More than 40 years ago, Pat Drake started teaching at Firgrove Elementary School in South Hill.
At the time, the school at 13918 Meridian E. was smack in the middle of a rural community. Drake, a member of the South Hill Historical Society, said it wouldn’t be uncommon to have a goat peek its head in the window during class.
“The principal would say to the vice principal, ‘Get the goat rope, there’s a goat looking in Mrs. Drake’s room again,” Drake remembered. “Another announcement would be, ‘Recess is going to be late today until the vice principal rounds up the cattle and sends them home.’"
The memory is one of many for Drake, who taught at the school between 1974 and 1993. And she’s not alone.
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Former Firgrove teachers and students have come together to save the brick building that was built in 1935. The building could be demolished as the Puyallup School District begins construction on the Firgrove Replacement Project, which was passed in the district's 2015 bond measure.
A "Save the School" committee was formed by volunteers in 2009 to help save the original Firgrove building, but now, nearly a decade later, the matter becomes more pressing with the launch of the Firgrove Replacement Project.
“This building is a treasure,” Drake said. “It’s invaluable as far as the history and it is a treasure in the fact that a community came together during the Great Depression to raise some money to build this building.”
History of Firgrove school
In 1892, John Joseph Patzner arrived in the South Hill area. In 1895, he donated land for the creation of a school, which was built east of Meridian off of 136th Street, not far from its current site. The community wanted to name the school after Patzner, but he insisted they name it Firgrove, after the surrounding trees.
In the early 1930s, as chairman of the school board, Patzner secured funds from the Public Works Administration to build a school during the Great Depression. The school became part of the Firgrove Elementary that still stands today. At the time, there were only two classrooms and an auditorium and cost $11,600 to build. Now, Firgrove has 19 classrooms.
In the 1950s, an addition was built onto the school to extend it. In 1980, a playground was installed and in 1986, the building was renovated.
Fast forward to 2015, and voters pass a bond that includes a new Firgrove Elementary School with 32 homerooms. The new building is being constructed on the property directly behind the current Firgrove school and will have capacity for 730 students, 200 more than its current capacity. The school is expected to be completed in fall 2019.
On March 30, 2018, the Puyallup School District held its groundbreaking ceremony at Firgrove.
Memories of former teachers, students
In April, former teachers and students gathered at Firgrove to share their memories of the school in interviews with The Herald.
Ed Zeiger, who was the namesake for Zeiger Elementary School and whose grandson is state Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, taught at Firgrove between 1958 and 1960. It was the best two years of his 42-year teaching career, he said.
“What it really means to me is a foot in the door to become a principal… It was a lot of fun and a lot of work,” he said.
South Hill Historical Society member Bob Ballou, whose father Frank was the namesake of Puyallup’s Ballou Junior High, attended Firgrove in the 1940s. His graduating class had five students.
In first grade, South Hill Historical Society member Ira Gabrielson remembered being rushed under the school’s lunch table as the 1949 earthquake shook the Firgrove building.
And from 1944 to 1949, Katie Bennett attended Firgrove as World War II neared its end. She remembers participating in air raid drills often and playing marbles with other students behind the school.
“They gave us dog tags and they told us if we found somebody dead we would put the dog tag up between their teeth and hit their jaw so it would stay there and whoever picked them up would know who they were,” she said. “Telling a first-grader that, I’ve never forgotten that.”
Bennett’s daughter, Renee Barlow, attended Firgrove in 1965 for kindergarten. Both remember a big Maple tree at the rear of the school that’s no longer there.
Together, Bennett and Barlow held Firgrove class reunions in 2009 and 2010 with T-shirts and all. It stopped after that, but they’d like to host one again to share memories.
“I think this building should stay,” Barlow said. “It’s been an icon for South Hill for a long time... and a lot of students have passed through here and a lot of memories.”
The future of Firgrove
The members of Save Firgrove School say the most important thing to do is get the word out.
“The main thing right now is to get the community aware that the school district plans on demolishing the building as soon as the new Firgrove building is built on the rear of the property,” South Hill Historical Society President Wes Perkinson said.
Perkinson hopes getting the community involved might change the district’s plans for the building. Due to costs associated with re-purposing the building, district staff recommended either selling the brick building to any interested party to move, or demolishing the brick building and reuse the materials in the new Firgrove building. But Save Firgrove School members want to see it stay.
“The frontage of Meridian is very desirable for businesses. We really don’t need another strip mall, however,” Perkinson said. “So that’s the battle that we're kind of looking at as (the district) is looking at the value of the land. Whether we try and buy it or not, that remains to be seen.”
Members of Save our School would like to see the building turned into a community center, education center or possibly a museum.
South Hill Historical Society member Terry Maves asked the Pierce County Council for support at its March 27 meeting. Councilmember Dan Roach said at the meeting that he supports the effort and has met with the group.
“This brick building could be a legacy and it has far more value and uses other than being torn down, demolished and sold as real estate,” Maves said at the meeting. “We’re not against development, we’re not against moving ahead, but we also want to remember where we came from.”
The group will continue a search for grants and other funding to help in their effort, and is looking to get the school on the preservation list with Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. They have also started a Save Firgrove School Facebook page.