Kenyon School History


From 1889 to 2013, a span of 124 years, a Kenyon school stood on the hill on the east side of Forest Street in the 300 block of Kenyon, Minnesota. Kenyon schools have a long history of handsome buildings that provided a rich and well-rounded education for generations of Kenyonites.

John L. Cole, former Mayor, was an amazing and accomplished citizen, born and raised in Kenyon. His love of history and passion for the community shows in the three books he wrote about Kenyon life and in his endless support of the school district. The following is an exert from his “All School Reunion” book:

School History 1855 to 1996

There is not much information on the history of early education in Kenyon after the village founding in 1855. We know that early settlers knew enough to provide education to children who wanted to take it. The first reference made was in 1856, when a log store was built. When it closed in 1858 the building became Kenyon’s first school.

In 1862 Kenyon was organized as a common school district. Townspeople, realizing the need for a better school, built a new building in 1863. It was one long room with windows on both sides and homemade painted blackboards. A few years later, an addition was built to accommodate more students.

In 1887, Kenyon was changed to an Independent School District and shortly after a new school site was purchased for $300.00 on Forest Street. This site was thought to be unwise, since the school would be “out in the country”. After much controversy, a vote taken on April 1, 1889 favored a new two-story brick veneered structure. Ground was broken in June of that year by Gordon and Trostle. John Vogel and J.I. Stene constructed the walls and foundation for $4200.00. The building, completed in August, contained four classrooms, library, hallway and Superintendent’s office. This would house 200 elementary and high school students. There was no indoor plumbing, but outdoor privies were provided, with separate accommodations for girls and boys. During 1893 and again in 1895, graduation was held for one or two students. The first large high school class to graduate was in 1896.

In 1897, additional room was needed, so an addition was added to the south of the main building. Again in 1902, a north wing was added, which had a gymnasium in the basement with shower baths for a cost of $8000.00. This brought the total cost of the building to $20,000.00. This building was very adequate for a number of years, but as time went on, it was evident that a larger and more sanitary quarters were needed.

In January of 1915, the voters of Kenyon decided a new building was to be built on the same spot as the existing building. Although the first bond issue was turned down, it was not until the State Department of Education informed Kenyon residents that state school aid allotment would be refused unless a new school was built. This information helped the second vote to pass.

During the spring semester, school was held six days a week and school closed one month early. This permitted the contractor to start work the first part of May. It is known that one wing of the old school was moved to Main Street by James Freely, who converted it into a hotel. There is no mention of what happened to the remainder of the building, but it is presumed that it was wrecked and hauled away.

A cornerstone with the date 1915 was laid during ceremonies held June 21, 1915. A box was placed in the cornerstone by J.C.E. Holmen, secretary of the Board of Education. The stone contained the following items: an engraved plate with the date of cornerstone laying; a list of school board members, faculty, janitor, grade and high school students; copies of the Kenyon Leader; a photograph of the old school, showing dates of erection; post card views of Kenyon; names of architects and builder; brief history of District 91; brief write-up of Kenyon business places, city officers and information of interest; a photo of the school board and KHS athletic teams; samples of report cards, high school commencement invitation; and program of cornerstone laying exercises.

Work on the school proceeded through the summer with completion in time for the fall opening. This deadline was not met, so classes were help in four churches and three halls in town. Work on the $62,000.00 structure was completed by mid-December. During Christmas break, equipment was moved into the new school, making ready for students and teachers after the holiday season.

The ground floor, which was partially sunken, housed domestic science, which was later called Home Economics, with cooking and sewing as the contents of the course. In 1940, art, home design, home furnishing, child care and nutrition were added. The gymnasium, called the “Cracker Box” because it was so small, was six feet lower than the ground floor. There were bleachers on the west, a balcony to the east for spectators and a score board which was manually operated. The boy’s locker room was on the south, with shower rooms one floor up, accessible via an iron spiral staircase, which was slippery when wet, as many can relate to. Also on this level, manual training was first offered. In later years, this subject was changed to Industrial Arts. Mr. L.G. Picha was the first instructor. Besides the regular course, Picha added Art Metal Working to the class. KHS became the first school in the state to offer Art Metal Working and state officials were so please, that as a result, this course was added state-wide. Commercial was also taught in this area for a short time. The course included typing, two years of short-hand and bookkeeping. Upon completion, the student was ready for a business position.

The second floor housed the Superintendent’s office and grades 1-6. The boy’s toilet was located on the south end, with the girl’s toilet being on the north end.

The high school occupied the third floor. There were classrooms to the south, west and north. To the east was a large assembly room/auditorium. This served as home room for every high school student. Here, roll call was taken at the beginning of each day. A stage was located to the south and was used for operettas, graduations and class plays. Dedication ceremonies for the new building were held there in the evening of March 17, 1916.

For the next 23 years, school went on as usual. In the spring of 1938, the voters of the school district voted 532 to 68 to spend $53,000.00 for a new gymnasium/auditorium. In November of that year, the building was dedicated. It consisted of a large regulation basketball court with a stage to the west side. In the basement, two locker/shower rooms and a band/community room were located. The band room was also used as the first lunch room. In the 1915 part, the assembly room on the third floor was remodeled into three rooms; math, library and home room/study hall. Individual lockers for students were provided for their personal belongings in the long hall.

In the early 1950’s, with the increasing enrollment of students, the school board proposed a $900,000.00 bond for the construction of a new elementary school and remodeling of the old high school. In 1953 and again in 1954, voters disapproved both issues. The school board then dropped the remodeling of the high school and concentrated on the elementary building. In February 1954, the voters approved the new elementary building on a new site on 6th Street. The Kenyon School District sold rural schools #53, 120, 140 and 148, these students would be bused to Kenyon in the fall. The remaining 11 rural schools in the district would remain open for the 1954-55 school year.

After 95 years as District #91, the school was changed to District #254 in October 1957. Increasing enrollment and the higher number of courses offered also caused overcrowding in the high school. After a lot of talk about how KHS would lose state aid if something wasn’t done, another heated election was planned for June 1960, for a bond totaling $795,000.00. The issue passed by less than 100 votes. Ground was broken for the new additions on April 13, 1961. A new gymnasium would be built north of the 1939 addition and new spaces would be added to the east, north and west of this new gym. Many people resented the “lean too” as they were called, but work continued. A total of 13 major classrooms were added to this area. During construction, one workman was killed in a fall from the building and a prehistoric Mammoth tooth was found. Work on remodeling the old structure, along with the completion of the new additions continued throughout the summer of 1962. Students started the 1962-63 school year in September and the new complex was dedicated on November 11, 1962.

For the next 30-some years, building projects came to a halt, but major changes and points of interest took place in the school district during those years.

In 1981, there were discussions about pairing with West Concord and in 1988 the same discussions were held with Wanamingo. In 1989, a three-way pairing ended when West Concorde chose to look south for its future. In 1990, KHS school board unanimously approves pairing with Wanamingo for the 1990-1991 school year. In 1990, the Kenyon Vikings and the Wanamingo Bulldogs become the Knights and the school colors changed from maroon and gold to black, red and silver with the pairing of KHS and WHS. In 1993 the two school boards asked voters to approve a formal joining of the two schools. The first vote failed when Wanamingo rejected the proposal of a joint school district. On the second vote in December 1993, the issue passed and in July of 1994, Kenyon-Wanamingo became School District 2172. In 1995 the K-W school board approved a new building plan but it wasn’t until May of 1996 that a proposal for a new K-W high school was approved by voters. Ground breaking for the new high school, just west of the Kenyon Elementary School, started in October of 1996.

The Kenyon High and Grade School, 1996 to 2023

The old Kenyon High and Grade School was vacated in the fall of 1998, with the new school district locking the doors and leaving behind all the school equipment, desks, books, trophies, band uniforms and memories from the past 109 years.

From 1998 to 2013, the old school property passed through a few hands and fell into sad disrepair. Lack of maintenance, vandalism and invasion of nature and elements destroyed the building, creating an eyesore and bitter resentment from some of the Kenyon community. Finally, in the spring of 2013, a contractor was hired to remove the old school.

During the demolition of the school, several people, including John Cole, watched every day as the building became a huge pile of rubble. From those people came the idea to save some small part of the school and try to preserve the fond memories that many alumni had of their experiences in that building. The contractor was called to see about saving the pediments around the front door of the 1915 building, unfortunately the cost was too high and the time too short to save them. Once they were pushed into the rubble pile, the cost came down and a group of alumni bought them, moved them and stored them until a plan could be formed.

The salvaged pieces took a beating when dragged down by the excavator and were promptly labeled “junk” by some observers. To dispel this rumor, Jeff Anderson from Anderson Memorials, a Certified Memorialist with certification from the American Institute of Commemorative Art, examined the pieces. He said, “I am impressed with the character of these hand carved pieces…they are wonderful artifacts of the historical past and should be preserved”. The egg and scroll and the column capitals were all hand carved by craftsmen using Indiana limestone, a common material used for carving. The columns and entablature were made by ArtStone, a company established in 1914 in New Ulm, Minnesota.

The question of using the damaged pieces in a monument was discussed more than once. The Architect, Kim Portz, presented the perspective that the damage is just part of the history of the school, to fix the pieces would be cost prohibitive and disingenuous to their history. Setting them in used Chicago brick added to the patina of time and authenticity of the monument.

So, after 10 years of planning, fundraising and constructing, the monument to the Kenyon High and Grade School is nearly complete. The journey of the school, such an important part of Kenyon history and ingrained in all alumni, can be continued now, with the monument set near the school site. Pavers with familiar names and triggers for fond memories surround the monument, where visitors point, laugh and perhaps shed a tear for the school and experiences that shaped their lives.

Future plans for the monument include some benches and signage to complete the experience and honor the past. Fundraising will continue until the site is complete and an honorary reflection of the Kenyon Schools.

The monument dedication was August 19, 2023 at 3pm at the monument site on Forest Street.