Montavilla School, Part I: The Not-So-Gay ‘90s

By PATRICIA SANDERS

Writers note: When I began researching Montavilla’s first public school, I was unprepared for the extent of press coverage for what was initially a small suburban school. I decided that to give this institution its due, more than one article would be required. Here is the first installment.

I don’t know why we talk about the “Gay ‘90s”. If I look at the then-new community of Mount Tabor Villa (soon renamed Montavilla), it seems to me these years were anything but gay. For more than half those years, the United States was experiencing its worst depression ever.

Beginning with the Panic of 1893, it became known as the Great Depression. Fortunately, the push for a Mount Tabor Villa School got going in 1891 and 1892, but the ensuing years were difficult ones financially and socially.

Let me begin with the good news: the battle to create a school in Mount Tabor Villa, then we can examine the ensuing years of civic contention. I promise to end with some good news that closed out the decade of the ‘90s.

Grade School Children Posed in Classroom, with teacher standing in the back of room, Washington, D. C.
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, LC-USZ62-90211 

I can only admire those early residents of the Villa, as it was popularly called, for the determination to create their own school. When the Villa tract was established in 1889, it was incorporated into Mt Tabor School District 5. The problem was that this elementary school was so far away, on the other side of Mt Tabor, at what is now the corner of SE 60th Avenue and SE Stark Street.

This meant Villa pupils had to slog over or around Mt Tabor to get there. Besides being a long walk for the mostly very young children, imagine them doing it without sidewalks and with unpaved streets that turned into a rutted morass during our long rainy season. It’s not surprising, then, that very few Villa children attended classes.

The issue came to a head in 1891. At that time, the residents of Mt Tabor Villa had just finished building a townhall and as part of the dedication ceremonies on March 14th, they held a mass meeting about what to do next. At the top of the agenda was completing a water supply system and to considering a local primary school.

Given the need, it galled Villa residents that Mt Tabor school was planning to issue a $9,000 bond that would add rooms to their building to accommodate a growing student population. Why not build a school in the Villa instead? At the March 14th meeting, they appointed a committee to seek legal advice and look into creating a new district. Villa residents petitioned Multnomah County, which agreed to split District 5 to add a new Mt Tabor Villa School District 18.

District 18 needed to get the new school up and runny quickly. The Villa voters elected a three-member Board of Directors to do this job. Lacking a schoolhouse, the classes would open in the Villa townhall. The Board hired a principal, Joseph B. Leatherman, a teacher with some 20-years of experience, and two teachers. The doors opened to 93 children on March 14th, just one year after Villa citizens began to agitate for a school. Within weeks there were 165 pupils, so another room was converted into classroom space.

Next, the Board had to build a new schoolhouse for the coming fall term. They chose Block 8 of the Mt Tabor Villa Addition, situated between what are now SE 75th and SE 76th Avenues and between SE Ash and SE Pine Streets. 

District 18 received only $1,400 as their share of the old District 5 budget, so to pay for land and construction the Board issued bonds and levied a 15-mill (a mill is a percentage of a penny) school tax on property owners, a high tax for the time. Work began on the new schoolhouse in April and was dedicated on July 4, 1892, when 250 children processed with a 20-foot flag to the completed building. The Oregonian of July 20 proclaimed the $15,000 building “one of the handsomest schoolhouses in the county.” As the school population steadily grew, a second story was added, new classrooms were created and more teachers were employed.

In early 1893, the school was progressing well. The student body was increasing. The grounds were being improved with trees and gravel pathways. Then came the stock market crash in early May. The Board did not know how it would be able to service the $8,000 debt incurred to cover construction costs and to run the school. Soon it was paying teachers with warrants rather than cash, which eventually Villa shopkeepers wouldn’t even take at a discount. In January 1894, all six teachers agreed to continue working because of the financial condition of the country.

No doubt the depression, which was especially bad in the West, partly explain the contentiousness of school district voters during the next few years. Typically, controversies hinged on money— namely, complaints about high tax levies and allegations of the mishandling school funds. At the same time, the expanding student population increased needs, meaning hiring more teachers and improving facilities.

A particularly contentious issue concerned a new heater, since the old one did not heat the additional classrooms. The controversy began in 1895 and continued for several years. Yes, the Board probably moved too quickly to solve a real problem. The directors were criticized for not advertising for bids and, when they received three anyway, for awarding the contract to the highest bidder. Moreover, they approved an amount beyond the $1,000 limit which the Board could spend without voter approval. And, by the time the Board’s action came to voters’ attention, the contractor had received partial payment and had already begun work. 

Some residents were outraged. Factions formed. Some wanted the Board members to resign, a suggestion voted down. All parties seemed to seek legal advice. But who could afford a court battle, which might go all the way to the State Supreme Court? The contractor agreed to reduce his price by $200, but many voters balked at the still-high price tag. Then the mothers showed up in force to a meeting. They just wanted their children to be warm. All 25 women voted to accept the contractor’s offer. The issue was settled. The heater was fully installed, the children were warm, and the contractor was paid his discounted price. 

The heater issue may have been put on the back burner, but it had created factions, one pro-Board (pro-heater) and the other anti-Board (anti-heater), some to retain Principal Leatherman, some to replace him.

In 1896, a new issue riled certain voters. At a poorly-attended special district meeting in February, 1896, a 28-mill tax— the highest yet— passed by a single vote. A lower court declared the vote legal, so the 28-mill tax stood, but in 1897, the Board recommended a 10-mill tax, the lowest ever in District 18, and this was approved. Relief!

Still, factionalism persisted and new fault-lines appeared in 1897. Catholic voters south of Base Line Road (SE Stark St.) wanted their own director on the Board, but the Protestants north of Base Line did not. Rumors also spread about the Board mishandling and even possibly stealing school funds. Committees were appointed to examine the clerks’ account books. (Mysteriously, one of these books disappeared, which created another row.) Finally, the accusations were settled by a grand jury. It took testimony and examined documents, then reported in May 1898 that, while the books had been poorly kept, there was no evidence of fraud.

Adding to the economic woes of the depression years, in early November 1897, doctors diagnosed a few cases of Diphtheria in Montavilla. The school closed, reopened briefly, then closed again, costing almost a month’s class-time. Happily, all the infected children got well, but before resuming classes on November 29th, the schoolhouse was disinfected from top to bottom.

I said I’d end on a happy note and I will. In fact, there are many happy notes as the not-so-gay part of the 1890s waned. Even during the contentious years, the school population grew continuously. Children learned the 3 Rs, penmanship, geography, grammar, etc. And they had celebrations: Arbor Day in April when they planted trees and Christmas with evergreen festoons and trees.

Twice a year, at the end of the fall and spring terms, graduation ceremonies took place in Montavilla’s grand Independence Hall, which had an auditorium large enough to accommodate the scores of proud families and friends— sometimes with standing room only. Finishing the eighth grade was a big deal and only a handful graduated each term. No wonder the school celebrated with such a lavish program of music, recitations, and “important” speeches. 

By 1900, Montavilla School, as it was now usually called, had eight classrooms, all filled to capacity. The Oregonian declared it the second largest school in Multnomah County outside the City of Portland.

Things looked better economically, both in the community and in the school. By 1900, Montavilla real estate was thriving, with all houses occupied and hardly a place to rent. According to The Oregonian of August 29th, 1900, even most of the dilapidated structures had been repaired and were occupied.

School finances had improved, thanks largely to the excellent Mary Davidson, who became school clerk in 1899. She not only got the account books in order, but she also persuaded school-bond holders to accept a lower interest rate, saving the district $1,000. The school was no longer in debt and it could pay its current expenses on time.

Principal Leatherman continued at Montavilla School until 1901, when he accepted a position as principal at Lebanon (Oregon) School. Shortly before he departed, he was surprised by a number of students who came to his Mt Tabor home to bid him farewell. The Oregonian of August 7th, 1901 described Leatherman as “one of the most prominent teachers in the county”.

Joseph B. Leatherman, Principal, 1892-1901 Photo source:  Historical Oregon Newspapers
Published in The Morning Oregonian, August 7, 1901

I can’t claim that the people of Montavilla gave up their contentious ways, but they did continue to have the determination and stamina to continue fighting for more and more improvements to the community, as we have seen in past “Montavilla Memories” articles— and as we’ll see in future ones.

***

Historical story ideas? Questions about Montavilla’s past? Also share a love for neighborhood history? 

Comment on the article at the link in the heading. Or you can reach out to Pat Sanders at pat.montavilla.history@gmail.com.

Read all of the “Montavilla Memories” articles by Pat Sanders here

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