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Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News
The Oneida Stake Academy is ready for ride to a new location about 4 blocks away. Plans call for restoring the building to be a self-supporting community cultural center.

PRESTON, Idaho — It has all the makings of an award-winning TV ad: Hook a pick-up truck to the rigging under a 3.5-million-pound building, start the engine and "pull" the huge load down the street.

That's just the scenario historic preservationists in this quiet town are hoping for, as work crews prepare to move the old Oneida Stake Academy.

"We're always looking for funds to help with the restoration" of the soon-to-be community center, said Don Hampton, vice president of the Oneida Stake Academy Foundation. "So we tossed out a question to one of our local auto dealers here" about working up a contract with Dodge for rights to film what would appear to be a pick-up moving the massive structure.

As of yet, Hampton said he hasn't heard from Dodge corporate types. But he's holding out hope they, or executives from some other truckmaker, will want to sign a contract before the building begins its three-block crawl this week.

While many may expect to see something much larger than a pick-up truck pulling the building along, in reality the 43 motorized and wheeled jacks that it now rests on will move the structure down the street without any kind of "pulling" involved. The controls for rotating the building four different times and moving it along the street are housed on the moving platform itself.

During the past four months, the 1,800-ton building has been literally sawn off its foundation, its masonry reinforced with gunite and each floor secured by a compression system designed to keep it intact during the move. It now sits on the motorized jacks, each with eight tires about the size of those on a large pick-up truck. Lindsay Moving and Rigging of Seattle has prepared the building for the move and workers will return Monday for final preparations.

The big move

The two-story academy is so tall and wide that to move it down the town's streets will require that Utah Power disconnect electrical lines along the moving route, leaving residents temporarily without power, Hampton said. "And as we go down the road, it will stretch from curb to curb, so people will be temporarily unable to get to the front doors of their homes."

Preston city officials have been concerned that the weight of the structure may find previously unknown weak spots in the asphalt paving along the street, according to Logan architect Joseph Linton, who has volunteered hundreds of hours to support the moving and restoration project.

But the weight has been distributed among the 344 tires that will roll down 100 East to Oneida Street, meaning each individual tire shouldn't exert more pressure than those on a large moving van. Only time and experience will tell if those predictions bear out.

In the meantime, several large insurance policies have been put in place to indemnify the city and the academy's supporters in case there is some kind of liability as a result of the move, Linton said.

Yet, the inconvenience — and the fact that the town still has to raise another $1.5 million for restoration work — doesn't seem to phase Hampton, whose roots are forever tied to the massive stone structure.

Oldest academy

Built from 1890-1894 by Hampton's grandfather, German immigrant John Nuffer, it cost between $20,000 and $40,000 to construct and was one of several schools formed by early Latter-day Saints. It is believed to be the oldest of 35 such academies The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints built from 1888-1909 at scattered locations around Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, Mexico and Canada.

One of the only academy buildings left standing that was constructed by the LDS Church during the 19th century, the building has been at the core of preservation efforts for years. Locals have long been divided over whether saving the old building was actually viable, and many advocated demolishing it. Situated only 10 feet from the current Preston High School, it had fallen into disrepair, and the site was needed to expand the high school.

But believers paired their efforts several months ago with those of Linton and the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation. With the wrecking ball looming in the background, they publicized the preservation quest outside tiny Franklin County and raised more than $1.3 million by last summer's deadline — with major contributions from Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller and his wife, Gail, along with the Eccles Foundation — to move it.

The academies were forerunners to the Church Educational System and seminary program, designed to provide students with both a spiritual foundation and secular training.

Until 1922, the Oneida Academy served as a combination high school and church academy for hundreds of students. Two of its graduates later served as presidents of the LDS Church: Harold B. Lee and Ezra Taft Benson, the latter of whom was U.S. secretary of agriculture under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Benson's hometown of Whitney is just southwest of Preston.

Noting the area's rich LDS history, preservationists are pleased the building will be relocated to a site just a block north of the stone home where Elder Matthew Cowley, an apostle of the LDS Church, was born in 1897.

Project restoration

Once the building is moved, it will come to rest two blocks north and one block west of its present location, on land donated by the LDS Church in Benson Park, which is named after the former church president.

The site has been excavated, the footings poured and rebar protrudes from the concrete, awaiting the day when the building will crawl over the hole for its new foundation. Columns of concrete and reinforcing steel will be poured around the rebar before a new foundation is formed up from the ground to the base of the building, Linton said.

Plans call for restoring the building to become a self-supporting community cultural center. The local chamber of commerce has signed a letter of intent to inhabit the building and help arrange for community functions and tourist promotion.

Both Linton and Hampton agree the entire project is something of a "miracle" for them.

"There were actually bets going on with people in the city over whether it would ever be moved," Linton grinned. "But a lot of those who won those bets put the money into a pot to help move it."

With every little donation a step closer to restoring the building, Hampton said restoration officials are considering holding a fund-raising contest to see who can pick the exact day and time the building will come to rest over its new foundation spot.

"We don't know if that's legal yet, but we'd like to do it," Hampton said.

And they're keeping their fingers crossed that Dodge will want to hook on to the massive load and pull.

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com