For the 240 students of Wilkeson Elementary School, history is everywhere.
It’s buried in the cemetery on the main road into the small town, which bills itself as the gateway to Mount Rainier’s Carbon Glacier. It’s preserved in the blue Russian-style onion dome that tops a church built by long-ago immigrants from Eastern Europe.
And it stands sentinel in the solid sandstone walls of the school itself, which is celebrating its 100th birthday this year.
On Friday, kids, teachers and parents got a close-up look at the origin of their landmark school building when they took a tour of the Wilkeson Sandstone Quarry. The solid stone known for its variable coloring has been unearthed just outside the town since 1886.
Today, the quarry is owned by retired airline pilot Chuck Nelson. He led Wilkeson kids on a tour of discovery, helping them learn about local history and geology as they hiked the quarry paths.
“It was so cool, seeing how much sandstone there was in that big old mountain,” said fifth-grader Jessica Rennaker. “I didn’t know what it would be like.”
Teachers noted that even many adults in town have never visited the quarry, which has produced stone used in building projects far and wide. Wilkeson sandstone forms the Capitol building in Olympia and, more recently, the stone has been used in buildings on the campus of the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.
Students got a chance to do some mental math as they learned that sandstone weighs about 150 pounds per cubic foot. Nelson explained that the cost of the stone varies, depending on its quality and characteristics, up to $900 a ton. And busloads of students and teachers gathered on the quarry’s truck scale to see how much they collectively weigh. One group weighed 4,060 pounds, while a second topped the scales at 5,080 pounds.
“This is my favorite thing I’ve ever been able to do in Wilkeson,” said teacher Shauna Perez. “I’m so grateful to Mr. Nelson for letting us come.”
On the ride to the quarry, Perez inserted some history lessons about Wilkeson’s once-thriving coal industry. The town, which now has a population almost 500, was once home to about 3,000, thanks to coal mining in the area. Still visible are the ovens once used to process coal into coke, which was sent by rail to Tacoma for use in industry.
Back at school, kids painted sandstone chips in black and red, so they could learn to play checkers, a popular game in 1913. They also learned how to shoot marbles and learned about other facts of daily life for kids in the early 1900s.
One example: Kids walked home for lunch, back in the day, then walked back to school afterward.
Community elders who attended the school talked to students about what life was like when they attended Wilkeson Elementary. And kids also got to look at artifacts provided by Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry.
Principal Nick Hedman said that Friday’s day of living history will provide teachers experiences they can help students draw on throughout the school year.
“We’re trying to help kids make connections with the past,” he said.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635