Schoolhouse rock

Jim Stanton, center, and Harry Christensen walk down a hallway in the old Pilot Rock school house on Tuesday in Pilot Rock. Stanton went to the school as did Christensen who also work in the school later on as a janitor.

What Harry Christensen remembers most about the old Pilot Rock Public School is all the dust.

A Pilot Rock School District student from the 1930s and 1940s who returned to work as a custodian, Christensen said the campus used to be surrounded by patches of dirt.

By the time he finished sweeping the hardwood floors at the end of the day, Christensen, 88, said he had enough dust to carry it out by the gallon.

“It was a quite a school in its day,” he said.

The old schoolhouse held its last class more than 55 years ago, but it buzzed with activity again late Tuesday morning.

Christensen and other Pilot Rock Public School alumni roamed the halls and socialized as a small crew of workers was busy replacing the roof.

The revitalization effort is being led by Janelle and Brent Hampton, an Arlington, Washington, couple with local ties interested in saving a building that fell on hard times.

According to the Umatilla County Historical Society, the facility was built in 1905 as a three-room schoolhouse.

Student enrollment grew rapidly when a sawmill opened in 1939, leading the school district to build a two-room addition onto the building.

“In 1947, two of the old rooms were divided, and the old school was literally bulging, with as many as 65 students in a single room intended for 30.”

The district eventually built a new elementary school in 1948, but a steady population increase didn’t allow the district to decommission the old schoolhouse until 1962 while it continued to build additional classrooms for the new school.

Roy Golden, a local sawmill employee, bought the schoolhouse so he and his wife could run an antique shop out of the building.

An amateur breeder of gamecocks, Golden also repurposed one of the rooms as a training area for his roosters.

Highlighting the scratch marks on the walls, Golden said he attached a perch high on the wall to see which roosters could land on it.

If roosters couldn’t land on the perch by the fourth night, Golden said he would kill them.

“The name of the game is to beat the other guy,” he said. As the years went on, the school became more of a storage shed than an antique shop, and when the Hamptons inquired about the building, Golden was interested.

Janelle and Brent Hampton run a window covering company 40 miles north of Seattle, but Brent’s family has ranched in the Pilot Rock area for generations.

When an arson fire burned down a Southwest Birch Place home, Janelle said she and her husband bought the property and placed a manufactured home on it as a way of investing in the community.

The property was across the street from the schoolhouse, and Janelle was eventually able to convince Brent to acquire it as well.

Janelle has become the unofficial manager of the restoration project, and she said she’s made an effort to involve the community.

Janelle said she hired a local contractor to do the roofing job and bought food for the workers from a nearby restaurant and stores.

She’s also turned the week-long roofing project into an open house for community members.

Nonie Mathews, 88, was another Pilot Rock Public School alumna.

She brought in a chair used in the first grade classroom and a small portrait of Mt. Hood that was hung near the entrance when the school was active.

When she heard the news of the Hamptons’ project, she was elated.

“Hallelujah, it’s going to stay,” she recalled thinking.

Janelle said she wants to rechristen the building “Schoolhouse Village” and said it could be turned into a coffee shop, ale house, or a community space.

Janelle said the building mostly needs a “deep cleaning,” but it will also require some plumbing work and a new heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system before it can be reopened.

Some of those expenditures will be expensive, and Janelle wants to start a foundation to help fund the project.

In the meantime, she’s continue to look for historical artifacts from the building that have been misplaced or taken elsewhere, like the old school bell.

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Contact Antonio Sierra at asierra@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.

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