It not only takes a village to raise a child, but the new documentary film “Resurrecting Forest Grove” shows how it takes a village to bring an old, abandoned school back to life.
The characteristically beautiful, illuminating and important hour-long film by
Kelly and Tammy Rundle of Moline-based Fourth Wall Films was given its world premiere to an appreciative, sold-out crowd Saturday, Sept. 23 at the Putnam Giant Screen Theater.
The former one-room school at 24040 Forest Grove Drive, Bettendorf — was built in 1873 and closed in 1957. Restoration began in 2012 and was completed in 2019. Forest Grove is refurbished to its 1920s appearance and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Like the seven-year painstaking, meticulous restoration work, the making of the new documentary took patience and persistence.
The Rundles started making the film in 2012, to document the long process of restoring the ramshackle, totally dilapidated, empty gray building. The Rundles amazingly found time to put together “Resurrecting Forest Grove” over the period they also made 19 other films.
“We’ve had the privilege to be there and observe first-hand many of these moments,” Kelly said Saturday. “It’s not a comprehensive telling of this story, for sure. It’s really just what we happened to see.”
He remembered several people in the new film who have since passed away, including Iowa historian Tom Morain, who died Oct. 10, 2020, after a battle with cancer.
“You’re seeing these amazing images, and this film project was extremely inspirational for us,” Tammy Rundle (Kelly’s wife and filmmaking partner) said. She called Forest Grove project leader Sharon Andresen “a visionary.” When the Rundles were standing outside the building in a 2009 blizzard as part of filming for their 2010 “Country School” doc, Tammy thought, “Do not stand close to that schoolhouse. That thing is coming down. Just step away from that.”
Andresen later stood there and said, “I think we can save this schoolhouse,” Tammy recalled. “My favorite part was meeting Sharon, meeting the Blunk family, the amazing storytellers that we met. My favorite part of our work is when we get to talk to and interview and meet these people, and hear their stories. That’s when it comes to life for me. That’s when Forest Grove came to life for me.”
A death, then resurrection
I love the inspiring tagline of the new movie (“A Death. A Vision. A Miracle.”) and the profoundly inspirational message of the film – that iconic old buildings that play a central role in society are worth saving and that a community that bands together for that common goal can realize their dreams.
“Resurrecting Forest Grove” starts in December 2009, when all appeared lost. The footage (during a snow storm) of the dilapidated shell of the school was captured for the end of the Fourth Wall’s 2010 documentary, “Country School: One Room – One Nation,” in which the Rundles visited 100 such schools in Iowa, Kansas and Wisconsin.
Forest Grove School No. 5 (celebrating its 150th anniversary this year) first opened in 1873 and enrolled upwards of 30 students each year ranging in age from 5 to 14. The children (taught by one teacher) came from within a 2-mile radius to attend school. Bringing along their books, which they had purchased in nearby Princeton, their subjects included math, reading and writing, spelling, geography, history and English, according to the school website.
The school remained in use until 1957, when it was closed and purchased by Delbert Blunk who attended the school when he was a young boy. His family had farmed the land around the school for a century.
Some of the best interviews in the new film are of some former teachers and students from Forest Grove, recalling their memories. One teacher said she made $175; Tammy asked if that was per week, and she laughed, saying that was per month. Some of the former students attended the Putnam premiere.
Footage and interviews gathered over a decade depict the problems that volunteers faced and the solutions they employed as they attempted to bring this decaying rural icon back to life. The surprises and successes of this challenging restoration project are intercut with a vivid historical portrait of the “Roaring ’20s” in rural America.
Community members provided labor and materials at a discount or no charge, including donations of floorboards and slate chalkboards from three nearby schools, two of which had been demolished.
After years of neglect, Sharon Andresen worked with the Quad Cities Community Foundation to raise money in 2012, and then formed Forest Grove School Preservation as a non-profit corporation to bring new life back to the dilapidated, then-gray shell of a school. The Blunk family donated the property to the nonprofit and in the film Rod Blunk fights back tears as he speaks of how impressed he was with the finished product and why people should see it.
While the total renovation cost about $250,000, about one-quarter was supported by state historic preservation tax credits, she said, noting Cedar Rapids architect Doug Steinmetz oversaw the work. That included rebuilding of the bell tower, as it had appeared in the ‘20s, but was lost, and the Blunks supplied the original bell. Of course, another film highlight is the 2016 placement of the new tower back on the top of the school.
The Rundles also captured footage at the first Forest Grove fundraiser, a September 2012 car wash, and a later trivia night. We see each major piece of the building preservation — from the new cedar-shingled roof, new front door and lettering, new flooring, and painting.
With assistance from architect Doug Steinmetz, volunteers worked from historic photos to reconstruct the structure’s bell tower, windows and doors, foundation, roof, and signage. The restoration project was featured in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s magazine, Preservation, in 2018.
In 2022, the project was honored by the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs with the Adrian D. Anderson Award. It recognized outstanding preservation of a smaller historic preservation project that uses tax credits from State Historic Preservation and Cultural & Entertainment District programs. The award is named for a highly regarded archaeologist who helped found Iowa’s State Historic Preservation Office and served as its first leader.
This May, the school received official designation as a Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area Site.
The restored historic schoolhouse first opened to the public May 22, 2021. In August 2021, about a mile to the west (at 6100 Forest Grove Drive), the new Forest Grove Elementary opened to serve the Pleasant Valley Community School District.
Q & A panel
In a panel discussion following the first of two Saturday showings, Andresen praised Ben Taylor of Pleasant Valley (who’s briefly interviewed in the film), the master carpenter, who led the renovations. “I have never worked with a person who is so meticulous in that particular craft. He was just phenomenal,” she said. “We struggled through things together. When we came out the other side, it looked fabulous.”
Taylor reflected the film’s title in bringing the school (once the hub of the community) “back from the grave,” he said on screen.
Andresen said her family was incredibly tolerant during the project. They had over 600 donors who contributed money for the work.
“They’re all part of the project,” she said in the Q & A. “It’s not me; it’s this whole community of people who came together and said, ‘We like this, we’re going to support it so you can keep going.’”
Kelly noted there was skepticism over whether it could be done and he asked Andresen when there was a turning point in the work.
“It took me a really long time for me to get over that someone had doubted me so profoundly,” she said. “We saved an old building that’s a great piece of history. That was the first hurdle we had to get over. There was no ulterior motive – I wanted to see this great historic gem restored.”
The real turning point was when Goodwin House Movers actually raised the building off its foundation “and it didn’t crumble into a million pieces,” Andresen said. “I knew as long as this thing could stand solid, we could do the rest. I knew that.”
Kelly said their first regional Emmy nomination was for “Country School,” but they didn’t win their first (which he unveiled Saturday) until 2022 for the 10-minute museum film short, “Remembering Forest Grove,” which can only be seen in the school.
“To me, teachers have the second-most important role in society, after being a parent,” Kelly said. “But we don’t always treat them that way.” He asked all teachers in the audience to stand as well to be recognized.
“What we’re celebrating are the stories that took place within that building when it was operating as a one-room school, and the stories that are taking place around the renovation of this school,” Kelly said.
Bill Sherman, an expert on Iowa one-room schoolhouses and editor of the book Iowa’s Country Schools: Landmarks of Learning, called “Resurrecting Forest Grove” a wonderful documentary and “the best is yet to come.” Saturday’s event coincided with the weekend 2023 Iowa Country School Preservation Conference in Clinton, and attracted visitors from across the nation.
“We’re going to have hundreds of school groups visiting Forest Grove. They’re gonna go home and talk to their parents, talk to their friends,” Sherman said. “You’re gonna have senior citizen groups that want to come out and visit a one-room school. Many of the people in senior homes went to one-room schools.
“They’re going to look at this wonderful documentary and it’s gonna bring back memories they want to relive,” Sherman said. “Ninety percent of the people that I talk to have very positive experiences they want to share with people.”
“Tammy and Kelly are wonderful documentary producers; we’re lucky to have them living in Iowa,” he said, noting they could easily make more money in L.A. or New York. Kelly later joked that they actually live in Illinois.
Putnam CEO Rachael Mullins said before the screening that the museum’s partnership with Fourth Wall Films “has been a treasure,” noting their work is closely aligned to the Putnam’s mission, “to bring to life a sense of place, time and purpose to ignite human potential and inspire diverse communities to learn about our world and all its people.”
Mullins called “Resurrecting Forest Grove” an “iconic moment,” representing local history and “our love of history.”
It shows that the Rundles are not only dedicated, tremendous filmmakers, but they too are teachers, providing priceless images, interviews and information to people that will be valued for generations to come.