May 25, 2020

FTV: Old Schools

     Back during the 1966-67 school year, my eighth grade study hall would meet in the Kaufman Auditorium at Marquette’s Graveraet Junior High.  With the plush velvet curtains covering the windows and stage, it always seemed a bit dark, but if one didn’t have enough homework to keep them busy, there were a lot of interesting architectural features in the room to make the time pass.  The theater seats were much more comfortable than the more conventional desks that would be found in a classroom type study hall.  Tight shoes were the rage so everyone seemed to have a shoehorn in their back pocket and if one was really bored, one could use one to take the screws out of the seat in front of you (just as long as you put them back and didn’t get caught).  It wasn’t at all uncommon to see someone snoozing if they had slumped down and put their head back.  The building seemed so old that we joked that the cornerstone may have said 1926, but surely they meant 1726.  The joint must surely have been built before the American Revolutionary War.  When you are thirteen, ‘old’ is a very relative term because at that age, everything older than you seems really old.  It makes me chuckle today because the truth of the matter is, Graveraet was all of forty years old when I was in eighth grade.

     When I was in school, I had a hard enough time remembering how to spell Graveraet let alone know anything about its history.  When the Village of Ontonagon began taking steps to gain title to the old Ontonagon High School turned JH/Elementary School building, I started to think about the history of public school buildings in general and, more specifically, the public schools I attended.  Sitting on my bookshelf is my go to source for Upper Peninsula and Marquette historical events, the late Fred Rydholm’s two volume set, Superior Heartland – A Backwoods History (Privately Published by C. Fred Rydholm – 1989) (Author’s Note:  The Ontonagon Township Library has a reference copy of this set available for use but it can not be checked out).  

     Each volume of Fred’s book is broken up into two sections and the two volume set clocks in at over 1500 pages.  With that said, since receiving mine as a Christmas present from my parents in 1989, I have read all four ‘books’ that make up Volumes I and II in their entirety – twice.  Fortunately, Fred wrote Superior Heartland so the stories make sense even if one simply opens it at random and reads a chapter here and there.  This isn’t a big surprise because when Fred told stories in person, they always contained enough information to connect all the threads necessary for them to make sense, at least by the time he tied up all the loose ends at the end of the story.

     The story of Graveraet began with Marquette native and nationally known financial wizard Samual Kaufman.  Kaufman was serving on the Marquette Public School Board in the 1920s.  At that time, the plan was to close the Ely School on Bluff Street (a building constructed of Jacobsville Sandstone from the quarry of the same name near the south Portage Canal entry on Keweenaw Bay) and to move the 7th and 8th grade students to the 25 year old Howard School on Pine Street (today, the site of a current low income high rise apartment building).  Kaufman purchased the building site on Front Street between Ohio and Hewitt Streets and donated the property for the new school.  His only request was that the new school be named after his mother, Juliet Graveraet.  The class of 1927 was supposed to be the first graduating class and even had their names included with other memorabilia in the cornerstone.  Construction took longer than expected making the class of 1928 the first graduating class.  None-the-less, Kauffman still treated the classes of ‘27, ‘28, and ‘29 to a grand party at his Granot Loma Lodge (located on the Lake Superior shoreline between Marquette and Big Bay) to celebrate the school’s opening.

     The property on the corner of Hewitt and Front was owned by Mrs. Sidney Adams.  This was a residential area and all the homes had to be moved before construction could begin.  Mrs. Adams agreed to sell her property for the school, but only if the gymnasium that was to be located in that part of the school was named for her husband.  When I had PE or played dodgeball in the gym during my JH years, I never gave it a thought.  The engraving over the Front Street entrance did say “Sidney Adams Gymnasium” but no one ever used that entrance or name.  For us, it was just ‘the gym’ and none of us had any idea who Sidney Adams was or why the gym bore his name.

     The Superintendent of Schools at the time the school was built was Willard Whitman, the namesake of my former elementary school (now owned by NMU and called Whitman Hall).  The school that Graveraet would replace, the Howard School, served as the JH.  My brother Ron attended the Howard School in grades 7 and 8 before moving over to Graveraet High School.  When the new Marquette Senior High building was completed on Fair Avenue in 1964, his was the first senior class to graduate from that building after the 1964-65 school year.  When I entered Graveraet as a seventh grader in the fall of 1965, it was now the JH and the Howard school had been demolished to make way for the Pine Ridge Apartments.  Howard was kind of a scary looking building because it had fire escapes that resembled the tube slides at the Chutes and Ladders park in Houghton.  Ron’s stories of how fun it was to slide down these tubes during fire drills were tempered by the fact that one didn’t want too much space between them and the person who slid down ahead of them.  Apparently the tricksters would close the outer doors and laugh it up when the next unsuspecting evacuee would hit the crash doors only to find someone on the outside holding the doors shut with their foot.  Of course they were warned that there were consequences for doing such a dangerous stunt, but it happened from time to time just the same.

     My neighbor two houses up the street on Norway Avenue was a history teacher at Graveraet before the move to the new high school.  I remember attending a Redman basketball game at Graveraet with the Bowers family when he still taught there.  For some reason, once JH began, I never gave much thought to the fact that Graveraet had only recently been the high school.  At that age, we just assumed that it had always been the JH even though there was plenty of evidence that it had, up until more recent times, been the high school.  One of the first things that struck me when I came to interview for my teaching job in Ontonagon was the similarity between the three story part of the Elementary-JH building and Graveraet.  Graveraet was at least three times as large as the old Ontonagon High School building including a wing opposite Kaufman Auditorium that housed the Industrial Education classrooms on the first floor.   History and Science classrooms occupied the second and third floors.  The original Ontonagon High School was actually a decade older than Graveraet, but the building plan was very similar, right down to the type of flooring and the design of the stairwells.  I felt right at home the moment I toured the building with then Elementary-JH Principal Jim Ollila but it took me a few years to learn more about the history of the OASD buildings.

     The new Marquette Senior High building on Fair Street was a short block from Whitman Elementary (and two whole blocks from my house) so I got to know a lot about the place before touching down as a student.  The first year it was open (1964-65), we were marched over to the gym one morning to get our polio vaccine, which they delivered to us via sugar cubes with a drop of pink liquid on them.  My sixth grade also class spent a Saturday morning in the double-size classroom where my Government class would meet in my senior year.  Our grade was involved in the implementation of the ‘New Math’ curriculum so Mr. Arnsen used us to demonstrate it to a host of teachers assembled for a conference.  Mr. A put us through our paces that day and not one of us complained about having to go to school on a Saturday.  In fact, we felt kind of proud that we got to see the inside of the new high school three years before we would arrive as students.  

     One of the unique things about the MSHS building is the planetarium built on the southside near the band room.  The school ended up costing more than had been budgeted, so the administration approached the Shiras Family Foundation about financing a swimming pool.  The outdoor pool near Presque Isle Park already bore the Shiras family name, so they suggested something that not every school had:  a planetarium.  My third visit to the MSHS building was on another walking field trip that our sixth grade class took to visit the Shiras Planetarium.  It was an eye-popping, jaw dropping experience for me (one I would find myself repeating in years to come).  

     The first planetarium director, Mr. Girard, lived a couple of blocks from the school and when we discovered he did a lot of the program preparation work on Saturdays and during summer vacation, we made it a point to wander by and ask if we could look around.  He was always gracious and welcomed us in, but when it was time for us little doggies to move along, he always thanked us for coming as he herded us to the door.  It made enough of an impression on me that I managed to take my Geography/Earth Science classes there for 40 of my 43 years teaching in Ontonagon.  I didn’t start the trips until my third year in Ontonagon and I missed my last year due to a construction project that kept the planetarium closed most of 2017 and 2018.  Many schools took field trips to the planetarium, but I am willing to bet that very few traveled 120 miles one way for 40 years to match our travels.

     Another unique feature of the MSHS building was the courtyard.  The main section of the building was constructed around a large, open court with sidewalks and trees.  All the interior rooms on both floors had windows that faced ‘outdoors’.  It was a neat feature, but to this day, I have never set foot in this area of the school and can only remember a handful of times I ever saw students in that area.  We did speculate whether or not the doors that faced this area would be locked.  Does one need to lock a door that does not face ‘out’ of the building?

     By the time I was a senior in 1970-71, ground had been broken on a new addition to the Marquette High building.  Ironically, we got to live with the mess for that year, but never got to see  the whole finished product.  When I spent three days shadowing teachers for an Intro to Education class during my sophomore year at NMU, I only got to see a couple of the new class rooms.  I actually got to explore more of the new wing sometime in the 1990s when the annual Math and Science Conference had to be held at MSHS due to a construction project on the NMU campus (where it traditionally took place).  I could have been a little miffed to find out that this new wing held the long awaited swimming pool, but with my dad working at NMU in my first years of high school, we had access to the college pool at Hedgecock Fieldhouse.  Even after my dad left the university, we kept using the Fieldhouse and pool by simply walking in and acting like we owned the place.  The only time a life guard asked me why I was there, I told him my dad worked for NMU security and that was that.  I kind of liked having my own YMCA-like facility available before there actually was a YMCA in Marquette.  During my high school years, we spent a lot of time playing ball (occasionally with the members of the NMU squad who spent part of Christmas break on campus) and swimming at Hedgecock. 

     By the time I did my student teaching in the spring of 1975, Marquette had another new school in south Marquette, Bothwell Middle School.  This large octagonal building was based on a new trend at the time called ‘Open Classrooms’.  The area where I did my student teaching was a large open area  designed for 120 students and four instructors.  Movable partitions separated the ‘class’ areas and the teachers were free to schedule their four hour class day anyway they wished.  My one ‘survey class’ was chess and we met in one of the two open clusters that were not in use.  To say the sixteen kids in chess had plenty of elbow room would be a gross understatement.  There is another FTV article idea floating out there:  trying to explain the whole ‘Open Classroom’ concept, but that will have to be another story for another day.  

     Let me just say that after spending a semester in this environment, I was more than happy to find myself teaching in Ontonagon and in a building that bore more of a resemblance to my old Junior High, Graveraet!  I am happy that the Village of Ontonagon has started the process of preserving the old Ontonagon JH/Elementary building for future reuse.  They just don’t build them like that any more and it would have been a shame to see it deteriorate.  To let it rot and then be razed like the grand old Houghton High building would be a shame.

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