On the evening of May 17, 1951, Independent School students Marian Couey, Peggy Gainey and John Zimmerman received their eighth-grade diplomas during a ceremony at nearby Willamette Grange Hall. Students from the Central, Smith and Irish Bend schools were also part of the joint graduation exercises.
Couey, who would become Marian St. Clair in 1955 with marriage, lived with her family not far from the schoolhouse that sits on the corner of Fern Road and Airport Avenue.
“I lived in a farmhouse that is right across the field from Independent School,” said St. Clair, whose parents were Harold and Edith Couey. “We moved there when I was 4 years old and I went to Independent School for all of my elementary years, first through eighth.”
Two years later, in May 1953, she ended up taking part in what would be Independent School’s final graduation ceremony. Held at the schoolhouse, Couey played the processional march for the three graduates — Donna Christian, Jack Melland and Orletta Wonderly.
A month later, voters approved the consolidation of the Inavale and Independent schools. The move became official July 1, 1953, and plans were put in place to abandon the 34-year-old schoolhouse.
Couey went on to graduate from Corvallis High School and married Sam St. Clair in 1955.
Today at age 81 and living in Philomath, St. Clair is one of the few remaining living graduates from the old Independent School, which will celebrate its centennial on Saturday.
“It suited me just fine,” St. Clair said when asked about learning in the one-room classroom. “The school was kind of a get-together place. My parents were very involved and we had programs and various little things that the whole family was involved with and came with the school. It was a great little school.”
One teacher instructed the children — first-, second- and third-graders on one side the older kids on the other, St. Clair remembered.
“I think I really appreciated the things that I learned in that small school and one teacher for all eight grades,” she said. “She always had to have a lot of knowledge with a lot of things going on to be able to do that. That’s the part I look back on now and I’m really amazed that it was one woman doing all of those grades.”
The centennial celebration for the school begins at 3 p.m. Saturday and includes an open house with historical exhibits, an old-fashioned musical cake walk at 4:30 and a potluck dinner at 5:30 with a presentation of awards to follow.
St. Clair's recollections are just a few examples of the memories that former students of the Independent School have from all of those years ago. The building’s construction occurred during the summer of 1919 and was finished in time for students in the fall. According to a newspaper account, Evangeline Conner was assigned to serve as the first teacher.
Following the school’s closure, the building and land reverted to descendants of Ernest and Anna Seehafer, who had deeded 1.85 acres of land around 1918 for a school to be built. The family signed over the building to the long-established Independent Community Club in 1958.
The building served various organizations and hosted a variety of functions, but within 15 years of the ICC taking possession, activity began to dwindle.
Lee Bayles, who has a long association with the building and organization, said the ICC went through turmoil in the 1970s after Gov. Tom McCall signed a bill into law that created the state’s land-use system. An organization called the 1,000 Friends of Oregon was established.
“1,000 Friends of Oregon began to try to help keep the land from being overdeveloped and some people like my parents thought that was a great idea and other people were not so happy about it and it caused quite a division here at the ICC — such a division that things really kinda shut down and I think it was largely because of that,” Bayles said. “People who had been friends were not happy with each other.”
A former Independent School student, Bob Henderson, whose father was involved with the deed transfer in 1958, kept the ICC going in the years that followed by paying fees and making the building available for those who wanted to rent it.
But the building fell into disrepair and a couple of decades later, a reinvigorated ICC stepped in to begin a series of fixer-upper projects.
Volunteer Susie Lisser said the old building has become like a great aunt.
“You drive by her house every day and every once in a while, you stop and check on her and see how things are going and issue some orders for repairs,” she said. “For the longest time, the building was sort of an eyesore so a lot of the motivation initially was certainly, ‘can we do something about that building?’”
But also, those that lived in the area had a connection to the building.
“A lot of us came here when we had young children and we saw it as a place where we could come together with our children and give them a sense of a place that was a gathering spot for neighborhood events,” Susie Lisser said. “Rural communities kind of need that and we’re all a little bit of a recluse. ... We need each other.”
Warren Lisser, a retired carpenter, is among those who have put in a lot of hours over the years into repairs.
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“There was a bunch of us that have lived here for 30-plus years and we just got tired of driving by and seeing it fall apart,” he said.
The ICC reorganized as a tax-exempt nonprofit and a board was established in 1993. Bayles (whose surname was Houston back then) brought new life to the building through her efforts. Repairs started to happen and there was a lot of cleaning.
“I was scrubbing floors on my hands and knees and started teaching yoga classes here in 1992,” Bayles said. “People were excited about getting it going.”
Bayles, whose family moved to the area in 1965, remembers participating in several activities as a child in the schoolhouse, including Thanksgiving dinners and pie socials. Later as an adult with her own children, she remembers putting on a haunted house and the kids helping with an indoor farmers’ market — she said it’s the same one that still exists today but relocated years ago to the Benton County Fairgrounds.
In 1999, the ICC hosted a class reunion for former students. A video from that event will be screened at Saturday’s event.
“It feels like — if you want to get esoteric about it — it’s kind of like this building is a being and it’s just been crippled and so we’re starting at the bottom and going up,” Warren Lisser said.
The projects have required a lot of energy and money through the years. A neighbor to the school and an active member of the Independent community for many years, Mabel Boggs, left the ICC money in an endowment when she died in 2013.
A new heater and several other projects followed and Warren Lisser said the club has been able to maintain a bank balance in that neighborhood thanks to donations and grants that followed.
“I love working on these old buildings,” he said. “There’s a group of us that’s pretty dedicated to getting it back and looking good again.”
Work on the building has been done in waves through the decades with periods of inactivity. More recently, volunteers have been pacing themselves.
“The nice thing since this last round — it’s probably been eight or nine years — they decided to do just one thing a year and they work on it and they get it to completion and then we do another,” volunteer John Dilles said. “Before, we were trying to do everything and you burn out.”
Volunteer Anita Grunder remembers the state of the building in the early 1990s.
“Oh my gosh, this back area was like horrible — it was a whole bunch of little rooms and the floor was all saggy,” she said. “Now it’s this beautiful room with a good foundation and a good floor. The front — well, it still needs work, but the roof leaked and we fixed that and we painted it except for the front.”
The next project on the ICC’s list will be two new bathrooms — one of those handicapped-accessible — at a cost of about $20,000. Once that’s finished, the group will start to look toward fixing the front porch and bell tower.
“It’s really deteriorated and in order to do that, we had to get the power moved back here and put it underground,” Warren Lisser said, who had mentioned that the power had formerly run through the bell tower.
Dilles was among those cleaning up the building last weekend in preparation for the ceremony.
“We were hoping to be a little farther along but we’ll settle for this, it looks pretty good,” Dilles said while taking a break from cleaning windows. “When we get the bathrooms up to shape, then we can have it used by more people.”
Long-awaited work to the porch and bell tower will follow.
“Everybody’s impatient for the front porch and the bell tower to be done, but that will be last and probably one more big fundraising campaign to get that done,” Susie Lisser said. “Maybe next year, they’re thinking.”
The National Register of Historic Places added the Independent School in 2013.
Centennials represent major milestones in a way, but for Grunder, this weekend will just be another way to have fun in the old building.
“That’s what we do this for because community matters out here,” she said. “Any more, we don’t have kids in all the same schools, we don’t necessarily go to the same church, we don’t shop at the same stores. So this is the place where we can meet as a community.”