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Passion for history leads couple to restore one-room school house

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FORT RIPLEY — Students who visit Audrey and Jerry Majerus’ rural homestead don’t have to imagine what going to school was like for their counterparts 110 years ago.

All they have to do is look inside the one-room school house. No iPods. No calculators. No TV. No phone. No electricity. No indoor plumbing.

For today’s youngsters, perhaps hard to believe. After taking them on a tour of the horse-drawn equipment and household tools used for farming and living in the early 1900s, Jerry asks the children if they’d want to live back then. They routinely reply — “Oh no, too much work.”

Audrey tells them a true story of the day the parents were able to drop their children off at the school in a snowstorm. When they arrived to pick them back up they learned the teacher never arrived. Instead, an eighth-grade girl acted as teacher for the day. The boys gathered wood for the fire and the students helped each other through the classes that day.

When Audrey asks the students what would happen now if the teacher never arrived, she said their eyes widen at the thought.

Audrey’s parents, Lucien and Esther Sowada, moved the school house to their 165-acre farm in the early 1950s when Morrison County was consolidating its school system. The little white school had been on Joe and Mary Schilling’s property on County Road 281. The Sowadas were seeking an extra building for storage, a granary and a milk house.

In 2005, Audrey and Jerry decided to restore the school house, complete with bell outside the entrance. The school still had its original slate board.

They researched it and filled the building with vintage wooden school desks and period pieces, like a 1902 sewing machine, a 1800s atlas, a 1900 Webster’s dictionary, a Lincoln reader. Most of the vintage farm machinery and household items were already on the farm so they decided to create their own history center.

They added vintage photos to show students what the farm equipment looked like when it was in use and included interesting tidbits, like a test for eighth-grade students. One question asks — what is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre the distance of which is 640 rods.

There were once 151 country schools in Morrison County, Audrey said, many were three miles from the farm houses so children could make the trip. A 1918 map of Minnesota hangs on one school house wall. A number of the towns and villages remain only in name on the aging paper.

Jerry and Audrey both grew up in farm families. They’ve been married 41 years, raised three daughters and now enjoy three grandchildren — Delaney, Addie, both 3, and Caleb, 6 months.

Audrey is a retired licensed practical nurse. Jerry served 25 months in Vietnam and retired from the Army as command sergeant major. Jerry took early retirement to donate a kidney to his eldest daughter. Their daughters, Lynn DeRosier, Kathy Nathan and Michelle Majerus, recently joined them at the farm for an afternoon tour. When they have groups Audrey and Jerry dress the part and their grandchildren often help out as well. Their daughters said they put in a lot of work to restore, refurbish and research the items on display. For Audrey and Jerry, it was simply a matter of taking what was already on the farm and turning it into something others would enjoy. The tours at their tidy history center are free.

The Majerus History Center is designed to promote education and preserve history. They have a 1930 John Deere tractor with steel wheels, a 1965 Ford Audrey’s father purchased new (it still runs) and a 1951 Farmall.

“Our focus is history and memories,” Jerry said.

Sometimes the visitors to the school were once students there. Others went to a similar country school and are able to revisit those memories as they look through the Majerus History Center.

The couple said they particularly enjoy telling young people how families, neighbors and communities helped each other through harvests, celebrations or calamities. And they’ve opened their family home to share that message with others.

Audrey said: “We enjoy the joy it brings folks.”

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or Follow on Twitter at

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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