Before Cottage Grove became a city (1887), before Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president (1861) and before Oregon became a state (1859) there was a small school that opened in the Territory of Oregon.
The first school in the area established by settlers, and what would soon become known as Latham School, opened its doors in 1853. With the exception of when a Missouri family moved into the schoolhouse and refused to leave thus cancelling the school year, the school has been a constant presence for the past 165 years. More than 40 schools have come and gone in that time but Latham has always found a way to survive.
But the ultimate fate of the school – whether it will stay open for at least another five years or close at the end of the school year – looks bleak. A decision from the South Lane School District school board is scheduled for next Monday (Jan. 7) but based on comments from past board meetings, all indications are that this will be Latham’s last year of operation. Regardless of the decision, the school has left an indelible mark on the community since it first opened its doors all those years ago.
In 1850, Congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act. This act shaped the future of Oregon by providing free land to men who were white or, derogatorily considered, “half-breed Indians.” Single men who lived in the territory before 1850 received 320 acres while married couples who had been on the land received 640 acres of land. Married couples arriving after 1850 received 320 acres.
“Unprecedented,” said Portland State professor David A. Johnson describing the amount of land that individuals received during a 2014 talk. The talk, titled “How the Donation Land Act created the state of Oregon and influenced its history” was put on by the Oregon Historical Society. “No previous land law in the United States had granted land of this extent for free. No subsequent land law of the United States would do so, either.”
One of the beneficiaries of this deal was Henry Small. Small, who previously lived in the Brownsville area, was a recipient of donation land claim #57. Small wore a number of hats including serving as the postmaster at the Latham post office. He also had school-age children and decided to set aside some of the southern portion of his land to start a school in 1853.
Education at what was initially called the Small School would be unrecognizable as a school in today’s world. The school “year” was three months long, the only books were the ones that teachers and students brought on a day-to-day basis and lizards were routinely found in the cracks of the log cabin building that served as the school. The building featured holes in the walls as the main light sources and a fireplace, that students were responsible for keeping ablaze, at one end.
The school’s first location was just east of what is now Sweet Ln. and Hwy. 99 and near the river. Annual flooding from the river made it difficult to get to school and was the cause of death for at least one student who drowned.
In 1872, the little big school became known as Latham after a nearby railroad stop took on the name as well. The name came from Milton S. Latham who served as California’s sixth governor (he was governor for five days before resigning) and also had stints in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Changes kept coming for the school in the coming decades as the location of the school shifted a mile south in 1896 and resided on land that now houses Weyerhaeuser.
While Latham was the first school, by the late 1800s it was just one of a number of schools. In 1880 the first school was built in Cottage Grove city limits and in total, 22 different schools opened in Cottage Grove and the surrounding area before 1900. The only other school from that time that remains open is London which opened in 1872. Latham made its final location move in 1941 to the place that it sits today. Less than 10 years after the move, Cal Davis became principal and synonymous with the school.
Davis, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 88, had a similar origin story as the school he would one day work at for 33 years. While Latham was a one-room cabin during the early years, Davis was born in a cabin in Idaho. And while history books reference Latham students in the 19th century riding horses to school, Davis was riding a horse to school in Idaho in the 20th century.
“He was a country boy,” said Davis’ daughter Marcia Trujillo in a recent interview with The Sentinel. “[At Latham] he was around people he enjoyed. They were country people and he felt he was one of them.”
With a master’s degree from the University of Oregon, Davis began at Latham teaching eighth grade, driving the bus and serving as custodian for the school. In 1959, he became principal of the school that was, until 1963, still a first grade through eighth grade school. In this role Davis helped further the traditions, ideas and ideals that has helped cement the school’s identity as a small-school with a rich community.
He started Latham field days, an annual track event that brings together schools and still happens in the district. He put an emphasis on animals at school and helped with lessons that would train rats to complete mazes and shoot a ball at a hoop for a game of rat-sized basketball. He built a sound system in the gym to hold a phonograph. He set up an individualized math curriculum for each student. He designed school-themed icons – pencil, desk, etc. – and hung them up outside the school so people on I-5 would see the school. He wrote songs about the school. He set up a punching bag in the school’s basement for kids to blow off steam. He had a patriotism lesson that resulted in a group of kids designing a flag made of jelly beans, sending it to the White House and getting a response from Ronald Reagan.
“He never asked other people to do what he would not be willing to do. So if he came up with these ideas, he led them and worked at them,” said Trujillo. “And the teachers, they went along with it. I think sometimes it might have been overload but they went along with it.”
Davis was once offered the position of principal at Bohemia but declined preferring to stay working with small schools. In addition to being principal at Latham, he also served as principal for London for 10 years. Through all the work, for Davis it always came back to the students.
“I was partial to the smaller school. I think kids have a better chance to be better known,” Davis told The Register-Guard in an interview after his retirement. “It gives us an ability to develop in kids a feeling of self-worth make them feel they’re kind of important people.”
“I think he respected and admired children and remembered what it was like [to be a kid],” said Trujillo. “When you get older you think, ‘Oh my gosh, I could be 10 again.’ But when you’re 10, life’s a challenge.”
While Davis was doing all he could at Latham, he worried about the future of his school, other area schools and the district as a whole being able to stay open. Five area schools closed throughout the 60s and school budgets continued to be a challenge after Davis’ retirement.
“There were budget problems from the time I started,” said Kathy Sabin who served as Latham’s office manager for 30 years after Davis, and office manager of 25 years Joyce Owens, retired. “It seemed that if it wasn’t every year it was every few years there were budget issues… As far as closing Latham...probably the last 10 years they’ve been talking about it.”
Sabin, who sent three daughters through Latham took over for Owens and got a first-hand look at the school. In her three decades at Latham, she worked with 10 different principals and saw budget cuts play out in real time. Sabin saw drastic cuts in the hours for the librarian, nurse, counselor and custodian. The only person in the office, she picked up slack as best she could but felt the stress permeate throughout the building.
“I love that feeling of a small school but as resources keep getting cut further and further, you could almost feel a little bit of a difference just because of the stress level on everybody,” she said.
Facing the realities of limited resources, the school has been trying to preserve not only the crumbling school building that sees the kitchen flood each year but also the ideal of the Latham community. This community has been formed over generations as students and parents alike have come to the school that is now an alternative to the larger area schools while still being close to town.
That is how it was for Sabin who saw one of her daughters flourish in this smaller setting and that’s how it is for current parent Danielle Napier. Napier has two students currently enrolled at Latham and after moving to the district from Springfield, she has seen her kids flourish at this school. The class sizes at Latham are about the same as other schools around the district but it is the small school size that is valued.
“I’ve seen such a dramatic difference between the two different school settings,” said Napier. “Just the bigger school requires way too much for something that big to function. You lose that personal, individualized attention.”
When Sabin worked at Latham, the school enrolled as many as 151 students in a single year and was regularly above 120. With the combination of a recent string of behavior problems – not unlike those at the district, state and even national level but have a heightened effect in a small setting – and the constant threat of being shut down for the last decade, Latham’s enrollment numbers have dropped and are currently at 86 students.
Which leads back to the hard reality of the board’s decision.
No decision has officially been made but the numbers tell a bleak story for the future of the school. To keep the school going an estimated $775,000 would have to come out of the deferred maintenance budget for this school to cover everything from windows to a new boiler to electrical upgrades.
“I’m really sorry for what Latham has gone through. The people there are going through or may still be going through,” said Gary Mort at a Dec. 12 board meeting about the fate of the school. Adding, “I’m actually just sorry. Even if we come in in January and miraculously some angel donated $2 million to us and said, ‘Only for Latham,’ that would be amazing, but you still would have gone through all of this and suffering and horribleness which is just not okay.”
Soon a decision will be made. The school from 1853 will either remain open for at least five more years or the district will have to make a new decision on what to do with the land the school currently occupies. The school that has survived the longest looks to be the latest addition to the list of schools that have come and gone. The little big school, the oldest of them all.