The Spirit Gone, the Body Decays
At the top of the rise, a block west of my home—on a shore of prehistoric Lake Agassiz—stand the remains of Bruflat Academy. This old timer (built 1896) has a sagging roof and bowed walls, held upright by steel cables. When I first came to North Dakota in 1990, the building was known as Viking Hall and was used as an auction house each Saturday. Its earlier function could still be seen by the basketball goal above the south door and the stage at the north end. As I write this, Viking Hall is the home of the Norseman Archery Club and is the subject of community fund raising efforts to renovate or—more likely—raze it.
Early photos show that it was originally a three-story building, a combination of a dormitory and the auditorium/gymnasium for Bruflat Academy, a college preparatory school and business college in Portland, ND. That school closed in 1918. After long service as the public high school, Bruflat’s Main Building was razed in 1985, and Viking Hall lost its upper story. Now the shabby old building is all that is left of a school and a system of education made redundant by the coming of public high schools to the region.
There is something about a derelict college building such as this one that puts one in an elegiac mood. Standing before Viking Hall today, I have a sense that I am just missing something—some echo of the life that must still remain within these walls. But maybe if I watch and listen closely enough, I may see the baseball team practicing for tomorrow’s game; I may glimpse drama students rehearsing for next week’s performance; I may hear musical instruments being tuned for the Spring Concert; I may watch students cramming for mid-year exams.
Even if the campus has been “repurposed,” as many have been, we still tend to blot out the life that is, seeing instead the life that was. More than twenty years ago I taught in a small international school on the island of Malta; our campus had been a World War II British officer’s school. Almost every month we would see a taxi pull up to the school, and a greying man alight. Invariably the man—a different one each time—would walk out onto our sports field—the former parade ground. He would stand for a long time just looking in all directions, clearly seeing through our campus to one that had existed more than a quarter of a century before. After a while, with no further intrusion on our present, he would return to the taxi and be driven away.
As it turns out, Bruflat Academy represents the most persistent image of an abandoned campus—a single remaining building—occasionally an “Old Main,” but more often a supporting structure. A few such as Cedar Valley Seminary and the old gymnasium at Lombard College stand vacant and condemned, awaiting the wrecking ball; other have been renovated and perhaps repurposed into a different community role. In my travels around the Dakotas, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Minnesota and Wisconsin, I saw former college campuses—some even on the National Register—serving as nursing homes, high schools, museums, apartment buildings, rental properties, funeral homes, assisted living facilities, private residences, art galleries, and even prisons.
When I go on the Internet, I see city offices being carved from old campus buildings in Milton, OR, Spencer, TN, and Barnsdale, MA; religious retreat houses from campuses at Merom, IN, Jefferson, LA, and St. Charles, LA.
Thankfully, a few “Old Mains” in places such as Fergus Falls, MN, Montezuma, NM, Brownwood, TX, and Wahpeton, ND have retained their original use in new settings.
In some cases even the authenticity of the building may be in dispute. Teachers at Morrisville High School believe that the old Marion C. Early Building was once part of the college there—it certainly looks the part—but people at the Polk County Genealogy Center dispute that. My guide at College Springs, IA claimed that a building he once owned there had been a girls’ dormitory for Amity College, but another resident said that no college buildings remained. And whether any Leander Clark College building remains as part of the Iowa State Training School is a matter of speculation.
A less likely scenario than the one-building-remaining is one in which the derelict campus is more or less intact. Newer campuses may exist in a near pristine state. When I visited Dana College in Nebraska, it had been closed for only a year, so the campus looked as if students could move in and classes start within the hour. But there is obviously a sliding scale of closed time and neglect. When I visited South Dakota and Missouri campuses in 2009 and 2010 I found that while the Mother Co-Redemptrix Order maintains the campus of Ozark Wesleyan College (closed 1927) in near mint condition, campuses at Huron, Tarkio and Kemper were all developing that vacant property look, the result of delayed maintenance. I have just returned from visits to Wahoo, NE and Iberia, MO, seeing campuses far gone into decay from fire, vandalism, and the elements. Flickr images from Holly Springs, MS, Baker, LA, Morristown, TN, and Thorp Springs, TX show the same sad tale.
Stories about abandoned and deteriorating campuses naturally lead in two directions—criminal activity and paranormal activity. In many cases “No Trespassing” signs do not deter vandals and thrill seekers. One Tennessee blogger claimed to have been in every room of every building of Morristown College. A Chicago area blogger expressed a wish to stop by and “snap a few pictures” of the abandoned Kennedy-King College campus. However, another blogger warned that those buildings were likely to be occupied by hookers and drug addicts.
I thought of this after stopping at Kidder Academy in a small, rural Missouri town. Earlier in the day I had had safe, escorted visits to the old Kemper Military campus and the Chillicothe Business College campus. But having some family connection in the Kidder area, I drove straight through the village to the campus on the outskirts. Since I carry a cell phone and business cards, I really didn’t worry about the “No Trespassing” signs. (So, I too am a law breaker!) Not seeing a soul, I took my pictures in a drizzling rain and left town as I had arrived. Later I realized the stupidity of what I had done. It was more than rumor that gangs from Kansas City were using abandoned buildings in small towns in the area as crack houses. Afterwards I got chills when I realized that had I interrupted crack dealers or meth cookers, no one would have ever known what happened to me.
And while deaths in campus buildings are extremely rare, legends of haunted buildings persist. As one who at times worked weekends and evenings in my office in a one-hundred-year-old campus building in Mayville, ND, I can attest that old buildings occasionally have things to say as timbers shift and settle. I can certainly identify with the Westmar College student who heard doors slam and floors creak while she was practicing music in Thoren Hall there alone one night. And while Helm Hall on the Sue Bennett College campus is supposedly haunted by a student suicide, it is likely that building “talk” rather than an actual history that has caused some to believe that the building is “haunted.” Certainly a belief that buildings are haunted has led to daredevil searches for paranormal activities in abandoned campuses around the country. Such searches have been conducted at Iberia, MO, and Harriman, TN, and Gooding, ID and London, KY.. In fact, at Albion (ID) Normal, some campus buildings are actually used for the annual haunted house during Halloween.
A number of the old schools—at least 70 of the 200—have gone without a trace—or at most a historical marker. A search may show only a vacant lot, a parking lot, a shopping center, or a housing development. Among those schools in my travel area are Redfield and Wissington Springs in South Dakota; Grand Island and Cotner in Nebraska; Western and Campbell in Kansas; Parker and Red Wing in Minnesota; Trinity, Highland Park, Keokuk Medical, and National in Iowa; Ensworth Medical, Kansas City Veterinary, Springfield Normal, and Central Wesleyan in Missouri. Others such as George R. Smith in Missouri, Amity in Iowa, and Claverack in New York exist only in buildings or parts of buildings constructed from recycled materials.
Sadder still is the case of colleges that have passed from all memory. Pierce City in southern Missouri was home to a college that in its day played football against the University of Arkansas. So long has it been gone that a local librarian answered my query about artifacts with her own query: “Pierce City once had a college?”
An Anglo Saxon poet, whose words I had to translate in graduate school, probably best captured this mood of a departed way of life. Standing before the walls of a ruined castle, he asks, “Where is the horse? Where is the rider? Where is the giver of treasure? Where is the banquet place? Where is the revelry in the hall?” Realizing the loss he concludes, “Alas, the bright cup! Alas the mailed warrior! Alas, the glory of princes! How that time has passed away, grown dark under the helmet of night, as if it never had been!”