Custer: A century of local pride and learning

Published on Thu, Oct 17, 2002 by Meg Olson

Read More News

Custer: A century of local pride and learning

By Meg Olson

About a decade after A.W. Custer opened a post office in his home and planted the seeds that grew into the town of Custer, Nellie Newkirk started the town’s school in her own living room in 1889. A year later, the railroad went through town and the community grew along the tracks, including the first schoolhouse in 1891, which had one teacher for 60 students.

By the turn of the 20th century the community had grown enough that they needed a new schoolhouse, and taxpayers approved a $3,000 bond to build a new schoolhouse. In 1902 teachers and students moved in to the new two-room building.

The building is gone today, sold in 1936 for $150 to J.A. Dyson who tore it down to build his house, but the school is still there. On Friday, Custer school’s 405 students, 45 teachers and administrators and the community around them will celebrate the centennial of the Custer school site and the 111th birthday of schools in Custer, or 113 if you count Nellie Newkirk’s living room.

“The school has been in various states since then,” said Susan Holmes, current principal of the Custer Elementary School. One hundred years ago the school taught students in kindergarten to 8th grade. A high school was added in 1919, a new elementary school built in 1936 and an auditorium and gymnasium added.

Custer schools consolidated with Ferndale schools in 1941, sending high school students to Ferndale high school. In the 1970s Ferndale built Vista Middle School and Custer students in 7th and 8th grade went there. Custer became an elementary school, teaching kindergarten to 6th grade. “When I came here in 1974 there was still a little rivalry,” Holmes said. “They liked their own middle school and it was still Custer kids and town kids.”

Holmes said preparing for the centennial celebration has helped them learn more about the community and the school. “It wasn’t until we started digging that we found out the school was founded in 1889,” she said. “What we still don’t know is where the bell went or when we became the Custer Cougars.” The bell that called students to the first school in 1891 was moved to the new school in 1902, but apparently went astray in the 1930s when that building was replaced.

The centennial is also an occasion to celebrate Custer’s unique history and community. Artists Lori Scrimsher and her brother Trevor Blake commemorated the occasion by painting a mural at the back of the stage in the school gym. It will be unveiled at the October 18 celebration.

“This is Custer 100 years ago,” Scrimsher said looking up at the mural. “We went out and sketched all the old houses and used photos of the others.”
The mural is a tapestry of homes, storefronts, horse and carriages, girls in pinafores and men in hats. “We decided to paint it in the style of Grandma Moses, a folk artist, because the kids could relate to her more,” Scrimsher said. “She made her pictures very busy, pulling miles of country into one picture.”

Besides unveiling the mural, the Friday night celebration, which starts at 7 p.m. in the gym of the Custer Elementary School at 7600 Custer School Road, will be a traditional pie and dessert social. The school parent teacher organization has been working to put together an extensive display of historical photos and materials to let visitors explore the past..