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SUSPECTED ARSONS: History lost in Clearwater County, Minn.

LEON TOWNSHIP, Minn. -- With arms folded, Elaine Dahlke stood in the sharp sunlight with her mother, sister and uncle alongside of what's left of Leon Town Hall.

LEON TOWNSHIP, Minn. -- With arms folded, Elaine Dahlke stood in the sharp sunlight with her mother, sister and uncle alongside of what's left of Leon Town Hall.

For all four, the white-frame building was their schoolhouse with tall, daydreaming windows that faced east. On Wednesday, they joked about the rustic ways of the rural school, in particular having to fetch water from a nearby creek.

"We always called it 'running water' because you ran with it on the way up . . ." Elaine joked.

" . . . and you lost half of it on the way ..." her 94-year-old mom, Edna, chimed in.

". . . and that was just an excuse to go out and get some more," spouted her uncle, Reuben Rydeen.


Those buckets of water may have been the answer Sunday when a blaze gutted the century-old structure. The fire was one of several that burned buildings in the area, including Eddy Town Hall. The State Fire Marshall's Office suspects arson.

"What's the point?" asked Carol Lindgren as she visited the wreckage of Eddy Town Hall. A warped tin roof, tin siding and not much else lay on the foundation Wednesday.

Lindgren, the township clerk, recalled the interior: wainscoting on the walls and ceilings, old voting booths and boxes, long wooden benches and a meeting table so big she doesn't know how it got in the door.

"Once a month we'd have our meetings, except for the middle of the winter; then, it'd always be at my house because it was too cold over here," she said.

Lindgren had the past 20 years of township documents stored at her place, but the fire consumed all of the records from prior years. Up the road, Leon Town Hall lost everything.

Elaine's sister, Eloise Dahlke, sifted through charred papers that had spilled from overturned file cabinets. She examined a check dated Sept. 4, 1954, then picked up a letter burned around the edges: "almost looks like my grandpa's writing," the 72-year-old said, only half joking. (Eloise's grandfather and Reuben's father was Edward Rydeen, a homesteader who helped found the school in Leon and served as district clerk for many years.)

Tamara Edevold, director of the Clearwater County Historical Society, lamented the loss of pieces of the past. "That kind of takes a big bite out of our history," she said.

Eddy history


Eddy Township was established in 1899 and its hall was built in 1931, Edevold said. She couldn't pinpoint the year Leon Town Hall was built, but it was certainly constructed before 1904, when records show that wood siding was added to the log structure known as Rydeen School.

Edevold said 1956 was the last year classes were held at the school before being moved to Clearbrook, Minn.

Reuben's wife taught at Rydeen School and now his daughter teaches at Clearbrook-Gonvick Elementary School.

"My daughter brought the kids out from the school in Clearbrook out here one day every year to be in the country school. Uff-dah," he said, choking up as he looked at the rubble.

For Rettmann's fourth-graders, the fall day they spent re-enacting life in a 20th-century schoolhouse was well anticipated.

"It was really one of the highlights of our fourth-grade year," Rettmann said.

The kids would sit at old wooden desks with ink wells, and she'd bang a gavel to get their attention.

"We pulled down the old Minnesota map and used that for our social studies," she said.


At recess, the teachers and kids would play in a neighboring pasture.

"We didn't bring any toys or equipment, we just played in the field," she said.

Older folks who attended Rydeen School would come to talk to Rettmann's pupils and amaze them with stories of kids riding horses to school and boys playing with pocketknives in class without getting in trouble.

The echoing sound of desks creaking in the hollow space and building's musty smell were fresh in her mind.

"You knew exactly where you were when you walked into it," Rettmann said.

Sandra Knutson, the Leon Township treasurer, said one thing is for certain.

"We'll definitely be rebuilding," Knutson said.

Lindgren, the Eddy clerk, wasn't as sure.


"I kind of wonder if we will even rebuild because we can go back to Holst (Town Hall) and have our annual meeting," she said of the hall about six miles from her township.

Hilding Larson, a lifelong resident of Eddy Township, struggled to understand why someone would set fire to his town hall.

"I suppose we need a different mindset in the people," he said. "Their hearts need to be changed around."

Reach Ingersoll at (701) 780-1269; (800) 477-6572, ext. 269; or send e-mail to aingersoll@gfherald.com .

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