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Congress may help save Oneida academy

Funds needed to preserve the old LDS school

PRESTON, Idaho — After a nail-biting, last-minute reprieve saved the old Oneida Stake Academy building from the wrecking ball last month, Congress is looking to do its share to help residents of this rural Idaho town preserve a part of their heritage.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, told scores of residents, politicians and community leaders gathered here Monday morning that a $300,000 appropriation to help preserve the academy has been included in HR2861, which was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday.

Simpson, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said the money "is not a done deal yet, it still has to go through conference committee." But Simpson said he "feel(s) very confident that by the first of October, there will be an appropriation in there for $300,000."

He praised community activists who have worked — along with Logan architect Joseph Linton and the Salt Lake City-based Mormon Historic Sites Foundation — to save the academy building when many doubted their ability to raise the required funding to relocate it. "It's so much easier to sell (such an appropriation) to my colleagues as something worth doing when they can see the effort the community has put forth to make this happen."

Preservationists have raised the $1.2 million needed to move the building from its present location — including a $250,000 donation from Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller and his wife, Gail, who has ties to the Franklin County area. Other major donations came in at the last minute from unnamed sources, even as the local school board was negotiating with contractors for demolition. Another $1.5 million needs to be raised to restore the building for future use, according to Preston resident Necia Seamons, who has helped spearhead the preservation effort.

While nothing has yet been decided on who will actually take ownership of the building, Kim Wilson of the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation said discussions are under way with a Preston attorney to hammer out the details. A private foundation is being considered. Some residents have voiced concern that once the building is renovated, public funds will be used to maintain and preserve it.

Several uses are being considered for the interior space, including a museum and tourism office on the lower levels, and the restoration of the large open ballroom on the second level to host weddings, small conventions, reunions and other community functions.

Built from 1890-94 by German immigrant John Nuffer at a cost of between $20,000 and $40,000, the academy sits on property that is now within just a few feet of Preston High School, which needs the space the building now occupies for expansion. The academy was one of the premiere primary and secondary schools in the northern Utah-southern Idaho area for several decades. Two past presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — Harold B. Lee and Ezra Taft Benson — were educated there, along with two Medal of Honor recipients who were mentioned at Monday's ceremony.

Years of decline have rendered the building useless in its present state, and the local school district has postponed needed expansion of the adjacent high school for more than a year in order to give preservationists time to raise the funds to relocate the building, rather than simply tearing it down.

Those who addressed the crowd during the Monday morning groundbreaking ceremony in Benson Park spoke lovingly of their pioneer forebears, who sacrificed time, talent and money to build the academy. Though no firm dates have yet been set, in the next few weeks contractors will cut the building off its original foundation and shift it onto huge rollers, which will inch their way two blocks north and a block west to Benson Park.

Leaders of the LDS Church donated part of the park — named after former LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson — as a place for relocation of the academy, and the "footprint" of the building was marked off with rope and stakes on Monday to show where it will soon come to rest. Early church leaders encouraged outlying communities to erect such academies to educate their children in both spiritual and secular studies.

The academy was one of several schools built by early members of the LDS Church and is believed to be the oldest of 35 such academies built between 1888 and 1909 at scattered locations around Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, Mexico and Canada. The academies were forerunners to the LDS Church Educational System and seminary program. Oneida was first dedicated 108 years ago on Monday by LDS apostle Moses Thatcher.