Big on small schools
DAYTON — As they recalled memories of their school days in the one- or two-room buildings once scattered across the countryside between Dayton and Amity, the storytellers related many mischievous moments.
It was as if they were once again climbing the trees beside the Pleasantdale playground, roller skating on the ground floor of Hopewell School or winning races at the multi-school field day at Grand Island, held there because its two-story building featured a steep fire-escape slide and a one-acre play field.
Now mostly retired, they laughed and teased like — well, like school children — as they shared stories about Fairview and Wheatland, Spring Valley and Unionvale, Chickenshack and Webfoot, not to mention other little schools, all long gone.
“A country school was such a rich thing, where you made especially good friends,” noted Alene Flemming Walz, who went to Fairview. Louie Finnicum, a Pleasantdale alum, added, “Everybody knew everybody. Everybody was nice to everybody.”
It’s been more than half a century since the closure of most of the county’s small grade schools. Eventually, they were consolidated into the larger Amity and Dayton districts.
But when former students get together, “It doesn’t seem like that many years have passed,” said Betty Armstrong Magers.
Magers, Finnicum and Walz were among about three dozen at the annual reunion, held July 5 in Dayton’s Courthouse Square Park.
It was billed as potentially the last reunion in the series. But they had so much fun, they decided to meet again next year to tell even more stories.
Magers recalled her seventh and eighth grade years at Wheatland. The one-story building was located on Wallace Road across from Maud Williamson Park, near the turnoff to the Wheatland Ferry.
“Mabel Magnuss was the teacher,” Magers said. “She was a doll.
“I really liked the school and the community dances. We all had fun.”
Magers has been to several of the annual small-school reunions.
She has usually attended with Austin “Bud” Fields, another former Wheatland resident and Wheatland School alum. But Fields died in November, so she came this year with his daughter.
Both women agreed he would have loved the 2014 event, especially since it drew quite a few more people than usual.
They recalled that Bud was a young boy when his mother died. While his father was working, he went to school with his older sister, Verdella Fields Speer, even though he wasn’t old enough for first grade.
He got in trouble for whistling a few times, but he was a good student, they said.
The school left a lifelong impression on him. “Bud was so proud of being the first kindergartner in Wheatland,” Magers recalled.
She and the Fields kids walked to school, as did most students in the days of the one- and two-rooms. Some had bikes and a few rode horses once in a while.
Several recalled arriving early to light the pot-bellied stoves, or staying after class to clean up. They were paid a few dollars a month for their services.
Students often returned to school for concerts and other community activities, because the buildings doubled as gathering places for area residents.
The community club pie social was a much anticipated annual event at Fairview, Helen Ojua Widmer said.
“I have good memories of Fairview,” she said. “The Valentine’s Day boxes we’d all make, the singing programs, walking a mile with my lunch pail...”
Fairview School still exists on the Lafayette-Hopewell Highway at Walnut Hill Road. See related story, below.
The building had two rooms, but when Widmer was in first- through sixth-grade, all 25 students shared one of them. Students sat at wooden desks, some singles and some doubles.
One teacher taught everyone. “She used the older ones to help the younger ones with reading,” Widmer recalled.
She said she received an excellent education at Fairview.
It provided a good foundation for her future, too. In eighth grade at Amity, she was salutatorian of her class.
Hopewell School, at the junction of Lafayette-Hopewell Highway and Hopewell Road, also served as a meeting place for the community club and the site for holiday programs, Dean Brown said.
The ground floor served as a community room.
Its concrete floor was just right for roller skating, Brown said. But one winter, he got going so fast he missed a turn and crashed into the kitchen.
Students attended classes upstairs, grades one through four in one room, grades five through eight in the other. Usually there were 16 to 20 in each room.
“On special occasions, they could open up the doors between the rooms,” Brown recalled. “We’d have morning songs together.”
At recess, he played with his best boyhood pal, Allan Polvi, or joined softball games. Sometimes, he said, students would gather at the edge of the playground, near the highway, and try to bat balls into the beds of passing trucks.
“I had some good times there,” he said
Several teachers taught at Hopewell during his eight years as a student. His favorite was Elma Carr.
Brown grew up to become a teacher and principal himself. He worked for American schools overseas in Labrador, Bermuda, the Azores and Japan before retiring and settling in La Center, Washington.
Hopewell School remained in use until the mid-1980s, as a part of the Amity district.
Students from the area now are bused to Amity Elementary School. The building has been converted into a residence.
Jules Hill also attended Hopewell. Like many of the other small school alumni, he went to several other schools as well — Grand Island and Wheatland in his case. He went on to Amity High School for two years before moving to the Oregon logging community of Detroit, where he graduated.
He maintains fond memories of all the small grade schools.
“School was fun. There was so much room to play,” he said.
Hill loved most of his teachers, as did other small school students. They fondly remember Grace Duran, Ruth Stevens, Nellie Hammer, Volera Murphy, Margie Evers and many others.
But many were intimidated by the infamous Bertha Magnuss, who was known to use a rubber hose to maintain discipline.
One fellow recalled that Bertha rode a bike to school in the morning, but often had to push it home at night. That’s because students would continually let the air out of her tires.
Hill has his own story about her.
“The kid in the seat ahead of my was wiggling. She walked up behind him, real quiet, and slapped him on one side of his head. Then she slapped the other side and said, ‘Now you’re even.’”
Teachers didn’t need to use such dramatic tactics very often back then, though. “Back in those days, if a teacher told you something, you did it,” Hill said.
Parents backed them up. “If you got into trouble at school, you would get into trouble at home, too,” he said.
Laura McFarlane Mabry went to Pleasantdale, about three miles south of Dayton on Wallace Road, near its intersection with Webfoot Road.
The school building still exists, she said, but it’s been moved. It was dismantled and reassembled as a residence in the Eola Hills.
Back when Mabry was a youngster, the Pleasantdale School had two rooms, one for grades one through four and the other for grades five through eighth.
A “great big old potbellied wood stove” headed the whole building. Students pumped their own water and went outdoors to the restrooms.
At recess, kids went outside. She and her best friends, Louise and Phyllis, played hopscotch, but some of the girls joined the boys for ball games.
“In the upper grades, we had a real good teacher who was good about sports,” she recalled. “We had a volleyball net, and in the spring, we got together with the other schools for a track meet.”
Two teachers oversaw the two rooms.
“We had a real big class, 10 kids or so in our year alone,” Mabry recalled. Some of the children walked as far as 3 1/2 to 4 miles to get there, though she and her younger brother, Jim, had just a half mile to go.
She rode a bus into Dayton for high school. That’s where she met her future husband, Jim Mabry, who had gone to grade school in Unionvale.
The couple ran Mabry Television and Mabry Electronics in McMinnville, where she now lives.
Bonnie Swan Clow and Darleen McFarlane Taskinen became friends at Pleasantdale. “I have good memories of Pleasantdale, oh, yes,” Taskinen said.
Clow remembered working with another friend, Louise Hadley, as a school janitor in fourth grade. They rode their bikes home after cleaning up.
Louie Finnicum also went to Pleasantdale for a while. She also spent some of her grade school days at the old school in Dayton — a 12-grade, three-story building that stood on what is now a ballfield at Fourth and Church streets.
“I went to the big school,” she joked as reunion attendees peered at her name tag. “That’s why you can’t read my writing.”
Really, she said, the old Dayton school was “wonderful.” She has great memories of her time there.
“The teachers loved you, and you loved them,” she said. “You were proud of your school. You didn’t do anything to make a mess.”
It was the same at Pleasantdale and the other small schools, Finnicum said, adding, “I wish schools could be like that now.”
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The original school was built across the road about 1876, a year after Thomas Cooper donated a corner of his land for educational purposes. That building was moved to the current site, then replaced with the “new” — and current — building in 1912. It was expanded in 1915 to include a second room.
Fairview School was one of many one- or two-room schools scattered across the landscape of Yamhill County in the first half of the 20th century. Some of the buildings have been torn down; others have been converted into residences or other uses, usually after being moved.
One of the few remaining at its original site, Fairview served students until 1948. After the area became part of the Amity School District, students such as Wally Wood rode a bus into Amity for their remaining school years.
The empty building now is owned by Wood, one of Cooper’s descendents.
“I’ve lived on the same place for 77 years, 100 yards from school,” said Wood, who was a third-grader when Fairview closed.
He’s married to another alum of Yamhill County’s small schools -- his wife, Mary Jo, spent some of her school years at Pleasantview School outside Newberg.
They both enjoy seeing Wood’s former school and, beside it, a towering Lebanon cedar. The tree was just a sapling when it was planted by a Fairview student long ago.