PRESTON, Idaho — The 1,650-ton Oneida Stake Academy building — in which were educated Church presidents Ezra Taft Benson and Harold B. Lee — slowly began its journey down three city blocks here Dec. 10 with the help of 41 hydraulic dollies, with each dolly having eight wheels. That means 328 wheels were moving the 113-year-old edifice to its new home at Benson Park in this southeastern Idaho town.
"Amazement, wonderment, gratefulness, giddiness," was the way Necia Seamons, president of the Oneida Stake Academy Foundation, described the feelings of those who have worked for several years to save the historic building. "What can I tell you? We're just thrilled.
"We've got some people who are in tears telling me how thankful they are. And then you have other people who don't see the value in it — yet. That's important. It's not done yet."
The structure, which was built between 1890 and 1895, was saved from the wrecking ball last summer through the efforts of the Friends of the Academy (forerunner of the academy foundation), a group of local residents and people interested in historic buildings formerly owned by the Church, in conjunction with the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation. The building is one of the oldest left standing among the academies constructed by the Church in the latter 1800s and early 1900s in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, Mexico and Canada.
Now, instead of being demolished to make way for expansion of the adjacent Preston High School, the old building will soon be settled on its new foundation at the city park named after President Benson, who was reared in nearby Whitney. After a restoration project that Sister Seamons said should take about two years, the academy will become a community center that will be available for receptions, reunions, conventions, art shows and concerts. In addition, the Preston Chamber of Commerce sent a letter of intent to the foundation to occupy a portion of the building. The main floor of the building will house an area museum.
"We're talking about turning one of the classrooms on the main floor into a turn-of-the-century classroom," Sister Seamons added. "[School children] could come here and have a historical experience while learning their Idaho history."
Some of that history can be found in the bell tower of the Oneida Stake Academy. Over the years, students graduating either from the academy before its closure in 1922 or from Preston High School, which used the building for overflow, have signed their names in the tower or the attic stairs.
"There's over a century's worth of students' signatures in the bell tower," Sister Seamons said. "We've got signatures in there of almost all of our community leaders."
One community leader who is delighted in the building's relocation is Don Hampton, vice president of the Oneida Stake Academy Foundation. Brother Hampton's grandfather, John Nuffer, was master stonemason on the building during its construction. The German immigrant gave up his homestead to move to Preston to be involved with the building of the academy because of his belief in education.
"The reason I'm so involved [with the academy's move] is because of the family tie and the heritage I grew up with," Brother Hampton said. "I'm relieved that it's finally happening."
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