Saved from the wrecking ball
Central School Preservation offers museum, cultural center
Historic buildings have been described as stories that began long ago and aren’t finished yet. Lake City almost closed the book on Central School more than 40 years ago, until a small group of volunteers wrote a new chapter for the two-story, brick school built in 1884 that’s now a museum and cultural center.
“In the early 1980s, I saw a notice in the newspaper about a meeting for people interested in saving Central School,” said Dwight Dial, a Lake City-area farmer and teacher who attended Central School in kindergarten in 1955-56. “I went, because I hated the thought of tearing down an architectural gem like Central School.”
About 15 people, mainly retirees, gathered in the Lake City’s current city hall on the west side of the historic town square. Before the meeting ended, Dial had been voted president of a new organization dedicating to turning Central School into a museum.
While the transformation wasn’t easy, Central School now showcases the stories of small-town, rural Iowa through the eyes of those who lived it, from railroaders to farmers to educators and entrepreneurs. Feel like a kid again when you step into the kindergarten classroom, which honors Hester Crosswait, who taught at Central School for decades. Other classrooms include displays and artifacts reflecting Lake City’s rich heritage as a railroad center, medical hub, agricultural community and home of the Madden Stillian Circus.
More than a museum, Central School is a cultural center that offers public meeting space and hosts an annual lecture series, with topics ranging from Iowa’s Carnegie libraries to a history of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
“The community has contributed untold volunteer hours to preserve this building and keep it relevant for people today,” said Dial, who served as president of Central School Preservation (CSP) for 14 years in the 1980s and early 1990s and currently serves on CSP’s board of directors. “What would have happened to all this history if Central School wasn’t here?”
“Central School would be a grand dame”
Central School grew up with Lake City, starting in the 1880s. Lake City’s population was soaring in this era, thanks to the Chicago and North Western Railroad, which operated a roundhouse in town. More students prompted the community to invest in modern school buildings. Central School was designed by architects Foster and Liebbe of Des Moines.
When it opened in 1884, the brick schoolhouse contained four classrooms. The west wing, built in 1897, added four more rooms to Central School, which housed grades 1-12 by the early 1900s.
After Lake City High School was built on a separate campus in 1904, Central School remained a grade school until the building closed permanently in May 1980. Declining school enrollment prompted the Lake City School District to reevaluate the future of Central School, since the aging building needed major, costly repairs.
The school district used Central School for storage for the next two years. Then the school board began talking about demolishing the building. As this news began to spread, the Lake City Historical Society called a special meeting of its members.
While there were some preservationists in the community, not everyone felt Central School was worth saving. Some people scoffed at the idea. “Why would you want to save that old place?” was their general sentiment.
Still, a growing number of people put pressure on the Lake City school board. By February 1983, the newly-formed CSP presented a bid of $500 (roughly $1,300 in today’s dollars) to purchase Central School. After the school board accepted the bid, the real work began.
The school required a new roof and new mechanical systems. Broken windows needed to be repaired. Floors needed to be refinished. Undaunted, the CSP team forged ahead. They received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to Pioneer Seed Corn. A number of families also purchased naming rights to various rooms in Central School to honor their ancestors. By 1985, the school was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The restoration of Central School was nothing short of remarkable. The March 24, 1985, Sunday edition of the Des Moines Register carried the front-page headline “100-Year-Old School Evades Wrecking Ball.” “If buildings have personalities, Central School would be a grand dame,” CSP member Martha Sorenson told the Register. “A dignified lady, gracefully aged, still carrying the flair of former beauty.”
Old school, new opportunities
Winston Churchill once noted, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” That defines Central School, which has remained a center of learning in the community for nearly 140 years.
One of CSP’s latest projects involves a partnership that formed in the spring of 2021 with the leadership class at South Central Calhoun (SCC) High School in Lake City. Students are helping create a YouTube video of Central School. They are also researching options to revitalize the basketball court that used to be located just south of Central School.
“I truly believe this has been a great learning experience for the students in my class,” said Brian Knapp, an SCC teacher, coach and guidance counselor. “It’s also a work in progress that hopefully SCC classes to come can be a part of. For students to attach themselves to the history of the community in such a direct way with the support of those connected with Central School is invaluable.”
Central School also maintains a Facebook page that’s updated every weekday to share vintage and modern photos of life in Lake City and Calhoun County. Some of the posts include diary entries from Frances (Moseley) Pray. A few days before her 14th birthday in October 1900, Pray embarked on a lifelong journey; she started writing a diary. After a few starts and stops, the entries continued faithfully for 40 years. “It has been fun to share highlights from Pray’s diaries, which offer fascinating glimpses into daily life in Lake City years ago, through social media and the local newspaper,” Dial said.
To reach younger audiences, Central School also hosts Fun Fridays in the summer. Last July, children from The Kid’s Spot daycare in Lake City came to Central School for story time, snacks and fun on the playground, which features vintage swings, slides and a merry-go-round.
CSP continues to offer genealogy research and will host the first of its 2021 lecture series starting May 2 with the program “Ghost Pottery of Iowa,” which explores the once-thriving pottery businesses in Iowa. Central School continues to offer meeting space for local groups, including the American Association of University Women, AA/NA, Calhoun County Corn Growers, Lake City Betterment, class reunions and more.
“While Central School was built in 1884, it remains relevant today,” said Jill Heisterkamp, executive director of the Calhoun County Economic Development Corp. “It preserves our heritage, helps tell our local community’s stories and inspires us to explore the future. Beyond its cultural impact, Central School is an economic asset that promotes historic preservation and helps encourage tourism.”
All this motivates Dial and his fellow CSP board members to keep the momentum going. “When I think how far we’ve come, I look at Central School and think, ‘What a treasure.'”
Central School is open Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., and by appointment. For more information, call (712) 464-8639, or email Darcy Maulsby, CSP board president, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit Central School online at www.historiccentralschool.com.