Thursday, January 7, 2016

Out With the Old

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

I hope everyone had a great time during the Christmas season. Now that the holidays are over, it’s time to get back to some serious blogging.

In May of 1993, I took a couple of pictures of an abandoned building that stood on Highway 60, southwest of Sauk City, Wisconsin. It was sitting close to the road, at the edge of a farm field, with the rolling hills of Sauk County as its backdrop. At the time, I thought it was an old country church.

In March 2000, the Sauk City Historic Preservation Committee moved the building to a small Historic Park on Water Street in downtown Sauk City. It was then that I learned that this building was actually an old one-room school called the Fair Valley School. After moving it there, the Preservation Committee restored the schoolhouse to its original glory.

The first Fair Valley School was built in 1861 and was a very simple building measuring 25’x18’x10’. In 1898, there were 44 children in Troy District No. 6, 33 of whom were enrolled in school. The school had 43 books in its library and daily attendance averaged 21 children. At that time, the teacher’s salary was $25 per month. In 1910, that original building was replaced by a bit more elaborate building with a large bell tower. The Fair Valley School operated until 1955, when it was consolidated with the Black Hawk School.

Prior to moving Fair Valley School to the Historic Park, the Historic Preservation Committee moved and restored another historic building. This building was built in 1892 and was rented by August Kirchstein for his boot and shoe repair business until he retired. The building then sat unnoticed for 90 years until it was moved in 1999 to the Historic Park.

The boot and shoe repair building was placed at the edge of the park right along Water Street. After restoration, it housed historic fire department artifacts, historical photographs, and old school memorabilia. The schoolhouse was placed behind this building, closer to the river. From this park, visitors could enjoy a beautiful view of the Wisconsin River.

In August 2001, prior to restoration of the schoolhouse, it suffered severe damage due to an arson fire. The roofing was burned off, the glass windows were shattered, and the outside was charred. The boot and shoe repair shop also suffered minor damage. Fortunately, the historical contents were not damaged by the arson. In spite of this setback, the Historic Preservation Committee persevered and began the historical restoration of the school. After being beautifully restored, the building served as a one-room schoolhouse museum, a classroom, and a meeting space for the community.

In mid-December 2014, I came through Sauk City at dusk and decided to drive along Water Street to see if there were any photo opportunities. As I approached the Historic Park, I saw a beautifully lit Christmas tree in front of the old schoolhouse. Unfortunately, there was no snow, but it was beautiful just the same. I decided to add this scene to the list of opportunities for Christmas 2015 (in hopes that there would be snow at that time).

As fate would have it, there was no snow in December 2015 until the 28th. My first chance to photograph after that came on New Year’s Eve. I bundled up, loaded up my camera equipment, and headed to Sauk City to capture a snowy Christmas scene at the Historic Park. I arrived at the park shortly before dusk. As I pulled up along Water Street, I was stunned to discover nothing but empty space where the A. Kirchstein Boots & Shoes building used to stand.

The pine tree in front of the school that had been lit so beautifully last December had no lights. As I reluctantly moved my eyes to look at the condition of the old schoolhouse, my heart sank. The front entryway and railing that were decorated last year with Christmas garland were both gone. The front steps and the wheelchair ramp had been torn away. As I sat there in disbelief, three people exited the school, heading toward the parking area. So I quickly drove over there to find out what had happened.

What I learned was that, in January 2015, the Village of Sauk City officials had given the Historic Preservation Committee 30 days to either find a buyer or figure out a way to move the buildings. The officials cited economic development reasons and said they didn’t want to own the buildings anymore. A private coalition was formed and fund-raising was begun. At first, the city was willing to give the coalition a lot on which to move the schoolhouse. However, after the coalition had raised the necessary funds to move the school, the city changed their mind about giving them the lot. So they put the buildings up for sale.

The boot and shoe repair building was sold to a private owner and moved somewhere outside of Sauk City. The schoolhouse was purchased for $1 by a young woman who plans to move it to the very same lot, which she also purchased from the city. Her plans are to keep the building’s outside appearance the same, but to move her photography studio to the inside. Her father asked if I had ever been inside the building. Unfortunately, I had never gotten around to visiting it when it was open. He said it was beautiful inside and they offered to show it to me. I, of course, took them up on their offer.

It was a bit tough getting up and inside the school due to the steps being gone, but I did manage to do it. The school has a beautiful wooden floor and blackboards on the walls. The antique desks had been removed, but the old upright piano was still there. As I stood inside the school, I could feel the energy of all the students and teachers who had passed through its doors over time. The new owner smiled when I told her the building had “good energy.”

I’m happy that the new owner plans to keep the outside of the schoolhouse in its current historical state after moving it. But the inside will no longer hold the historical significance it has had in the past. It makes me sad, but it is also a good reminder for me to keep pushing to capture these historical structures before they disappear forever.

Happy New Year and Happy Shunpiking!


  1. Thanks for sharing your wonderful photos of these beautiful historical buildings. How sad that the City felt it needed to have those beautifully restored buildings moved off City land. Your photography work is clearly very important work to preserve history.

  2. Thanks for the update on the Historical Park. I did not know about was going on. I am so glad that you had a chance to get a picture of the School House on it original spot. :)

  3. You are telling important stories, both in your photos and words. I've been by those buildings several times. I hope they can be preserved as much as possible.

  4. Thanks, everyone, for your encouraging comments about the work we are doing. Sometimes it takes a lot of motivation to get up and out there before dawn or to photograph in hot, cold, rainy, or windy conditions. But when I capture history that later disappears, it fuels my motivation to continue this very important work.

  5. I agree with bw ruland's comment, however, I would have a stronger and less polite term for the IDIOTS that are on the Sauk City board. They completely and utterly shot themselves in the feet on this one. They had an opportunity to continue to use that building as a community resource, and blew it over some unknown personal, and in my humble opinion petty, vendetta going on in the background. I attended a number of the Fair Valley Schoolhouse coalition meetings myself, and saw all of the potential uses for the building. Hats off to the Cole sisters for saving the place, but the Sauk Village board gave them the additional assistance of rezoning the same piece of land that the coalition wanted to use. Rezoning it as a business property eliminated the need to get an easement from the railroad to allow enough setback from the abandoned tracks to put the schoolhouse far enough back from the road to meet other Sauk City setback requirements. As a business property, evidently there is no requirement for setback from the street. Had the Sauk City Village Board been anything other than small-minded, they would have informed the coalition about this "loophole" and allowed them to move the schoolhouse there and continue to be used for historic school days, weddings, baby showers, meetings, etc! Now, the interior is going to be transformed to put in the stations needed in the beauty salon and only the patrons of the photo studio and the salon will benefit from the use of the building instead of the wider population of the Sauk Prairie Area. How sad for the taxpayers of Sauk City, to be ruled by a board that makes decisions that are not in their best interests :-(