EAST CHAIN, Minn. – The Beach Boys sang “be true to your school.” Three graduates of the East Chain School did one better. They bought the place.
“We got the whole shebang, you might say,” smiles Bob Calkins, who farms next door to the school building he now co-owns with his farmer friend Dale Jensen and Dale’s dad Russell Jensen, a retired farmer.
The men bought their alma mater last year after a 2015 consolidation forced its closure.
“It was emotional,” says Dale Jensen of the closing. “It was hard seeing the vans here loading up all the chairs and desks.”
East Chain had already endured the loss of its bank, grocery and hardware stores. The men just couldn’t imagine losing their school building, too.
“We really didn’t want to see the building sitting here with windows open and pigeons flying in and out,” says Calkins. “You might say we just have too much respect for what we have here.”
What they now have is a stable of classrooms, two gymnasiums, an industrial arts shop, a lunchroom, a choir room, and boys' and girls' locker rooms. Dale Jensen jokes the first time he’d been in the latter “was after we bought the place.”
The trio paid $35,000 for the school, understanding the heating and upkeep will cost them much more.
Not long after getting the keys, the new owners began opening the school doors for Sunday afternoon pickup basketball, a church youth group and even a wedding reception.
“Just to see people here and to see cars, it’s pretty neat,” says Calkins.
Cyndi Jensen, Dale’s wife, has her eye on the school office as a possible location for a coffee shop.
“There's nowhere between Fairmont and Iowa to stop for a cup of coffee,” she says. “We have a mom's group that wants to meet there in the wintertime and just bring their tricycles and wiggle racers and go in the old gym.”
The school’s new owners say it did their heart good when people from the community started stopping by the local LP gas company to put money down on their heating bill.
“It’s my way of helping them,” says Stephen Olson, one of the donors, “because they’re doing way more than what I’m doing to keep the community going.”
East Chain School had served children kindergarten though 12th grade until 1987, when it merged with Granada-Huntley. The building continued as an elementary school until its closing.
Among those shooting baskets on a recent Sunday was Bob’s mom DeMaris Calkins, who taught home economics and physical education at East Chain School in the 1950s.
To the former teacher, the school represents much more than a real estate transaction.
“Our store is gone, some of our churches are on their last leg, but we hope we can keep the community going here,” she says.
Bob Calkins, class of ’81, and Dale Jensen, class of ’87, point out some of the trophies they helped earn, still on display in the East Chain trophy case.
At times the farmers seem as excited with their purchase as school boys.
“It amazes me every day when I’ve got the keys and I unlock the door,” Dale Jensen says. “It’s pretty cool.”
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