JASPER - Elicia Kortus had just finished the sixth grade when the Pipestone-Jasper school district voted to close the stately Sioux quartzite school house that had served the residents of the small, rural community of Jasper since 1917.
Kortus went on to graduate from high school in Pipestone, and the Jasper school building - though people tried unsuccessfully to resurrect it in the two decades that followed - stood as a beckoning beacon on the prairie.
Since the building’s owner, Dick Haase, died more than a year ago, Haase’s family has tried to sell it through a Realtor. When that proved unsuccessful, VanDerBrink Auction was tapped to conduct an online auction.
Bidding started in mid-November and remained open through the end of the month. The opening bid was set at $17,000 - the amount of money needed to pay the back taxes - but interest in the building was slim.
Kortus heard of the online auction within a day after it began, and in the days that followed brought together a committee of individuals, set up an online fundraising site and solicited the $4,000 needed for the nonrefundable down payment.
She gathered information from the building’s caretaker, had a contractor walk through it, and gathered together a group of eight to 10 people to tour the structure and offer comment on its potential to be developed into industrial-style living spaces. She also formed a committee of nearly a dozen people - from community residents to Jasper school alumni - to develop a plan for the building’s future.
Why the interest?
When the Jasper school closed in 1993, Kortus was upset she had to transfer to a new school. She said the building in Jasper seemed just fine.
It was one of those small, rural schools where all the kids got along, she shared. There was no bullying - no one was picked on.
Though everything worked out with her transfer, Kortus said she often thought of the Jasper school building.
“I just thought, why are we going to abandon this building? Why don’t we put the money into repairing this? Why is it, all of a sudden, not good enough?” she questioned.
With a passion for historic buildings and a hobby in the arts, Kortus, who works in nutrition and massage therapy, felt a call to action when she learned the building was up for sale. After all, four generations of her Madetzke family have called this community home. And the school - well, at one time it was the town’s heartbeat.
Despite rumors of the building being rampant with mold and asbestos, Kortus said that’s not the case. Though the former school site has been empty for the past 10 years, it’s still in “remarkably good condition,” she said. With its Sioux quartzite exterior, mined from the Jasper Stone Company a century ago, it also has good bones.
The three-story building is filled with unique architecture - something Kortus can market as the committee considers ideas for renovating the old school.
“The most attractive vision is to create living spaces in the industrial style, with exposed beams and piping, brick and stone walls, while preserving the auditorium/gymnasium for community use and possible events such as weddings,” Kortus wrote for the S.O.S. Jasper High - Save Our School Facebook page. In 2007, the building was listed as one of Minnesota’s 10 most endangered, historically-significant high schools.
Since Kortus doesn’t have a complete floor plan of the 70,000-square-foot-building - in addition to the original structure, there was an addition in 1938 and another in the 1960s - she doesn’t know exactly how many apartments could be created there.
“We envision 30 apartments or more,” she said, adding that plans remain open for the band room, art room, ag shop, gymnasium and lockers.
“We want it to be a multi-functioning building,” she said, identifying options such as business incubator space, room to spark a local food movement, art studios, and perhaps a small custom cabinetry workshop or even a microbrewery. Other options include relocating the community fitness center to the building and using some of the open space for rotating exhibits from the Jasper Museum.
That small group of people Kortus led through the Jasper school building recently to get their input on possibly living there, she said, have been scared off because of the structure’s size and the amount of work that needs to be done to make it a liveable space.
Despite their fears, Kortus is undeterred.
There are some roof leaks that need to be addressed, and some mold needs to be abated. The HVAC system will likely need work and, of course, remodeling has to be done.
In one estimate, Kortus was told it could take up to $2 million to get the building ready for tenants.
She is relying on volunteer labor, reclaimed materials and grants to help make the committee’s vision for the Jasper school building a reality.
The building qualifies for the National Trust for Historic Preservation program, which makes it eligible for grants. Kortus said there are other avenues to pursue, from community innovation grants to U.S.D.A. Rural Development or Bush Foundation grant and loan programs.
Kortus, who resides in Sioux Falls, S.D., said she knows of many people there who are looking to move out of the city - to buy an acreage or find a place to live in a smaller community. Jasper just might be an option.
Located on Minnesota 23, 17 miles north of Interstate 90 and a 30- to 40 minute drive from Sioux Falls, Jasper’s population is slightly more than 600 residents.
There may not be a grocery store now, but Kortus said a new barbecue place is opening soon on Main Street. And if plans fall into place for the school building, a grocery store may just be lured to town.
“We just have to get people to realize what’s in Jasper and give them a reason to stop,” said Kortus. “It takes a combined effort. What’s going to drive... how we are going to creatively attract people?”
People from Pipestone, while on the way to Sioux Falls, drive through Jasper, and Kortus believes they need to be given a reason to stop there - a reason to want to live there.
“If it’s affordable, a nice community, a safe community,” people will want to live there, Kortus believes.
Some of her friends work from home, some have online businesses - those are the kinds of people she hopes will consider renting an apartment inside the Jasper school once it’s renovated.
How to help save the school
On Jan. 31, the group will host a Pancake Feed and Silent Auction fundraiser from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Memorial Hall, 101 E. Wall St., Jasper. Everyone is invited to attend and support the purchase of the Jasper school building.
In addition, Kortus - through the still-forming nonprofit Reclaim Community - has established an account with Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. Donations can be made through Preservation Alliance (noted to Jasper School Project) to help save the Jasper school, or online at generosity.com (Save Jasper High School - Initial purchase fund). Nearly $2,900 has been raised online in the past month.
The committee has until Feb. 16 to raise the remaining $21,000 to pay for the school building. With a local family offering to match up to $3,500 in donations, Kortus is hopeful the group can reach its goal.
“We want to reclaim not only the building, but the community of Jasper,” she said. “We want to revitalize the town that kind of died a little bit when the school closed.”