Reconstruction of old Bemidji High School arch bridges gap between past and present
At a public unveiling on June 7, BHS alumni and community leaders gathered to celebrate the bit of the “old BHS” that’s been preserved following its demolition in 2008.
BEMIDJI — On Sept. 12, 1922, the archway of the former Bemidji High School on 15th Street welcomed over 800 students into the halls and classrooms that would eventually hold 78 years of history.
One hundred years after its opening, that same archway has been reconstructed and memorialized on the current grounds of Bemidji High School, bridging a gap between the past and present.
At a public unveiling on Tuesday, June 7, BHS alumni and community leaders gathered to celebrate the bit of the “old BHS” that’s been preserved following its demolition in 2008.
“When the community learned the old high school building would be demolished, it was a big disappointment to a lot of people,” said Sharon Fruetel, a 1964 BHS graduate, during the dedication ceremony. “That was a building that the local paper called ‘one of the most beautiful in the state’ when it was first built in 1922. It served the community as the secondary school for almost 78 years or three-quarters of the life of the city at that time.”
The demolition of the school led to the creation of the “Old Bemidji High School Remembered” committee, a group of BHS alumni who worked out the logistics of storing the stone arch pieces, scouting a location for the project, managing donations, and naturally, reconstructing the arch itself.
“A few BHS alumni gathered and asked, ‘could some of the features of that building be saved and put to some use?’” Fruetel added. “They noted the two main entries and beautiful decorative pieces along the very top. They thought one could be saved and would be worth doing.”
The committee had a short window of time — roughly two months — to salvage the pieces they wanted before the demolition would occur.
“This remarkable group, which had no legal or official authority, no salvage expertise and no money,” Fruetel said as laughter came from the crowd, “accomplished the following.”
The group salvaged the arch and decorative pieces they wanted, hired a salvage expert, raised $15,000 — with grants from the George W. Neilson Foundation, All School Reunion Committee and individual donors — and recruited around 25 volunteers to transport the pieces to a temporary storage space.
Linda Lemmer, a 1965 BHS graduate, was tasked with housing over 300 stone arch pieces in a pole barn she had inherited from her godmother, and they had a home there for about 12 years.
“I was grateful that, when (my godmother) died, she left her storage pole shed and life’s estate to me so I wouldn’t have to worry about where I would put 300-some pieces of the old BHS archway,” Lemmer reflected with laughter.
From storage to site
During the archway’s time in storage, the committee went back and forth on which site the arch would eventually be housed, a process that seemed discouraging at times.
“Finding a site was difficult,” Fruetel said. “A few of them seemed promising and we pursued them vigorously. But one after another, they didn’t work out.”
In the committee’s meeting notes, Fruetel shared:
- May 2012: Our project was not included in the park design.
- 2013: It is reported that the old high school property is being sold to a developer.
- April 2016: We set a deadline of Sept. 1 to make a decision about continuing our project.
- September 2016 meeting notes indicate no such discussion took place (on discontinuing the project) and we persisted.
The committee landed on a location in 2018 — next to the Boys and Girls Club — which was deemed workable, though not ideal for housing the project.
This all changed in January 2020, however, when BHS Principal Jason Stanoch approached the committee to suggest the current high school grounds where the archway rests today.
“This was the fifth location we had discussed and it’s the best in my opinion,” Lemmer said. “It was just serendipity that we have a handicap crosswalk from the parking lot right over to the arch.”
Each piece had been numbered and moved to the site in fall of 2020, during which the memorial’s foundation had also been poured and the blocks were covered with tarps for the winter.
When 2021 came around, the structure was built, benches were placed, some landscaping took place and replacement balustrade pieces were ordered due to damage to the original parts, plus a whole lot of fundraising.
Lemmer estimates the project cost around $150,000.
“Fundraising is not the easiest thing in the world, and it’s not my forte,” Lemmer said. “But it’s worth it with the celebration.”
Fruetel expressed thanks to the 300-plus donors for their time, money and labor that went toward the project as well as Jacobson’s Concrete and Masonry, the contractor for the project.
Connecting past with present
Beyond thankfulness, historical appreciation was another theme of speeches throughout the event.
“When I was a student, I didn’t really appreciate history. But as I grew older and began to live that history, I began to appreciate it more,” Superintendent Tim Lutz said. “I remember the first time I walked through a classroom and was shocked to realize that the history the students were learning was once the news and current events I lived through.”
Lutz displayed a 1922 BHS yearbook, the first yearbook after Bemidji’s first high school burned down in 1921 . This specific school had only opened in 1910.
Recognizing the 100 years since the second BHS building opened its doors, Lutz hopes the new landmark can connect generations young and old.
“A generation of youngsters who have no clue who Mr. Whipple was or the Maytag repairman or how much good taste Charlie Tuna had — I trust that this historic landmark may just create the spark that attracts our next generation to a colorful history and legacy of the old BHS and of our community’s support for education,” Lutz added.
Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince, a 1990 BHS graduate, spoke on the 22 years since the former BHS closed its doors in 2000 along with its subsequent demolition.
“When the wrecking ball came in 2008, a lot of us were disappointed. Not all of us sprung into action, but some people did,” Prince said. “They saw the need to preserve our history and it seems appropriate that what’s in front of me is another 20 years of history.”
Completed in time for the Bemidji All School Reunion to be held July 21-23, the committee looks forward to the many photo opportunities the archway will provide as well as the free time that will open up now that the project has been completed.
Though the committee will disband, its efforts will live on in perpetuity.
“(The reconstruction) has been a long time coming,” Fruetel said. “The story of the old BHS arch has been one of perseverance, disappointments, teamwork, community, generosity, serendipity and hope.”