BREITUNG TOWNSHIP – A retired local teacher is breathing new life into the century-old Pine Creek School in Breitung Township.
Tom Wender has spent the last few months renovating the one-room schoolhouse to once again serve as a place of learning, this time as Pine Creek Woodworking.
About 12 years ago, Wender had a vision to develop a nonprofit woodworking facility while vacationing in Leadville, Colorado with his wife, Jennifer.
“My wife and I were walking down the street in Leadville – which is a small town, like Norway – and we heard noises coming from a store of what sounded like carpentry equipment. Being curious, I entered. Wender said.
He discovered that the carpentry shop was used by older people in the area.
“I immediately told Jen that if Pine Creek School ever came up for sale, that’s what I would do,” said Wender, who taught the building trades program at the Dickinson-Iron Intermediate School District Career and Technical Education Center from 1977 until his retirement in 2005.
About a year and a half ago, he approached owner Duane Hoffman to purchase the property. Hoffman liked the project and was on board, he said.
Jennifer, along with her friend and neighbor Dave Johnson, began working on the paperwork needed to start the nonprofit. A council was also set up which includes local businessmen Albert Santoni, Steve Pontbriand, John Fortier, Ted Fornetti and Denny Olson.
“These guys have a lot of knowledge, are all very valuable”, Wender said.
With Pine Creek Woodworking approved as a nonprofit, they were able to officially make the purchase last fall.
Wender noted that a cousin found an Iron Mountain News article that stated it cost $3,367 in 1922 to erect the Pine Creek Agricultural District School.
The structure has a total of 1,200 square feet and a full basement. He thinks it closed as a school in the 1940s.
Immediately after purchase, Wender and a group of volunteers set to work installing a new roof. At the beginning of December, they moved inside.
“We basically gutted the whole interior, because there was no insulation in the walls,” Wender said, adding that the average crew age was 72.
The new ceiling was put in place in about five hours. New windows are on order, the framing of the handicap accessible bathroom is complete and the walls are ready for the tongue and groove wood panels.
“Not a plank has yet been purchased for the building”, he noted.
The logs, which he machined himself, were donated, with Minerick Logging volunteering to kiln dry the materials and Starship Enterprises of Vulcan cutting them into tongue and groove panels.
Today, the paneling will go up during a full day of drudgery. The work bee will be attended by former students, as well as local and state officials, including State Senator Ed McBroom and Dickinson County Board Chairman Henry Wender.
“It’s not really about work to be done on Saturdays, it’s about former students getting together and sharing stories,” he said. “I had many gifted students. I am proud of what we have done during the 28 years that I have taught the building trades.
Connor Sports of Amasa donated the hardwood flooring needed to replace damaged areas and
MJ Electric will donate all electrical equipment and labor for the entire building.
All original trim is also being refurbished by a local retiree.
Having the basement complete is important, Wender added, because it will house the heating unit, dust collection and equipment room.
“Everyone has been so generous so far,” he underlined. “We don’t have a penny to work here.”
Wender’s goal is to have the interior of the school completely finished this spring.
Next, he plans to tackle the exterior in the summer, including painting, building a handicap access ramp, re-gravelling the parking lot, and setting up a well and pit. septic.
“We have already donated the septic tank and are hoping to get help with the well,” he said.
He also works with John Kriegl’s CAD students at Kingsford High School, who design the handicapped ramp.
The nonprofit has already set up a few grant writers to help secure the funds needed to purchase equipment.
“Everything here is going to be top of the line for safety”, he said. “I received several offers to donate items, but had to politely decline the offer as everything needs to be up to date.”
The nonprofit’s goal is to open to the public within two years of the date of purchase – fall 2023.
Pine Creek Woodworking intends to focus on seniors and veterans first. “It will basically be available to anyone who would like to be in woodworking but doesn’t have the facilities or the money to do so”, he said.
Anyone using the equipment will need to go through a security protocol. These people will then receive an electronic certification card that they can swipe to enter the establishment.
At first, a volunteer will oversee the shop to make sure everything is running smoothly.
“I have already contacted a number of retired industrial art teachers who are willing to help,” he said.
A number of local sawmills have already pledged to donate timber each year which will be available for purchase.
Wood sales will generate revenue for day-to-day operating costs, such as electricity, heating and maintenance.
Once they are up and running, Wender wants to offer different classes of crafts such as basic woodworking, engraving, carving, and electrical.
“I want young kids to get involved in the trades again, as many industrial arts programs have been eliminated from high schools,” he said. “I also think a lot of women would be interested.”
A local business owner has also signed up to teach carpentry and furniture finishing.
“We have so many locals who are so knowledgeable about different trades, it would be great if we could pass that on to the next generation and help others,” he said. “That’s what we’re here for.”
Pine Creek Woodworking will eventually create a Facebook page with a calendar of events and classes.
“We’re just on the ‘honeymoon stage’ now – we’re still learning for this nonprofit,” he said. “We’ll see where it goes and we’ll improve over time.”
The strong positive response so far has organizers believing they will add an addition within two years, Wender said.
Fundraisers are also planned to help cover costs. The first is scheduled for February 19 at Cedar Edge Wine and Gifts in Niagara, Wisconsin. Wender will bring his team of horses to provide free sleigh rides, with donations accepted for the Pine Creek Woodworking Project.
“I feel good that it’s going back to a school and what we’re going to offer here is unique,” he said.