La Grande Schools and Churches, Union County, Oregon

Churches in La Grande

     After the birth of the little community which was to become the city of La Grande, one of the first interests of the people was the establishment of a church. To the Methodist group goes the honor of being the first to conduct organized religious services and these were begun in 1863 in the old store building, formerly known as the OK Grocery, in Old Town. The first minister to preside was the Reverend Doha Flynn. People of all denom­inations used this building, however, services being held for the respective groups whenever an itinerant minister of a particular faith ap­peared in La Grande. Union services and a Union Sunday School were conducted in this building also.
     The second organized group to have services in La Grande and the first to have its own church building was the Episcopal Church. Under the direction of Reverend R. D. Nevius, they began services in 1884 and 10 years later erected the first church building in La Grande on the south-east corner of Fourth and D Streets. It is interesting to note that the first service held in this building was a marriage ceremony. Miss Anna Webb became the bride of Jasper Stevens on 24 September, 1874. The building was not completed, but the principals in the wedding were pleased that the activities of the church began with such a happy event.
     Services of those of the Catholic faith were first held in 1867 at the Gangloff residence in La Grande. Father Dittman of Baker officiating. Before the erection of the first Catholic Church in the valley, at Island City in 1882, services were held in other communities, particularly in the Catherine Creek area where many French Canadians resided. The church was built through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Gangloff at Island City as it had been the understanding that the main depot of the railroad company in Grande Ronde Valley would be located there. The first Catholic Church building in La Grande was erected in 1890 and served until the present structure was erected and dedicated in 1915.
     The first people of Mormon faith canoe into Union County in the 1890's and missionaries came shortly thereafter. Before the completion of the present Mormon tabernacle in 1908 the Latter Day Saints wor­shipped at first in private homes, then in the Steward Opera House, and then in their own building, erected on the site of the present Mormon Recreation Hall. Members of this group organized in all of the other valley communities and a church house, still standing was erected at Pine Grove above Elgin. The sugar factory enterprise in the late 90s in Grande Ronde Valley was promoted by members of this group and it would undoubtedly have been most successful had there been irrigation facilities in the valley for the growing of sugar beets.
     The first meeting of the Presbyterians was held in 1877 and a church building was constructed in 1886. The present Presbyterian Church was erected in 1925. The Baptist congregation first met to organize a church in 1872, and the present building was erected in 1906. Other denominations represented in La Grande in the past and present are the Lutheran, Christian, Adventist, Nazarene and United Brethren groups.


     The proper education of their children was a matter of prime importance to the pioneers who established La Grande and the first school was organized in the late fall of 1862. Provedence  M.. Currey, a man of broad education, consented to become the teacher holding the school in his home.
     The first school presented a marked contrast with the fine education facilities offered to the children of this region today. The school was held in a cabin that stood on a hillside near what was known as the Patterson place between B and C Avenues on First Street. Desks were made of logs while boxes and split timbers served as seats. The only available text book was a First Reader that Joseph Baker father of one of the first pupils had brought with him across the plains. To teach the A-B-C's the resourceful Mr. Currey cut large letters from the headlines of some eastern Newspapers which had found their way to the west. The school was taught as a "rate school” the parents paying 10 dollars a term as tuition for the education of their children. Six students met with Mr. Currey during that year, they being Joseph Baker Jr., Ada Brown, Esther Brown, George Chase, Sarah Russell and William Russell.
     The second year of school, 1863-1864 was taught by Miss Mollie Babbington later Mrs John Wilson. School was probably held in the same log cabin used the previous year.
     The school held in the year 1864 and 1965 was taught by S. M. Grandy. Mr. J. D. Slater later a prominent attorney of La Grande recalled that there was a small school house built probably during the summer of 1864. This building constructed of rough boards battened with narrow strips of rough lumber was about 20 or 25 feet wide and 30 or 35 feet long and it was probably in this structure that Mr. Grandy held forth as schoolmaster. The building was not long used as a school but was sold after two years to A.C. Huntington who moved it to the north side of C Street where he used it for a number of years as the back part of his furniture and cabinet making shop.
     A larger schoolhouse to replace that just described was built by the Bowman brothers on the north side of B Street. This was a two-story building, the lower floor being given over to the younger students and the upper room to older pupils. Later when the lower floor of the building was used as a print slop, a thick covering of sawdust was laid on the upper floor to deaden the sound of the scholars’ feet as they minted about probably with a heavy tread in the coarse footwear of that day.  

Contributed by: Jim Reavis

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