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Historic school building still in use in Nelson County

MICHIGAN, N.D. -- A school census in 1903 counted 85 school-age children living in Melvin Township, a 6-mile-by-6-mile rural area of Nelson County, just a few miles south of Michigan.

Two people power wash the Melrose Country School No. 4
Preston Painter and Amber Hapka, Grand Forks, power wash the exterior of the Melrose Country School No. 4, which currently serves as the townhall for a 6-by-6 mile rural township, Melvin, just south of Michigan, N.D in Nelson County. Melvin is the only township left in Nelson County that still has its own town hall. The bright pattern on the north wall is a Modified Mariner's Compass Star, a symbol signifying that the building is also a stop on the Nelson County Barn Quilt Trail. (photo by Jenna Watson/G...

MICHIGAN, N.D. -- A school census in 1903 counted 85 school-age children living in Melvin Township, a 6-mile-by-6-mile rural area of Nelson County, just a few miles south of Michigan.

Today, the entire population of Melvin Township is about a dozen, with perhaps just a tiny handful still in school. Give Chris Orwick a moment, and he's likely to name every one of them.

Back in 1903, the students, including 52 boys and 23 girls, ages 6-20, attended one of four country schools, Melrose Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4.

While those schools have been closed for a half-century or more, efforts are under way to make sure Melrose Country School No. 4 doesn't fade away into history.

Melvin Township officials and a group of volunteers are working to preserve the building. While the school closed in 1963, it now serves as the Melvin Township Hall and election polling place.

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"It's an important part of our history," said Orwick, township secretary-treasurer.

Another group of volunteers has been working this summer to refurbish Melrose Lutheran Church, located about 2.5 miles to the east of the school/township hall. Although the church still holds an annual service, as well as weddings and funerals, it hasn't held regular services since 1972.

Melvin Township and Michigan are about 50 miles west of Grand Forks.

Once numerous

North Dakota once had more than 6,000 country schools, according to Susan Quinnell, review compliance coordinator with the State Historical Society of North Dakota. While there has been no recent survey, it is believed that about 350 of the old buildings remain, scattered around the state.

Some have found other lives, serving as township halls or local museums, she said. Others were sold to private parties, often to nearby landowners, and converted to other uses.

"We're the only township in Nelson County that still has its own township hall," said Orwick, who lives less than three miles away.

One of the other school buildings burned several years ago. The other two were moved from their original locations long ago and are dilapidated, he said.

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These days, the building also serves as a stop on the Nelson County Barn Quilt Trail, with a bright painting of a Modified Mariner's Compass Star hanging on the north wall, at the intersection of Nelson County Roads 4 and 35.

While the Melrose Township School District was organized in 1888, records indicate Melrose Country School No. 4 was built around 1900.

The use of "Melrose" in the district's name reflects the township's former name.

The Melvin Township Hall renovation has been an ongoing project, under the direction of township supervisors Neil Reiten, Glynn Orwick and Olen Ophaug.

Mike Barney, a Michigan-area contractor, replaced the building's roof in 2002.

Much of this summer's refurbishing is being done by volunteers, including Chris Orwick's stepdaughter, Amber Hapka, and Preston Painter, both of Grand Forks, who recently scraped old paint and replaced bad wood on the building's exterior, to prepare it for primer and paint.

The group hopes to replace the foundation next year, perhaps with $2,000 or so from a North Dakota energy impact grant the township received this year.

While officials would like to find other grant sources for more extensive renovation or restoration work, they're getting by with money they've been able to scrape together and a lot of volunteer help.

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"We're just trying to keep it up," Orwick said. "It's the same thing as the church down the road."

Call Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1110; or send email to kbonham@gfherald.com .

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