Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Red Brick School

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

In October, 2011, Ruth and I made one of our annual fall trips to Iowa. As usual, Ruth had a million things lined up for me to photograph. At the end of the first day, as the sun was sinking into the horizon, we stopped at an old brick schoolhouse called the Red Brick School.

Because the available light was already waning, I quickly went to work. Even though the little brick school had only one room, it had two doors. Our dad and his siblings attended a one-room school that had two doors. They told us that one door was for the girls and one was for the boys.

There was also an old water pump down the hill from the school, which had been painted red.

After photographing the outside of the building and the old water pump, I thought I was finished but, as I always do with old churches and old schools, I decided to check if it was locked up tight. So I turned the knob on the door on the left and, to my surprise, it opened. I peeked inside and was astounded by what I saw.

The schoolhouse had been restored and the room was filled with old desks. I was immediately transported to another time and I just stood there in awe. There was even an old pot-bellied stove.

After soaking in the magnificence of this grand recreation of an earlier time, I snapped back to the present with the realization that I had but a few minutes to photograph before the light would succumb to darkness.

Against one wall, there was a simple bookcase with shelves that were sagging under the weight of old school textbooks and storybooks. On a shelf next to the bookcase was a box containing word cards and phrase and sentence cards that were used as teaching aids.

It reminded me of our days in the four-room Catholic school we attended, where spelling, phonics, sentence structure, and grammar were taught to us by nuns wearing black habits. In one of the front corners of the room sat an old piano, with a large US flag on a pole standing next to it. On the piano were old songbooks, which reminded me of all the songs the nuns taught us out of some wonderful hard-covered songbooks.

The Red Brick School was built in 1873, replacing a smaller brick school. Bricks from the original school were used to build the north end of the new school. In 1920, 46 students were enrolled in the school, which was used until 1960.

In 2006, Jim Wood donated the school to the Washington County Historical Society and it was restored by repairing windows and tuckpointing bricks, among other things. They also refinished old school desks to bring the inside to life. In 2009, the school opened as a school museum.

There was still more to take in, but the light was quickly fading. Then I noticed some old lunch buckets on the shelf that had seen better days but would serve to bring up fond memories for someone, including me.

When the light was all but gone, I snapped one last photo of the room with the old desks. Luckily, my digital camera somehow captures more light than my eyes can see. However, I needed to finish up in order to find my way back to the car. So I reluctantly exited the school, closing the door behind me. As I walked past the door on the right, I checked it and it was locked.

I walked carefully down the concrete steps and back to the car. As I was putting my camera equipment back and excitedly telling Ruth what had just transpired, I told her that I thought I should go lock the door on the left. It just didn’t seem right to leave it open for possible vandalism when the door on the right side was locked. Ruth agreed, so I walked back and locked the door.

As I returned to the car, I said, “You know, I think the open door was a gift from the Universe and my locking it up to keep it safe was my gift in return.”

Happy Shunpiking!


  1. Thanks for the post! I sit on the Washington County Historical Society Board, and we oversee the Red Brick School House. We just received a grant and will be restoring the front of the school house and adding on the enclosed entrance. You are correct that it was designed with a door for boys and a door for girls. This spring and summer we will complete phase one of this front enclosure. We also have some wonderful new exhibits at the Conger House Museum. If you are ever in town again look me up at the Chamber. I would be happy to show you around. The cities 175th Anniversary is also coming up and we will have an 8-day celebration. June 1- June 8. June 2 is History Day. www.chamber.washingtoniowa.org/175th