Flora School Days

<I>Photo by Elane Dickenson</I><BR>Larry Waters gives Kathryn Iverson and Doug Roberts a ride in his unusual mule-drawn farm buggy while during Flora School Days on Saturday. The old school, built in 1915, sports a new roof and paint job, the result of an ongoing restoration effort by the nonprofit Flora School Educaton Center.

Historic school comes alive for summer SaturdayThe old Flora School once again became the center of community life in its North End town during a pleasant summery Saturday last week.

It was hot, but not too hot to enjoy a day in Flora, 37 miles north of Enterprise.

Although showing its age, with a long way to go in an ongoing restoration process, the two-story structure hospitably opened its door to musicians, artists, artisans and storytellers.

Over 100 people from several states and as far away as Holland came in a steady stream throughout the day, leisurely touring the school and the streets of the once-booming town of Flora.

"This is great," said one young couple, who were exploring the school with their two young children. The kids scrambled onto the stage of the auditorium, while their parents explained that they were making one of their regular trips from California. "We own some land up here," they said. Later the family could be seen taking a buckboard ride and sampling some Dutch oven goodies.

"You ought to have tasted the prime rib and beans," said John McQuown of Joseph as he cut off some Cornish game hen he baked in cast iron covered with hot charcoal.

McQuown, normally seen working in the produce department at Safeway, was a Dutch oven cook-off winner in Hermiston last year and enjoys sharing the delicious food he produces.

Across the schoolyard, Vanessa Thompson - who with husband Dan purchased the old school house in 1992 - was taking some hot cobbler out of an old Monarch cook stove. The cobbler was soon devoured warm, topped with ice cream, at the pie social table inside.

The Flora School, built in 1915, was once filled with students, but saw its last one - Ben Curry of Joseph - in 1975. His older brother, Jeff Curry, still lives in Flora, and was demonstrating leather craft in one of the upstairs classrooms.

The school sat vacant for many years, until the Thompsons came along. Then living in Umatilla County, the couple heard there was a schoolhouse for sale and came over with their two children to see it.

"I had always wanted a one-room schoolhouse for my weaving/folk art studio," Vanessa said. With four classrooms downstairs and two more, plus the auditorium, upstairs, Flora's school was much larger than she'd ever envisioned.

"We were fascinated by it. So were the kids," she recalled.

Life is full of surprises, they found. When they sent in their bid to the North End Grange to buy the building, Jane Curry (Jeff's wife) recognized Vanessa's writing. "We went to college together. I hadn't seen her in 14 years," Thompson said. "That was a wonderful thing, too."

The Thompsons were the successful bidders for the school. For the first five years they owned the building the Thompsons visited occasionally, and cleaned and collected historical information on the old structure, which was accepted into the National Historic Register in 1997.

Then they started a drive to restore the building to its former glory. They established the Flora School Education Center, a nonprofit organization which now owns the school, and is dedicated not only to the restoration project, but to the establishment of a center teaching such old time skills as spinning, weaving, butter churning and horse-drawn agriculture.

Hundreds of people - including many former Flora students - have supported the education center in many ways.

The school has been the recipient of a number of grants, including one to replace the roof and windows. Numerous work parties have enlisted the help of many volunteers through the years, and the work continues.

"It would have fallen down without any work," Jeff Curry said. "There was a lot of damage from the leaky roof, and there were a lot of windows out."

Curry recalls coming to school in Flora in first grade, when he was the only boy in a class of nine, and getting knocked down by a swing on his very first day. He and other Curry family members have spent many hours helping to bring the school back to life.

"I'm really pleased with it, but there's a lot left to do," Curry said.

Thompson said a new $8,000 grant recently came through and will be used to restore "the loom room" - the downstairs classroom now full of weaving looms. She hopes to plan a weaving class as early as this fall.

After making plans for years, the Thompsons have finally moved from Milton-Freewater to Flora, and will soon open a bed and breakfast on Main Street in a house that was once a dentist's and newspaper office - and more recently the home of the late Jean Curry, Jeff and Ben Curry's mother.

The Thompson's son Nathan, now grown and living with his family in Hermiston, has been over frequently to help them roof and get their new business ready for business. Back last year after a 12-month stint in Iraq with the U.S. Army, he was demonstrating whittling at School Days, enjoying the day with his two young children. "It's nice to be back," he said.

Among others helping bring back the feel of the "old days" Saturday were Dave and Tori Crawford of Halfway, former residents of Enterprise. A sculptor who's established a small foundry for his own work in Halfway, Dave demonstrated the blacksmith forge, while Tori - Vanessa's sister - showed everyone how to make felt hats.

Larry and Juanita Waters had brought their mule-team up from the Joseph area, and were also giving rides.

The old school was filled with music supplied by Mike Hale, Sara Miller and Terry Smelcer. Rich Madigan, who works with Dan Thompson at the Oregon Department of Wildlife office in Troy, and Susie Borgerding of Joseph, staffed the gift shop room, where the silent auction was also being held. Such merchandise as "Where in Hell is Flora, Oregon" baseball caps and "Ghosts from the Past" sweatshirts were offered.

Wallowa artist Gene Hayes, working in the same classroom with Jeff Curry, painted a water color of the school, which turned out to be the top bid item in the silent auction. Hayes said he would be 84 in February. "I started (producing art) when I was about 4," he said, showing a sketchbook full of Wallowa County landmarks, some of them long gone.

During the low-keyed day, visitors and demonstrators socialized, getting to know each other. There was a couple from Texas who bring their RV to Wallowa County every summer for some rest and relaxation. A woman from Holland was working on establishing a camp here for horse lovers from her country. "They want to learn to rope," she said, adding that roping calves from horseback is illegal in her country.

The day was winding down, as silent auction bid items - everything from quilts to video games - went home with new owners. The drawing of the name of the winner of the schoolhouse raffle quilt was a climatic moment, since everyone had purchased tickets. The lucky winner was Jane Whitaker of Joseph, who wasn't present at the drawing, but has no doubt since learned of her good fortune.

The day winded down slowly, as Dutch ovens and musical instruments were loaded up, and everyone headed home.

All in all, Flora School Days provide an escape into a time when the pace of life was definatly slower and entertainment was savored among friends.

It was a great way to spend a summer Saturday in Wallowa County.

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