When the people of Preston, Idaho, decided to save the Oneida Stake Academy, they weren’t just preserving a magnificent historic building. They were honoring a little-known time in Mormon history—a time of determination and defiance.
The academy was built in response to the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act that outlawed polygamy. But unlike earlier federal laws trying to stop plural marriages, this one went much further, striking at the economic and political heart of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—going so far as to outlaw the teaching of Mormon doctrine in public schools.
Fearful that their children would be fed anti-Mormon philosophies in state-run schools, the church built its own schools, creating some 30 academies from Canada to the Mexican colonies. Oneida is one of the few still standing. Built from 1890 to 1895, it has the distinction of educating two future church presidents—Ezra Taft Benson and Harold B. Lee.
The Edmunds-Tucker Act worked—in 1890, church President Wilford Woodruff outlawed polygamy and in 1896, Utah was welcomed into the union as the 45th state.
Meanwhile, the Oneida Stake Academy educated a generation. By the 1920s, it became Preston High School; then an “auxiliary building,” when a brand new high school was built; then an event center that fell into disrepair. By the late 1990s, the academy was condemned. The school district set a March 2003 deadline for its demolition.
“There was a feeling there in the building; it wanted to be saved,” says Necia Seamons, a journalist who became the founding member of the foundation to save the building.
But it would take $1.2 million to move the academy three blocks to the city’s central Benson Park. As the demolition deadline neared, the foundation hadn’t met its goal. Then “miracles” started happening; money came in, including $250,000 from Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller.
With the building safely relocated in 2003, the community began fundraising efforts to restore it into an all-purpose community center and museum.
Paul Judd didn’t know any of this history when he moved to Preston from Liberty, Utah, in 2008. “God, why am I here?” he remembers asking. “When I saw the academy, I knew why I was here.”
His avocation has been the academy’s restoration, and he’s pleased with its progress. “We brought in experts on stone. We’ve had the building earthquake proof. We replaced the metal braces to shore up the third floor ballroom,” he says.
He estimates restoration is about half done. He says the community is committed to raising the funds that will allow the academy to remain a centerpiece in Preston for new generations to enjoy—and for its history to live on.
Jana Bommersbach has earned recognition as Arizona’s Journalist of the Year and won an Emmy and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. She cowrote the Emmy-winning Outrageous Arizona and has written two true crime books, a children’s book and the historical novel Cattle Kate.