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Toimi students are gathered outside the school in 1916. (Submitted by Adrian Ranta)

Toimi gears up for its centennial celebration

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Carl Kunnari didn't speak English when he started classes at Toimi School in 1930.

The son of immigrants, he knew only Finnish -- like most children of that time in the rural community along the Lake-St. Louis county line. It was a bit scary for a young child, he recalled this week; the kids of Toimi felt like immigrants in their own country, venturing into the English-only realm of the classroom.

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"Eighty-three years ago I entered there with my lunch bucket. It was a whole new world," Kunnari, now 89, said from his home not far from the school.

Kunnari is one of just a handful of Toimi School alumni left, and plans to be on hand this Saturday as the school -- long-closed, and now a museum and community center -- celebrates its centennial.

Time and trees have taken a toll on the farms and landmarks of Toimi, located about 50 miles northeast of Duluth. But amid the encroaching forest, the Toimi School -- built in 1913 and now one of the last vestiges of the once-vibrant Finnish community -- has survived through the decades.

Of a community core that also included a meeting hall and co-op store, "that's the only building that's left," said Adrian Ranta, who grew up in the area after the school had closed, and now is chairman of the Toimi School Community Center Board.

Story of survival

The children of the first settlers in Toimi received their schooling at home. As more families moved to the area, the Toimi School was built in 1913 and first hosted classes in 1914, according to a history provided by the board. The school was expanded to its present size in about 1920, and included a teacher's apartment; its peak enrollment was about 100 students.

Kunnari was born a few miles away, in a log home built by his parents, and attended classes at Toimi from 1930-38, when he transferred to Two Harbors High School.

"There was a lot of pride" in the school, he recalled; the early homesteaders placed a high value on their children's education.

But by 1942, declining enrollment led to the school's closure. Eventually the Lake County Highway Department converted the building into a garage -- which had pros and cons for the old school.

On the one hand, the county tore out the floors and punched an overhead door into the building. But as Kunnari noted, "the only reason it's still there is the county ... kept a roof on it." Otherwise the school may have collapsed as so many other old structures have.

When the garage was no longer needed, the county board in 1991 transferred ownership to the Toimi School Community Center Board. Volunteers started restoring the building the following year, and work has continued ever since. Grants from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, among other entities and foundations, have supported the work.

The school, now with wayside facilities, is a stop on the Superior National Forest Scenic Byway from Aurora to Silver Bay. The museum inside is open on Saturdays in the summer; visitors at other times can view a display of old photos and history in the adjacent rebuilt pumphouse.

Centennial celebration

The school board is advertising Saturday's gathering as "both a bridge to the past and a showcase of the facility and its future potential."

There will be a welcome by Ranta, whose parents attended the school; a small gathering of alumni, including Kunnari; and talks about pioneer life and one-room schools.

A new history book about Toimi School and the community, drawn in part from oral interviews with former students and settlers, will be available for sale.

There's hope Saturday's celebration may spark new interest in the school. There's still work to be done on fixing up the building and the property, and in more fully utilizing the facility. Ranta said one goal of the board is to open the museum and community center more often; perhaps someday there can be a full-time seasonal host.

Whatever the future holds for Toimi School, Kunnari is glad to see the sturdy structure reach its 100th birthday.

"It's just tremendous," he said. "That's the only (remaining) identity of Toimi. And it's a beautiful identity."

If you go

What:

Toimi School centennial celebration

When:

Saturday, starting at 10 a.m.

Where:

Toimi School, about 50 miles northeast of Duluth at the corner of Lake County Highway 15 and County Road 151. From Two Harbors, travel north on County Highway 2 about 25 miles to County Highway 15; turn left (west) on Highway 15 about five miles to Toimi School, on the south side of the road.

Featuring:

Ceremony and history talks starting at 10 a.m.; lunch by the Brimson Volunteer Fire Department from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.; music and artists; flea market.

In the neighborhood:

Toimi School's centennial celebration comes less than a year after nearby Petrell Hall, another local landmark, celebrated its 100th birthday.

Meaning of 'Toimi'

Toimi is a Finnish word that can be translated to mean "work," or "occupation," Adrian Ranta said -- perhaps chosen because of the hard life of the first settlers.

"They tried to make subsistence farms out of fields that were all rock," Ranta said.

Online:

Toimi School website: www.toimischool.org

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