It Happened Here: Mabton High School Built During the Town’s Boom | Past


It’s obvious to anyone looking at the old Mabton High School that it’s seen better days.

With shuttered windows and graffiti-stained walls, the building sits in a weedy lot surrounded by chain-link fences meant to deter vandals and intruders. It looks like the epitome of urban blight, despite attempts to reuse the building.

But the school, listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1985, was a symbol of the city’s prosperity in the early 20th century, an indicator that the community had arrived and was open for business.

The staircase near the main entrance to the old Mabton High School on Tuesday, July 21, 2020, on Highschool Road in Mabton, Wash.

Mabton began as a section house at the eastern end of the Yakama Nation Reservation for Northern Pacific Railroad maintenance workers in the 1880s. A section house is a building or structure similar to a house near a section of railway that is used to house railway workers or store equipment.

Station agent Sam P. Flower saw potential in the area and opened a general store, which also housed a post office for the area.

The area’s growth was further spurred by the creation of the Sunnyside Canal, which made farming more profitable in the area and attracted more people to the growing community.

The first school, a frame school, opened in 1895.

Mabton was incorporated on November 7, 1905 and has continued to grow. Wooden sidewalks – a feature of many Western towns – were replaced with concrete sidewalks.

Another way city officials showed the prosperity of the community was through the construction of the secondary school, which was built in 1911. At that time, the population of the city was nearly 1,000 people.

The school district purchased land from Mabton Orchard Co. for $900 in gold coins, or $27,082 after adjusting for inflation.

Mabton High School

Mabton High School, the tall building on the right, as seen in an undated photo showing the town. (Courtesy of Photo/

The community was not going to settle for just a school. Built in the Mission Revival style that was popular at the time, the 2.5-story brick structure had an arched entrance.

Inside, the building had seven classrooms and an auditorium. The total cost of the building was $30,000, or $902,756 in today’s currency.

In 1913 the school had a fully accredited four-year program with a staff of nine teachers. The school remained in use as a high school until the mid-1960s, with 52 classes graduating from the school.

But Mabton’s fortunes began to fail decades earlier.

First, railroad and irrigation improvements shifted the economic balance of power to Sunnyside and Grandview for the Lower Valley. The Inland Empire Highway, which passed closer to Sunnyside than to Mabton, did not help Mabton’s fortunes.

A 1926 fire destroyed several buildings in the city’s business district, setting the city on its heels, and many left the city when the Great Depression further undermined the city’s economic might.

The city was beginning to show signs of recovery after World War II, as new farming techniques and new crops made farming profitable in the region.

In the 1960s, the high school was converted back into a primary school after the construction of a new high school.

In 1977, the district sold the building to the Mabton Historical Society for $7,800—$36,123 after adjusting for inflation—to maintain and preserve the building.

The building was purchased in 2002 by Mabton Historic LLC, a partnership between Seattle developer Paul Purcell and architect Les Tonkin. Purcell envisioned the building as a wine bistro, boutique, and bed-and-breakfast for tourists coming to central Washington’s wine country.

The plan failed because, as Purcell put it, it was “too far from the action” in wine country. His other plans to use it as a residential or commercial space also failed because it was too remote to attract potential users or customers.


ROSS COURTNEY/YHR Seattle developer Les Tonkin gives Peggy Zeebuyth, right, and Louise Boast of the Mabton Historical Society a tour of the old Mabton High School. Tonkin bought the building in the spring and plans to donate a piece of the building to the company SHOT: 9/26/02

Like many old and unused buildings, it became the target of vandals who spray-painted graffiti inside and out, and even set fire to the interior.

In September 2015, a so-called Yakima “ghost hunter” was arrested there after pulling out a BB gun and confronting students from Richland High School who also snuck inside the building, demanding their belongings and punching the one of them with the gun. Christopher William Sutley later pleaded guilty to third-degree assault for the incident.

In 2016, the city offered to purchase the building to serve as a new city hall, as well as a library, museum, community center and senior center, and a “hotel incubator” that would train people to work with restaurants.

These plans never came to fruition, and the most recent proposal that would have brought the high school back into the building was dropped due to the expense of upgrading the building in favor of expanding the current high school.


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