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Lifelong Learning

A look at the history of public school buildings in Moorhead from 1873-1930

November 29, 2018

Moorhead Area Public Schools had its beginning in April 1873 when the Clay County Commissioners approved a motion by Judge James Sharp and Reverend Oscar Elmer to begin a school district in Moorhead. During the 1873-74 school year, classes were held in a local church building. The first school building in Moorhead, known as the Union School, was built in 1874 on the corner of 6th Street South and 2nd Avenue. Today it would sit directly south of the Moorhead Public Library.

The first quarter century of the Moorhead Schools saw the construction of four school buildings. By the time the 1800s ended each of the four wards in Moorhead would have its own building. The first ward school built in 1893 was located near the Hjemkomst Center. Small compared to today’s standards, the building was just 36 feet by 40 feet with two classrooms, one on each floor. This was the earliest settled part of Moorhead and also had the lowest elevation, which resulted in frequent flooding. The building was located on the corner of 3rd Street North and 3rd Avenue. Those streets no longer exist due to flood mitigation in the 1950s.

The second ward used the 1874 Union School building until the late 1890s when it was sold to a local congregation for use as a parsonage before being moved to 314 7th Ave. S. Moorhead’s first school is still in use today as an apartment building.

The third ward had the most ornate school building with a two-story bell tower, a corner entrance, and multiple types of stonework. It was originally built in east Moorhead near where Stenerson sits today. That area of Moorhead was where city planners had hoped the city would grow, but when few homes and businesses were built there, the school was moved closer to the city center to the southwest corner of 10th Street and 3rd Avenue North.

In the late 1870s the school board called for bids to build a “new, modern high school.” Land was purchased in the fourth ward on 8th Street South and 4th Avenue (the present site of Townsite Center). At that time, many Moorhead citizens expressed disapproval to the district for buying land “so far out in the country.”

In 1880 Moorhead’s first high school was built on this land. It was a two-story building, with a large cupola or bell tower on top of the French style roof. The building had three classrooms on the main floor and a study room, recitation room (small theater), and library on the second floor.

Moorhead’s first high school graduation took place in 1883 when Mathias Forsburg, who later moved to Tennessee, was the sole member of that year’s graduating class.

In addition to housing high school students, two classrooms were used for elementary students living in the fourth ward. This building’s name was changed from “central school” building to the Sharp School in 1885 to honor and thank Judge James Sharp for his service to the district. Due to increasing enrollment this building was enlarged and renovated in 1894.

At the beginning of the new century, Moorhead was experiencing larger class sizes due to the city’s population growth. The first school built during this era was the second ward’s Park School, which still stands today. Opened in 1902 on the corner of 2nd Street South and 6th Avenue, the building featured three classrooms on the first floor and three classrooms on the second. Last used as a school in 1979, the Park School is now an apartment building.

With the closing of several country schools, there was a pressing need for more space for high school students. In 1917, the Moorhead community passed a bond referendum to build a new high school building. The school board’s original plan was to build the high school on a recently purchased parcel of land closer to the MSUM campus but several community members lobbied that the high school remain on 8th Street South and 4th Avenue. The original high school building was torn down in 1918 to make way for the new building. Nels Melvey, grandfather of recent Moorhead High School Hall of Honor inductee Glenn Melvey, served as the building’s general contractor. During the two years the school was under construction, high school students attended school in area churches and the ward schools. Moorhead High School, now Townsite Center, was dedicated in the fall of 1921. More than 5,000 community members attended the dedication and open house.

The 1921 Moorhead High School was home to all of the district’s grades 7-12 students and the city’s fourth ward elementary students. The original blueprints reveal the absence of a kitchen or cafeteria in the school. This was common in the early 1900s as students were given an hour to go home for a home-cooked meal. It wasn’t until 1942 that Moorhead schools began offering a hot lunch program: two cents for milk and two cents for a hot lunch.

The ornate third ward school quickly became overcrowded and was replaced in 1920 with a new building named the Lincoln School. This building, which was located one block northwest of the Fairmont Creamery building, received a gymnasium addition in the 1960s. The original building was torn down in the 1980s shortly after being decommissioned as a school, but the gymnasium addition is still being used today as an art studio and performance space for Theatre B. You can see a portion of the original brickwork of the 1920 school near the northeast entrance of the building.

Moorhead’s first ward school also would be replaced. In 1929 the school’s principal Ellen “Nellie” Hopkins, along with the school board, led a campaign to build a new first ward school. Hopkins took her students door to door to campaign and wrote a rousing commentary in the Moorhead Daily News urging the citizens of Moorhead to rally round the students: “A new building will give the first ward children the same educational advantages as the other Moorhead boys and girls. Yes! -- we need a new building in the first ward!” The bond passed by an overwhelming margin, and a new first ward school was built. The building became known unofficially as the Hopkins School in the early 1930s. That title became official in 1939 when, on the retirement of Ellen Hopkins, Superintendent S.G. Reinertsen and the board of education issued a resolution formally naming the building after Hopkins.

This is a continuation of a series of articles on the history of Moorhead Area Public Schools by Brian Cole. For suggestions or comments, please contact Brian Cole at

Photo: Former Lincoln School (Third Ward School)

Categorized under: School