Grant County’s school districts boomed to a record 55 in the early 1900s, and then evolved into the current handful of districts amid economic, transportation and societal changes.

In 1982, Janice Justice tapped the files of the Oliver Historical Museum, where she was curator, to chronicle the development of Grant County’s schools.

The following history draws on excerpts from her series, which began in the April 8, 1982 issue of the Blue Mountain Eagle:

She wrote: “Prior to the 1860s, the only white men to enter the John Day country were occasional fur trappers, itinerant prospectors, lost emigrants and U.S. Army exploration parties surveying possible wagon routes.

“Settlement of what was to become Canyon City was initiated by the discovery of gold on June 8 of 1862. The first settlers were primarily adventurers who had no need for schools, consequently there were no attempts made in the direction of establishing schools for the first year.”

The research articles continue to note that early agricultural pursuits along the John Day River grew, bringing permanent settlement.

“In 1863, emigrant trains bearing the families of this group began to arrive in Grant County and these families became the nucleus of the resulting community. These family groups exerted pressure to provide an educational system.

“Grant County was organized on October 14 of 1864, and in December of that year, D.B. Rhinehart was appointed superintendent of county schools by the county court …

“Rhinehart’s first act was to organize the county into three school districts: No. 1, Canyon City; No. 2, Marysville; No. 3, John Day.”

Then, on Jan. 2, 1865, District No. 4 or Union (Prairie City) was organized.

In his first annual report to the state superintendent, Rhinehart reported the following concern:

“Our school fund, as your honor may perceive, is very limited, not being sufficient to support one fashionable Pedant for a term of three months in this isolated and expensive section. Canyon City district very wisely made an effort to levy a tax for school purposes, but the meeting was annoyed so much by the rabble that it was found impossible even to organize, and consequently adjourned sine die.”

The struggle to achieve funding for schools continued, with miners and some merchants reluctant to take on the costs. In addition, the county’s unsurveyed public lands were a stumbling block for the sale of school sections. Justice’s article notes that this problems was not remedied until 1870.

“The persistence of those in support of public education proved successful and schools were not only maintained but their number increased as agriculture and setttlement of the more remote valleys occurred in the 1870s,” she wrote.

Some schools cropped up as private ventures in the late 1800s. The series notes that “in 1867, W.S. Southworth taught a private school at Elk Creek; in 1871-72, there were 62 Grant County boys and girls enrolled in private schools. When declining population brought about the closure of the public school at Marysville, a private school was built with R.D. Williams as the instructor.

“Between 1870 and 1872, five more school districts were created and by 1877 there were 14 districts organized, in addition to the private schools.”

The progress of the school system had a major setback when the Bannock Indian War of 1878 broke out.

Schools superintendent J.W. Mack reported to the state that schools were burned out in the conflict, and “for months, nearly all the families were huddled together in forts, submitting to many inconveniences and neglect of crops, stock and school in the struggle for self-preservation.”

The newspaper series described the early schools as focal points for the communities, serving as “the community church, hosting political gatherings and more.”

They were sparsely furnished, according to descriptions of the time. In the Ritter school, a platform was built to serve as the teacher’s desk. The children sat on log seats, and logs were used over time to finish the flooring. In Silvies Valley, a dipper and wash bucket sat by a battered basin.

Rhinehart wrote: “Our school rooms are too small; not appropriately supplied with furniture and destitute of globes, maps, objects and libraries; all of which are indispensible to a high degree of instruction. They are well ventilated, however, and as comfortable as the circumstances will permit.”

Except, perhaps, in winter, when some schools had to cancel classes because they lacked a stove for warmth.

In the early 1900s, the schools grew more established, and gained an at-first controversial element: sporting competitions. A 1903 editorial noted that opinions were mixed about the benefits of competition in the education process.

Early rallies – gatherings that included contests in music and literary skills, as well as sports – paved the way for seasonal carnivals, and eventually interclass and broader sports competitions.

Justice quotes Emmet White, a noted writer on Grant County life, who recalled that:

“Many of our games were played in Southern Grant (County), usually at John Day, and we would arrive with a wagon and team, usually one with a hayrack. From Monument, this would be an all day trip, but we didn’t care, no matter how cold it got; in fact to be able to travel that far away from home was pretty big stuff at our age.”

Around that time, the schools were growing.

“The Grant County school system achieved its highest level in 1920 with a total of 55 districts. This peak of expansion coincided with the maturation of homesteading activities in Grant County; during this time it was necessary to locate schools in proximity to the students, as transportation was limited to foot or horse travel,” Justice wrote.

The leveling off of the ag boom reversed the trend for schools, as supporting so many districts became uneconomical. Annexations and reorganizations followed, and the number of districts decreased into the 1930s.

Automobiles and the improvements to the county road system furthered the trend.

“In 1940-41, there were 42 districts; in 1950-51 there were 24 districts; by 1959-60, the school districts were down to nine,” Justice wrote.

Perhaps the biggest changes in the whittling down were the consolidation of Canyon City and John Day districts, and in 1968 the consolidation of the Izee, Seneca, John Day and Grant Union districts to form Grant Administrative School District No. 3.


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