At one time, the landscape of Iowa was dotted with literally hundreds of one-room schoolhouses. Every few miles, a rural school building would serve as the education hub for pupils of all ages. As populations grew and shifted, it made more sense to send all of the students into larger school buildings in the nearest town - where students would instead learn with classes of their similarly aged peers.
As the years passed, many of these one-room schoolhouses were demolished or converted into some other use. Many were neglected and fell into disrepair. However, there are a few of these treasures left around Iowa. Some are still in the spots where they were built, but many have been moved somewhere to be enjoyed by the public as a museum or in a historical village or even as part of a business.
There is one place in Iowa, however, that is different than just about any other place in the country...and maybe the world.
Nowhere else, except for Sheldon in O'Brien County, can you go to one spot to see four historic, unique, and different styles of one-room schoolhouses. The Prairie Arts Historical Park on Highway 18 in Sheldon is a truly one-of-a-kind visit. It's situated on the north side of the road between the Casey's General Store and the Shopko department store.
On a recent Sunday, I joined more than 150 others to attend an open house, complete with live music and food, to celebrate the completion of the latest addition to the park: O'Brien County's Baker Township School #5.
O'Brien County's Baker School #5 has added significance for my family. Not only did members of my family once attend school here, but stood on land owned by my grandparents (and now owned by my aunt and uncle).
A few years ago, the school was moved from Baker Township in O'Brien County to the Prairie Arts Historical Park.
More than $80,000 and hundreds (maybe thousands?) of hours of paid and volunteer labor, lead by my aunt Colleen and the board of the Prairie Arts Council, have restored and preserved it into a true crown jewel.
Inside, the school looks today much like it might have looked about than 70 years ago...with a few modern touches added. The school can be rented by the community for events - there's even a kitchen and an indoor bathroom.
There are a number of original elements or artifacts that remain with the school. Additionally, there have been other art and tributes added.
The brand new basement underneath the school has been turned into a classroom that houses community youth art classes (Little Picassos!).
Outside the Baker School and elsewhere on the grounds, several "bags to benches" picnic tables, garbage receptacles, planter boxes, and benches have been situated as a result of the park receiving a "Build with Bags" grant sponsored by the Iowa Grocery Association. The community came together to contribute grocery bags which were then turned into very durable (heavy!) outdoor furnishings.
The above bench is dedicated in honor of my maternal grandparents. The Baker School sat on land that they owned and farmed.
As noted, there are several other buildings on campus.
The main building is an old house that is generally now used as an art gallery, though the basement is utilized as an apartment residence.
There are a number of permanent displays but also, on occasion, shorter term exhibits.
Next door, there is an old O'Brien County Floyd Township school that contains a permanent collection of scaled-down work done by Werner Lode, a long-time community member who passed away a few years ago.
Next door, visitors can enter an old home that has lovingly been curated to match the turn of the century. It depicts the amenities that an Iowa family might have had more than a century ago.
Throughout the house there are sign posts that describe what the visitor is viewing and often denotes the historical significance of each item.
There is even an old outhouse that came from the farm of my maternal great grandparents.
Another school on the campus, known as Prairie School #1, was Sheldon's first school and has been set up to depict exactly how students decades ago would have experienced it.
The last school came from Lynn Township in next door Sioux County and is used by the local community college for art classes.
If you are in Sheldon, I would recommend stopping by to see this one-of-a-kind collection of one-room school houses. You won't find something like this anywhere else, probably, in the entire world. In addition, you can also see how Iowans lived at the turn of the century and enjoy the work of local artists. It would be time well spent. It's best, though, to call ahead and get your visit scheduled. I am sure one of the great volunteers would be delighted to show you around. Check out their Facebook page to learn more and schedule your visit.
As always, I welcome your suggestions of places to visit and profile whether in O'Brien County or any of the other 98 counties. If you would like to host the Iowa Adventurer or have a good idea, please drop me a note through my website.