West St. Paul unearths remains of 1885 Sibley school

During the start of the renovation of Harmon Park in West St. Paul this fall, the remains of the original Sibley School were unearthed. Pictured in 1927, Sibley Elementary, which was built in 1885. (submitted photo)
During the start of the renovation of Harmon Park in West St. Paul this fall, the remains of the original Sibley School were unearthed. Pictured in 1927, Sibley Elementary, which was built in 1885. (submitted photo)

When a contractor dug into the ground for the Harmon Park renovation project in West St. Paul to prepare the ground for a parking lot, the crew hit history: the remains of the original Sibley school, built in 1885. Pictured, some of the original foundation laid bare this fall. (submitted photo)

Part of Harmon Park revamp, debris removed from site

When a contractor dug into the ground for the Harmon Park renovation project in West St. Paul to prepare the ground for a parking lot, the crew hit history.

The work being done by Max Steininger Inc. laid bare remnants of the foundation of the original Sibley School, which was built in 1885 and demolished in the early 1960s, according to the city and documents kept by the Dakota County Historical Society.

When the elementary school was razed, the foundation was dismantled to a point where it could be covered by soil, a common practice back then, according to Dave Schletty, assistant parks and recreation director. He said the uncovered remains showed the outline of the original building, which was about 80 feet by 50 feet.

The revelation was a surprise to everyone involved.

“We had no idea [the debris] was there,” Schletty said.

The city did perform soil borings in preparation for the project, but only where new buildings were planned.

Within a day, the rubble was removed from the area, stockpiled and covered with a plastic tarp. It was tested for asbestos, as with any building materials old enough to contain the substance, and trace amounts were found in the clay tile, Schletty said.

All the debris from the school, which also included concrete and limestone block, was disposed of at the SKB Rosemount waste facility.

The surprise added another $37,848 to the project cost, a little over 1 percent of the overall contract amount of $2.92 million. The West St. Paul City Council approved the change Jan. 12.

The cost included hauling and dumping the asbestos-laced remnants to the landfill, nearly 540 tons at about $48 per ton. Schletty said it took all of Nov. 6 to remove the scrap heap in 30 or 40 truckloads.
In trying to identify the building base, Schletty said, city staff dug into the property’s history — looking back at aerial pictures of the school taken in 1937 and 1952, when it was still standing, and 1964, after it was knocked down.
 
History not lost

Before construction began, Harmon Park included a sign commemorating the old school, not far from where the leftovers were found, according to Schletty.

The school, named after Henry Hastings Sibley, the first governor of Minnesota, housed four schoolrooms, each with two grades, according to documents kept by the historical society.

“Classes were held in the building for three quarters of a century, until 1960, after which time it fell open to the elements and vandals,” according to one account. “It was torn down on September 24th and 25th, 1962.”

A historical society at the time apparently tried to obtain the school’s bell as a “memento of the last of West St. Paul’s original schools, but it had already disappeared by the time the wrecking crews arrived.”

Many had fond memories of their elementary years there. In R.B. Kuehn’s 1965 written recollection, provided by the historical society, he described Sibley in the 1920s: In “back of the schoolhouse stretched lush, green meadows of clover and alfalfa, populated in the spring with nests of meadowlarks,” he wrote.

“It was older than the city itself and served the community until it was torn down.”

In Allan F. Degnan’s memoir, “School Days at Old Sibley,” he also recalled the school in the ‘20s.

“Sibley was often referred to as being substandard, and yet, coming from St. Paul, and having attended Douglas school, it did not, to me, seem to be a step down in quality. It had indoor plumbing, and good ‘city’ water at the drinking fountains. The classrooms were bright and airy, especially those on the south, or sunny side of the building.

“In addition, the electric lighting in classrooms and hallways was certainly adequate.”

He recalled Sibley’s “Maypole,” a 15-foot steel pole with chains attached so kids could jump and swing around the pole; playing marbles and struggling through the “Palmer Method of Penmanship” as he wielded a hefty, steel-tipped fountain pen.

In the August 2011 memoir, he said he still recalled some of his classmates — “keenly.”

“I seem to have an ability to think of a name, and then, in my mind, a youthful face will appear to match that name, no face any older than it was 60 years ago.”
 
Big changes at Harmon Park

The estimated $4.8 million Harmon Park revamp kicked off in September.

The project includes six new baseball and softball diamonds, one outdoor hockey rink, a football/soccer field hybrid and a new playground with a splash pad.

The entire site has been leveled, and the new 159-stall parking lot [the site of the school] and rink have been installed, according to Schletty. The layout of the new playground splash pad and fields has been completed.

The building contractor, Meisinger Construction, has started building the three new structures, though poor soil for the foundations slowed down the process at first. Currently, Schletty said, the project is still on schedule.

The new buildings are expected to be finished in May, and the entire site in July.

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7815 and kroby@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews.
 

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