Building salvages in Oulu, elsewhere, highlight efforts to save the story of rural America

OULU, Wis. -- Having hauled a 100-year-old schoolhouse roughly 15 miles for the purpose of restoring it and putting it back into use, the community members in this traditionally Finnish hamlet celebrated as best as they knew how last Tuesday -- a...

Electric utility workers use long poles to raise a power line so the former Tripp Fairview School can pass on its way to the Oulu Cultural and Heritage Center last week. (Bob King /

OULU, Wis. - Having hauled a 100-year-old schoolhouse roughly 15 miles for the purpose of restoring it and putting it back into use, the community members in this traditionally Finnish hamlet celebrated as best as they knew how last Tuesday - around a tableful of homemade soups and breads.
“Nobody else does it like we do it in Oulu,” said Gloria Johnson, proprietor of the timeless Johnson Berry Patch. “We’re a big family; the whole area is family.”
This part of Northwestern Wisconsin is dotted with old schoolhouses - many of them succumbing to age and the elements as relics on the landscape. But the Northland is also seeing places where small buildings with strong ties to heritage are being infused with new life.  
In the town of Wascott, Wis., an hour southwest of Oulu, the people have moved a schoolhouse and a century-old church within the past few years, creating the Wascott Historical Park next to the Town Hall. In March, the town board plans to approve painting the buildings.
“I come from the Twin Cities, and I’ve seen lots of what I thought were neat old buildings torn down,” said Wascott Town Board chairperson Lynn Koalska. “It’s a good idea when we can preserve what we’ve got in some way.”       
Last November in Tower, the people brought the shuttered 125-year-old St. Mary’s Episcopal Church into town from its former home on a dead-end road; it will be the centerpiece of the Lake Vermillion Community Center.
“It was going to fall down,” said Mary Batinich, the chairperson of the community center board. “We’re just thrilled with it.”
The preservation efforts are inevitably piecemeal, relying on fundraising and the dedication of mostly senior citizen volunteers in order for the buildings to see new life. The preservationists themselves are vibrant people who are not content to simply let time hurtle from one era to the next in an avalanche that would cover up the past. They work from strategic long-term plans and are content to let things unfold one step at a time.
“We’re kind of a throwaway society in the United States,” Oulu’s Duane Lahti said. “In Europe they’re using buildings hundreds of years old, maybe some a thousand years old. We wanted to preserve something for future generations so they knew what it was like where they grew up - something left over from the story of rural America.”
Remarkably, the Tripp Fairview School is going to be put back into use as an actual schoolhouse. For a couple years now, the town has conducted summer schools in association with the South Shore School District in Port Wing. It’s not a traditional summer school for children who fall behind during the regular school year, rather it’s open for all students and introduces them to hands-on skills and pastimes that are otherwise fading from view.
Over the course of three weeks this summer, students will learn sewing, old logging and farming techniques, how to cook various ethnic dishes and more. In its second summer last year, the program had 30 students, and Lahti said he expects more this year.
“It’s becoming kind of a unique situation,” he said.
In Tower, the Lake Vermillion Community Center gained the support of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board for the fact that it would be adding something to a community that has seen much taken from it. The old Episcopal church figures to become a day care, youth and senior center, concert hall, auditorium and library all in one. Though the building itself was deconsecrated, the Episcopal Church has agreed to continue to let marriages and funerals be staged in the building.  
“The IRRRB really understands that people want to live and put businesses in places where there’s culture,” Batinich said.  
On the day of their schoolhouse move, the people of Oulu illustrated exactly how these sorts of preservation efforts can unfold - with a mixture of professional help, community ingenuity and even corporate generosity.
Throughout the winding route from Port Wing down County Road A, the skilled movers from Poplar’s Robert Woodhull Construction slowed for narrow creek overpasses and the nearly two dozen power lines that were lifted by crews of two working for the Bayfield Electric Cooperative.
“They donated their entire time for this event because of the value of the project,” Lahti said of the electricians. “It would have cost about $5,000.”
The movers and the series of electrical workers employed throughout the route later washed down their savory soups with coffee and pastries. They all mingled among the residents of Oulu who were tickled for having added to their budding Oulu Cultural Heritage Center on Muskeg Road - so far two homesteads, a Finnish smoke sauna from the 1800s, a quaint co-op building and now the former Tripp Fairview School.
The spectacle of the moving schoolhouse brought out people to the ends of their driveways, cameras in hand.
In Tripp, the school that has moved twice before and was last used as an attorney’s office passed its original location. Brothers George, 77, John, 72, and Gerald Tutor, 70, sat in the rumbling cab of a pickup as the school passed. The two oldest brothers attended school in the building. They struggled to come up with sentimental musings.
“That was a long time ago,” George Tutor said.
“I have a picture somewhere of the school being moved north to Port Wing,” Gerald Tutor said.
Standing amid the celebration in a restored homestead called Pudas House on the grounds of the Oulu Cultural Heritage Center, Harry Pudas talked about how he was born in the house.  
“The doctor came right out to the farm,” he said. “That was in 1937.”
Pudas believes he was the last child of Oulu born that way, the popularization of hospital births finally winning out as times changed.
But as people are proving throughout the Northland, progress doesn’t always win.
“I grew up in Oulu,” the berry farming Johnson said. “If somebody doesn’t preserve our history, it will be lost.”

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