Montrose ‘digs deep’ into history, celebrates centennial

Workers build Montrose school for its original purpose as Bexley’s high school in 1921. (Photo courtesy of the Bexley Public Library)

When taking a drive down Main Street in Bexley, there is one property that stands out against the quaint shops and restaurants lining the road. With its sprawling front lawn and towering sandstone columns, Montrose Elementary has welcomed and educated generations of young learners, and now prepares to celebrate its 100th birthday.

Montrose originally served as the first high school for students in the Bexley area and held that role from 1922 to 1933 until the current high school was built to accommodate an influx of students in the ‘20s, said David Distelhorst, local history librarian for the Bexley Public Library.

“The population expanded so quickly that within five years they knew that they would need a larger building,” Distelhorst said.

Since then, Montrose has served as an elementary school for students living in the southern third of Bexley.

Nikki Barden, Montrose substitute teacher and co-chair of the centennial committee, said that there will be a series of events throughout the year to celebrate the school’s centennial.

The centennial is being celebrated primarily through a display at the library of the 1921 time capsule, which was buried in the cornerstone of the Montrose building, Barden explained. The time capsule was extracted in 1992 when the school was being renovated, and the contents were stored in an archive room until she removed them, she added.

Social studies teacher and trustee for the Bexley Historical Society Scott King-Owen said that he, Barden and Distelhorst were the people initially involved in locating and preserving the time capsule.

King-Owen explained that he began searching for the time capsule in 2019 but did not hear anything back until Barden reached out to him, having found its contents in the Montrose archive room. The pair then got Distelhorst involved as well, he added.

“She reached out to me and brought the time capsule to the high school, and we unpacked it together,” he said. “I took photos of everything in the order that we found them and then contacted [Distelhorst] at the library to ask him to take the materials and scan them.”

King-Owen said that the time capsule included a great deal of memorabilia related to the creation of Montrose in addition to other, more unexpected items.

“When we opened it, we found architects’ blueprints, newspapers from the time, like copies of The Dispatch and other newspapers,” he said. “There was a massive amount of material. Some of it clearly did not belong to the original time capsule because it had the wrong date.”

The items were all scanned and digitized to allow widespread access to the documents and prevent them from being damaged, Distelhorst explained.

These documents can be found in a digital collection celebrating the centennial on the library website, he said.

However, despite his efforts to preserve the contents of the time capsule, some of the artifacts were unfortunately destroyed, Distelhorst added.

“Since they had been taken out of the time capsule in 1992, the process of deterioration had advanced so fast that there was really nothing to save them,” he explained.

While Distelhorst said that the coronavirus actually aided the digitization process because he had more free time, King-Owen said that COVID-19 forced the centennial committee to reassess their initial plans of hosting a large community celebration.

“Obviously, with COVID-19, having large crowds anywhere becomes a superspreader event,” King-Owen said. “It shifted more towards a series of smaller events. Instead of seeing Montrose as a one-time celebration, we could do lots of small things to celebrate.”

So far, Barden said that there has been an introductory ceremony at the library Jan. 12 and a birthday party for the school, hosted by Montrose Elementary students.

“Everybody had birthday cake, and the students made signs and hung them out in the hallways,” she said.

As for future plans, Barden explained that there are a number of ideas in the works, including a documentary honoring 100 years of Montrose that will consist of interviews from generations of Montrose alumni and faculty members. She added that anyone who is interested in being interviewed can fill out a form on the Montrose PTO website.

In addition to the documentary, a new time capsule will be buried this year, she said.

“We haven’t decided exactly when it will be placed because COVID-19 restrictions keep shifting,” Barden said. “We want to make sure that, number one, we are being safe, and number two, we want to make a big to-do of it.”

Barden added that she wants the contents of this new time capsule to be largely determined by current Montrose students.

“We are taking a lot of ideas from the kids about what’s important to them now, what they want people 100 years from now to see and how that reflects what our life was like,” she said.

Her greatest hope, she explained, is that there will eventually be a community event in which students, alumni, teachers and community members can come together and celebrate their experiences at Montrose.

“We could possibly have a celebration outside together where we could have food trucks in a ‘Main Event’ type celebration,” Barden said.

Co-chair of the centennial committee Vikki Rogers, who taught at Montrose for 36 years, said she also believes the community should be involved due to the school’s historical significance.

“Montrose is truly the first umbrella for Bexley schools,” she said. “Everything stemmed from the original high school and everyone from north, south and central came here, so it affects everybody.”

King-Owen said he believes the history of buildings such as Montrose reflect not only the past, but also the importance of the future.

“We go through so much of our life not understanding where we come from or how we got to the point we are now,” he said. “When we have moments like this, it gives us a chance to reflect on the past and understand how it shaped us and made us.”

Rogers added that Montrose is a place that needs to be celebrated as it is truly unique and impactful for all that pass through it, including herself.

“I’ve heard people say about places ‘it doesn’t matter, it’s just stone and mortar,’ but this building was made with much more than that,” she said. “It was made with heart, feeling and caring.”