Historic Schoolhouse in Downsville, Wisconsin
The historic Downsville schoolhouse overlooks the beautiful Red Cedar river valley, oxbow ponds, an expanse of restored native woodland and prairie. It is the only known octagonal schoolhouse in Wisconsin, and possibly, in the Midwest.
In 2007, Kathy Ruggles and John Thomas purchased the schoolhouse and the building was relocated one mile east of the original location. The building is 32 feet across, and 800 square feet. It has a large bank of southern windows and an original hardwood maple floor. A beam in the schoolhouse is marked 1894 with the initials KS, for Knapp Stout Lumber Company, likely indicating the year it was completed. Previously used as a pottery showroom, the schoolhouse is now John and Kathy’s residence.
A Unique Historic Space
At the time it was built, the Downsville school house was one of three or four octagonal or “round schools” in the state of Wisconsin.
The octagon was first used as a workshop for shop projects. In 1866, a second, two-story schoolhouse was built on the same property. By 1907, the larger building held grades four through six upstairs and seven through nine downstairs. The younger students, grades one through three, attended school in the octagon building. The schoolhouse had no electricity through the 1920s and was heated by a central round coal heater. Outside the buildings were amenities typical for that time: a water bucket well, “privy,” and woodshed.
Students at the Downsville Schoolhouse in1895
Both schools were closed in the 1970s when the current Downsville Elementary School was built about one mile away near the New Hope Lutheran Church.
The old school buildings were sold at auction to Wilfred Patnode. Timber from the larger building was used to build a home that stands on the old school foundations. Dean Meachams later purchased the property and the octagonal school eventually became the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Lauderdale. Used as a residence for many years, the schoolhouse was vacant when it was purchased by Simply Dunn.
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Renovation of the schoolhouse began with construction of a cement foundation to hold the building and create an earth-sheltered lower level.
The upper portion of the foundation was later surfaced with local sandstone. The floor joists were replaced and the wall plaster was removed to allow for installation of foam insulation and drywall. The floors were sanded and re-finished. Antique doors were added, replacing the front door and for the bathroom and a storage area. A new front porch is surfaced with bluestone slabs. The building was painted and the original screens and windows were replaced.
A distinctive and relatively uncommon architectural style, the Octagon Mode was most popular between 1850 and 1870.
Octagon buildings are ornate, pitched-roof buildings that are most commonly found in the Northeast and Midwest. These houses, schools, barns, and toll houses often incorporate elements of other styles including Italianate, Greek Revival, and Gothic Revival styles. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, a number of well-know designers, including Thomas Jefferson, built octagonal buildings in the United States. Octagon style features include the distictive octagonal shape, a low-pitched hipped roof, a partial or wrap-around porch, and wide overhanging eaves.
The first octagonal buildings in the US were stone school buildings built in the 1760s in southeastern Pennsylvania.
The style was likely derived from English or Scotch-Irish folk tradition. Octagon residences were rarely built after 1865, but octagon form continued in barn and outbuilding construction through the late 1800s. The octagon style was still quite rare until Orson Squire Fowler promoted it in his 1848 book, The Octagon House: A House for All. Fowler was an author, public lecturer, and eccentric. He promoted the octagon form as a wholesome, economical, modern architectural innovation. Benefits of octagon construction include allowing more sunlight and ventilation into the building and savings on building and fuel costs.oo
Ebenezer Thompson first settled in the area in 1848 and purchased the land that would become the village in 1855. Downsville was officially established in February of 1858.
Thompson built a small saw mill on the bank of the Red Cedar River. The mill was soon destroyed by a flood and in 1858 he deeded the land and mill to Burrage B. Downs who built a dam across the river.
Thompson dug a small chute which functioned as a mill race, to float logs in and out of the mill.
It gradually widened throughout the years and became the eventual path for a 1905 flood which carried away the railroad bridge and washed out the eastern side of the dam. The flood resulted in the re-route of the Red Cedar River and formed the oxbow ponds just south of the Simply Dunn schoolhouse. Knapp, Stout & Co. ran a company store in Downsville, as early as 1870 and Captain Downs sold the mill to the company in the 1880s.
In the spring of 1883 the “Second Big Wash Out” flood washed away the existing dam and a number of buildings including the company store and sleeping shanty. By the turn of the century forest resources in the area were depleted and in September of 1900 Knapp, Stout & Co. closed the sawmill in Downsville.
The Downsville Cooperative Creamery, soon to be the largest in the county, was incorporated in 1903. The original creamery building was 26 x 60 feet. There were two subsequent additions, the first was built ten years later and was 14 x 60 feet. A second addition in 1924 was brick construction and measured 26 x 50 feet, at the cost of $11,000.
RESOURCES: ARTICLES & BOOKS ABOUT HISTORIC DOWNSVILLE
Scenes of Yesteryear: How Down’s Mill became Downsville | June 29, 2012 by John Russell, Dunn County News
Mrs. Thomas Huey tells of her coming to Dunn county in 1864 | Wisconsin Historical Society
Octagon Style | Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
Curtiss-Wedge, F.; Jones, Geo. O. (ed.) | 1925 History of Dunn County, Wisconsin