February 21, 2014
By Christina Corrales-Toy
May 30, 1911, was a special occasion for Issaquah resident Mabel Ek.
So special, in fact, that the moment called for a new outfit. Ek arrived at Issaquah’s Baptist Church, near what is now the Darigold plant, wearing a new dress, knitted gloves and shoes specially ordered from Oregon.
City residents, of which there were only 500 at the time, arrived in droves to honor Ek and her classmates Mary and Olive Gibson.
After all, the three were about to make history, representing the very first graduating class of Issaquah High School.
The young women didn’t know it then, but they began a tradition that continues to this day, one that is perfectly summed up by the 1911 graduating class’ motto.
“Tonight we launch, where will we anchor?”
The scene, as described by Joe Peterson, a retired Issaquah High teacher, in his book, “Issaquah High School: A Social History of an American High School,” was just the initial chapter of a scholastic institution that has become a cornerstone of the Issaquah community.
“In small towns, high schools really are quite important. They are the social center, and its history usually reflects what’s going on locally and nationally,” Peterson said from his home in Ashland, Ore.
A school upon a hill
Ek and her classmates completed their schooling in a simple, two-story wood-frame structure where Issaquah Middle School is now located, Peterson said.
The area was known as “Schoolhouse Hill” since the building stood atop an incline looking down toward the main town. Issaquah was so rural, the school’s front yard needed a fence and turnstile to keep away livestock.
Increasing class sizes led to expansion when a 16-room brick building, complete with an assembly hall, was built next to the initial structure in 1916. As the building before it did, this one held all grades, from primary to secondary school.
“You started in the first grade down on the bottom floor, and you progressed up, until when you were in high school, you were on the top floor,” 1931 Issaquah High graduate Mary E. Lewis recalled in an Issaquah History Museums recorded oral history project.
During the period of 1916-1931, Issaquah High School encountered a multitude of firsts, Peterson said.
Students began traveling from classroom to classroom, learning from different specialized teachers throughout the day. The school also offered its first hot-lunch program. For just 2 ½ cents a day, teens could partake in a cup of soup.
While kids today take classes such as engineering robotics and introduction to computer science, students back then took sewing and home economics.
Expansion came again when it was finally decided that the high school students needed their own separate facility in 1932. It was built where the Julius Boehm Pool now stands, and where the concrete steps that led to its entrance still remain.
Issaquah High School wouldn’t get its own separate campus until 1963, where it is now located today.
Purple and gold
Issaquah High School represented a common identity shared among residents in the initial years, according to Erica Maniez, executive director of the Issaquah History Museums.
“It was the biggest communal point,” she said. “You may or may not have been going to the same church as your next door neighbor, you may or may not have been working in the same place as your next door neighbor, but you knew your kids all went to the same high school.”
It helped that graduating classes were small through the first few decades, she added.
“At that time, everyone knew each other,” she said. “When you have 20, 30, 40 kids in your class, it’s hard not to know the names and families of your classmates.”
And if it was a fall Friday in Issaquah, you knew where those families and classmates were — watching the Issaquah High School football team compete.
As rabid as modern fans are for their Issaquah football team, their predecessors were even more so. For example, in the 1920s, the town nearly shut down when their boys played.
Merchants would lock their doors and accompany their customers to the game, Peterson said.
There were no “Friday night lights,” to play under at the time, Peterson said; the town couldn’t afford them. The athletes even played in hand-me-down uniforms.
In what may be a hard pill to swallow for Washington State University fans, those uniforms, acquired from the University of Washington, would go on to inspire the school’s purple and gold colors.
Indians or Eagles?
For nearly 95 years, the high school athletic teams were known as the Issaquah Indians.
Until the early 1980s, the mascot was represented as a “cartoon-like caricature,” Peterson said. It was replaced with what activity coordinator at the time Gayle Nilson called a “more respectful symbol,” but it would hardly be the last time the mascot would be called into question.
Peterson, who retired from Issaquah in 1997, said he remembered controversy surrounding the mascot continued to boil in 1994.
The student body, community and alumni all voted at that time to keep the Indians moniker, which some had criticized as a demeaning symbol of Native Americans.
The issue arose again in 2002, when the Issaquah School Board voted unanimously to change the school’s mascot. The vote reflected the board’s intent to adopt a policy requiring mascots to be free of offensive imagery and connotations.
That prompted outrage from alumni and students, who staged a walkout in protest. It ultimately put to rest, though, decades of debate about the sensitivity of the mascot.
Students would return to school fall 2003, not as the Issaquah Indians, but as the Issaquah Eagles.
Whether the student body was known as the Indians or the Eagles, it is clear that the school has meant the world to those who roamed its halls, Maniez said.
“It’s interesting how much their time at Issaquah has formed a part of the alums’ identity,” she said. “I think that might be a small-town thing.”
Some families have called Issaquah High School home for generations. There are parents and grandparents who can all say they’ve donned the same purple and gold as their children or grandchildren.
While the classes are bigger, and commencement ceremonies no longer take place in small churches, Issaquah graduates will forever be connected to those three pioneers who made history in 1911.
“For some people who came of age here in the ‘50s or ‘60s, I think that’s sort of the rule of thumb about where you’re from,” Maniez said. “If you were really from Issaquah, you graduated from Issaquah High School.”
Anyone who graduated from Issaquah High School before 2010 would likely look on in awe at the sight of their new school.
After undergoing an extensive, $94.9 million renovation, starting with demolition of the old school in 2009, the new Issaquah High School looks sleek and modern.
The project, funded by a 2006 voter-approved bond, was split into two phases, with final construction completed in fall 2011.
A partial list of Phase I projects included 56 regular classrooms, improvements to the school stadium, a main gymnasium, an auxiliary gym, 12 science labs, a TV production studio and a cooking lab.
Phase II focused on arts facilities, including the school’s Performing Arts Center. Phase II also encompassed a material science lab, a ceramics room, and a drawing and painting room.
The new school was dotted with environmental features, including a green roof and rain gardens. Benches throughout the building were also repurposed with material taken from the old gym.
Issaquah High School teacher Joe Peterson spent almost three decades at the school, before retiring to Oregon in 1997. Peterson, who wrote and researched an extensive account about the school’s history, visited in 2013, and couldn’t believe the transformation.
“Issaquah High School has a beautiful setting amongst the trees and the hills, and the old high school never captured that,” he said. “The new high school really captures the football field and the view of the mountains. I just think it’s spectacular what they did.”