Historical museum plans revived

Project would replicate Jefferson School where it once stood

Warren Bluhm, wbluhm@newmedia-wi.com

The Oconto Falls Area Heritage Center hopes to build a replica of Jefferson School at its original site. The wood-frame, one-room schoolhouse was built in 1882. An addition was constructed before it was destroyed by fire in 1924. (Photo courtesy Oconto Falls Community Library)

CORRECTION: This article contains some incorrect information regarding the site of the old Jefferson School and the Heritage Center's plans. Follow this link to an update.

Plans to create a historical museum at the old Jefferson School site have been revived by the Oconto Falls Area Heritage Center.

The historical society has announced plans to build a replica of the wooden one-room schoolhouse that served the children of Oconto Falls from 1882 to 1924 at its original site, which is now a part of the city’s Pine Grove Park.

Jefferson School was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1924. A brick 10-room school was built to replace it; that version of Jefferson School was closed in 1995 and razed about 12 years later.

The School District deeded the property in December 2014 to the Heritage Center, which planned to purchase the recently closed Spruce School and move it to the site. But the financing for that purchase came through two days after the school was sold to a private party.

“We just missed it,” said Dale Seeling, who has been working on the project on and off for more than six years.

Oconto Falls’ first school was founded by Anna Volk in 1857 in a rented log building located along the west side of the river near the old bridge. In 1858, a new building was constructed on the same location, which served until 1882 when the location on Green Bay Avenue, donated by the Volks, was used to build the first Jefferson School.

Playground equipment now stands along Green Bay Avenue where the old school was, but Seeling’s group believes a museum is a more appropriate use of the land, which the Volks gave to the community for “educational purposes.”

“We need a place to fulfill our purpose to acquire, record, preserve and share with the public the great history of Oconto Falls and the surrounding area,” Seeling said. “Over the past six years, we have collected many historical items which include all of John Larson’s photo negatives, which are in the hands of the Oconto Falls Library and are being categorized and digitized so that they will be easily accessible to the public to view or copy.”

Along with Larson’s negatives, the center has boxes of other old items of historical value and are always happy to take more, he said.

“Items you may feel are junk may hold a key to a historical question that has us perplexed,” Seeling said. “We are asking for your help in saving articles from the past, such as photos of people you do not know, scrapbooks, old books or papers of the area. Anything that has a name or address of a person or place from the area can be helpful in creating a history to pass on to future generations.”

After the Spruce School purchase fell through, the center looked at a 100-year-old barn on the mill property, but they were unable to get an answer to the proposal and the structure has continued to fall into such disrepair that it’s probably beyond saving, Seeling said.

“Hopefully our third try to find a home will be a charm,” he said. “This is a major undertaking and when completed, it will be a great asset to the community both physically and educationally.”

The Heritage Center has set up five paths for donations, with a goal of raising about $500,000 – a little more than half would go to building the schoolhouse replica, with the rest set aside for an endowment to foster future growth of the center. Long-term, Seeling envisions a historic park not unlike Shawano’s Heritage Park or Heritage Hill State Park in Green Bay.

Donations can be made via GoFundMe.com or the group’s Amazon Smile account; by purchase of a commemorative brick being sold to pave the way to the front door and to the history of the area; by contributing to the center’s N.E.W. Credit Union account; or by mailing a check to 400 N. Main St., Oconto Falls, WI 54154 made out to O.F. Area Heritage Center.