A Man’s School is His Castle…Or However the Saying Goes

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Our town wasn’t always called Canby. In fact, it was originally known as Baker Prairie, named after Jim Baker, a colorful frontiersman known for his size and integrity (his nicknames included “Big Jim” and “Honest Jim”), and his love for the institution of marriage (it’s rumored he may have taken as many as 20 wives in his, no doubt, stress-free life).

Through circumstances no one is really quite sure about anymore, the name Baker Prairie got dropped somewhere along the way, and “Canby” wound up on the paperwork that was filed with the town’s first plat in 1870. It was a nod to General Edward Canby, a much-revered Civil War hero who was stationed in Oregon and well-known at the time, but who never actually set foot in the town that bears his name.

Whatever the name, though, as long as there have been people here, there have been schools.

The first pioneer children in the Canby area began their education in one of two log schoolhouses. The locations are no longer certain (both burned while they were still in use, over 150 years ago). But one is believed to have been located east of Canby, while the other was somewhere along the banks of the Molalla River.

The town’s first frame schoolhouse was built in 1875 by William Knight, an influential Canby pioneer who had moved to the area with his father and brothers 12 years earlier as part of the Aurora Colony migration led by Dr. William Keil.

William Knight was an early railroad agent, and also the owner/proprietor of Knight Mercantile, a downtown general store that served as the first meeting place of the Canby City Council after the town was incorporated in 1893.

Known as the “white school,” the little one-room schoolhouse was situated on land bequeathed by the Wait family in what is now a residential neighborhood on North Holly Street.

Canby School District No. 86 was established on July 9, 1887, with the simple goal of giving every child the opportunity to achieve their maximum potential — a mission that continues to this day. The curriculum was centered on the three R’s: reading, writing and ’rithmatic.

Say what you will about the current state of public transportation, but the school buses were even less reliable back then. In fact, they didn’t even exist. Instead, children walked to school (“uphill both ways,” probably), or were driven there by horse and buggy. Attendance was not mandatory, and would often plummet during planting and harvesting time, as children stayed home to help their families.

This first “in-town” public school was a four-room, two-story building on the corner of North Grant and Fourth Avenue, on land originally owned by the Oregon & California Railroad Company but later donated to the town. There’s still an elementary school there, named — appropriately enough — after William Knight.

It employed three teachers, whose combined salaries totaled $125 a month, and served children in first through eighth grades. Evidently, early childhood education was somewhat lacking in those days.

But the area was growing rapidly. A 1909 survey showed 206 school-age pupils in the district, and a merger with the Riverside and Mundorf school districts later that year certainly didn’t help matters. The unification also gave Canby its first high school class and a serious space problem.

Regarding the merger, a newspaper editorial of the time, noted: “There will probably be no opposition to the plans advanced, as there are in the three districts represented at least twenty-five or thirty students who will be deprived of a better education if something of the kind is not done unless, of course, they go to the cities at a much greater expense to themselves. With a modern high school course in Canby, they can stay home where all the boys and girls of this age should be, and get the same benefits as if in the more populous centers.”

… Well, all right then.

The old schoolhouse was sold, to a Joseph H. Sutherland for the grand sum of 405 bucks, and relocated to 390 NW Second Ave., where it served as a hotel for the next 50 years, ending its life as a nursing home in 1974.

In its place was erected a brand-new, concrete institution, whose strikingly Gothic bell tower would earn it the nickname of the “Canby Castle.” The moniker stuck, even after the bell tower was taken down a few years later.

“Large and roomy” was how the Canby Herald described the new building, which, like the TARDIS in Doctor Who, was evidently “bigger on the inside.” Seriously, reporters claimed the building was, quote, “twice as large as it looks from the outside.”

They did, however, note its “peculiar construction.” It was the work of the Brass Construction Co. and cost the district $16,457. For that sum, the Castle came complete with nine classrooms, two recreation rooms, a large fuel room, a 300-seat auditorium and offices for the principal and an assistant.

Despite the Herald’s breathless descriptions, it turned out that the Castle was pretty much exactly as large as it looked from the outside. Intended to serve grades 1 through 12, it was bursting at the seams seven years after it opened, and talk was growing of a separate, “union” high school that would also serve Macksburg, Yost Corner, Marks Prairie, Union Hill, Meridian, Barlow, Lone Elder, Mundorf, Paradise Corner, New Era and others — 16 districts in all.

We’ll tell you what happened, next time, on Canby Then.

Photo of the “Canby Castle,” courtesy the Canby Historical Society.

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