Traverse City Record-Eagle


November 12, 2012

From school to museum, cultural center

ELK RAPIDS — Small town school, big dreams.

Donna Sayler and Jackie Smith envision transforming the former Yuba School into a museum and cultural community center.

Built in 1860, the school served the community until it closed in 1964. The two-room school shuttered when consolidation swept rural communities and small schools nationwide were swallowed up by adjacent larger districts. Yuba School became a part of the Elk Rapids School District, which owns the building today.

Sayler will give a talk Thursday at the Elk Rapids Historical Society Museum detailing the history of the Yuba School, which during its lifetime mirrored Yuba's fluctuating population.

By the turn of the 20th century, Yuba featured a sawmill, cheese factory, two churches, Pony Express stop, woolen mill and post office. The number of students drawn from surrounding farmsteads prompted a school expansion to two rooms, an unusual size for a village school.

"The white settlers, beyond survival, their two main priorities were educating their children and a church where they could worship," said Sayler, president of the Yuba Historical Society. "Now Yuba is a very small community."

The Yuba school building, situated at the corner of U.S.-131 and Yuba Road, is sturdy and well-preserved, with hardwood floors, original windows, downstairs lunchroom and chalkboards still intact. The school is also unusual in that each room has a full basement underneath.

"In 1901, an addition was built so that makes it a significant school, as most of them were one-room schools," said Sayler, whose husband, Richard, attended kindergarten there during the school's final year. "It was built to survive; it's as solid as can be."

Smith attended the Yuba School during the 1940s — a younger student, she was in the "little room" — and remembers one teacher managing multiple grades at a time.

"We'd study or do penmanship while she was teaching other grades," said Smith.

The basics of reading, writing and arithmetic formed the foundation of each day. During recess, girls would play jacks or jump rope while boys would play baseball.

"Our biggest thing was baseball, we had the Yuba School Indian baseball team," Smith said.

The Elk Rapids Historical Society is hosting Sayler's talk, giving the newer Yuba organization a chance to share information about their goals and accomplishments.

"They're the newest one and we always try to give a nonprofit historical organization a chance to tell us what's going on in their group," said Dan LeBlond, president of the Elk Rapids Area Historical Society.

The effort to preserve the Yuba School began shortly after it closed when the Yuba Women's Club received a lease to use the building. The group is still going strong to help preserve and renovate the school, aided now by the Yuba Historical Society. The society formed in response to a series of successful school reunions organized by Smith.

"When I retired, I wondered over the years what had happened to the kids I went to school with, so I wrote a list and began looking up phone numbers and addresses," said Smith, whose efforts in 2006 launched an annual tradition that draws former students to the school from around the country.

In addition to making the Yuba School a museum with exhibits, the Yuba Historical Society envisions offering programs there about school life 100 years ago.

"We have a curriculum started and retired teachers who want to help us," said Sayler. "We have a strong sense of urgency to get this building renovated so that people can enjoy it."

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