Education in Baker County, Oregon

Baker County Schools

     Most frontier countries settle first in the lowlands, along rivers, where production is easy. But in Baker County, in 1862, the cry of "Gold" drove frantic miners to remote canyons. Homes and schools developed in land which would generally have been shunned. The beginning was unique and would have long-lasting effect on the schools.

     Traditionally pioneer schools start as "dame's schools" in a kitchen convenient to children of a family or two; grow into a community effort, perhaps in a log cabin or rough-sawed lumber cabin; mature into more polished one-room schools, and perhaps by 4x4 buildings with four rooms downstairs and four upstairs. Finally, there is accommodation for a high school.

     However, the high-school concept was little used in the early days of Oregon until Portland in 1869 and Baker in 1888 set a new pattern with the new concept.

     As families came in 1862, Miss Johanna O'Brien raised money for a subscription school, there being no viable county government at the time.
Things moved rapidly, Baker County was formed in an area extending from Washington to Nevada, and from the crest of the Blue Mountains to the Snake River; W.H. Packwood was appointed as the first County School Superintendent, with power to form school districts and to certify teachers. Packwood married Johanna O'Brien; she turned the school over to Mrs. Stafford; Packwood divided the huge territory into five sub-districts and established Auburn as the first school district. Unfortunately, Mrs. Stafford died during the first year.

     Pocahontas (2) at the base of the Elkhorn Mountains became District 2 in 1862; James (3) near the mouth of Washington Gulch became No. 3 in 1863; Wingville (4) north of James in 1864; Baker (5) in 1865; Mt. Carmel, near North Powder River No. 6.

     District numbers generally indicated the sequence of community development. Of the first ten, four districts were associated with mining: Auburn, Pocahontas, Rye Valley and Bridgeport. Four were farm centers: James, Wingville, Rock Creek and Ebell Creek. Baker and Mt. Carmel were associated with travel and commerce.

     Between 1862 and 1930, the County accounted for 108 school districts. Of those fourteen were organized in what is now Malheur County, including Rockville, Jordan, Bully Creek, Ironside, Westfall, Fighting 7, Ontario, McDermott, Jamieson, Beulah, Juntura, Malheur City and Brush. Those, of course, were transferred to Malheur County when that county was split from Baker in 1887.

     In 1901, the Panhandle was returned to Baker County. That included the land between Powder River and the crest of the Wallowas.

     Whenever they might be, schools were basic, often without curriculum, with a motley collection of text books, only minimal seating and heating, no lights, and often a limited school year.

     Many teachers were certified after graduation from high school and a month's summer study.

     School districts were established for mining, transportation, farming, lumbering and distribution. Homesteading caused settlement on some land which was marginal.

     High schools started in Baker in 1889, following the closure of the private Baker City Academy, and from 1898 to 1920, at Huntington, Halfway, Haines, Richland, Sumpter, Muddy Creek, and Hereford.

     Changing economic and social patterns caused an evolution of the schools as small ranches were no longer viable, mines played out, trucks replaced the Sumpter Valley Railroad, transportation improved so given schools could serve larger areas, war industries caused decline in the county population.

     After W.W. II, the county had many empty or small struggling districts. Baker, hard hit and with old buildings, took the lead in the state in rebuilding its schools. This writer, J. R. Evans, inherited the job of rehabilitating this old school district with its old buildings, small land base, in an area where many small districts were idle. Evans prepared a "29-year plan" to reorganize, refinance, rebuild and reinforce educational excellence, with curriculum organization under Lowell Hall, and general teacher involvement and training.


     The idea worked; other districts caught on; in the next 16 years, Baker County's 81 remaining districts were reorganized into four in Baker County and one in Union County. The core districts are: Baker, 5J; Huntington, 16J; Pine-Eagle, 61; Unity, 30J; and North Powder, 8J, of Union County.

     In order to perpetuate the identity of the various districts and to indicate where the records of the former districts may be found the new alignment of districts is recorded herein.

Baker Education Association

     The Oregon Education Association through its Baker County Division awarded Charter #117 to The Baker Education Association in recognition of Professional Achievement. Dated February 20, 1958, it was signed by Mildred M. Wharton, President of the O.E.A.; Cecil W. Posey, Executive Director of O.E.A. and Alpha Hermsen, President of the Baker County Division.

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