One of the oldest St. Helens residents is turning 100 this fall. You won’t find the centenarian in an assisted living center, but rather in a prominent location overlooking the historic downtown. The John Gumm school building will mark its 100th anniversary on Sunday, September 15 – the day that it first opened its doors to students a century ago, even though it wasn’t quite yet finished and required some additional exterior work. The property has been home to a schoolhouse since 1866 when the first building erected solely for school purposes was constructed in the form of a little log building. It was replaced in 1881 with a 30x60 ft. frame structure that sat where the current school sits today. The first school bearing the name John Gumm was built in 1902, with a major addition and remodel in 1911. This school stood until a devastating fire swept through the building in September 1918.
The current building was mostly complete when the school year started in September 1919. The St. Helens Mist reported, “The new building, which will provide ideal working conditions, should prove an incentive for the scholar and the very best effort is expected.” A short time later a marble slab was affixed near the entryway, engraved with the name of the school and the school board members, architects and contractors. Local citizens caused an uproar and demanded the slab be removed, stating that it should be a memorial to the benefactor only and not free advertising. Apparently, their cries went largely unheard because the slab remains today.
The school was named for John Gum, an early and well-liked resident of St. Helens and Columbia City. When he died in January 1883 in his early 50’s without children of his own, he left his estate to the school children of St. Helens and Columbia City. Each school district received over $1,000 and was able to eventually build a school due to Mr. Gum’s generosity. When a headstone was erected in his honor high on the hill overlooking St. Helens, it mistakenly bore the spelling “Gumm.” The name stuck like the gum under the school’s desks and even though the building no longer bears the name, there are still references to John Gumm, including John Gumm Way on the site of what was once the school’s athletic field.
When he was 87 years old, William Colt recalled: “I attended John Gumm School from 1920-1927. I remember the first day of school when the present John Gumm school building first opened its doors. I was in the 1st grade… The grade school was downstairs, and the high school was upstairs. There was no library, no gym, and no cafeteria. Most of the students went home for lunch. As I remember, there were around 25 to 30 students in each class.” The school eventually served thousands of students from kindergarten through twelfth grade in the 80 years that it served local children. It closed its doors in December 1999 and its students were shifted to temporary arrangements at the Junior High School until Lewis and Clark Elementary opened. Before closing it was featured in Disney’s Halloweentown.
Former student Flora Carter Holston summed up her feelings, and likely those of many others, when she wrote, “As I think back on my childhood, I know that John Gumm Elementary School became my guardian each day. The lessons taught in this school have guided me for sixty years. Here was a place to learn, set goals, work hard, play, and be a part of a child’s community… Friendships were made on the way to and from school. No one rode in a car. We all just walked, in good or bad weather. The lessons taught in this school have guided me for most of my life. I found the joy of learning, understand the value of friendship, and know that hard work has rewards. It is an honor to have attended this school, and a pleasure to know that it continues to be a centerpiece of St. Helens.”
It would be a chore to attend any community function and to not run into someone that attended John Gumm, and if they didn’t, it’s likely that a parent or grandparent did. It remains a familiar and welcome site to all who visit downtown St. Helens. The Columbia County Museum Association will host a tour of the building from 4-5 p.m. on the afternoon of Thursday, September 19. That evening, cake will be served at the Columbia Learning Center in the hallway outside the St. Helens Public Library and at 7 p.m. a “Show and Tell” presentation will be hosted in the auditorium. Museum volunteers will share stories and photographs of the school’s history and invite community members to do the same. If you have memorabilia or photographs of the school, including class pictures, you are encouraged to bring them. Former students, teachers and staff are especially encouraged to attend and share their memories.