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The Original Firgrove School

by Carl Vest

Education has always been important to the people of South Hill.  As the first settlers became established one of the first things they collectively undertook was to create a number of school facilities.  One place that exemplified this undertaking was the Firgrove Elementary School, now located on Meridian Avenue, in about the geographic center of South Hill.  The school was established in the 1890s.

Firgrove School has occupied two physical spots over the years.  The first site was about half of a mile northwest of its current campus.  The building was constructed on land acquired from the Northern Pacific Railroad Company in 1892 and was on present-day 136th Street, just east of that road’s intersection with Meridian Avenue.  It existed from about 1895 to 1935, when the contemporary campus was started.

For three educational terms, 1908 to 1911, Ms. Margaret Deagan was a teacher at the original Firgrove.  She has bequeathed a written record about her work and it gives an insight about the rural educational institutions of her day.  Her starting salary, for example, was $33 per month.  She earned a $3 per month raise in years two and three.  She was also the school janitor.

The original Firgrove building was a one-room school.  It had a single entrance into a vestibule where the children kept their lunch buckets, which were usually “five pound lard pails or square tobacco tins.”  It was also a place where coats and books were stored during the day.  There was a water pump in the passage and the children all drank from a single long-handled tin dipper which hung alongside a pail of fresh water.

In the classroom there were three large blackboards, one on each side of the room and one in the front.  The room was heated by a large air-tight wood burning heater, with a heavy zinc guard around the back and sides.  The guard prevented students from brushing against a hot stove.

Classes began at 9 AM and the daily activities closed at 4 PM.  Sessions were started when the teacher rang a large hand bell.  The School District provided chalk for use on the blackboards and fire wood for the stove.  Students provided their own books, paper, pencils and slates.

Ms. Deagan rode a horse to work each day.  The School District provided a shed to house it while she was occupied.  There were no automobiles on the roads during her tenure at Firgrove and the nearest house was located at Kupfer’s Corner, about one and one-half miles to the north.  In present-day terms that would be the intersection of Meridian Avenue and 112th Street (39th Avenue in the Puyallup system).

Student interaction was fondly remembered.  She didn’t recall ever having problems with students smoking, stealing, fighting, or causing negative problems.  She noted that some stayed after hours to ask questions about subject matter and that in times of severe weather, they would bring their sleds to school and happily slide down the hill from the school. 

Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.