What high school in the Copper Country is the best? Every graduate has his or her own loyalty. Some might argue passionately for Calumet, others for Lake Linden. Chassell and Dollar Bay would have their boosters, as well they should. No doubt that a fierce debate would break out between ardent supporters of the Hancock Bulldogs and the Houghton Gremlins. Then there are those who would speak up for Jeffers High School, the pride of Painesdale. What other high school can boast such scenic valley views or that its students once rode a special train to classes? Like its peers, Jeffers has always been far more than a building.
Painesdale High School, as it was known in its early years, was not the first secondary school in Adams Township. Public education began in the township in 1871 with a school at Atlantic Mine; the first high school class, a modest eight students, completed its studies there in 1897. In terms of population and economic importance, Painesdale–the heart of operations for the booming Copper Range Company–soon eclipsed Atlantic Mine. In 1909, Alexander Chadbourne Eschweiler designed a larger structure to be erected at Painesdale and to serve the growing number of high school-aged students in the southern range towns. He envisioned a building some 140 feet in length, with shaped parapets on each end of its symmetrical facade. Eschweiler proposed to construct the new high school of rough-cut sandstone, quarried just a short distance away in Jacobsville, and to finish the interior with granite, marble, and tile. Painesdale High School would be a majestic presence in the mining town, a fitting adornment for a prosperous community and an inspirational place for children to learn.
When the students, including the thirteen seniors who would be the first graduates, walked through the doors of Painesdale High in 1909, they found their new school to be well-equipped to educate them. The first floor featured large laboratories for physics and chemistry, a sizable science lecture room, and a number of other classrooms. Upstairs, they could take advantage of an assembly hall with a skylight and stage. The basement boasted a gymnasium, kitchen, and dining room. Subsequent additions, designed by John D. Chubb and built between 1934 and 1935, provided a natatorium (swimming pool) on the lowest level and a study hall and library on the top floor. In the meantime, students could enjoy the adjacent Sarah Sargent Paine Memorial Library, built a few years prior to the high school.
Children came from miles around to enroll at Painesdale. In the early 1920s, when the Adams Township School District was at its peak, the student population was drawn from primary schools at Toivola, Baltic, South Range, the Michigan Smelt Works, Painesdale, Atlantic Mine, and Trimountain. Children from Elm River and Stanton townships in Houghton County, as well as Ontonagon County’s Bohemia Township, also journeyed to Painesdale for their high school education.
Some of them made the trip in particularly special ways. From 1909 until the mid-1940s, students heading to the high school from places like Freda, Atlantic Mine, and South Range did not board a school bus; rather, they waited for the school train. Copper Range Railroad sent a special train to make the rounds of the range and mill towns where Painesdale High students resided. According to railfan and researcher Kevin E. Musser, the train departed Houghton bright and early each morning at six, leaving an empty passenger coach at Atlantic Mine before making a circuit of Mill Mine Junction, Beacon Hill, Redridge, Freda, and other nearby settlements. When the train returned to Atlantic Mine, students had filled the waiting coach, which was then attached to the rest of the cars. From there, the train hustled down to South Range and Trimountain, pulling into Painesdale at around 8:30. The route reversed at the end of the school day. Legend has it that apple trees sprouted for miles along the train tracks, thanks to students throwing the remains of their snacks out the window.
In addition to its train, Painesdale High became virtually synonymous with two of its educators. Fred and Cora (Doolittle) Jeffers married in August 1894 and together took up the roles of superintendent and principal, respectively, of the Adams Township School District. When Painesdale High School opened, both Fred and Cora, now principal of the high school, moved into offices in the building, allowing them to better offer guidance, leadership, and discipline to generations of students. And generations, here, were literal. Mr. and Mrs. Jeffers remained at Painesdale together until the late 1940s: Cora, age 77, died in March 1949, bringing their shared tenure to an end. In forty years at the high school, the two educators consistently demonstrated versatility and innovation. A 1947 article praising the couple noted that “the [high school] curriculum has been a constantly expanding, up-to-the-minute thing.” When the swimming pool was installed, “the course of action was clear” to Mrs. Jeffers, who promptly learned the mechanics of swimming herself and began instructing classes for the female students. During World War II, Fred and Cora concluded that aviation education would be valuable to their pupils. Cora “prepared herself as an instructor of aeronautics [and] taught the course herself.” Meanwhile, Fred found time away from his numerous administrative duties to substitute for any and all ill teachers in the school district. High school science courses and elementary classes both found themselves host to the devoted Mr. Jeffers. Asked about their unusual vigor and longevity, Cora quoted Longfellow as her inspiration:
“For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress.
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”
For their immense contributions to education in the township, it is no wonder that the high school was renamed Jeffers High in honor of its most faithful supporters. A special ceremony held in 1949, at the first reunion of high school graduates, officially dedicated the new Jeffers High School. Attendees feted the late Mrs. Jeffers with poetic tributes, and Mr. Jeffers received life membership in the Alumni Association. He passed away in 1966.
While the student population at Jeffers High School has fluctuated over the years, especially as the copper mines that built Painesdale shut down, certain parts of being a Jet have never changed. Graduates–whether they received their diplomas in 1919 or 2019–are proud of their school. They have a beautiful, one-of-a-kind building with a million-dollar view. They compete successfully in basketball, hockey, and numerous other sports. They grow into teachers, doctors, pilots, military service members, engineers, mechanics, chefs. And that sandstone high school in the old mining town will keep calling them home, year after year.