This weekend the “Little School That Could” will more than double the population of this town of 370 by calling home all Northport High School graduates since 1908.
“I don’t know where they’re going to put ‘em all,” said Mayor Ollie Mae Miller.
Some Northport grads and spouses will stay with relatives, others will bring campers and motor homes and the rest will pack into 18 motels from Colville to Trail, British Columbia.
The reunion crowd will fill the school and spread out to the Grange hall and the town’s new fire hall for dancing, dining and reminiscing. They’ll take in the races Sunday at the Northport Race Track and will pretty much be the town’s annual Labor Day parade on Monday.
Many Northport expatriates come home every year for the traditional Labor Day parade and picnic, but nothing of this magnitude has ever been attempted. Blame the class of 1955.
“We always said we’d do something really big for our 40th anniversary,” said reunion co-director Dale Broderius, 58, of Spokane.
It was the same for the junior-senior prom, said schoolmate Rosemarie Phillips, 63. Not satisfied with just any band, the class of ‘55 hired country star T. Texas Tyler.
Broderius credits Northport High with instilling a can-do attitude that helped graduates succeed in the workplace. He recalls a series of plays his class produced as fund-raisers.
When Marian Bleecker, 76, appeared in “Here Comes Charlie” in 1935, school plays were presented in the Ore Theater, now Tony’s Grocery.
Northport no longer has a theater, and Tony’s is the only grocery store left among three. Otherwise, Bleecker said, Northport hasn’t changed much.
The town had already lost its lead smelter and shrunk to its current population.
“We haven’t had any industry really since the smelter closed,” Bleecker said.
But the town had a handsome twos-tory brick schoolhouse, built in 1904, with a grade school on the first floor and the high school on the second. The high school drew students from a half-dozen other grade schools in the area and turned out its first four graduates in 1908.
The big staircase at the front of the building had a lot of significance. It was reserved for girls, while boys used the smaller one in the back. Meeting boys at the bottom of the stairs during lunch or after school was an art.
“You kind of had to make it happen that you would accidentally run into each other down there,” recalled former cheerleader Phillips.
Those stairs also were a rite of passage, she said: “There was a real sense of pride in finally being able to go up those stairs to the high school.”
It was a poignant transition for little Josephine Tyllia, who was promoted to the high school when she was 9 years old, Bleecker noted. Tyllia went down the stairs not to meet boys but to play with children her own age.
Tyllia went on to Holy Names Academy in Spokane and became a nun. Others among the dozen or so graduates Northport High turns out every year became academy-trained military officers, doctors, business executives, even authors.
Graduate Linda Lael Miller is a prolific and successful writer of romance novels. She’s doing research in England and will miss the reunion.
For those like Bleecker and Phillips who stayed home, Northport has been a great place to raise children, even though its hard-scrabble economy never ceased to demand innovation and sacrifice. Residents may be free in criticizing one another, but also are quick to pull together, Phillips said.
One of the first and finest examples was the log gymnasium that was built next to the school in 1935 with donated materials. The two-story gym was considered the largest log structure in Eastern Washington.
The building was heated at first only by two massive fireplaces. Bleecker remembers freezing in an evening gown when she gave a dedication speech as the student body president.
Addressing the crowd on that frigid November day was one of the proudest moments of her life.
It was bitterly cold in January 1963 when the community came together again to fight the fire that destroyed the gym.
“That was a tragedy,” Broderius said.
More than a symbol of community pride, the gym was used for almost every big gathering in the area.
Volunteer firefighters managed to save the scorched school. Built in 1904, the school stood until 1980.
Everyone hated to lose the old school, Phillips said, “but it’s like everything else. It costs money to restore a building.”
There’s never enough money in Northport.
Just this year, the school had to eliminate the music program that had lifted community spirits since the first Northport band marched in the Spokane Lilac Parade in 1963.
Still, Phillips said townspeople take great pride in the fact that Northport High scholars won a place in the national Odyssey of the Mind academic competition for the third time this year.
“Prosperity is a state of mind, and we have a good state of mind,” Phillips said. “We’re an optimistic community.”
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