Fighting Economic Depression (and Oleo!): Fast Times at Canby High

Canby Then is brought to you by Retro Revival. They are not your average antique shop. Open daily. Find them on the corner of NW Third and Grant in downtown Canby.

The decision to create the Canby Union High School District brought together a diverse patchwork of 16 distinct districts under one roof. They had names like Yost Corner, Marks Prairie, Union Hill, Meridian, Lone Elder, Mundorf, Paradise Corner.

Organizers felt it was better to consolidate resources in a regional collector school, where class sizes would top 120, than 16 much smaller and underfunded high schools scattered across the county, with graduating classes consisting of as few as a single student.

I don’t know about that. With a class that size, even I might have had a good shot of being named most likely to succeed.

Anyway. The decision to unify was made unanimously by representatives of all 16 districts at a meeting at the Methodist Episcopal Church. A new school was needed (classes were originally staged at the former Riverside school building that Canby had acquired and relocated to the corner of what is now Wait Park), but the new union district needed some time to prep for a capital campaign.

By 1927, they were ready to build. They just needed the land. The original location was in Oakley Hill, but an alternative was made possible when New Era farmer George Henry Brown, the so-called “Potato King of Clackamas County,” donated 30 acres of his family’s land to further education in Canby.

In an abundance of caution, the new district asked voters to choose between the Brown parcel or Oakley Hill, and they picked the former, by a — ahem — comfortable margin. Almost 97 percent of the 464 ballots cast sided with the potato king. It was the largest turnout at an election in Canby’s history, and easily the most decisive, and plans for a sparkling new high school building were soon underway.

It would be L-shaped, quite stately looking if I do say so myself, and “state of the art” in all respects. It was made of reinforced concrete, with eight classrooms, a study hall, a library, administrative offices, special vocation classrooms for the teaching of such subjects as cooking and sewing, a cafeteria, a science laboratory and a “farm shop.” I mean, this is Canby, after all.

The gymnasium was a roomy 3,600 square feet, boasting showers and dressing rooms for boys and girls, and was declared by the Canby Herald to “furnish ample facilities for all gymnastic and athletic work.”

The dean of Oregon State University spoke at the Feb. 3, 1928, dedication ceremony, while the Willamette University Club provided music. The school housed 150 students that first year.

The school lasted about a month before it was the victim of its first prank. Unknown parties described by the Herald as “amateur burglars” (what do they know about burgling, anyway?) broke into the high school, stole keys from the principal’s desk and proceeded to ransack the building.

The exact same prank, down to the keys being in the same location, was perpetrated nine months later, in December 1928. “The miscreants have not yet been apprehended, although suspicion still rests upon some local parties,” a reporter noted.

The crown jewel of the facility was a 600-seat auditorium, which would later seat 300 more with the addition of a balcony. It soon became a meeting place not only for students but the entire town.

One early meeting hosted a group of concerned cattlemen, who gathered to plot against their “bitter enemy.” If you guessed sheep ranchers, a la the Sheepshooters’ War we told you about a few episodes back, try again. It was actually “oleo,” which is another word for…margarine, I think?

Sponsored by the Oregon Jersey Cattle Club, the meeting was an “attempt … to show the voters how the oleo manufacturers are a detriment to the dairymen, the largest industry in Oregon. It is expected that a musical program and several vocal numbers will follow the business part of the meeting.”

Oh, songs about milk! That’s fun. … Maybe not that one. But the auditorium was a cultural center, even serving as a movie theater in the ’20s. They were silent films in those days, but included piano accompaniments and live stunts, all of which were performed by the students. The students raised the money to cover the costs as well. They even bought the piano.

One screening was of the 1922 film, “The Cradle Buster,” a five-reeler that one reviewer said had “about enough good content for three reels.” Eh. Everybody’s a critic.

The auditorium was the site of more somber meetings as well. Hundreds of residents gathered there in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash. Though far removed from the skyscrapers of Wall Street, the collapse of the New York Stock Exchange and the subsequent Great Depression touched virtually everyone in the country. Areas that relied heavily on farm income, like Canby, were particularly hard-hit.

Another meeting was held at the Canby auditorium in 1932 to discuss how to save Canby’s banking industry. It was not just talk, either. In the years that followed, actionable plans were put into place by the school and faculty to help support the unemployed members of the Canby community.

Though the sums raised were meager, in the $100 range, they were no doubt a great comfort to those who had nothing. Since jobs were even more in demand than money, faculty offered “employment of various kinds” to men in need of work, in cooperation with the local committee for the relief of unemployment.

We have many more colorful stories to tell you from the history of the Canby School District, but it will have to wait till next time, on Canby Then.

Photo courtesy the Canby Historical Society

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