SALEM, Ore. — Carla Mundt has a passion for education and an appreciation for its roots, especially when it comes to historic Criterion Schoolhouse.
Her mother, Alice Clark, was the last teacher at the one-room school in central Oregon that closed in 1925.
It’s been difficult for Mundt and others to watch the school deteriorate at the Oregon State Fairgrounds, where it was relocated in 1976.
Up until recently, tarps haphazardly covered the leaky roof. The resulting water damage to the ceiling and walls is an eyesore. The wooden ADA ramp needs to be replaced. The cast iron bell that called students in from recess a century ago is covered with moss and lichen.
Each year, come fair time, volunteers from the Oregon Retired Educators Association (OREA), including Mundt and Carol Greeno, do what they can to make the school presentable. But it’s a job that keeps getting more difficult and more expensive.
The state owns the school. The retired teachers are just the caretakers and custodians.
Criterion was moved from Wasco County to the fairgrounds after being chosen from 50 one-room schools as part of a bicentennial project for the Oregon Department of Education. Its purpose is to serve as a tribute to the history of public education.
Greeno, who organizes the platoon of volunteers who staff the schoolhouse over the course of the 11-day state fair, asked fair officials multiple times if they could make repairs to the 105-year-old treasure.
The answer was always the same: No.
Criterion Schoolhouse isn’t a revenue-producing structure, they explained, so it’s low on the priority list for maintenance and repairs. Fairgoers can visit the schoolhouse, which sits in the northwest corner of the fairgrounds in the Green Acres Landscape Plaza, for free.
The answer angered some of the volunteers, including Steve Kenney.
“Once the state owns something, it has the responsibility to protect it,” Kenney said. “The state has abandoned its responsibility.”
Criterion does seem to be an afterthought. It’s a tiny rectangle on the 2017 fairgrounds map, but it’s not labeled like most everything else.
“I hate to make it negative right now,” Greeno said, giving fair officials credit for purchasing tarps that protected the inside from further damage.
Fair spokesman Dan Cox said the fair has a good working relationship with Greeno and the association.
“There’s a lot of respect paid to her, the organization, and their cause and concerns,” he said.
The fair recently made repairs to the ADA ramp, and a new paver walkway leading up to the school was installed by Western Interlock as a courtesy to the fair and to all those who love the historic schoolhouse.
The 40-year-old roof on the building began to fail last year and was in danger of not surviving another winter until the OREA and key allies launched a “Save the Criterion Schoolhouse” campaign in May.
A committee was formed and set a lofty goal of raising $28,000 to replace the roof and complete other improvements, including addressing the ADA accessibility issues, removing lead paint, repainting the building inside and out, refreshing the schoolhouse bell, and repairing the ceiling and flooring.
Hoping at the very least to replace the roof before the opening of the fair but running out of time, the committee borrowed $10,000 from OREA Unit 1 in Portland to make it happen.
The work was completed earlier this month. The state fair helped negotiate with the contractor for a reduced price of $7,000 instead of the original $12,000 estimate.
The rest of the renovations will be prioritized and completed as funds become available. The campaign has raised about $5,000 so far and still has to repay the loan.
The building has been gradually decaying. Volunteers found a transient living inside a few years ago, and rocks have been thrown through windows. The growing water damage from the leaky roof was noticeable by the 3,800 fairgoers who visited last year.
“It didn’t look good,” Greeno said.
She has overseen the volunteer crew for the past eight years, recruiting people from as far away as Pendleton and Klamath Falls to work at least one three-hour shift during the fair. Most are retired educators, but some are still actively teaching.
Greeno, who retired after teaching 31 years at Washington Elementary in Salem, has worked as many as 10 shifts during past fairs, but this year plans to do just three. She will be on call throughout the duration of the fair.
Many other volunteers have been dedicated stewards of Criterion Schoolhouse for years, including Mundt, a retired educator who lives in Albany. The school has a special place in her heart because of the connection to her mother, and she attended the dedication ceremony in 1976.
Alice Clark taught at Criterion for only one school year, in 1924-25, but it was where she began her teaching career. Mundt has a photo that shows her mom, then 24 years old, standing outside the schoolhouse near a swing set with her six students.
According to family lore, Clark’s mother sold a cow to pay for her to go to college in Monmouth. In those days, you could become a teacher after just one year of college.
She landed her first job in Criterion, an unincorporated community in Wasco County on U.S. Route 197 between Maupin and Madras. Children first attended classes in the one-room schoolhouse in 1912.
Clark lived with a family in a farmhouse behind the school. The farmhouse also served as the community post office. She was the teacher and janitor and even filled in as a doctor, delivering a baby for the family she lived with.
The school closed the next year, in part because the community finally had a bus that could climb the hill to Maupin.
Clark left the area, got married and settled in Klamath Falls, where she spent the rest of her career. She retired in 1967 and died later that year.
The building was used for Sunday school, for voting, and for dances. It also was used as a grange before it was shuttered in 1952. It sat vacant until it was purchased by a local rancher in 1969 and used for hay and grain storage.
The department of education began searching statewide in 1975 for an abandoned one-room schoolhouse for a bicentennial project. More than 50 were considered to be relocated to the state fairgrounds.
Among the requirements were that the school had to be donated and that it be in good enough condition to restore.
Criterion was chosen because it was typical of early schoolhouses and because it was in excellent condition, due largely to the dry climate it came from.
It was hoped to be transported to Salem in one piece but because one bridge over the Santiam River would allow just inches of leeway, the building was cut in half. Once it arrived, it was reassembled, repainted, and the roof replaced.
One of the school’s two original outhouses also made the journey.
While Criterion Schoolhouse may not produce revenue for the fair, volunteers can tell stories about the priceless nostalgia experienced as compared to a midway ride.
“There’s no attachment to a ride, no sentimental or historical value,” Kenney said. “Visitors sit there in the school during the fair in one of the desks and it brings back memories of their grandmother or mother who went to a school like this.”
Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com