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Larsmont School celebrates 100 years

The centennial celebration of the Larsmont School will take place in August. The building has been used for a variety of purposes over the decades, but has always been an important landmark and gathering place in the small North Shore community. Photo courtesy of the Lake County Historical Society.

Ken Vogel

The community of Larsmont, just south of Two Harbors, may be small, but its extraordinary history and tradition are not. This summer is the centennial celebration of the Larsmont School and organizers are eager to introduce the uninitiated to the treasures of their little corner of the North Shore.

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The school, a single-room structure built by Hill and Strom Construction in 1914, welcomed twelve students in its inaugural year, beginning an historic journey of community engagement. The school was the mecca of activity and learning for 20 years thereafter, closing its doors to students in 1934. Only one student remains from that era.

In 1888, the first settlers arrived in the area of the North Shore known as Mile Post 22 on the Duluth and Iron Range Railroad. In 1915, in order to establish a post office the community, residents had to decide on a name and since most of the settlers had come from Larsmo, Finland, they wanted their new town to be named after their birthplace. However, after a suggestion from the postal inspector, they choose a more “American” name -- Larsmont, the “mont” referring to the hills above the community, said resident Marlys Wisch.

“The culture and history of this community still runs very deep with people here,” said Wisch, who is also chair of the centennial committee and the secretary/treasurer of the Larsmont Community Club which manages the school house.

“The school house really is the community; so much of our history involves the school,” she said.

According to records from “Larsmont Yesterday”, a book by Irene Hill Norgard, many teachers served the students of the school over the years. They were given room and board at homes in the area, but went to the school very early each morning to start a fire in the woodstove so the classrooms were warm when students arrived. Seventh and eighth- graders started going to school in Two Harbors in 1928, first transported by train and later by way of a wagon box mounted on a truck. The vehicle was dubbed the “chicken coop” and served as the community’s first school bus.

Since then, the school has served the community in many ways. Even before the school house officially discontinued classes, the building was being used for community outreach. Sunday school and religious services were held at the school and in June of 1934 it was sold to the community to be used as a church full time.

According to Ralph Jacobson, another Larsmont area resident, the religious history of the building includes its use as a mission where students would come to receive training in the practice of ministry. During the 1940s the school house became the home of the Larsmont Gospel Mission Society.

“Larsmont became known as the ‘Holy City’ and no liquor was allowed,” said Jacobson, but “as the story goes, there was a charter banning alcohol and someone in the court house wanted to see the charter. After it was brought to the court house no one ever saw it again.”

Once part of the thriving North Shore commercial fishing industry, Jacobson, said that there was unity among the community’s working folk.

“People were competitive but very supportive of each other,” he said. “The men would help each other mending nets and would watch out for one another”.

In 1959 the Mission Society transferred ownership of the building to the Larsmont Fire Department. It served as the area fire hall until 1965 when the Ladies Auxiliary put it to use.

“Even after the classes ended in 1934, the old school remained a focal point of the community. We have used it as a fire station, community center and gathering place,” said Wisch.

While the building has seen many incarnations over the years, the old school house still fascinates the young students who visit. Several area elementary schools make pilgrimages to the Larsmont School, including Toni Maki’s class from North Shore Community School. Maki has been taking kids to the historic site for the last 10 years.

“The students are assigned home study to learn about local history and prior to the field trip we teach them what it was like in a one room school house -- using slates instead of paper and pencils, what they had for lunch and how it was much more strict,” she said. The lessons also include immersion in what may have been the actual experience of students who lived generations before. On the day of the field trip, for example, the boys dress in knickers with button up shirts, the girls wear dresses with aprons and bonnets. The accompanying parents must also dress accordingly, said Maki. Lunches too, reflect the bygone era with meats, dried fruits or jams and water or milk. The food must be in baskets, pails or wrapped in towels. The whole day is spent discovering the past.

“We begin with the pledge of allegiance and singing, and then we divide the students into five groups at different stations,” Maki said. “When entering the school they must address me as “ma’am” and do school work on slates. They rotate through stations making fresh squeezed lemonade, making rope from strands of twine, learning pioneer games and they learn to hand sew a button onto a piece of cloth.” The experience is a hit with kids.

“The students love it. The first questions they ask when they get to fourth grade is about this field trip. At the end of the day they get their picture taken in front of the school and it is printed in black and white, everyone has a great time,” Maki said.

This summer, for the school’s 100th birthday, a celebration is slated to take place Aug. 22-24. Activities and events are being planned, including a fish cake dinner and ice cream social. Visitors will have an opportunity to learn more about the building at the heart of little community, and perhaps hear the echo of voices from a century ago.