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200+ Schools in Mendocino County?

Another History Mystery presented itself to me in the form of a question across the sales counter at Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino where I work. Being the “historian-in-residence” for the bookshop and working there on weekends for 25 years, folks with a history question know where and when to find me.

So an older man asks “My great-aunt told me years ago that when she was a kid she went to the Hiawatha and Minihaha schools in the north county. This was 100 years ago. Was she being truthful? Did these schools really exist and how did schools get named for poet Longfellow’s narratives?”

Knowing where to find the answers, and NO, it is not the internet, I turned to a set of books known and loved by anyone doing any kind of research on Mendocino County history.

“What Became of the Little Red Schoolhouse” in six volumes was the work of Alice Holmes and Joann Matson, sponsored by the Mendocino Coast Genealogical Society in cooperation with the Mendocino County Historical Society. The women coordinated years of research by many folks into volumes we can all enjoy. Completed in the late 1980s they are treasure houses of information on over 200 schools that once existed in the county.

The subtitle of the volumes are “facts & figures…photos & tales” and the authors gave schools physical locations, origin of names, descriptions of the building, trustees, teachers, attendance, why it closed and photos and reminiscences. In the case of Minehaha and Hiawatha schools: sure enough, the guy’s great-aunt could well have been in attendance in these schools. In Volume 3, Willits & Laytonville, I first read Minehaha School’s story. It was a school for Indian children (though white kids could go too) in Sherwood Valley northwest of Willits. It was also known as Sherwood Rancheria School. In 1914 it had 11 students with Miss Hilda Wilming teaching. The teacher in 1921 earned $1,125 a year. The school closed in 1924 and burnt to the ground on Labor Day 1950. No photos exist.

Hiawatha School was located west of Laytonville near Long Valley and Cahto and may again have been established for Indian children. It operated three years between 1914 and 1916 and Leil Tilden was the teacher and no photo exists though trustees were listed. Perhaps those who named schools were partial to poetry.

The growth and demise of schools was usually based around 10 kids. If there were 10 kids and a building, and someone would offer the teacher room and board, the County would try to provide a teacher. There were varying accounts as to how, and if, Indians were to be educated. Race was always listed in school records as white or Indian.

Indian Creek School, circa 1900
Indian Creek School, circa 1900

Schools were usually one room with an anteroom to hang coats and lunch pails. If windows were present they didn’t open, they were for light. Outhouses were out back. If the school was lucky it had a well with a bucket and a tin dipper to drink from. Heat came from a wood stove. There might be a desk for a teacher, a bookshelf and a clock. A globe or a map and a dictionary were the reference tools. A blackboard for the teacher and slates for the kids in a classroom of first to eighth grades were usual. A hand bell called the kids in from the play yard where there might be swings and a teeter-totter. A flagpole might be next to the corral or hitching post and a footpath that constituted transportation for the school.

Many students didn’t start school until age 7 or 8 because the walk to school was measured in miles. Offers to entice teachers to out of the way locations were gracious. Eden Valley offered a six room cottage, a milk cow and feed, firewood and $40 a month to any teacher with children who could add to attendance numbers. No one took it and the school closed in 1907. The trustees didn’t mention the four feet of snow in the wintertime.

Sometimes a school would be allowed to stay open for just one student. The Kaisen School on the Comptche Road stayed open for Alice Piccolotti because there was literally no place else for her to go and she was a good student going on to high school. She lived down on Big River and hiked up the hill to board with a local family four nights a week and study with the teacher. The school closed as soon as she graduated eighth grade in 1945.

The opposite extreme was the Rockport School in 1933 where increased sawmill activity gave the teacher 53 kids on the opening day of the term. The big kids got sent to Fort Bragg to lighten the load.

Counting schools through the six volumes I came up with more than 200 schools scattered around the county from tiny one-room operations to 1980s consolidated school districts. A logging operation, a lumber mill or a railroad section camp for maintenance workers might get a school if family housing was available. Those schools might survive a few years or a century. During the world wars many students “discontinued” school because they were needed on the farm or ranch due to a shortage of men.

My choice for a jewel of an old school I discovered years ago was on a country drive 15 miles out Low Gap Road from Ukiah. The old school was now a private residence and beautifully restored. From the 1880s to the 1920s Low Gap was busier with the Gap House Hotel and stage stop and large ranches and a sawmill with kids about to support a school. The Whitesboro Grange Hall on Navarro Ridge is an old school as is the Inglenook Grange in Cleone, the old Ocean Grove School.

“Whatever Became of the Little Red Schoolhouse” is available at libraries and in museum and historical society collections and if the history of our county’s schools interests you delve into them. The volumes are sorted by geographic area.

So the History Mystery was solved. Yes, Minehaha and Hiawatha were real schools and their stories, and 200 more, make interesting reading.

2 Comments

  1. Marshall Newman May 22, 2014

    Always nice to see the Indian Creek School, though I only know it from this picture. For those who are curious, it was located where the Philo PG&E substation is now.

  2. J.L. Clow July 15, 2018

    My Grand Father went there “William F. Clow” as did his brothers and sisters. I remember him and my dad telling stories about it. Those that attended it from the south side of Indian creek had to go clear up to Blanch Browns or clear water to cross in the winter and early spring time.

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