This week, we are exploring how sustainable tourism offers Oregonians and visitors a chance to help protect the many prized Oregon sites through the new “Travel Oregon Forever Fund.”
When you drive down Meadowview Road, turn right on Purkerson Road, be sure to listen carefully: history’s calling at Lower Fern Ridge School. It’s where the school bell pulls students indoors just like it did 125 years ago.
“We have created a destination for people to appreciate our local history – the community is proud of our stories and we like sharing them,” noted Sue Hunton.
Sue and her husband, Tom Hunton, own the Lower Fern Ridge Schoolhouse and the nearby Camas Country Flour Mill. “Our story isn’t just about the schoolhouse, but the entire surrounding environment and our farm,” added Sue.
Their nearby mill produces grains and flours that are shipped across the country – they even have a country store that sells their products.
But three years ago the Hunton’s saw a chance to do more and tell the story of what life was like in the Willamette Valley a century ago.
Sue is a retired teacher and Tom is a second generation grain farmer. Together, they saved the schoolhouse from ruin!
The old schoolhouse was covered in brush and surrounded by trees but the Hunton’s believed the building promised a new life as a community center that would also complement their business.
“It was going to fall down – it was extremely close to completely falling apart,” said Tom Hunton.
But he saw something in the bones of the old school that was worth saving so he bought the school from a neighbor.
“If not us, I don’t know who else was going to do it,” said Tom. “We felt it was important to hold on to our history and this building symbolized that history.”
Their first challenge was moving the school: it was 3 miles away and the tractor trailer rig that was to move the school could only go three miles an hour.
“The easiest and most expedient way was to take it across our farm fields and so we did,” added Tom. “We only had to cross one county road and go under one power line and also ford a creek along the way – but we made it safe and sound.”
After that – a top to bottom renovation began – bringing a building that time forgot into the 21st century.
Sue said it was the little things in the old building (it was built in 1889) that she fell in love with. For example, Tom found a long ago note behind a wall during the rehab work that was written by a former student, Lewis Bailey. It had been left there by the young Bailey after he graduated from the 8th grade 80 years ago. It read: “When I left this school I didn’t want to go to high school and I still don’t.”
As the restoration progressed, the expenses skyrocketed and even reached a point where the Hunton’s nearly threw in the towel.
But then – the couple heard about the Travel Oregon Forever Fund. The fund provides grants that are funded by donations from individuals or businesses in support of projects that make Oregon a better place to live in and recreate. Since 2012, the Travel Oregon Forever Fund has raised more than $90,000 for projects around the state including: the new Bend Whitewater Park, a new hiking trail near Mosier in the Columbia River Gorge, a new recreation guide for the Sandy River and many more.
Travel Oregon’s Alexa Carey said that the “Schoolhouse Project’ was a perfect candidate: “We are able to preserve a phenomenal heritage site for this region and we’re able to promote agri-tourism opportunities at the same time. We now have a connection to the food, to the land and to the region and that’s what really makes it special.”
The Hunton’s are thankful for the grant that helped them to realize a dream: give the old schoolhouse a new life and the local community a place to gather and learn.
Editor’s Note: If you want to help support projects that preserve Oregon’s natural landscapes and cultural heritage for visitors and locals to enjoy, please consider helping by contributing today!