Tradition has long been a part of Tooele High School’s identity. While that resistance to change has frustrated many a would-be teenage rebel, it has successfully preserved parts of the school’s long history that otherwise would be lost.
Historical records documenting the school’s beginnings are difficult to come by. As noted by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers in their book “History of Tooele County,” official school records of anything earlier than 1915 are either difficult to come by or are entirely nonexistent. What we do know about the school must be gleaned from other sources — old, grainy photographs, spotty newspaper coverage in the early Tooele Transcript, and the occasional personal account fortuitously recorded and preserved by those first Tooele graduates.
What we do learn from these sources is that creation of Tooele High School was a long, arduous process — one that was evidently spearheaded by a group of about a dozen determined students who were dissatisfied with the state of local education. This was the early 1900s, prior to the economic boom the smelter brought Tooele. The county superintendent of schools — an office created in 1860 — oversaw the county’s dozen or so school districts, and the state of affairs in each school district varied widely. Some had school buildings. Others did not. Some had textbooks. Others did not.
The lucky children of the area’s more well-off families attended classes at the county’s flagship Central School. This two-story building predates what we know as Central School today — that structure was initially built in 1929. The original Central School was constructed around 1893 for about $20,000, but for years only four classrooms in the building were actually used.
Less fortunate children faced a myriad of difficulties. Some attended school in outdated, one-room adobe schoolhouses left over from the original settlements. Others might have attended school in the homes of their teachers’. Still others either couldn’t afford the $4 tuition, or couldn’t spare the labor at home, and so dropped out of the school system entirely.
Regardless of where they attended, the early Tooele school system left much to be desired. In 1901, a state report on schools in Tooele recounted that “salaries in this county are not as high as they should be…I do not know of a teacher who is getting less than $40 per month (equivalent to a little over $1,000 today), and none, I believe, are receiving over $80, or $85.”
The report continued, “The general condition of the school buildings could be improved. Each of the 12 districts in this county has an average of about $150 worth of apparatus. Some of this is absolutely useless, while the remainder is fairly well adapted for use in school.”
Classes beyond the eighth grade were not offered in Tooele County at that time, until in 1907 smoke litigation in Salt Lake led to the closure of a major smelter known as the Highland Boy. To solve the problem, Utah Consolidated bought land in Pine Canyon and began construction on the smelter that would dominate Tooele’s economy for decades to come.
The sudden economic windfall attracted a rush of immigrants, increased enrollment in local schools, and increased demand for high school-level education. In 1908, the same year construction on the smelter began, a group of students met and began to lobby for an extension of their education beyond the eighth grade. According to their future benefactors, Marguerite Rice and Elsie England, this group of about eleven students was granted their wish the following year, and from 1909 to 1910, they were designated ninth graders and were taught by three teachers classes on algebra, English, history, geography and bookkeeping. These classes were taught in the spare rooms of the old Central School, although one of the teachers, Alfred Nelson, was considered the group’s high school principal.
The same group met again the following year, according to Rice and England, and during the 1910-1911 school year, the tenth grade was added, for a total high school enrollment of 21 freshmen and 12 sophomores.
How the situation progressed over the next few years is unclear. The Tooele Valley Railroad and the International Smelter had just commenced operation, and events related to industry and business dominated local records and headlines. The next mention of Tooele High appears in 1912, when a small notice announced a vote on a tax increase and bond that would allow a Tooele High School District to build and maintain facilities for a formal high school. The vote was scheduled for April 30 and, evidently, the motion passed.
However, progress was quickly derailed by a lawsuit brought against the newly formed Tooele High School District by the Tooele Building Association, which wanted the school built in New Town — a new development on the east side of town, where most of the immigrant workers had set up residence — rather than the site of the old Gillespie farm on the more established west side of town, just south of the city park. To the old-timers, many of whom were descended from the original Mormon settlers and who continued to control local government, local schools and the local media, there was little doubt as to who would win this lawsuit.
“Just keep an eye on this and see how it turns out,” the Tooele Transcript reported. “The tax payers don’t propose to tax themselves to boom any private real estate project.”
As predicted, the case was quickly dissolved by Tooele District Court Judge George Armstrong. The Tooele Building Association vowed to have the case heard by the state Supreme Court, but no further mention of the issue appears in local papers. However that turned out, the old Gillespie farm has been the site of Tooele High for nearly a century, and New Town ended up with the unloved institution known simply as “Plat C.”
A few months later, on Feb. 7, 1913, construction workers laid the cornerstone for the original Tooele High School building. High school classes remained in session during construction, with students attending their lessons at various locations around town — in the hallways of grade school buildings, in a rented room above a local store, and in the Tooele City Library.
Reports from the smelter continued to dominate news in the mainstream papers, so the students themselves, eager to follow the construction, launched their own newspaper, which they called The Oracle. The paper was produced entirely by its student editors, and funded by advertisements purchased by supportive community businesses.
By the start of the next school year, the school district had begun to select staff for the new building. First to be announced by the Tooele Transcript in August 1913 was the new principal, B. A. Fowler, whose first name has apparently been forgotten by history. Fowler was a graduate of Ogden High School, and just two months before being hired as principal had finished his bachelor’s degree in general science from the Utah Agricultural College — known today as Utah State University — where he had been on the debate team.
By Sept. 19, Tooele High had a full faculty roster. In addition to his duties as principal, Fowler was also expected to teach history and social science. M. J. Andrews, who would teach mathematics, agriculture and athletics, was the only other faculty member with a bachelor’s degree. Nathaniel Webb would teach science and mechanic arts; Bess Judd, English and foreign language; Mary Young, domestic science and arts; Marie Clark, art, elocution and physical culture; Alfred Nelson, the former principal, would teach accounting and stenography; and Stanley Johnson would teach music, lead the orchestra and direct the choir.
The new building officially opened that year for the 1913-1914 school year, and the Tooele Transcript made a point of announcing the feat.
“Students are urged to come in and register at the start and take advantage of the splendid school facilities and opportunities right at their door,” an article by Fowler read. “The Tooele High School is now a four-year standard school. Parents, it will this year offer your son or daughter a thorough-going, up-to-date course of training at a merely nominal cost.”
A week later, enrollment was going gangbusters. More than 90 students had already enrolled, with applications still coming in. Registration closed with a total of about 130 students, ranging in age from 13 to 21, and the Tooele Transcript praised the student’s courage for continuing to attend despite freezing temperatures and an unfinished heating system.
According to the Tooele Transcript’s reports, the community was especially excited about the school’s budding music program, for which a state-of-the-art auditorium with an electric lighting system was still under construction.
“A good class of vocal students are at work,” an article reported. “The prospects for a good orchestra, too, seem unusually bright.”
More perplexing to the community was the student’s avid interest in basketball. A gymnasium evidently was not part of the original plans for the school, but the student body insisted and went about raising funds to add the facilities necessary for a school basketball team. They succeeded, and the Tooele Transcript, which had always religiously followed the community’s various baseball teams, was obliged to publish a detailed article titled “About Basket Ball [sic].”
On Feb. 17, the students made plans for a special celebration in honor of the previous year’s groundbreaking. Originally they intended to call their rite “Founders Day,” but later decided this was inappropriate, since the high school’s original founders had actually started the school more than five years prior to the construction of the building they now enjoyed. They settled instead for “Purple and White Day,” which was the first mention of the school’s colors, though it is not evident how those colors were claimed.
The day’s events included concerts by the new THS orchestra, a pair of basketball games — one for girls and the other for boys — that pitted freshmen against everyone else and a school dance. Notably, the program also featured a performance of the school’s first school song, “Purple and White Forever.”
The lyrics read: “Hurrah for the purple and white, may it wave as our banner forever, the emblem of dear Tooele High, and the banner of the right, oh, Tooele remembers the way, purple team with its mighty endeavor, fight onward to victory and fame, and by their might and by their right they’ll rule forever.”
It isn’t clear how long this song was sung as the school anthem, or when the modern iteration was introduced, but we do know that the modern song was the norm by 1936, when the school adopted the White Buffalo as its mascot in favor of the previous nickname — the Smelterites — which was in use by another school in Murray at the time. Because the school song began with the phrase “Here’s a tiger,” there was a move to change the song again to feature the legendary animal whose name the school bore.
The lyrics read: “White buffalo for you we’ll always stand, through victory and through defeat, the symbol of our western land, we’ll follow you without retreat, and when we meet the foe in battle there, and with you right there beside us, to always stand and guide us, white buffalo for you we’ll always stand.”
The announcement of the new mascot and song were made in an editorial in The Oracle, however, the new song never caught on.
The Tooele High School building was completed and dedicated in a ceremony on April 24, 1914, and on May 22, 1914, held its first commencement ceremony. Among the first 15 students to accept a four-year high school diploma from Tooele High were two familiar names — Elsie England and Marguerite Rice. These two women would later endeavor to record the history of their school in a memoir titled “Remember our Town.”
The original building has long since been demolished and replaced by a number of new facilities, but the spirit and tradition of Tooele High lives on, passed from one generation of students to the next.
“Dear old name, THS, long may you live, each year bringing you more improvements, better teachers, and more students who appreciate the efforts it took to get you,” England and Rice wrote. “May your colors of purple and white ever wave next to the red, white and blue. May what you have meant to us in the past be but a small part of what you will mean to all others in the future. This is the hearty wish and earnest prayer of the graduating class of 1914.”