In April 1865, William Nesbit Smith begins a school with 24 students in his store, located across the Touchet River from a new mill being set up by Sylvester M. Wait (d. 1891), in the emerging town of Waitsburg in Walla Walla County. Smith will quickly move on to other pursuits, but a school district will soon be organized and the school will grow with the town. The school will move into another building later in 1865, and a new schoolhouse will be built in 1869. A high school will be added to the system in 1886 as will new facilities in 1886, 1891, 1907, 1913, 1927, 1949, and 1964.
The Mill and the School
In 1864, Dennis Willard (1832-1916) met Sylvester Wait in Lewiston, Idaho, and convinced him to establish a flour mill near the juncture of the Touchet River and Coppei Creek, where a farming community was emerging and growing. Wait accepted an offer of land from Willard and William Perry Bruce, obtained capital and equipment, and in May 1865 his mill, a two-story wood-frame structure on the north side of the Touchet River, went into operation. Wheat grown on the surrounding hills was ground into flour and shipped to mining settlements in Idaho.
As Wait's mill was under construction, William Nesbit Smith, a schoolteacher from Illinois who had recently settled in the Touchet Valley, purchased a carpenter shop and moved it from a failed settlement called Coppei to the south side of the Touchet River across from Wait's mill. In April 1865, Smith started a school in his store with 24 students from the surrounding area. A school district, the third in Walla Walla County, was soon organized and the board raised money for a new schoolhouse, which opened in the fall of 1865.
In 1866, N. J. A. Smith succeeded William Smith as teacher at the Waitsburg public school. The new Smith later recalled:
"The schoolhouse was the pride of the village, 30x50 feet in dimension, well finished inside and out, painted white and standing in the middle of what is now Main Street, the door fronting the river. It seated about forty pupils. The school increased to fifty-two ere long and the surplus seated on boxes in the corners and on the platform. Church services were held here and probably from sixty to seventy people crowded into the seats, the boys and young men often being crowded out so they had to stand outside the door" (quoted in Laidlaw, 76).
The City and the School
The town that developed across the river from the mill, named Waitsburg in 1868, built a new schoolhouse in 1869. The land was donated by early settlers William Bruce and Anderson Cox; funds, totaling $2,400, were raised by subscription. This structure was a two-story, low-ceilinged frame building, with a belfry and bell, and it was furnished with homemade desks and seats. In addition to functioning as a school, the building was used as a town hall for meetings, religious services, and social events.
After Waitsburg was connected to the regional railway network in 1881, the mill and the town expanded further. A high school was started and another schoolhouse, described as little and brown, was built in 1886. The school soon outgrew this building and a larger brick one replaced it in 1891. In 1907, the school system acquired the building of a failed private school, Waitsburg Academy, which had begun in 1886 but could not compete with the town's free high school. This building was used for a high school until a new high school building was built in 1927. Preston Hall replaced the 1886 building in 1913, eventually becoming the junior high (later middle) school, and the 1891 building was replaced by new grade school facilities in 1949 and 1964.