Refurbished Byron Township Hall is something to behold
SOMETHING TO BE PROUD OF — It is hoped the newly refurbished Byron Township Hall in Matawan makes the National Historic Registry. (Submitted photo)
By RACHEL RIETSEMA
Located in the whereabouts of Matawan, remains a white building that has had its share of alterations.
This historic structure has been a chameleon of sorts, adapting to the natures of both rambunctious elementary students and Byron Township board members. Not all at once of course.
“The town hall had become so run down that it wasn’t useful anymore,” said Geoff Jessen, township supervisor. “At one point, we considered it a teardown, but everyone involved soon found out that is a pretty cool, structurally sound building. That’s when the public got involved and voted to renovate it.”
The drop ceiling eradicated for good, this place of town meetings has returned to its 20th-century roots. No more musty smells either, that’s for sure.
“We have restored it to its original function, a schoolhouse,” Jessen said. “We gutted the whole building and tore out all the old plaster. We rewired, replastered walls, installed better heating and plumbing systems, and replaced windows and all the roof shingles.”
All these renovations didn’t happen in one fell swoop though. This makeover took many years to come to complete fruition.
“We applied for the Minnesota Historical Society grant in 2005,” Jessen said. “Then in 2006-07, the major repairs were done including work on the crumbling foundation.”
Although the Historical Society’s award money of $30,000 definitely jumpstarted the transformation process, the renovations came to a crashing halt shortly thereafter. Patience had to be a virtue, while slowly using the town’s funds for the remaining changes.
“Much of the work out here was done by volunteers,” Jessen said. “Those volunteer hours helped offset that grant. Later on, we tried to get another grant.”
But, that process proved to be too competitive, according to Byron Township Secretary Karen Krause.
“Acting more so as the pen and pencil part of it, I did a lot of research in my writing of the grant,” Krause said. “The results are beautiful. It looks very much like it probably did back then, as we were really careful to keep it truthful to the origins.”
Aside from the new roofing detail, there’s another exterior change that visitors won’t be able to bypass. It’s gray, solid and “all good to go for the next million years.”
“The porch was an old wooden structure that rotted away,” Jessen said. “It looks exactly like the original, but now it’s made of cement.”
Inside this warmly hued space lie quite a few more unique qualities found down the hallway. Grand windows are sure to stun while vintage light fixtures create a sense of yesteryear.
“We weighed the cost of buying new materials and it was actually cheaper than renewing all the old stuff,” Jessen said. “These light fixtures purchased from a company called Restoration Hardware are replicas of the style of light that were here before. They have a whole line of schoolhouse pendants, even doorknobs and locks.”
Taking the final touches a “bite at a time,” Jessen and Krause would like to make a friendly request of Byron Township residents. Those willing to donate photos or memorabilia pertinent to town history can contact either party to discuss an agreement plan.
“On the entire north wall, I would like to feature memories,” Jessen said. “I’m building some new frames for the original chalkboards. After I hang those, the main room will look much better.”
Around the corner, curious souls can take a gander at the newly antiqued library.
“All the bookshelves in the library were very crudely made and painted over too about three times,” Jessen said. “Sadly, we couldn’t preserve them because they were too far gone.”
These soon to be constructed shelves will undoubtedly need books to fill them. So again, any scrounging for these paged items would be most helpful.
“This project is all I could have hoped it would be,” Jessen said. “It’s what I envisioned and it really came together. Matawan should have a block party down here this summer.”
Krause is equally excited for the public to start making event reservations. A few family gatherings have already been booked for this spring.
“I think there is excitement in the potential for the use of this building,” Krause said. “I think the residents need a sense of pride. They certainly will be proud of this.”
Fields trips aren’t out of the question either. Jessen would love kids oohing and ahhing while sitting in the children’s desks two years shy of century.
“It’s available as a community center,” Jessen said. “You decide what you want to use it for. Call a board member and we will put you on the schedule. We may charge $25-30. Or, if needs its spring cleaning, well I guess you know what to do.”
Krause added, “We are such a disposable society nowadays. Kids won’t know about the past unless there is something to look at it. This provides that.”
Even on the most humid summer days, people can look forward to making memories here. It has great insulation eliminating the need for an air conditioner.
“When it stays closed up, it stays cool in here on a hot day,” Jessen said.
Krause added, “Soon the breeze will be coming through here, and I’m hoping that we as community members can help make the backyard’s virgin prairie grass what it used to be, and faithfully maintain it.”
Actually, Jessen remembers traipsing alongside these native wildflowers at recess time.
“I went to grades 1-6 right here in this room,” Jessen said. “Many generations went to school here until this school district dissolved in 1967.”
The front yard’s tending of grass will go down a little differently. A few neighbors have already volunteered to mow it on a regular basis.
“Some of the old battle scars are still there, but the results are looking pretty good,” Jessen said. “Now, visitors have a handicap-accessible bathroom as well.”
Visitors’ special occasions wouldn’t be complete without a kitchen either.
“The kitchen wasn’t always a kitchen,” Jessen said. “It was a cloak room for boys and girls. I remember playing back in there and getting into mischief.”
Add those amenities with plenty of parking, and the historical possibilities abound.
“I would like to see us in the National Historic Registry,” Krause said. “I think we can achieve that status because we have done everything within the realms of what we were required to do.”
Jessen continued, “Every two years, the society asks us to submit pictures and things to make sure we are maintaining our investment. What we have done so far, would certainly qualify us to get through that process.”
Registries aside, Jessen and Krause couldn’t be more pleased with the schoolhouse-inspired revamp. They are most grateful to the Minnesota Historical Society and for all those who volunteered.
“I think this will put Matawan on the map so to speak, especially if we can get registered with the historical society,” Jessen said. “Having this building here will add a tremendous value to Byron Township.”