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Retired business owner, Mike Sanders, is restoring the old McKay Creek schoolhouse

JOHN HUTHMACHER - Mike Sanders, a retired local business owner, is restoring the old McKay Creek schoolhouse, where numerous local students attended through the years.After acquiring the ranch property that included the old McKay Creek schoolhouse in Prineville, it didn't take Mike Sanders long to determine for whom the school bell tolled.

Sanders, 65, a retired business owner, has been restoring the tiny 30-foot-by-50-foot structure, built in 1909 or 1910, for roughly four years after purchasing the property in 2015. Restoration efforts have included top-to-bottom repairs from floor to ceiling, with the renovated school belltower replica bell currently under construction. The schoolhouse could be ready for viewing by summer's end, though Sanders sees the summer of 2023 as a more realistic date of completion.

Items still on the to-do list include the addition of two outhouses, a faux water pump and side building.

The project has become a community-oriented labor of love to Sanders and the many sponsors and volunteers who have come forward to assist in what the contributors feel is a smart investment in historical preservation.

"I didn't want the school to fall down," Sanders said. "It was a pretty rough looking building with all the siding peeling back, and I've always been somebody that likes to preserve history. It has always intrigued me."

A transplant from Springfield in the southern Willamette Valley, Sanders has amassed a very personal and sizable collection of antiques and artifacts that he proudly displays in his spacious ranch home overlooking the city. He regards each piece as invaluable, a hodgepodge of display items enshrining his family's ancestry. Prized by Sanders for its sentimental value, the collection is comprised primarily of items obtained from the estate and yard sales of Sanders' relatives, living and deceased. From musical instruments to framed newspaper headlines denoting key moments in world history, the eclectic collection connects Sanders with his past, awakening glimpses of cherished memories in much the same way the schoolhouse evokes powerful emotional responses from those with ties to it.

Rock Gerke, 74, is a lifetime resident of Prineville with strong roots in the area. A retired forest service worker, he first learned of the restoration project through his wife's uncle, Wayne Demaris, whose brothers, Ray and Royce Demaris, and sister, Fay (Gerke's mother-in-law), were students during the school's final year in 1936-37.

It was shortly after Wayne Demaris introduced Gerke to Sanders that Gerke offered to assist him in the restoration effort. His ongoing contributions have included manual labor and the provision of rare period photographs taken when the school was still operational to help guide Sanders in recreating how the schoolhouse looked at the turn of the century.

"I'm just tickled that someone who is not from this county has taken it upon himself to save this monument," Gerke said. "There are maybe half a dozen more of these schools in various stages of decay going away in Crook County, which is a crying shame. There have been people talking about taking care of them, but it just never seems to get done.

"I'm not a history buff, but I am proud of what Crook County has become. The community here, especially the older folks, would hate to lose this heritage, this piece of history."

After closing in 1937, the schoolhouse was offered as a rental property to multiple families through the years. Other uses included hosting dances, potlucks and raising bulls on the acreage.

Now 86, Wayne Demaris, a retired timber feller, believes his older brother, Ray, who died Nov. 20, 2019, at age 93, was the last survivor among those who attended the schoolhouse. Though he was never a student there himself, he still holds fond memories of time spent on the premises, both inside and out.

"In the 1940s, my family was building a house around the corner, and while they were building it, we lived in it (the schoolhouse)," Demaris said. "That was quite a deal. Then there was a family after us, their name was Ford, and they had six kids, so we had us a baseball team when we were growing up!

"What I remember mostly were the dances and potlucks there. Everybody in the neighborhood would come down for the potluck -- a lot of sawmill people and people who had ranches around here."

He recalls one particularly mischievous moment when he and neighbor Jim Jones "started a war" while hanging from the building's front porch rafters during a dance.

"We were kind of running in and out of the dance hall when they were playing music and shimmied up there," he said. "A couple of guys who were pretty well oiled came out and were shoving each other around.

"I don't know if I did it or Gene, but we took the hat off one of them and boy did he hit the other one hard! He thought he took it."

Jones, 84, lived on the schoolhouse ranch from 1938 to 1990. Like many residents who've stopped by to thank Sanders for his restoration efforts, he considers the project a service to the community.

"I hated to see it stand there year by year and go down, down, down," Jones said. "It's quite a landmark."

Though he never attended school there, Jones said he still regards the schoolhouse as a monument to his childhood, a tangible link to a life chockfull of cherished memories forged in Prineville.

"I think it's a great deal that Mike is restoring it," he said. "They're not doing that with most of these old schools, and there aren't many of us old timers left.

"A lot of people just tear these old buildings down. I'm glad Mike is doing what he is doing."

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