Tiny Natrona County school faces demolition after 3 decades vacant

2014-05-04T12:00:00Z Tiny Natrona County school faces demolition after 3 decades vacantBy LEAH TODD Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
May 04, 2014 12:00 pm  • 

Not much has changed on a stretch of prairie west of Casper in the 30 years since students ran the halls of what once was Forest Oil School.

Only the man-made buildings are worse for wear.

An empty flagpole sways outside a cinder-block apartment that housed the school’s lone teacher. Inside, light fixtures dangle from cords, and whatever flooring lined the ground has long been ripped out.

Paint flakes the size of hamburgers line the dry ground around an adjacent classroom building. Once-lively houses stand dormant up the hill outside the school.

Karen Marquiss, 71, raised her five children on this prairie, about 40 miles west of Casper, between 1975 and 1990. Her late husband, Wayne Wall, tested pumps on the nearby Forest Oil natural gas field before taking an early retirement when the company cut staff in the late 1980s.

Her children were the last students at the rural Forest Oil School when it closed in 1981. Enrollment never topped more than about a dozen students at the school, which mostly served families living in company-owned homes on the Forest Oil field.

Schools like Forest Oil are a dying breed. In 1937, Wyoming had 1,021 one-room schoolhouses. By 1968, that number was 138, according to Star-Tribune reports at the time.

Today, 26 Wyoming schools serve 12 or fewer students, according to state enrollment counts.

Like other rural schools, Forest Oil was likely started to alleviate complications of busing students when numbers might justify a place’s own teacher, said Phil Roberts, a history professor at the University of Wyoming.

Consolidation of school districts generally halted the opening of schools at temporary locations like oil camps, Roberts said. As oil and natural gas fields decline, parents are transferred and schools dwindle to one or two students, schools like Forest Oil become too expensive to maintain.

This year, Wyoming lawmakers gave Natrona County School District about $60,000 to demolish Forest Oil School, which has been occasionally leased as office space for energy companies since the school closed.

The district plans to knock it down in late summer or early fall, said Keith Brown, a project manager for the district. The district’s long-standing lease on the land will return to the feds, he said.

For Marquiss and her family, memories will not fade when a wrecking ball destroys the old schoolhouse. Their life at Forest Oil is already immortalized in dozens of bulky photo albums.

“We loved it out there,” Marquiss said.

As best as Brown can tell, classes began about 1960 in a trailer home at the Forest Oil camp.

Lee Ann Stone was about 8 years old and sitting at her family’s kitchen table when wind knocked over the trailer in 1963. Stone’s house, owned by Forest Oil, went dark, too.

“The wind blew that trailer all over the prairie,” she said. “It just got blown to smithereens.”

Stone said the district was building the cinder-block schoolhouse at the time. Pat Fucher, a former Forest Oil student, said the new school was ready for use in 1964.

“I can still smell that school, when it was brand new,” Stone said.

By 1971, the school had four students, an aquarium, several gerbils and no physical education program, according to a school evaluation at the time.

A gymnasium was added to the school in 1975, according to district records.

The school closed in 1981 when the two remaining students — Trudy Garrison, then Trudy Wall, and her younger brother, Brian — transferred to Poison Spider School, according to Casper Star-Tribune reports from the time.

An isolated place

Diane Fuller, 56, remembers riding her tricycle over a rattlesnake at Forest Oil as a kid in the 1960s.

Fuller and her sister, Lee Ann Stone, whose maiden names are Golay, lived at Forest Oil while their father supervised the natural gas plant between about 1957 and 1965.

“There wasn’t a whole lot to do,” Fuller said. “We had to make our own fun.”

Stone, 58, was the only student at Forest Oil School in 1961, she said. Her desk was a TV tray in the teacher’s apartment, where she would sit on the couch as the teacher cooked.

Pat Fucher, also 58, who attended Forest Oil School from 1964 to 1968, remembers antelope and cows in her family’s front yard.

“And boy did it snow,” Fucher said. “It would snow clear up to the clothesline poles.”

Wendy Mayhan, 48, one of Karen Marquiss’ five children, said she liked the small school, where most of the students were her siblings.

“I wish my kids could have experienced it,” Mayhan said. “Going to a one-room schoolhouse does wonders for your study habits. I think it’s less distractions.”

When Marquiss and her family of seven first moved to Forest Oil in 1975, their two-bedroom home was not connected to a phone line. A company foreman would visit with a phone on Thanksgiving and Christmas so the family could call relatives, she said.

After the school closed in 1981, Marquiss put 475,000 miles on her brown 1982 Ford pickup driving her children to and from school in Casper, she said. Mail came every day to a tiny row of mailboxes eight miles from the house.

A rusty barrel bolted to a pole held packages to and from Forest Oil families, which the children would sometimes retrieve and deliver to their neighbors.

“Over all these years, I still have friendships with some of the families and kids,” said Gene Thompson, 78, a former principal at Forest Oil School.

Herman Boner, 83, a former district administrator who was assistant superintendent when Forest Oil School closed in 1981, does not need a map to navigate the dirt and rocky roads that lead to the school.

He stepped through rubble in the doorway to the old teacher’s apartment one afternoon in March. He peered through windows into the old classrooms, where chalkboards dotted with erasable graffiti are still bolted to the walls.

It’s sad to think about the school being demolished, Boner said, but it’s just as well.

“If they leave it here long enough, it’ll fall down, I guess,” he said.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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