Let’s see, since Forestview Middle School finally opened up for daily student use on the first week of last month, one of the two schools Forestview supplanted, Washington Middle School, has stood largely vacant, shuttered to the rest of the world. Needless to say, however, the likely won’t be empty for long, since the Brainerd School District has stated there are many plans for the future use of the building that once housed Brainerd’s high school. Of course, the district’s numerous administrative offices are slated to be moved into the building beginning in March, and one of the ideas mulled about before everybody – read: those oh-so-progressive¹ citizens of Baxter – voted in favor of the school district’s $60 million referendum that helped vindicate the need for a new school to house Baxter’s² 5-8 graders was how the third floor of Washington Middle School could be rented out to local non-profit interests.
So, since everything naturally had to be new at Forestview Middle School, there was an abundance of various bits and pieces left behind in the transition from the old school to the new school. The pieces left behind ranged from computer carts and teachers’ desks to typewriters and LPs from the music department. Now, with so much potentially-valuable stuff sitting around, it’s not hard to realize that a sale of the items could generate a good amount of cash. Luckily, somebody in the Brainerd High School’s symphonic band realized a garage sale of the items left behind at Washington Middle School would be a good way to raise some needed funds for a spring excursion to New York City.
Well, I happened to go to the garage sale, which was held more than a month ago on a Friday evening. Like I’ve already mentioned, there was actually quite a lot of articles left behind at the school. The sale consisted of an auction in the gymnasium of the bigger items (desks, carts, bookshelves, etc) and two rooms: one consisting of items valued at $5; another with items of $1.
While the garage sale was fun to go to, and there certainly was quite a lot of interesting Sachen, I didn’t feel the overwhelming need to buy anything for my own personal use. Instead, and here’s the part where – if you hadn’t before realized before – you’ll finally see where I’m going with this entry, the real fun of going to the garage sale was the chance I got to explore the 76-year old school I attended not more than 5 years ago.
Even though the former Washington Middle School is not abandoned, it certainly felt as if it were as I walked through the parts of the building where nobody was to be found, the lights had been turned off, and the doors locked for an indefinite amount of time. My jaunt up and down the school, from the third floor to some of the – I’m assuming – rarely-seen rooms of the basement level, really elevated my interest in urban exploring, the art and hobby of exploring normally unseen or off-limits parts of human civilization (wikipedia.com). While certainly an underground hobby, urban exploring is actually quite well documented online; there are many groups of urban explorers that extensively document their outings on personal websites. For example, there is this website featuring the prominent group of explorers in Minneapolis, this one developed by explorers in eastern Pennsylvania, and this one from people in New Jersey. In all three of these websites, notice how the group of explorers includes not only pictures of what could be found in the abandoned building or structure explored, but also a write-up that lets readers in on the history and/or former significance of the now forgotten building or structure. Notice also that urban exploring is not to be taken as an activity that promotes vandalism and destruction of abandoned buildings; while urban explorers do, indeed, trespass, vandalism, theft, and tagging are regarded as actions that go against the fundamental principle of urban exploring, simply stated by many groups as “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.”
Meanwhile, back to Washington Middle School, I do have some pictures to share of what it looked like on January 7, the last day of the first week where, for the first time in 76 years, Brainerd schools were in session, but nobody was attending the place at 804 Oak Street. However, no presentation of the pictures would be complete without a brief history of the building, my favorite in the Brainerd School District – not because of my 6th-7th grade experience there, but rather because of the antiquated nature of the building. Also, upon stepping through the school’s doors, it’s hard not to think about the experiences thousands of people who stepped through the same doors had in the nearly seven decade span Washington was used as a school.
So, let’s begin on a journey into the history of the school. The first school to sit on the site where the current Washington building is was built in 1884. The building, used as a high school, cost a whole $45,000, but the price tag is extraneous information. The school served Brainerd and the surrounding areas well for many years, and probably would have continued to do so, had a tragedy not occurred during in 1928. At 12:46AM, or thereabouts, during the Easter vacation, a fire broke out at the school. Although Principal Miss Mary Tornstrom and Superintendent W.C. Cobb were able to save some of the student records housed in the school, the school building itself was a complete loss. Of course, Brainerd could not go without a high school, so a new one had to be built – and quickly.
The building recently abandoned as Washington Middle School was the structure built to replace the one ruined by fire. Completed in 1929, Washington High School was billed as the best, most modern school in Minnesota when it opened. The governor of the state, then Theodore Christianson, was even given a personal tour of the fabulous new school that had all of the latest and greatest in technological enhancements. Additionally, Christianson also gave a speech in the new school’s auditorium regarding how proud Brainerdians should feel about their wonderful new school.
Seeing the need in the Brainerd area for students to get an education beyond high school, the Brainerd School Board decided in 1938 to build an addition to Washington High School that would be known as the Brainerd Junior College. This addition helped greatly increase the size of Washington High School. The 1938 addition is the part of the Washington building that does not have a third floor; the addition was built around the gymnasium, which, when the school was built in 1928, was not surrounded by classrooms as it became after the addition was completed.
The combination of high school and junior college worked well for many years, until an addition to Washington High School was again needed in 1960. This addition was very small, however, and consisted of four classrooms at the very back of the building. At the time Washington Middle School closed, the classrooms housed in the 1960 addition were all part of the music department.
Even though the Brainerd Junior College moved out of Washington High School in 1964, by 1965 the strains of an increasing number of students were once again felt in the Brainerd school district. Because of the inadequacy of the building as a high school, the Brainerd School Board decided to take the issue of building a new high school to the voters of Brainerd. On March 1, 1966, a bond referendum was passed calling for the construction of a new, $3.5 million high school. The new high school was completed in 1968; the last high school classes held at Washington High School were in May 1968.
Washington High School was transformed into Washington Jr. High School, housing grades 7 through 9. For 36 years, ending in 2004, the school remained largely the same; the biggest changes were the name change to Washington Middle School and the shift to housing only grades 6 and 7.
And that’s about all that needs to be said about the history of the Washington school building. If anybody ever has the chance – as well as the interest – the Crow Wing County Historical Society is a superb resource to learn all about the schools that exist and have existed in Brainerd. Besides the microfilmed-newspapers from which most of the information contained in my write-up on the history of Washington High School was obtained, the historical society also has nearly all of the Brainonian yearbooks published since the first one in 1911 as well as a multitude of pictures taken both inside and outside Brainerd’s schools. If you’re a history buff, and particularly interested in the history of the Brainerd area, the historical society’s library can be an extremely astonishing place.
Here are some pictures:
The hallway on the second floor. When I went to Washington Middle School, the first room on the left housed german classes, while the other two rooms on the left were where I had american history and English in 7th grade.
The stairs going down to the first floor and up to the third.
Room 301 housed science classes when I attended Washington Middle School.
I was surprized some of these signs were still hanging up, considering they were put up when I was in 6th grade.
The door to the former office of the Brainonian yearbook.
Welcome to South America.
Inside one of the more run-down bathrooms.
The media center's main entrance.
One of the "classrooms" in the rarely seen basement.
One of the deteriorating basement rooms originally used to store the coal brought in to be used in the school's furnaces. On the wall two janitors have signed their names, along with the years they worked at the school: "circa" 1980-2004.
The most bizarre part of the basement I encountered, this room has an weird sign hanging below a clock (with the correct time, by the way) on a metal grate bolted down to the wall.
A peek inside the mysterious room reveals that it has some sort of fenced cage going from floor to ceiling. The box of Town House crackers and Aquafina water also add wonderfully to the mysteriousness of this room.
The former music/choir room.
Inside the former orchestra room.
The carpet in one of the dank special education rooms in the basement.
The lunch schedule attached to a cabinet in one of the bell-less special education rooms in the basement.
A peer into the cafeteria.