Town hopes to save school once seized by cult

The Herald Business Journal, Oregon/June 12, 2013

Antelope, Oregon - In September 1984, residents in the sleepy ranching community of Antelope headed to the only public building in town for a vote that ended with the town rechristened "Rajneesh."

That building, the local school, was also seized in the election dominated by followers from a nearby commune of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, an East Indian guru who in the early 1980s brought some 7,000 followers to a ranch in Antelope and made power grabs to establish the commune in the area.

The school recently was identified as one of Oregon's most endangered historic places.

"There's a lot of potential there; it's still structurally sound, but the maintenance over the years has been minimal," longtime Antelope resident John Silvertooth said.

Silvertooth and a small group of devotees nominated the school for the designation, given by the nonprofit Historic Preservation League of Oregon. HPLO started the endangered list in 2010, choosing 10 sites a year and assisting each with mentorship and sometimes grants. Other sites on the 2013 endangered list include a dirigible hanger in Tillamook, a former Chinatown site in The Dalles and a shipbuilding site in Astoria, among others.

"Our purpose with the list is not to point fingers but to be a positive thing, putting a spotlight on the site and helping to rally resources," HPLO executive director Peggy Moretti said.

Antelope School is considered historically significant for several reasons.

It was constructed in 1924 to replace a school that burned down. In its heyday, the school served 30 to 50 children in its two classrooms and was the site for any large community event. The school's population dwindled along with the town, which today numbers just over 40, but the building remained important to the community.

"When the Rajneeshees took over, a lot of people pulled their kids out of school and some moved away," recalled Silvertooth, whose mother attended Antelope School soon after its construction. "Then, when (the Rajneeshees) left town, there was no school board anymore, and it was all absorbed into the Jefferson County School District."

The school was shuttered and sat empty until the city offered to take it off the hands of the district. The building was reopened and "city hall" (there is no paid staff) was moved into the classrooms. City Council meetings and other public gatherings are still held at the school.

"There's a gym, a kitchen, two classrooms and ... ADA bathrooms," Antelope resident Barbara Beasley said. "The interior is in pretty good shape, but the exterior is slowly crumbling -- someone needs to catch it before it falls."

HPLO doesn't fund restorations of historic sites but merely works with supporters to find workable solutions to save them.

"We've given out $27,000 in grants since we started this program," Moretti said. "People want to be on the list now; they see that it can mean getting on the road to rehab. They can leverage the listing to get the projects moving."

First on the list for Antelope School is completion of a Historic Structures Report, precursor to an application for National Register of Historic Places designation.

A Redmond site named to the endangered list in 2010, Petersen Rock Garden, has completed its application, which will be reviewed by the state committee next week. Moretti said she has no concerns about the rock garden being refused listing on the national registry. Where it goes from there is up to the owners.

"There is very little grant money available for privately owned commercial sites, but there are some tax credits," she added. "If they come to us, we'd be happy to help with advice and direction."

Developing a marketing plan that can make historic sites self-sufficient can be a critical piece, according to Moretti.

"In general, the more you can adapt a site for revenue generation, the better off you'll be."

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