WILLISTON, N.D. – Mark and Mary Pettersen could have built a conventional home near Williston. But the Pettersens are not conventional.
The Forest Lake, Minn., couple who moved to Williston about 1½ years ago to open a new location of their RV dealership fell in love with an abandoned schoolhouse they discovered while taking a Sunday drive around Williston.
“We would just go driving and looking at the scenery and we were amazed at all the different old buildings that there are around,” said Mary, 60.
Mark, 62, who co-owns Coates RV with his niece, Sarah Coates Lange, said he was thinking about retiring but decided moving to Williston to sell temporary housing would be more fun.
“We found the people here to be very nice,” Mark said. “We decided to put some roots down.”
The Pettersens tracked down property owner Lyle Langseth to inquire about the schoolhouse and the possibility of moving it and restoring it to be their home.
“It looked like it was at least possible to move it and work with it without doing much structurally,” Mark said.
Langseth, 71, said the schoolhouse, which he believes to be 102 years old, had recently been targeted by vandals and he agreed to give it to the Pettersens for free if they moved it.
“I wanted to see something done with it,” Langseth said.
Moving the schoolhouse would turn out to be an ordeal, but the even bigger challenge was finding a piece of land.
After several attempts that didn’t work out, the Pettersens found a three-acre parcel of land about 10 miles northwest of Williston. The Pettersens liked the remote spot near trees and wildlife.
Mary said the schoolhouse was becoming surrounded by oil development at its original location.
“I felt like we were rescuing it and bringing it back out on the prairie,” Mary said.
Moving the schoolhouse 20 miles required a 40-mile route to avoid going through Williston.
The process began on Sept. 22 when the steeple was removed so the schoolhouse could fit under power lines during the move.
Oct. 9 was the big moving day, which involved having crews raise power lines along the way, directing truck traffic and getting stuck on a bridge.
Oct. 16, exactly a year from the day Mary photographed the schoolhouse during their Sunday drive, the schoolhouse was placed on its new foundation.
Crews are already removing shingles and working on the walk-out basement . Mark said he thinks they’ll be able to move in this year.
The Twin Butte School No. 1 had its first teacher in 1912-13, according to The Wonder of Williams, a book by the Williams County Historical Society. The last teacher hired before the district dissolved in 1950 was Cora Langseth, Lyle Langseth’s mother.
Lyle Langseth said he attended the school for three years until it closed. He recalls that his brother Eugene, who attended all eight grades there, would go to school at 6 a.m. to start the furnace.
Bob Bartz, the landowner who sold them property, learned last week that his mother, who was a special reading teacher who traveled to various schools, taught in the building, which still has faint writing of “Twin Butte School” above the door.
The Pettersens say they’re happy to be preserving a piece of history. Mark’s father taught in one-room schoolhouses in Becker, Minn., and Farmington, Minn.
The Pettersens said many have questioned why they didn’t just build a new home. The moving costs alone were $9,500, they said.
But the traditional route just wouldn’t fit their personality.
In 1998, the couple built a log home near Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota that was only accessible by water. They had to get materials over by barge and a pulley system.
“Compared to that, this is a piece of cake,” Mark said.