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Idaho LDS school gets a reprieve

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The Oneida Stake Academy, an LDS private school built in the late 1800s in Preston, Idaho, has been saved from the wrecking ball.

Friends of the Academy, a group of local residents and people interested in historic buildings owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on Thursday received the last pledge it needed to move the building three blocks from the campus of Preston High School to Benson Park, at the corner of Oneida and 100 East, said Necia Seamons, who has spearheaded the effort.

The announcement came in the nick of time because on June 19, the Preston School District Board of Trustees accepted a bid from a demolition company and was planning to meet the contractor in the next two weeks to discuss specifics of razing the building, said board chairman Richard Westerberg.

The academy is about 15 feet from the high school, which needs a new cafeteria and updated library. The school board wanted to tear down the academy to expand the high school, Westerberg said.

When local residents protested, the school board decided to continue with its plans to demolish the building but agreed to cease if someone else was able to seal an agreement to move the building off the high school's campus, Westerberg said.

After securing the remaining $1 million needed to move the building Thursday, Friends of the Academy reached an agreement Friday with a professional contractor who moves large buildings, Seamons said.

"This is the most significant structure in our county," Seamons said.

The Oneida Stake Academy educated LDS Church Presidents Ezra Taft Benson and Harold B. Lee — both raised in the Cache Valley in Idaho. It was built after Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, which declared children of polygamous marriages illegitimate and banned LDS Church members from certain public posts such as teaching, Seamons said.

The LDS Church constructed 35 such academies throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada in the late 1800s. The academies are considered the forerunners to the Church Educational System and seminary program, designed to provide students with both a spiritual foundation and secular training.

The Oneida Stake Academy operated until 1922 and then was used as a public school. It recently served as a satellite building for the school but has been unoccupied for the past five or six years.

Friends of the Academy continue to ask for an additional $1.5 million in donations to renovate the 6,000-square-foot building, which it hopes will be finished within the next two years. The future building will have space for receptions and art shows. The group also hopes to house the Preston Area Chamber of Commerce and serve as a sort of gateway to Franklin County.

The Pioneer Historic Byway, which leads to Yellowstone National Park, is six miles from the building's future space. Franklin County is also the site of the Bear River Massacre, one of the last conflicts between local residents, the U.S. Army and American Indians, Seamons said.

E-MAIL: lhancock@desnews.com