Education always has 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 Firgrove Elementary School, now located on Meridian Avenue, in about the geographic center of South Hill. The school was established in the 1890s. Firgrove has occupied two physical spots throughout the years. The first site was about a half-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 1895-1935, when the contemporary campus was started.
For three educational terms, 1908-11, 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 also was 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 also was 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 a.m., and the daily activities closed at 4 p.m. Sessions started when the teacher rang a large hand bell. The school district provided chalk to use on the blackboards and firewood for the stove. Students provided their own books, paper, pencils and slates.
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 1 1/2 miles 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. Deagan 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 take their sleds and happily slide down the hill from the school.Carl Vest, Ph.D., is the research director and founding member of the South Hill Historical Society. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.