Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Since its first senior class of one in 1883, a total of 29,100 students have graduated from Moorhead High School. If you’re one of them – or if your parents or children tie you to the school – this book’s for you.
“At some point, all of us connect back to some part of the Spud story,” says Brian Cole. Cole, an orchestra teacher since 1995, has spent the past four years tracing those roots. By the end of 2023, his four years of digging will blossom into a 300-page oversized book of priceless photographs and stories.
Cole calls his project by its tentative title, Once a Spud, Always a Spud – 150 Years. Beginning with the very first one-room school in the frontier railroad town of Moorhead, the massive meta-yearbook he envisions – 350 12-by-18-inch pages of photo- and story-packed heritage – will be available for pre-ordering sometime next year.
Produced under the banner of the Moorhead Legacy Education Foundation, the cost of publishing the Spud history is being underwritten by Eventide Senior Living, whose residents include a substantial number of well-seasoned Spuds. The gathering and organizing of the truly vast archive of historical artifacts, records and memories is being done by volunteers that Cole has recruited and directs and by the teacher himself, who took on the task as a labor of love. All proceeds from book sales will go to the foundation to be used for scholarships.
The idea itself was planted in 2016, when then-Supt. Lynne Kovash appointed the Horizons Middle School orchestra teacher was appointed to help find a historically significant name for the then-brand-newest elementary school. The Marshall, Minnesota, native says he knew little of local history then, but his appetite was whetted by the research that led to 70 suggestions and, finally, choosing local early-childhood-education pioneer Dorothy Dodds.
Dodds, a 1941 Spud graduate, graduated from Moorhead State Teachers College and went on to teach kindergarten at the MSTC Campus School for 23 years and education at MSTC for 14, was only one of the past Spuds whose stories fascinated Cole. “I was telling Lynne (Kovash) about her and others,” he remembers, “and she mused to me, ‘When we retire, we should write a book.’”
The idea took root. After Kovash died in 2019, Cole continued to nurture the notion. With the district’s sesquicentennial coming up in 2023, he scored a small grant from the Minnesota Historical Society to acquire the tools for the rather unexpectedly massive project. “In the beginning, I wondered where we’d ever find enough to fill up a book of this size,” he notes. “Now, I worry every day about how we’ll ever fit it all in.”
He began collecting in earnest four years ago. The district found a closet-sized spot in the loft above the Horizon School theatre to hold the fingerprints of history, started with records once stored in the second of Moorhead’s high schools (now the Townsite Center). Spacious then, the archive room has become a hoarder’s dream today – crowded with some 5,000 pieces of school and personal memorabilia. They range from a near-complete collection of Spud newspapers and early yearbooks to some 90 athletic jerseys, band uniforms, letter jackets and the orange-striped blazer Tom Houglum wire in “The Music Man” in 1969.
He shows off some favorites: A Spud track trophy from 1930. A painting by 1896 alumna Kate Finkle, daughter of one of the area’s first settlers, who went on to be a suffragist and noted writer. A ring-bound book of student poetry and drawings by Probstfield Elementary students 25 years ago. The MHS Basketball Hall of Fame board that hung in the coach’s room at the city’s third high school from 1967 to 1982.
Organized by decade, the Spud history volume will include the developments of each era. There are photos and memories from the country schools that were consolidated into the district in the 1890s, and the Sabin and Georgetown that came aboard 50 years ago. Moorhead’s original ward schools from the late 19th century are recalled, as well as those closed around 1980 or 2000, including Sharp, Park, Lincoln, Edison and Riverside.
“When a school closes, the community that surrounds it loses part of its identity,” the history collector says. “But those memories remain part of our collective story.”
Cole and his volunteers are still collecting. As he heads into his fourth full summer of harvesting Spud tales, he has posted a survey on Facebook asking others with Spuds in their blood to contribute their own memories of school days, along with the names of two people who they think should be included in the book. So far, 1,500 people have responded to the online survey. He’d like to see many more.
Meanwhile, the acres of records, publications and artifacts that he’s already plowed through are being numbered and cataloged, complete with the names of those who donated them and the stories with which they’re associated. Many of them will eventually become part of a history display located in the new high school now under construction.
Cole and his wife Deb, who is a long-term substitute teacher at Horizon West, have their own family woven into the local fabric. Daughter Greta, a freshman at the Carlson School of Business in the Twin Cities, graduated last year from MHS, where Ella is currently a junior.
About to embark on his fourth summer of full-time research, Cole reflects on the project that has come to dominate what seems like every non-school hour. “I think of Lynne often,” he confides. “She would be proud of what her idea is becoming.”
Today, you might call it an encyclopedic study. And nobody who has played a part in the Spud story, no matter how large or small, will be forgotten.
“The production house with which we’re working has figured out a way to publish every single name of every single Spud of the past 150 years,” he reveals. “In the end, home is where your story is. There’s something special about Moorhead.”