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Early Gaston residents buck tide, build high school

COURTESY PHOTO - Around the time Gastons first high school was built, the bustling town had three department stores, a grocery, a blacksmith, a hardware store, a miller, a druggist, a railroad station and more.On January 14, 1916, the people of Gaston awoke to an epic blizzard.

On an ordinary day, a snowstorm was no big deal for the people of Gaston, because nearly all lived within easy walking distance of their workplaces. But this was no ordinary storm, and this was no ordinary day. In fact, it was to be one of the most important days in Gaston history. It was the day the Governor was scheduled to dedicate Gaston High School.

Gaston was a far different city 100 years ago. It had department stores, doctors, hotels, and a train station — but not (until 1915) a high school.

The decision to build a public high school had been controversial. In fact, 100 years ago, any public high school was somewhat controversial. Many of the state's leaders, including Harvey Scott — Pacific University's first graduate and later the state's most influential newspaper editor — had long argued that free public schooling should end at the eighth grade.

Yet in 1915, Gaston voters decided to spend $8,000 to build a high school. Some things never change, however, and in the next few months, cost overruns threatened the project.

First the architect said that the building actually would cost $10,000. Then all the contractors' bids came in well over even that amount. Finally, in August 1915, Forest Grove contractor J.S. Loynes agreed to do the job for $10,000 and work began immediately. Loynes completed the job within a few months, and by New Year's Day 1916, the school was done, although not the controversy, as Loynes presented a bill for $12,000.

But on January 14, the people of Gaston were not worried about cost; they were worried that Governor James Withycombe would not be able to make it from Forest Grove in the white-out conditions. COURTESY PHOTO - In 1915, Gaston residents voted to build a public high school (pictured here at left, with the large old gym to the right) even though many state leaders thought free education should stop at eighth grade.

The school did not have a gymnasium so after braving the blizzard in "home-made sleighs of every description," according to "The Oregonian," Gaston School District patrons packed an assembly hall to listen as local songtress Goldie Peterson entertained.

Then suddenly, "the jingle of sleighbells announced the arrival of Governor Withycombe," according to the next day's "Oregonian." The Governor (uncle of Gaston resident William Withycombe and former owner of a Hillsboro-area farm) dismounted from his horse-drawn sleigh and took the stage to dedicate the building.

Little changed for the next decade as Gaston became accustomed to newly minted high school grads in their midst — and to the basketball team losing games because they lacked a gym in which to practice and play. Then in the late 1920s, two events changed forever Gaston High School's history.

First, the town voted to build a gym. Within three years, the basketball team went from laughingstock to undefeated powerhouse and would go on to establish state scoring records for decades.

That 90-year-old gym still stands, doing triple duty as a performance area, a lunchroom, and a space for physical education classes.The Bilderbacks

The other change that year was even more significant. The area around Gaston was dotted with one-room schools, each of which was its own independent school district. In 1930, several of those districts voted to pay Gaston to educate their children after eighth grade, and the Gaston Union School District was formed, eventually creating what is now the Gaston School District.

In 1980 voters approved a new gym, a step the school board hoped would lead to a new high school. But building a new school proved to be even more controversial than building the original one in 1915. Time after time voters rejected a new building. Finally, in 1987, a bond passed and the current high school was built nearby.

Destruction of the 1915 building also proved to be controversial. The low bid was $30,000, but the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves rode to the rescue and offered to demolish it for free. They tore into the building, stripping it of any materials worth selling but then left the brick and mortar sitting in a state of near collapse.

On December 2, 1989, Gaston residents gathered at the old high school, much as residents had on a brutal winter's day in 1916. There were no songs or speeches this time, just a bunch of folks with sledge hammers and work gloves. There was no snow this time, just drizzle, as the people of Gaston demolished the ruins of their once-proud high school.