Viewing the bustling Oak Harbor High School, the two middle schools and five elementary schools, each with dozens of classrooms outfitted with technology and parking lots full of cars, it’s hard to imagine that the first Oak Harbor school consisted of just one room without electricity.
As the Oak Harbor School District recently celebrated 100 years as a consolidated district, staff had a chance to travel back in time and explore the district’s history. The discovery of the 100th anniversary offered a literal piece of history when the 1911-1912 school year transcripts were found in the vault, said Superintendent Rick Schulte. The weighty tome features handwritten grades for classes like Latin and deportment and locally famous names like Zylstra, Freund and Ely, now the names of Oak Harbor streets.
The first school in Oak Harbor was built in 1886 and was called Brann’s Camp School, said Joan Gilmore, who researched North Whidbey pioneer schools in the 1980s when she was the superintendent’s secretary. She published a book called “North Whidbey Pioneer Schools” in 1986.
Brann’s Camp School was located in a logging camp on Green Road in the Silver Lake area. In those days, children went to school only three or four months out of the year, Gilmore said.
One-room schoolhouses cropped up all over North Whidbey during the early 1900s. A total of 17 small schools were built on North Whidbey before the current schools, Gilmore said.
“In those days, people just made a school,” Gilmore said. Nothing was run by the state; land was donated by community members and built by neighbors, she added.
Most of the little schools were torn down as soon as people “could move on to something a little bit better,” Gilmore said. Central School was saved and remodeled to become the current Assembly of God Church.
Most families on the island didn’t have cars until 1914, so students faced “frightening walks” through the woods to get to school then, Gilmore said. Once, a cougar scare worried families enough that parents brought their children to school by horse and buggy or car until the scare passed, Gilmore said.
The first school bus came in 1920 courtesy of Smith Transfer, Oak Harbor Transfer and Fakkema Motors. The “bus” consisted of a freight truck with removable seats in the back, stakes on the sides and a tarp over the top. During the day, the truck hauled cattle, grain and more, leaving it smelly for the kids’ ride home, Gilmore said.
Bus drivers were often 18 years old, as were teachers. Gilmore found teacher contracts from the 1930s that didn’t allow female teachers to be married prior to 1939. The district paid teaches $630 per year in 1933 and the school board reserved the right to deduct $5 per month if the funds were not available, Gilmore said.
“Can you believe such a thing?” she added.
Teaching had unique challenges in those days. Teachers had to get to school early to start the wood stove before the students arrived and they were responsible for collecting the students’ lunch — jars of soup — and warming them on the stove. After the long walk through the woods to school, female students took off their black socks to dry by the stove, Gilmore said.
“It was just a lot of hard work,” Gilmore said.
Sometimes, students weren’t helpful, either. A favorite annual Halloween prank was for students to put a goat in the school closet.
“And the goat would eat everything in the closet and deposit the same. It was a maddening thing for administrators,” Gilmore said.
Oak Harbor High School
It was a big deal to graduate from eighth grade in the early 1900s and children were needed on the farms so the first high school wasn’t built until 1911, Gilmore said. The original building was built on the southeast corner of 700 Ave. E. and Midway Boulevard. The 10 acres of land were donated by William Izett with one condition: the land could never be used for Sunday sports, Gilmore said.
The school, which taught all grade levels, was built with thick concrete floors made with local beach sand.
“It was built entirely with local materials,” Schulte said.
The building was heated by a wood furnace and had no electrical lighting, Gilmore said.
It was also a school of firsts. This was the first school to have indoor plumbing and it housed the first hot lunch program. Typewriters were introduced, organized sports were introduced and the Associated Student Body began in 1920, followed by the “Breeze” student newspaper in 1921 and the first high school annual in 1922, Gilmore said.
Now, only the ground floor is left of the former three-story building. It was used as the maintenance office for years after the high school moved.
Memorial Stadium, built in 1944, was the first lighted baseball stadium in northwest Washington.
“That was a big deal to have lights so you could have night baseball,” Schulte said.
In 1934, the high school moved across the street to the brick building that now houses Oak Harbor Elementary School, and in 1974, the high school moved to its current location. Once an elementary school was built next to the brick high school on Midway Boulevard in 1948, all the pioneer schools were vacated, Gilmore said.
The school district seeks anyone with memories or memorabilia from the schools’ early years to share these.
“There probably are people out there whose memories we haven’t recorded,” Schulte said, adding that they’d like to record these memories.
Oak Harbor pioneer schools
Freund’s School, located near what is now downtown Oak Harbor, 1896-1902, followed by Central School, near current City Hall
Swantown School, Crosby Road, 1900-1920s
First Clover Valley School, CPO Club, late 1800s-1929
Crescent Harbor, late 1800s-1924 or 1925
First Cornet School, Northgate Terrace, 1904-1912. It was 16 by 24 feet and could hold 10 children. A larger Cornet School followed from 1912-1929
First Sandy Flats School, near Torpedo Gate, 1915-1919
Dugualla School, Dugualla Bay, 1916-1917
Watson Corner School, Monroe Landing Road, 1916-1925
Silver Lake Schools, same building used on Strawberry Point Road then moved one and one-half miles south, 1904-1925
Oak Harbor High School, southeast corner of 700 Ave. E. and Midway Boulevard, 1911-1948
Oak Harbor High School, now Oak Harbor Elementary School, 1934-present