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The Coolin School

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In the 'good old days' at Coolin School, ‘bomb scare' meant holding class on the lawn because a skunk had taken up residence under the school building, forcing the evacuation of desks, books and pupils. 

Lacking school bus transportation, a student riding on the running board of an old car jumped off in front of the school one day when the driver failed to slow down for a more decorous dismount. She landed in a mud puddle, soaking her clothing from head to toe. She wore a Santa Claus suit the whole day because it was the only dry wearing apparel available. 

More glamorously, during her tenure as a movie maker at Priest Lake in 1922 and 1923, silent film star Nell Shipman delivered her ten-year-old son Barry to the school via dogsled. Sometimes he snowshoed. Barry grew up to be rather famous himself as a screenwriter for movies and television and thus is considered the Coolin School's most notable alumnus.

Such anecdotes and many more are part of the history and lore associated with the little school at Coolin. A white, frame structure now known as the Coolin Civic Center, and under the auspices of the Coolin Civic Organization (CCO), the building dates back to 1914 when it was constructed at Sandpoint, the county seat of Bonner County. It was moved onto a parcel of state land above Coolin, on the east shore of Priest Lake, in the early 1920s.

The Bonner County School District closed the school following county-wide consolidation in the early 1950s, and the building was turned over to the community for use as a meeting place in 1961. Over time the membership of the CCO dwindled, and the expenses of maintaining the building soared. The land it sits on is leased from the State—which by 1990 had substantially raised the monthly lease payments. The building needed costly repairs, and electricity and other maintenance expenses also soared, precipitating a financial crisis that threatened the future of the facility. Priest Lakers were so dismayed that the Civic Organization held a town meeting on Feb. 25 of that year to elect a board of directors to figure out a way to raise the money to save it.

No one was more eager to help than a group of mostly older women, clever quilters all, and soon to become known as The Magnificent Quilting Ladies of Priest Lake. The quilts they made for raffle, then auction, have played a substantial role in putting the Civic Center on a firm financial foundation.

Steve King, a charter member of the board, explained the need for the building to a writer for the Priest River Times newspaper for a story that appeared in the March 4, 1990 edition.

"This is where we vote, where we started our fire district," he said. "Without it, there wouldn't be a hub, so to speak, for anyone on this side of the lake."

At the time, King was the pastor of a church that met in the building. It was also the home of the Priest Lake Grange for many years. The grange is inactive now, but other groups and organizations, such as Search and Rescue, the local conservation organization, trails association, scouts, 4-H groups, and many others still meet there, and it is rented out as well for anniversaries, birthday parties, and more.

Quilter Charlotte Jones possibly has the closest emotional attachment to the old building of any member of the quilting group. Both she and her mother, Marjorie Paul Roberts, went to school in it. A few years before her death, Mrs. Roberts, the daughter of Priest Lake pioneer merchant Leonard Paul, penned her memories of the school for the CCO.

"The building was one large room with an entrance hall where a big wood box and the water pail with one dipper sat," she wrote. "There were two cloak rooms, one for the girls and one for the boys. A large wood stove sat almost in the center with about five lengths of stovepipe to the chimney. There was only one door. One whole side was covered with windows while the back and the other side were covered with blackboards. Desks faced away from the blackboard and the class reciting sat on a bench facing the blackboard so the teacher could use it for teaching. The boys' and girls' toilets were separated by separate walks and were on the back lot, one on each side of the wood shed. Each one was a two-holer.

"The teachers were all young, unmarried girls—no married women were allowed to teach up here those days—and we had to have six school children before a teacher was hired. One year we had only four, so by the end of October, the school board let a widow with four kids come up. She was paid ninety dollars a month and a janitor fee of ten dollars for starting the fire, cutting and carrying in the wood, pumping the water, shoveling the snow, and cleaning the schoolroom."

Mrs. Roberts remembered that during her time there everyone walked to school and went home for lunch unless there were children enrolled who lived too far away. Then the teacher had to stay to keep the school open for lunch, she said.

"Taking your lunch was a big treat. It only happened when there was a really big storm, or your mother wasn't going to be home at noon."

Some years, however, the kids had 'hot lunch.' They brought carrots or potatoes, and sometimes meat, to school, and the ingredients were all dumped into a pot and cooked on top of that old flat-topped, round, central stove. 

For much of its tenure as a school, the cost of electricity was not a consideration for the school board. Mrs. Roberts noted that the building was lighted by Coleman gas lights which hung from the ceiling on long wires.

"They were only used for things that went on at night," she noted. "It was never considered too dark to study, even at four o'clock on a winter day."

Coolin is a hamlet on the east shore of Priest Lake reached by driving north from the town of Priest River on State Highway 57 for about 20 miles, then taking the Dickensheet Road another eight or nine miles to the body of water that its boosters like to refer to as "the crown jewel of the Idaho Panhandle."

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Author info

Marylyn Cork

Tagged as:

education, Priest Lake, Coolin, Coolin School, Nell Shipman, Coolin Civic Center, schools, Steve King, Charlotte Jones, Marjorie Paul Roberts, Leonard Paul

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