For over 125 years, the Lower Fern Ridge School has stood on the outskirts of Eugene, playing the role of schoolhouse, honey house and decaying storage space. That was until Tom and Sue Hunton, owners of the Camas Country Mill, decided to give it new purpose.
Tom is a second-generation Oregon farmer, working on the same fields that his father once tilled. Sue is a retired schoolteacher who has come to love rural life in Camas County. Together, the Huntons run the Camas Country Mill, which produces grains and flour to the local community and beyond. In addition to building their milling business, the Huntons are dedicated members of the Camas community, always looking for ways to give back. Sue regularly welcomes visitors to the mill, including students from local schools and out-of-towners, giving them tours and sharing the back-to-basics farming philosophy that they live by.
For years, the Huntons had their eyes on the old deteriorating schoolhouse that sat just a few miles from their home and mill. If it ever came up for sale, we should try to do something to save it, thought Tom. Luck would have it that one night Tom was perusing Craigslist and happened upon a post for an old schoolhouse up for sale – for lumber. He quickly called up the owner and said “don’t do anything with it; I’ll come by.”
In 2013 the Huntons bought the schoolhouse and moved it to their property to begin restoration work. Their original vision was to restore it as a farm store for the mill. What they did not expect was the outpouring of community support they would receive over saving the beloved building and the endless stories and photographs from its early days that have since helped to bring the history of the schoolhouse to life.
Lewis Bailey, 93 years old and one of the last living students from the school, heard about the plans to refurbish the schoolhouse. He told Tom that on his last day of school at Lower Ridge Fern he stuck a note in the wall. “If you ever find that note, I’d like to have it back,” he requested. While giving a tour of the schoolhouse one day, Tom noticed a small piece of paper wedged into part of the wall. When he pulled it out and opened it up, there he found the message: “My name is Lewis and I don’t want to go to high school.” True to their word, the Huntons returned the note to Lewis, but also framed a copy of it to keep the story alive for future generations.
Due to the rich history that has unfolded about the old schoolhouse, the Huntons have revised their plans and are now setting it up as a meeting space and learning center for all visitors to enjoy. They are keeping as much of the restoration work as possible to the outside of the building so that the life and history inside the walls, like Lewis’s note, can stay preserved.
Bringing the schoolhouse back to life would not have been possible without support from the Huntons’ local community and the benefits received from the Travel Oregon Forever Fund, which gives visitors to Oregon a chance to turn their journey into a legacy.
Future plans for the site around the schoolhouse include a bakery, a storefront, and restoring nearby orchards and beehives to create a destination for locals and visitors to enjoy.
Interested in taking a tour of the Camas Country Mill, schoolhouse and farm? Group tours of the Mill are available on Wednesdays. Start by filling out an application here.
Interested in visiting the schoolhouse and farm? Every summer the Camas Country Mill offers farm tours, hayrides and food tastings. Check the Camas Country Facebook page for the latest schedule.