Helgeson / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 4

The town of Martell's 113-year-old schoolhouse still sits humbly at its original location on Highway 63 like an aged esteemed neighbor harboring many stories. Bushes and young spritely willow trees hug the perimeter of the white building topped with a boarded-up belfry.

"My wife is a master gardener and she planted all these," Thomas Meyer said. His wife, a Martell resident, was once a student at the one-room school before it closed in 1962.

They are working on returning the school to a sustainable, renovated state along with the Friends of the Martell School organization, of which Meyer is president.

Meyer said it would have been horrible to demolish the building, that it would be eliminating a landmark of the small town.

But there is still work to be done before it is in good shape.

The white paint on the face of the building is peeling in the heat of the rural sun. The old original wood is refusing the paint.

$7,500 is needed to recondition the front of the school, Meyer explains.

Other projects, like resealing the roof to support the reopening of the original belfry which holds the old bell that can still be rung, will also be undertaken with a cost.

Work that has already been done on the schoolhouse has been completed either by contracted work or volunteers along with the Friends organization. This includes the renovation of the original wood floor, the installation of a drain tile and a new front porch with wheelchair accessibility among other smaller projects.

The Friends of the Martell School, started in 2009, include members Francine Rudesill, Dianne Erickson, Patricia Klass, Norma Rudesill, Maxine Schaller and Deanie Pass with Thomas Meyer as president as mentioned above. The group will be pursuing help from the Wisconsin Historical Society to continue preserving the building along with trying crowdfunding online.

A transplant couple from the Twin Cities living in Martell stepped in to save the schoolhouse from potential demolition when it ceased to house Town Hall meetings.

A San Francisco, Cali. native himself, Meyer said he thinks there's a certain awareness of historical preservation inspired by living in the city.

"There's a tradition of that in cities," Meyer said. "Here some people don't want to bother maintaining it. It's nice when history doesn't get lost so kids and grandkids can see what it used to be like."

Other members in the Friends of the Martell School are also from the Twin Cities and Meyer said he appreciates having different viewpoints of historical preservation contributing to the group.

History can be seen from wall to wall in the schoolhouse that the group deemed worthy of preservation.

Two original frames on the wall hold images of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, old light fixtures still hang from the ceiling, the original slate chalkboard is still anchored to the front wall and a small desk that was once a Martell student's is on display. There are even two double-pane windows from the 1900s still installed at the back of the schoolhouse.

Within these walls on Sept. 7 at 7 p.m., the acoustic string trio band Stealin' Home from St. Paul, Minn. will fill the old schoolhouse with bluegrass, folk, classic country, blues and rock 'n roll music. It will be their third time playing inside the historical site, and the public is welcome to come and listen for free. Any donations collected will help fund future restoration projects.

But the concert is not the only community-wide event that has been held at the schoolhouse. Meyer said they have begun to host activities like summertime movie nights for children, yoga classes and at one time had Trout Unlimited teach fly fishing lessons on the Rush River just next to the schoolhouse. Other classes and events will be welcomed in the future.

The purpose of opening up the schoolhouse to public events for residents in a small town like Martell?

"To be entertained without venturing too far out," Meyer said.

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