First Schools Built In Olympia Date Back To 1852

olympia school history
The South Bay School was built in 1911, co-locating with the local grange hall.


By Emmett O’Connell

sunset airSchools were among the first public institutions established in Thurston County.  The first school was being built in 1852 in downtown Olympia on the same block as Selden’s Furniture on Legion Way. In the years following, new schools began being established throughout the county.

Throughout the decades, these early one or two-room schools supported themselves through local tax levies and were controlled by boards on a neighborhood level. This began to change as small one school districts began to be brought into larger neighboring districts, until we have the school districts we are familiar with today.

olympia history
Former Olympia school house; Photo Credit: Washington State History Society

The vast majority of the early school buildings that are still standing in Thurston County are located in rural areas. Some of them are still schools, but the rest have been converted to other uses. The small schools that had served Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater are largely gone, with just a few exceptions.

The Nisqually School (which still stands on the Nisqually Cut-off Road south of Interestate 5) is a classic example of how these schools evolved over time. The Nisqually area was the first place setteld by American pioneers outside of Tumwater and the first classes were held in private homes in the early 1850s. A log house school was built in those early days, which was replaced by a one-room schoolhouse by the 1880s. For about 30 years, the families along the Nisqually were served by that school until it was replaced in 1911 by the current building. The Nisqually district was consolidated into North Thurston Public Schools in 1962 and students were eventually sent to other local schools.

The South Bay School is another good example. It was also built in 1911, replacing a structure built in 1878. It fits another classic, rural Thurston County school type in that is co-located with the local grange hall.

Granges were local organizations that were founded in the South after the Civil War to help bring modern farming practices to the region. When they were established in the Pacific Northwest, the organizations advocated for local development and progressive politics.

olympia school history
The South Bay School was built in 1911, co-locating with the local grange hall.

In the case of the South Bay Grange, the members argued for improvements to local roads and organizing a strawberry festival staring during the Great Depression.

Like many districts, South Bay was eventually folded into the neighboring urban district, North Thurston. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that the school was replaced by a more modern building across that street. In turn, that school was replaced by the current South Bay Elementary  in 1976, which now serves about 600 students up to the sixth grade.

Probably the best example and most well preserved one-room schoolhouse in the county is the Delphi School on 62nd Avenue west of Tumwater. The schoolhouse was built in 1910 and, unlike the other two examples I’ve pointed to, was not preceded by a pioneer era school. The Delphi School was the result of a growing logging community centered around the Mud Bay Logging Company.

The company started its operations in 1900, and ten years later established a store, post office and the school. The school closed in 1941 when the logging company itself ceased operations. Up until recent years, it served as a community gathering place for the Delphi Community Association.

Additional reading and resources

Olympia Historical Association: Site of First School

DAHP: South Bay School

DAHP: Nisqually School


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