Just north of Rochester, where Moon Road meets Hunter Road, are two sets of railroad tracks with a rusted sign that reads “GATE.” The sign is where the former train depot to Gate City once stood. The tracks and a small yellow schoolhouse just beyond are all that are left of the original bustling town of Gate City.
At its peak in the 1890s and early 1900s, Gate City, whose name was later shortened to Gate, was a booming lumber and railroad junction town, billed as the “Gateway to the Coast.” Loggers lived in camps six days a week and came back to town on Saturday nights to their families or to unwind if they were single. The railroad also offered employment at the depot, on the trains and along the track doing maintenance on section crews. Gate offered two train depots, two general stores, several mills, blacksmiths, lunch counters, saloons, a large hotel, a dance hall and a church.
By the 1920s, however, most of the timber had been cut and the mills closed down, and cars supplanted the train. With little employment people began to move away. Fires destroyed some of the early structures, and others were later torn down, the lumber sometimes salvaged to build a newer house or barn down the road.
Today, houses are scattered about. Driving through the area you would not necessarily think of it as a community.
A community it is, though, and the schoolhouse is at the center of it.
Barbara Munsell is one of several members of the Gate Community Club, a non-profit that has cared for the school and held as its mission to “preserve the community” for over a century. The schoolhouse was known locally as the Gate Little School and was built in 1910. (Gate Big School was across the tracks to the north where higher grades attended class.) Classes were held at the Little School for grades one through four until 1941 when Gate School District was consolidated with Rochester.
The building has been used as a community center ever since. The care that neighbors have given the building and grounds over the years is evident. Inside the school the original slate chalkboard and wainscoting still line the walls. The flooring is original, too, made of fir planks logged from the nearby Bordeaux Camp. Historic photos of Gate and the surrounding area, original plat maps and a quilt made by the Homemakers Club are on display. The school was added to the Registry of National Historic Places in 1990 and is also on the Washington State Historic Register.
Barbara moved with her mother next door to the school in 1968 and attended 4-H in the building as a child. “I learned to cook and sew and found mentors in the little old ladies of the Homemakers Club.” That organization was a subsidiary of the Community Club. The ladies met at the school and made quilts to raffle off to pay for the taxes, utilities and any supplies needed for maintenance.
By 2006 the school was in need of more work than simply selling a quilt could cover. Barbara was instrumental in applying for Thurston County Heritage grants. The three grants they have attained so far have paid for professional exterior painting, restoration of the windows, ceiling and light fixtures, an ADA ramp to the entrance, a new back porch and more.
“The Boy Scouts have focused their efforts outside,” Barbara adds. “They built the fence, brick BBQ, gazebo and picnic area and help maintain the grounds.” 4-H groups continue to meet there as well as many others.
What does it cost to use the space? “Become a member,” laughs Barbara. “Membership fees equal the age of the school, so this year it’s $107 a year. Members can use the space. That keeps our insurance company happy, plus it’s a good way to get new people involved.”
The Gate Community Club meets once a month for a potluck. “The meetings help people keep in touch and stay informed about what’s going on in the area,” says Barbara. “It’s much more fun to meet in person and not just rely on Facebook to find out what’s going on.” The group holds a plant sale in the spring, a blueberry pancake breakfast in the summer and a history night in the fall when the descendants of Gate’s original settlers as well as current residents share stories and memories.
Barbara and others in the club continue to restore the school and connect with each other –that is the real value in a place. “We look out for each other,” she says.
Gate City Schoolhouse
16925 Moon Rd SW in Rochester
Facebook: Gate School Facebook page