By Randy Meline, Graceland University (posted here with permission)
A 100-year-old, country school house from near Leon has been painstakingly restored and moved to its new home behind Graceland University's Welcome Center/Maid-Rite/Amish Country Store complex two miles east of Lamoni at I-35 and Highway 69.
The school house was donated by Graceland alumna and Board of Trustees member Vicki (McVicker) Ross, a 1950 GU Graduate. She grew up on a Decatur County farm and attended the Pioneer School. It has stood since 1889 on the Leon-Lineville road, about 15 miles northeast of Lamoni. It served farm children from Kindergarten to high-school age for many decades.
Now, the school house will serve a double purpose. Area school children will visit and learn about pioneer history, and travelers can pull off I-35 to be greeted at Graceland's new Amish Country Store, (soon-to-be-opening) Maid-Rite restaurant, the Welcome Center, and a beautiful vintage country school house. It is bound to be a place visitors will remember, and return to. (Here is a shot of the school house coming down the highway toward Lamoni. Photos by Dennis Piepergerdes.)
Vicki Ross (who resides in Pennsylvania) has many memories of her early days in the Decatur County countryside. She decided a while back to restore the historic school so elementary and middle school children of today could visit on field trips, learn about early rural education (which Iowa pioneers valued so highly), and share that knowledge with their friends and families.
Now her vision has come true and she could not be more pleased. "This has been a rewarding project, and well worth the effort," she said. "For years to come visitors will feel a special connection when they visit Lamoni."
Vicki financed restoration of the Pioneer School. It was transported last week on a flatbed trailer (in three pieces, requiring three trips - the roof had to be removed) to the Welcome Center by another loyal Gracelander.
Alumnus Orman Brooner, a 1953 graduate, has spent months on the project. Orman and his St. Joseph, Missouri construction company did the restoration work on the school house, securing the exterior and bringing back to life a piece of southern Iowa history. Orman is also a member of the Graceland Board of Trustees.
Here is a shot of Vicki Ross, taken in 2007, meeting outside the school with property owner Ivan Twembly.
The restoration work and move presented Orman and his crews with a number of challenges along the way. For instance, they had the school loaded and ready to go about three weeks ago when a winter storm hit and iced the roads. They finally got a break with the weather, and the school is now secure in its new home.
Orman has made multiple trips to Decatur County from his home in St. Joseph, Missouri to complete the restoration. Work will continue to landscape the area, add concrete sidewalks, an outside dining area, and more.
That's Orman, above, posing next to the school house after the move was completed.
Orman and his wife Colleen are ardent supporters of Graceland. They have championed academic programs and Orman's construction firm has been involved with projects on campus, including The Helene Center for the Visual Arts.
Vicki Ross and her now-deceased husband, Donald Ross, GU Class of 1948, have also been strong Graceland supporters. The Ross family has gifted $1 million toward the major renovation of Platz-Mortimore Science Hall into the state-of-the-art Resch Science and Technology Hall, now under construction on campus.
The driving force behind the Welcome Center project has been Graceland's first lady Bette Sellars. Bette taught art and her husband John Sellars was VP for Institutional Advancement at Graceland a decade ago. They returned last year when John became the university's seventeenth president. One of the first things Bette noticed when she came back to Lamoni was the sizeable Amish presence that had built up around Lamoni in the last 10 years. There are about 45 Amish families in the area now.
With Bette's guidance, Graceland has now partnered with Lamoni's Amish community, the iconic, Iowa-born ‘Maid-Rite' Corporation and the State of Iowa to create a unique dining, shopping and tourist-aid destination at the outskirts of Lamoni.
Bette's vision for the site where the Pioneer School now rests includes adding a white picket fence and Amish-made birdhouses, and other period pieces to accompany the old-time feel of the site. At times there might be cows and calves on hand so visiting children can do some ‘soft-nose' petting.
"Visitors will be able to sit by large windows in the Maid-Rite and drift back in time to a scene of early Iowa," Bette said. They will also be able to view the site up close and explore the restored interior of the school.
The Maid-Rite restaurant is expected to open in February. General Manager Marcy Biesemeyer said there have been some construction and installation delays but she hopes to announce a grand-opening date soon. Amish workmen have been very much involved in the project. Bette and Marcy are exploring a host of ideas for expansion and enhancement of the Welcome Center site.
Work also continues on the Amish Country Store. A vintage-looking porch area will be constructed inside so that Lamoni's longstanding Mite Society (quilting group) can demonstrate their craft to visitors. The Iowa Welcome Center will of course offer travelers free maps, tourist tips and information about Lamoni - places to dine, shop and ideas on how to enjoy and learn more about our great community.
Graceland President Sellars believes further development along the Hwy. 69 corridor will bring newcomers to the city and its businesses, and familiarize them with Graceland. Evolution of the Welcome Center project has occurred in tandem with beautification efforts along the two-mile corridor from I-35 to downtown.
New streetlights have been installed by Lamoni Municipal Utilities and numerous trees have been planted, with support from a ‘Trees Forever' grant and hard work from many community volunteers. Other sprucing-up projects have taken place along the route and downtown.