Trio saves school site

STEPPING UP — Bob Calkins, Dale Jensen and Russell Jensen stand in the gymnasium of the East Chain Activity Center.

EAST CHAIN — Having been open for almost a century, the East Chain Elementary School brought a sense of community to the small town. When it closed, three former students decided something had to be done.

For farmers Bob Calkins, class of ’81, Dale Jensen, class of ’87, and Dale’s father Russell Jensen, class of ’55, many of their memories during their time at the school revolved around sports.

“And maybe the cheerleaders,” Russell joked.

Russell played basketball and football while Dale played basketball and Bob played football.

“You kind of had to participate in stuff, otherwise we just didn’t have the teams,” Bob said.

Opening in 1924, the school taught kindergarten through 12th grade before merging with Granada-Huntley in 1987. The building continued to be a K-6 elementary school until its closure in 2015 due to declining enrollment. Despite efforts by the community, the school’s doors were closed.

Not wanting to see the place that held so many memories for the community fall apart, Bob, Dale and Russell decided to give it new life and a new purpose, purchasing the building for $35,000 in 2016 and opening it up to the public as the East Chain Activity Center.

“The coolest thing is that it’s not a meth lab,” joked Cyndi Jensen, Dale’s wife. “There’s no weeds growing around the place. We just didn’t want it to be an eyesore for the community.”

The East Chain Activity Center now hosts events from birthday parties, youth groups, open gyms, meetings and even weddings.

“We’re trying to lessen the impact by giving people in the community a place,” said Bob.

But the Jensens and Calkins haven’t done this alone. Members from the community and former graduates have donated money as well as helped out with building upkeep, such as mowing the lawn.

Although used for different purposes, the building continues to look and feel like a school, covered maroon and gold, the former East Chain colors.

“I guess it’s nostalgia,” said Bob. “We don’t envision anything big and fancy.”

When one walks into the school, they immediately see a display case, still filled with trophies and memorabilia gained and collected throughout the years.

“I think when people come in here they like looking at them,” said Dale. “No sense throwing them away.”

To further keep the memory of the school alive, Cyndi talked about possibly starting a “Throwback Thursday,” at which people from the area can bring in their own East Chain items to be shown in the display case.

The East Chain Activity Center recently received a $7,000 grant from the Martin County Area Foundation. This will be used to buy more tables and chairs to better host weddings and large celebrations.

Cyndi said they also will pursue two more grants to help build up the activity center.

“A lot of what we want to do is money-driven,” she said. “We’ll keep trying.”

Looking to the future, there are a few ideas on the group’s minds. Dale said he would like to bring in weights so people wouldn’t have to drive to other towns to work out, while Cyndi envisions opening a coffee shop in the school office.

“We’re open to suggestions,” Cyndi said. “However the community sees fit to use this place.”

For now, the East Chain Activity Center will continue to be a place to play, meet and celebrate for the people of East Chain.

“We poured cement a few years ago and put up a basketball hoop at home and now nobody wants to use it,” Bob said with a laugh. “They just want to play here.”