Once chattering schoolmates and now lifelong friends, the students of the old Florida Mesa-area schools tell stories that are as vivid today as they were more than eight decades ago.
We did chores every day before we went to school, including milking the cows, Ernie Davis, 91, said. I remember our first-grade teacher. She was a big woman and a good teacher. I must have been ornery because she paddled me good a few times.
Generations ago, dozens of rural school districts dotted La Plata County, where the children of the areas first homestead families were educated. A state-mandated consolidation left many of those schoolhouses empty by the early 1960s, and all have been converted into private residences that no longer are recognizable as schools. But in the minds of the old-timers who went there, they still breathe with life.
Some former students of schools on Florida Mesa gathered recently to share their memories with the community that will be responsible for preserving this legacy.
Once everyone settled in at the library at Sunnyside Elementary School, which was built to serve the students from several of the old schools, such as Elco, Bondad, Cedar Grove and the old Sunnyside School, the stories came fast and furiously.
A different time
Once we had two teachers that lived in Durango, Mrs. Sullivan and Miss Owens, Lula Mae Sue Hess, 82, said. One had a car and brought the other. Well, they went off the road on whats now Highway 3 but was the highway then, right down onto the railroad tracks. They walked on to school and taught.
Junior Bonds compared then and now, wondering how many teachers today would go on to teach after that kind of accident.
Hess remembered how hard times were during the Depression, when some of her classmates brought lunches of lard on sourdough bread.
I was glad I didnt have to eat that, she said.
Bruce Spining was so intrigued by the old schoolhouses on Florida Mesa his parents attended, he wrote a book about it Clapboards, School Boards and Blackboards: A History of the Florida Area Rural Country Schools 1875-1959,published in 1993.
The genesis for the project came when he was helping his parents, Ralph Rusty and Margaret Spining, plan a reunion of former Florida Mesa school students with friends Bob and Calla Mae Tyner.
At the first little meeting that they had, sitting at a picnic table in a park, Tom Frizzell, this old ranch guy, showed up wearing suspenders, he said. Calla Mae jumped up and popped one of his suspenders and said Well, hello Tommy Frizzy Tail. Suddenly, I was seeing my parents as children.
The group went from planning a small reunion to having a mailing list of 1,000 who had attended one of the 14 schools on the mesa. That eventually led to three reunions, each with 300 to 400 people attending, during the 1990s.
Spining collected stories from people who attended one or more of the schools and researched them in historical records.
At their height, there were 65 rural school districts in La Plata County, each with their own school board, and all reporting to a county superintendent. Animas City School, which technically was a county school, was No. 1. It now houses the Animas Museum.
I remember when I talked to Vivian Maxwell, who was the county superintendent for a long time, Spining said.
The superintendent was responsible for the oversight of all those districts, providing books, helping hire teachers and doing anything else needed to keep all those little schools running. She told Spining about a time when she had to drive out to a school board election to make sure it was fair and square.
The county superintendent always was a second resource to resolve problems for teachers and parents who didnt get a satisfactory response from the school board. That definitely was the case in an incident with the Cedar Grove School, a satellite school of the Bondad/Elco schools that served almost exclusively Hispanic students.
When Edith Rhodes was still living there, Spining said about the incident in the 1920s, when racism was rampant in the area, no schoolbooks arrived one year for the students at Cedar Grove School. She went to the school board president and told him they hadnt gotten any books. He said, I couldnt see any reason to give books to Mexicans.
One trip to the county superintendent at the time, and the students had books.
Few dollars for a community institution
The schools served a lot of students from longtime area families.
If you run it back to the earliest schools in 1875-76, I believe there were more than 10,000 kids that went to those schools, Spining said. Of course, there were families that had eight kids.
He said most people think of the schools as being a one-room log-cabin type of school, but most on the Florida Mesa had two, three or four rooms. The Orr School, near Elmores Corner, had six classrooms, and Animas City School was a four-floor stone building.
One problem the schools always had was calculating how many students they would have each year.
When Frizzells daughter Nancy showed up for third grade, there were more students than had been anticipated.
They cleaned out a storeroom and called into town, and a new teacher came right out, Spining said. When Nancy came home, her dad asked her what had happened at school. She said We have a new teacher. Hes from Texas, but he speaks English.
Almost all of the students came from homestead families.
Merl, 90, and Lyle Short, early 80s, the only two surviving siblings out of a family of 12 children, both still live on the familys original land, south of Sunnyside Elementary School. They attended the event at the library.
Merl Short remembered their teacher Alice Abby.
In the eighth and ninth grades, all the kids had to be in the Christmas play, he said. None of the boys wanted to do it, but the next thing we knew, she had us in the play, and she couldnt keep us out of plays after that.
There were no bond elections or millions of dollars to build the schools. Some financing came from the railroad because a lot of track ran through the area.
People in the community worked with the county to build the school, Merl Short said. There were just a few dollars, so people had to do a lot of labor.
As a community service, the Shorts father hauled most of the lumber for the Sunnyside School on his wagon from the sawmill across the Animas River.
Dad was pretty interested in the school because he had a lot of kids to educate, Lyle Short added.
The end of an era
Lavenia McCoy, 91, who also spoke at the panel, boarded with the Short family during her second year as a teacher in 1940 while she taught at Sunnyside.
History caused me more work than anything else, she said about teaching 10 students in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades in one classroom. Mrs. Short liked to read the books with me and discuss them over the kitchen table. I think she quite enjoyed that.
McCoy taught from an old curriculum text put out by the Colorado Department of Education that she had borrowed from her mother, who taught for 55 years. McCoy went on to a 35-year career as a teacher and high school librarian. The Bayfield public library is named in her honor.
She said the easiest subject to teach was science because she could teach all three grades together.
Water was an easy thing for us to be able to study, she said. It was so much more obvious when we could walk down to the river, and they could see it and measure it.
McCoy, who had earned an associates degree from the Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado) in Greeley, was an anomaly.
A person who had graduated the eighth grade and was working on a high school diploma could be hired, Spining, who was surprised how many male teachers there were, said. Very often, school teachers werent much older than those going to school.
One year at the Florida River School, that closeness in age groups created a touchy situation.
A young male teacher, maybe 18, had one of the Tyner boys and his girlfriend in class, Spining said. The teacher took a shine to the girlfriend, and the kid and the teacher ended up having a fist fight in the schoolyard. The boy won, and the teacher didnt last.
In 1959, the state decided to consolidate the numerous rural school districts across the state into fewer, larger ones for easier management.
There was kind of a subterranean reason, Spining said, but the states education department wanted to encourage high school graduation, and none of these country schools were going to be accreditable high schools.
The consolidation led to the three school districts in La Plata County today Durango, Bayfield and Ignacio. Sunnyside no longer offered ninth grade, so students went to Durango High School. It was the end of an era.
Hess, who had walked about four miles to class each way, was in the first class of ninth-graders who had to go into town.
We rode the first school bus from this area into Durango, she said. But I think we had a better education at Sunnyside because it was a small school. We were used to being with each other, and most of our teachers were like Lavenia, very vivacious.
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