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Zurich Association of Parents Recalls a Colorful History


November 20, 2019

This summer, Zurich Elementary School will hold its first All-Class Reunion and celebrate its 105-year history. The celebration is scheduled for June 12-13, 2020. However, in 1988, the survival of the school itself was in question.

On September 5, 1988, the wooden structure, which was built around 1915, was wiped out by fire. The school fire was reported about 7:00 a.m., but by then the building was so engulfed that it was a total loss. Although the fire was blamed on an apparent electrical malfunction, the cause was never precisely determined.

At the time of the fire, 67 students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade attended the school. They, and their five teachers, were displaced for a time. Although they were initially slated to take temporary residence in the educational wing at St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church in Chinook, that plan didn’t work out. Instead, school resumed in the basement of Wallner Hall in Chinook, ten miles to the west of the small rural community.

Mark Billmayer, Zurich School Board Chairman at the time, called an emergency meeting, and the town came out in force to determine a course of action. Because of the projected $400,000 price tag that rebuilding would mean, voters in the school district were unsure of the best course of action.

Mike Perry, then owner and editor of the Chinook newspaper, which was called the Chinook Opinion, wrote in his weekly column “Parry and Riposte” about the Zurich school districts’ three trustees—Mark Billmayer, Perry Miller, and Don Overcast—calling them “a pretty humble trio” and declaring that “in the course of a little more than a week, they’ve called for a bond election, held two public meetings, spent hours on the telephone, talked to aides to congressmen and senators, bureaucrats in Helena, [while trying] to keep their own affairs running.”

The trio assembled information about the costs of a special bond issue, given that the school had minimal insurance and little in the way of emergency reserves in the school budget. They also provided taxpayers with other options: consolidation with Chinook, bringing in modular classrooms, or rebuilding and incurring an additional mill levy.

“Their care and concern for providing an education for the 67 students attending the school is evident,” Perry wrote. “They’ve shown the same care for the out-of-town students as well as those from within the district. Parents . . . seem more than satisfied with the work of the board in putting together a workable package to get the school up and running again.”

The entire community pulled together, with voters in the district attending meetings and adding vocal support. At the time, 243 voters resided in School District 17, and many of them did not have children in the school. They had to decide if Zurich needed to maintain the nine jobs it provided, if the community should keep its identify with a school, and whether the district wanted to continue to provide a quality learning environment with the reputation to match.

After all of the wrangling and wondering and worrying about how—during tough times with living expenses and mortgages and trying to make ends meet—the community could pay the added expense of a mill levy to build a school, the community decided to rebuild; the special bond issue passed.

The following fall, just a year after the fire, students began the 1989 school year in the newly constructed facility. Zurich Association of Parents, ZAP, was formed for the purpose of raising funds to help furnish the new building and get it operational. Several parents also contributed money to buy equipment and supplies, and some stores even contributed from their stocks or sold supplies at reduced prices, a charitable act to stretch the school district’s dollars.

Because of their dedicated fundraising efforts—especially through pie and cinnamon roll sales—ZAP was able to raise approximately $10,000 within the year. Betty Billmayer, a ZAP member, shared some of the memorable moments of those events.

“We took orders for pies ahead of time, then gathered to prepare them. The pumpkin and pecan pies would be baked before being frozen or delivered. Fruit pies were frozen or delivered unbaked, with apple, peach, and cherry being the favorites,” Billmayer recalled.

“It took a while to perfect some of the recipes, since the pies either turned out too juicy or not juicy enough. We ended up trying to figure out how to use a syringe to add thickener through the top crust after baking some and discovering they were runny. Blueberry was the hardest, so we eventually took it off the list as an option,” she reported.

After obtaining orders for cinnamon rolls, the group would assemble in the kitchen at Meadowlark Elementary School in Chinook for a day of baking. Going in at 4:00 a.m., Vicki Snider was the first one to arrive since she would start the dough. By 7:00 a.m., the first batch would be ready to roll.

“It took a big crew,” Billmayer said. “We borrowed 9 x 13 pans from the Catholic Church, and we’d make 200 dozen cinnamon rolls in a day. We had quite an operation going in which some people would mix dough while others would roll the dough into rectangles, and another crew member would spread the rectangles with butter and then shake cinnamon sugar onto them before rolling the shapes into logs and cutting it into roll-sized slices. These would be transferred to pans and baked. Then, we had a crew in the cafeteria where the rolls would go on cooling racks before they were wrapped for delivery. We had another group on delivery detail.”

With that streamlined operation, ZAP became quite well-known for both their cinnamon rolls and their pies.

Another fundraising effort involved preparing lunches for riders in the Chief Joseph Trail Ride. Bo Kezar, who was known as a horseman in the Zurich area, hired ZAP to provide the meals. Billmayer told a story about that event, as well.

“For some reason, we decided to make sandwiches ahead of time and freeze them so that Bo could just pick up what he needed for each day. I remember the Eddy’s Bread truck coming to our house to deliver bread. We had two freezers and must have filled them with sandwiches,” she said.

To accompany the sandwiches, ZAP made coleslaw, using a recipe for a huge batch that could be prepared ahead of time and frozen. “It may sound weird, but we went online and found recipes for frozen coleslaw. I think we filled five gallon buckets with it. I believe it was Diane Delvin, Mavis Campbell, and I that made the coleslaw at our house one day.”

Because they needed a sizeable vessel for their work, they brainstormed until they determined the right container: “Mark was quite surprised to come home one day to find us mixing coleslaw in the bathtub,” Billmayer laughed. “Eventually it became known amongst the group as bathtub coleslaw.”

But the humor doesn’t stop there. “One day, Bo told us that the pack mule carrying the lunch supplies began to buck. Soon there were frozen sandwiches flying everywhere! I don’t think our frozen sandwiches were our best product, but the riders were glad to see us with fresh pie and ice cream when they arrived at the Chief Joseph Battlefield at the end of their ride,” Billmayer explained.

Ralph Snider rode in one group and recalls meeting up with a group of Nez Perce descendants on the trail and then all arriving together at the Chief Joseph Battlefield on July 4, 1989.

Getting in on the fund raising efforts, the Zurich school students also sold various items. “My in-laws have a cabin at Nelson Reservoir, and this past summer, I noticed a faded magnetic note holder on the refrigeration that one of our girls must have sold to them. I also remember that a walking duck on a stick was one of the items for sale,” Billmayer said. “It really was a combined effort with everyone playing a part.”

Currently, twenty students are enrolled in grades K-8 at Zurich Elementary School. The school employs a staff of three teachers, two aides, and part time staff that includes a cook, a custodian, and a clerk. According to lead teacher Colleen Overcast, “We also benefit from the unpaid help provided by three really great board members.”

The Zurich Elementary School Board members are Jeanne Powell, Isaac Drugge, and Gay Miller, who serves as the board’s chairperosn.

Physically, the building has six classrooms—one of which is currently being used by the clerk, a kitchen, half-size gym/lunch room, custodian’s room, library/computer lab, staff room, three storerooms, and three bathrooms. School tours will be part of the reunion events on June 13.

In order to do a mass mailing in January and to fund other aspects of the reunion event, ZAP is asking that financial donations be sent in care of Betty Billmayer to PO Box 1267, Chinook, or to First Bank. People who have pictures or names and addresses of alumni can send them to the Zurich School in care of Deanna Gilmore at PO Box 847 in Zurich.

Although the group is hoping that sufficient funds come in, they are still planning to make cinnamon rolls as a fundraiser. “We plan to do them sometime before Easter,” Billmayer reported. “We thought we’d charge $12 a dozen and start taking orders in January and set a date to make them. Vicki Snider found her cinnamon roll recipe, so we’re all set!”

The group’s next meeting is planned for January 13 at 6:30 p.m. at the Alliance Church Annex. Located at the corner of Indiana and 2nd Street, the Annex occupies the old L & L Pizza building. “We’d like to get the mailing out soon after that meeting and also set a date for making cinnamon rolls. We’re hoping to have a lot of pictures and memorabilia together by then, as well, and we will set a date to organize those for creating a slide show,” Billmayer said.

Anyone seeking additional information or wishing to share ideas is invited to attend ZAP’s January meeting or to call Billmayer at 357-4100.


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