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Old academy in Preston could face wrecking ball

Efforts are under way to raise money to move, restore it

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PRESTON, Idaho — In the remote northern end of the Cache Valley in Idaho is a piece of history that has been all but forgotten. A schoolhouse built in 1895 that helped shape the lives of two LDS Church presidents and gave shape to the Church Education System is now at risk of being demolished.

The Oneida Stake Academy was one of the original stake academies built by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the late 1800s.

"There are only a few of these academies still standing," said Fred Woods, executive director of the Mormon Historical Sites Foundation, one of the groups striving to preserve the academy.

Now the Oneida Stake Academy sits vacant. Many of the windows are broken or boarded up with plywood. A locked fence surrounds it, and additional padlocks secure the ornate wooden doors. Moss grows on the concrete moldings, and the bricks have begun to crumble, showing the building's age. Just like the Coliseum in Rome, stray cats rove through these ruins.

In the highest window of the old school, a glowing Christmas ornament dangles in one of the few unbroken windows.

The future of the building is uncertain.

The Preston School District and several preservation groups are working closely together to raise the needed money to have the academy building moved. The school district even chipped in $100,000. But Preston High School needs to expand by adding more cafeteria and library space. If the 2 million-pound schoolhouse isn't moved by the time construction begins this summer, the historic building will be torn down.

"The timing is critical. We're faced with a March deadline," Woods said. "We need about a million and a half (dollars) to move the structure and another million to renovate it. Although this is expensive, it's also priceless."

As the deadline fast approaches, needed funds are falling short of the required $2.5 million. The fate of the Oneida Stake Academy will be decided March 19.

For southern Idaho and the LDS Church, the academy's history is rich.

"The need for this academy as well as others in the West grew out of anti-Mormon laws that came to a head when Congress, in 1887, passed the Edmunds Tucker Act," Woods said.

The Edmunds Tucker Act banned the teaching of LDS doctrine in public schools and prohibited church members from serving on school boards.

"It was at that time that President Wilford Woodruff sent out a circular in which he indicated a board of education should be organized in each of the stakes of the church so that religious training could be offered to the LDS youth. That's how the Oneida Stake Academy and other academies came to be."

Other academies built at the time were the Bannock Stake Academy and the Sanpete, St. George and Brigham Young academies. Those schools went on to become Brigham Young University-Idaho, Snow College, Dixie State College and BYU respectively after the church abandoned the academy system in 1922.

The Oneida academy was initially located in a Preston furniture store while the building was being constructed. A July 2, 1892, Deseret News article told the story of the Oneida Stake Academy and its role in this small Idaho town: "A generous feeling prevails in the hearts of the Saints toward the Academy, all feeling that such an institution is needed very much in which to educate the youth of the Stake in the principles of the Gospel and every branch of knowledge."

In the early years of the last century, two future presidents of the LDS Church — Harold B. Lee and Ezra Taft Benson — attended Oneida Stake Academy.

In 1916, Lee and his fellow seniors posted their class flag atop the school's flagpole. The next morning the flag was gone, taken down by the juniors, who included Benson. The flag was then shredded by the freshmen and sophomores, said Woods.

Despite the bitter class rivalry, the two men remained friends for a lifetime.

Another notable name to emerge from the academy was Samuel P. Cowley. Now known as a famous FBI agent, he was killed while trying to arrest notorious mobster "Baby Face" Nelson.

The school itself served as a model for the Church Education System. The curriculum included classes in the Old and New Testaments, life of Christ and Book of Mormon, a prelude to high school seminary that followed in 1912 and college institute in 1926. For the young men, their junior and senior years included classes in missionary preparation, a prelude to the Missionary Training Center.

By 1922, students returned to public education. The church decided not to duplicate the efforts of the public school system, said Woods. The building was then sold to the Preston School District.

The brick building remained much the same. It was used to educate students as part of the adjacent Preston High School until 1990, when the century-old building was abandoned. After 100 years, it was falling apart.

"I'm a firm believer in miracles," Woods said. "We're going to get this done because it's something that needs to get done. Our heritage is worth saving."

If enough money is raised, the building will be moved two blocks to Benson Park, where the LDS Church has donated land for it. Plans call for renovating the building and donating it to Franklin County. It would be up to the county how to use the old school, either as a museum or perhaps a community center to be used by local residents.

Donations may be sent to the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation at P.O. Box 45000, Salt Lake City, UT 84145. Call 801-322-9154 for more information.

E-mail: loganreporter@attbi.com