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Pipestone woman restores country school house

The District 35 schoolhouse in rural Pipestone is shown shortly after Bernice Dykstra purchased it at an auction. After the school was closed in 1959, it was used for many years as a township hall.

PIPESTONE -- Bernice Dykstra never attended the District 35 school, nor did any members of her immediate family. But living just down the road, she became attached enough to the structure to buy it.

"It came up for auction, and I just decided that I'd like to do something with it," explained Dykstra.

Located in Sweet Township, Pipestone County, the District 35 school was in operation from 1881 to 1959 and then used for many years as a township hall. Since she took possession of the property, which includes 1.9 acres of land, Dykstra has been slowly but surely restoring the building with help from family and friends.

"My son threw the furnace out, and we had a new cement floor poured back there and painted the inside," she said.

A friend volunteered to paint the outside of the school.

"He wanted to remain anon-ymous, but everybody knows everybody up here, and all they had to do was drive by and it didn't take long for everybody to know," she said with a laugh.

The school's blackboards were still all in place, and she left the carpet for warmth. The boys outhouse still stands behind the main structure, and they fixed up the well so visitors can pump water.

"I started collecting desks, and have about 25 old desks," she said. "Some of the original books were still there, and then I had people donate encyclopedia sets to me, so I've got three sets of encyclopedias and some old books dating back to the 1800s."

The original school bell was long gone, but Dykstra pur-chased one at auction, and she hopes to eventually convince one of her sons to build a tower to house it.

Since she has no memory of how the schoolhouse once looked, Dykstra has to rely on the memories of others for her restoration vision.

"One of the former students came out, and she was telling me where everything was," Dykstra explained. "She and her sisters went here, and they got me class pictures. ... We found the flagpole back in the furnace room, and asked my neighbor --he's in his 90s -- and he told us where the flagpole was (located), so we dug a hole and put it in.

"It's fun talking to the people who went there. One lady told me a story about her little brother. He was either sitting in front or behind her, and he was being naughty, and the teacher thought it was her and kept telling her to stop. Finally, she took her into the library and spanked her with a ruler. She ran out of school and ran all the way home and told her dad. She had welts from the spanking, so they went to the school board and complained about whipping a child that bad. I would guess the teacher quit after that."

When Dykstra first resolved to buy the schoolhouse, she thought it would be a good place to display one of her hobbies.

"I have a military bear collection that I've been taking to schools and nursing homes," she explained. "My husband and I both retired from the South Dakota Air Guard, and I lost him 20 years ago to prostate cancer, so I started doing this teddy bear thing about 15 years ago. First, I had a big old ambu-lance with a teddy bear on the outside of it, but I sold that to a friend of mine. When I decided to buy this schoolhouse, I was thinking I'd like to restore the schoolhouse part, and people could come to me to see the teddy bears instead of me having to go to them."

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Many of the bears came from visits to military bases around the country.

"I lost count, but I have at least 20 of the big ones in uni-forms," Dykstra said. "I've had different ones given to me for Christmas, found quite a few while traveling. Just about every year, I take them to visit the first-grade class in Pipestone. We talk about the bears, and I take a picture of the kids with whatever bear they want a picture with. It gives them a sense of patriotism. I try to do it around Veterans Day if I can."

The Dykstras' military legacy extended to their late daughter, Deborah Dykstra Cook, who also served in the South Dakota Air Guard.

"I'm doing this project in memory of my husband (Leroy "Dyke" Dykstra) and my daughter, Debbie," Dykstra said. "We lost her to cancer two years ago. She was 51 years old. She was a member of the South Dakota Air Guard and had 15 years in the military. I'm doing this all in memory for her, for her grandchildren."

Since there's currently no working furnace in the schoolhouse, Dykstra has shut it up for the winter, but she anticipates having an open house of some sort in the spring. Eventually, she'd like to get it heated so she can have a Christmas event, too.

In the meantime, there are a couple of feline occupants keeping watch over the property.

"We have two kitties living there to keep the mice out," Dykstra explained. "I've got heating pads out there for them, and we feed and water them and check them every day."

When warmer weather rolls around, the schoolhouse will be open by appointment. For more information, contact Dykstra at (507) 215-1694.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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