In 1918, the first graduating class of Rochester High School passed out of school with a commencement ceremony.
There had been schools in the rural southeast section of Thurston County for decades before the high school’s first commencement, but up to that point students left their schooling much less ceremoniously.
Until that year, students would complete their schooling up to a certain grade (often tenth or eleventh), and either drop out of school or transfer to another school all together. Some students would go to school through the eighth grade and essentially test out of school, through a process at the county level. Many Rochester area students matriculated in this way in the early 1900s.
E.J. Klemme, a professor at the Normal School (later Western Washington University) in Bellingham, was Rochester’s first commencement speaker. Klemme was a well-known orator in the region, often speaking on religious and patriotic subjects, and at Rochester High School, he spoke of the “First Americans.” To Klemme, the first, as in the pinnacle, American was the moral strength in the embodiment of citizens from western states who helped keep the union together during the Civil War.
For residents of Rochester, a prairie community just a generation removed from the Civil War and pioneer days, this message must have been well received.
This commencement ceremony seemed to be the capping point of a larger phenomenon in the rural communities surrounding Rochester. Smaller one-roomed school houses were consolidating into what would be known for years as the Rochester Union High School. Even though formal schooling in this part of the county dates to at least the 1850s, it was spread throughout rural communities like Gate, Independence, and Grand Mound.
The expansion of railroads in Thurston County brought Rochester into being in 1890. The town was a moving target for a while, moving northeast and then west at different points in its history. Because Rochester was centrally located, it made sense that it would become the educational hub for the broader rural communities.
The Rochester Union school district was founded in the summer of 1906, when the Jamestown, Rochester and Grand Mound districts consolidated. That fall, schooling began in Rochester with only the eighth grade in the high school.
A new, wooden high school would open by the next year, but would not see a formal graduating class for area communities until 11 years later. Two girls and one boy crossed the finish line of 12th grade in 1918. Four years later, the entire student body had either married or moved on to other nearby towns.
After that first graduating class, the Rochester community continued to consolidate with other school districts in the area. They also sought to replace the original 1907 wooden school house with a newer, brick high school.
The effort of consolidation brought larger and larger graduating classes to Rochester High School. By the 1920s, the graduating classes were closing in on 20 students.
Celebrate the 100th graduating class of Rochester High School on June 11, 2017 at Saint Martin’s University.