Long-Awaited Historic Bettendorf School Reopening Will Be May 22
Following the meticulous, painstaking preservation of a former one-room school in Bettendorf — completed in September 2019, after more than seven years — the project supporters envisioned reopening as a museum in early 2020. Then Covid happened.
The 1873 Forest Grove No. 5 School – refurbished to its 1920s appearance at a cost of $250,000 — is scheduled to reopen on Saturday, May 22, from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Regular hours beyond Saturday mornings will be expanded as docents become trained.
Volunteer docent training will be taking place on Monday, May 3 at 10 a.m. at the schoolhouse, 24040 Forest Grove Drive, Bettendorf. The school will be open for free to the public, with donations welcome.
“We were all set to train docents. We were all supposed to do all of that and then Covid-19 hit,” project coordinator Sharon Andresen of Bettendorf said Tuesday of the original opening plans. “We just had to put it all to the back burner. It
was super frustrating and part of that actually was just, we felt so constricted and then not to be able to open it was really hard.”
“Nobody thought that it would get to that level of infection in our community. You know, that we would have to wait, wait, wait,” she said of the delay of over 14 months.
Andresen (who used to work as a medical transcriptionist) was originally inspired to save the school – which closed in 1957 — since she and her family used to live very close to it in the early ‘90s. When they moved back to Bettendorf in 2011, she saw how much the structure had deteriorated.
“The community here has just been so good to our family. This is where my husband has spent his whole medical career,” Andresen said of her spouse, Andy, who is vice president of medical staff affairs for Genesis. “Our kids went to school here. Great education. They have great careers and I really just, I was looking for a worthy project.
“I was no longer working, and I was just kind of looking for something really worthwhile to do,” she said. “And I guess it’s kind of become my contribution back to the community — that I really wanted to see this great little piece of history restored.”
Forest Grove School is a remnant of the time when most Iowans lived on farms, sending their children to one of the 12,600-plus country schools that dotted the state about every two miles, according to Andresen’s nonprofit organization, Forest Grove School Preservation – which got the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“These schools helped shape the character of the state, and they helped build Iowa’s reputation — somewhat eroded today — as a leader in education, having the highest literacy rate in the nation, and its strong support for local control and neighborhood schools,” the group’s Facebook page says.
After the school closed in 1957, it became the property of Delbert and Jeannette Blunk, who farmed the surrounding land. Delbert Blunk attended school there, kindergarten through 8th grade, in the 1930s. And after he married and had children, the couple’s oldest boys — Larry and David — did so, too.
After years of neglect, Andresen worked with Quad Cities Community Foundation to raise money in 2012, and then formed Forest Grove School Preservation as a non-profit corporation in 2013 to bring new life back to the dilapidated, then-gray shell of a school.
While the total renovation cost about $250,000, about one-quarter was supported by state historic preservation tax credits, she said, noting Cedar Rapids architect Doug Steinmetz oversaw the work. That included rebuilding of the bell tower, as it had appeared in the ‘20s, but was lost, and the Blunks supplied the original bell.
Some of the siding was added new, on the east side of the building, and most of the south side. The entire west side and half the north side was restored original siding, including a whole summer Andresen spent working personally on. “I was told by many people that that couldn’t be saved, but I’m kind of a stubborn person, you know,” she said. “Like don’t tell me I can’t do that.”
The highlight of reopening Forest Grove (including faithful re-creation of its interior) will be the newly completed museum film, “Remembering Forest Grove,” by Tammy and Kelly Rundle of Moline-based Fourth Wall Films. The 10-minute documentary was supported by five donors whose names appear in the opening credits.
The content covers the history of country schools in the U.S. and in Iowa, the history of Forest Grove No 5 (including interviews with former students and teachers), and a 2.5-minute video recap of the actual restoration.
“It’s amazing,” Andresen said of the Rundles’ seven-years-plus work on it. “That was pretty overwhelming to me. When I saw that the first time, that was just overwhelming to me to see that whole process, boiled
down into 2 and 1/2 minutes.”
“We just want people to come in and the video will give them a quick overview of the history of one-room schools in Iowa. It’ll give a quick overview of people who went there, and a quick little overview of the actual restoration in 10 minutes.”
A special invitation-only screening of the museum film will be held on the evening of May 21st and will be attended by all five donors. They will have the opportunity to meet the Rundles and tell their own stories of what compelled them to support the museum film. A video kiosk is being custom built by Bill McQuitty of Silvis.
The kiosk will allow museum guests to choose from the museum film and multiple shorter films produced by the Rundles using a touchscreen. The portable kiosk can also be taken into the classroom to project films to a portable screen for larger groups.
The short videos of former students and teachers – among others from the Rundles — were crucial in helping the preservation group raise money, Andresen said. “They really got people behind it.”
Documenting history and restoration
In 2009, the couple first drove out to Forest Grove — a then-dilapidated one-room school in the country — during a blizzard to gather footage
for their award-winning and Emmy-nominated 2010 documentary “Country School: One Room – One Nation.”
For “Country School,” the husband-and-wife team filmed at more than 100 remaining one-room schoolhouses in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Kansas. Kelly Rundle said Forest Grove seemed special since it was “kind of big and ornate,” he said.
“A lot of people are always saying about old buildings, they can’t be saved. As Tammy said, it’s a great example of people just having the will to do it.”
One country school they shot in LeClaire was later torn down and Kelly was convinced Forest Grove would meet the same fate.
“I thought it was an interesting old school,” he said Wednesday. “Once they started working on the school we started documenting that process. In the beginning, there was no clear idea of what we would do with the footage.”
Tammy knew they thought they’d want some kind of visitor center film, and the Rundles knew they’d have enough to compile a feature-length (roughly an hour) documentary, called “Resurrecting Forest Grove.” The latter would explore the project in more detail, including the school’s history and time period.
“If not for Covid, we’d be a little further ahead on that,” Kelly said of the longer film, which is expected to be done by end of 2021 with a public release in early 2022. The feature-length film has been supported by grants from Humanities Iowa.
In the interim, the Rundles got a grant from Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area in Iowa, to do a series of eight short videos on former Forest Grove students and teachers who lived on farms in the area.
They produced separate short pieces for Forest Grove School Preservation to raise money.
“There’s a lot to what went on, a lot of challenges they faced,” Kelly said of the complex restoration process. “The first of which was how to get that thing off the ground and a new foundation built under it, without it falling over.”
The feature film could serve as “inspiration for someone who has a similar, seemingly hopeless building, and it’s proof that you can bring those things back,” he said. “It’s just a matter of having the will to do it.”
Tammy said the feature will not just focus on Forest Grove, but put it in the context of what the one-room school history was (serving students through 8th grade), including interviewing historians about the 1920s.
“That’s a part of history that isn’t covered very much, especially in education,” she
said. “Resurrecting Forest Grove” will tell the dramatic true story behind the seemingly-impossible task of restoring a vintage one-room school to its 1920s appearance. Footage and interviews gathered over a seven-year period depict the problems they faced and the solutions they employed as they attempted to bring this rural icon back to life. The surprises and successes of this challenging restoration project are intercut with a vivid historical portrait of the Roaring 20s in rural America.
Iowa still has the most existing one-room school buildings in the nation — about 3,000. Kelly said while 200 have been restored back into schools, most of the remainder have been converted into private homes. “I saw this whole process take
place from beginning to the end,” he said of Forest Grove’s resurrection. “When I was putting together the two-and-a-half-minute segment and I watched it, it kind of took my breath away. It still seems unbelievable to me.”
“When you’re standing out there and you’re seeing this thing return to the earth, and you think this isn’t gonna last much longer – it’s good we’re documenting this because it’s gonna be gone,”
Tammy said of the original decrepit school. “Then you have someone like Sharon, for her to have that spark in her – this visionary. I’m not a visionary.”
“She drives by it and is like, I’m gonna take that project on,” she said. “You can’t help but be touched by that. You think, this is gonna take forever. We’ve got to document this, because this story is going to play out. It’s going to be a remarkable story if they succeed. This is bringing a community together; it’s bringing volunteers together; it’s bringing students and teachers together.
“They’re working together to restore this history, as well as the building,” Tammy said. “It was a remarkable exploration.”
“For us, probably one of the most moving moments was standing out there for that ribbon-cutting,” she said. “You have these people who have worked for years bringing this American icon back to life. For all of us, standing there, that was a climactic moment. A wonderful moment.”
Sharing school memories
Tammy treasures an interview she did with a former Forest Grove student – Alberta Young Woods – who was 96 at the time, and has since passed on, and she recalled was “sharp as a tack.”
“She’s in the museum film and you can tell she’s a firecracker,” Tammy said. “All of them were just a joy to talk to. Some of them in their 80s and 90s were remembering their experience at Forest Grove as if they happened yesterday. They were favorable memories. Alberta was especially funny.”
“She loved every moment of her Forest Grove experience,” she said. “She loved the whole country school experience. She was one of my favorites.”
Alberta got a certificate for perfect attendance from the state of Iowa – in eight years, she never missed a day. More of her stories will go into the feature film, Tammy said.
Sharon Johnson Clemens is a former Forest Grove student, who was there between 1944 and
1953 and had an insightful comment for the Rundles.
State officials thought country schools were substandard, though they didn’t have any hard evidence to back that up, Kelly said.
“Country school kids were thought to have a worse education than town school kids, so when they reached 8th grade, they had to pass an exam to enter into high school,” he said. “When we would do these interviews, we’d ask these country school kids if they knew that.”
The test was really hard, Kelly said, noting he probably couldn’t pass it.
When Clemens heard that the city students didn’t have to take that test, she said: “Just because we were from cornfield county doesn’t mean we didn’t get a good education. I thought I got an
excellent education from those Forest Grove one-room school teachers. I was able to graduate from high school and work at very good jobs all my life because of my country school education.”
“I’ve been able to retire and enjoy it,” Clemens said.
When Forest Grove closed in 1957, Iowa had a law that one-room schools were phased out by the 1960s, Kelly said.
A seven-minute film they did to help raise money – “Forest Grove School Memories” – also will be available to see at the restored school.
Andresen said anyone interested in volunteering as a docent is encouraged to come for training on May 3.
“We’ll take anyone who wants to be trained. It’s kind of like, the more the merrier because we’ll be dividing up the museum schedule and we’ll just have people volunteer for the time that they want to be there or the dates that they want to be there,” she said.
The more docents they have, the more hours they will be able to have the school open, Andresen said.