For Gloria Egger, it was her “best year.” The long-time Mill Creek resident remembers the one-room schoolhouse where about 20 or 30 kids, first grade through eighth, gathered daily to learn their lessons – all grades together, all in one room.
The older kids would help the younger ones to learn, and everyone would help the teacher. Water came from a nearby creek; a boys and a girls outhouse were of the traditional, non-plumbed style.
In spring the kids would have “wars” during recess throwing over-ripe fruit at each other in opposing forts. Other games included Anti-Over and Kick-the-Can, games so simple that today’s kids are more puzzled than intrigued. Local historian Gaye LeBaron wrote of the one-room school experience in a March 23, 1997 Press Democrat column.
“Yesterdays schools had oiled wooden floors that smelled of the creosote, battle-scarred desks of dark wood and wrought iron and a cloak room that never lost the musty odor of wet wool… Parents who had donated land, lumber and labor to build a one-room school, who ‘boarded’ the teacher, who came on cold mornings to build a fire to warm the classroom, whose family name was the school name – these people had the warmest regard for their school.”
Early California state law encouraged the building of schoolhouses three miles apart to make them accessible by then-current transportation, the horse and buggy. Some said that the distance was “a country mile”—students had to walk a country mile to school in the morning, after doing farm and household chores, and a country mile back home in the afternoon.
The one-room schoolhouse was the norm back then, in the years before the second World War, and over 40 were on record in Sonoma County, 15 near Healdsburg. Now only a few of the wood frame buildings remain, including this one – Daniels School, far up Mill Creek Rd., a lost outpost of historic Healdsburg.
Even well into the 20th century, some of the school children at Daniels walked to school from nearby plum or apple orchard farms. Some were driven by one of their parents, maybe dad on his way to work. Some, like Gloria Egger, remember riding the tractor.
At the Daniels School District in its heyday, at least 10 students were enrolled, and often twice that number. Originally called Davis School, the 16 x 26-foot building was probably built in 1883 near the manganese mine about 10 miles up the road from Westside Rd., in a township called Venado.
Davis became the Daniels School early in the 20th century when it was moved down the road a mile and a half, and Mr. R. A. Daniels requested that it be named for him (he was apparently teaching there at the time, according to an article in the Autumn 2000 “Russian River Recorder” from the ).
Venado (Spanish for deer or venison) was a small but busy unincorporated town at the end of Mill Creek Rd at the time. (It even warrants its own Wikipedia entry.) Stillman Batchellor (or Batchelor) was the prime founder, a mining engineer who became a fruit grower when he moved up Mill Creek. His fruit boxes, Imperial prunes stuffed with walnuts and packed in redwood boxes, were popular holiday gifts from the region.
Other residents kept productive enough with dairy, cherries, apples, and tanoak used in leather tanning (due to its high tannic acid content) to support a Venado Post Office. Mail delivery was three days a week, and residents in the remote area would sometimes ask the postmaster to pick something up in town (Healdsburg) for delivery to them on his next rounds. The Venado Post Office, too, still stands, a redwood shake building 9 miles up Mill Creek Rd.
A few substantial houses sprang up in the woods near Venado, some of them still standing. One was the Humphrie home, with a redwood stump in the front yard so large that it served as a dance floor. Redwoods used to be plentiful – Austin Creek State Recreation area is just over the ridge, and Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve just downstream from there.
But as the school kids grew up, and the towns became more consolidated, and schools began to unionize, fewer school districts remained. The Daniels School was one of five small schools unified in 1951 to create the . Other schools included Junction at Wohler Bridge, Lafayette, Mill Creek and Felta.
In the 1990s the Venado Historical Society was formed by Floramay (Cootes) Caletti and Eloise Batchellor Hoffman to restore to school they had both attended. They were able to rebuilt the front porch, repaint signs, and build a foundation for the building before momentum flagged. (These and other details are outlined in this Press Democrat article).
Egger, with fellow Daniels School “alum” Bonnie Pitkin, took over in May 2010, and through fundraising, donations and hard work were able to bet all the paperwork done to put the restoration project back on track.
A Fall Fundraiser for the Daniels School is set for Saturday, Nov. 12, at the Felta School. The Felta School is itself a restored one-room schoolhouse, though somewhat larger than Vendado. Speakers will include County Supervisor Mike McGuire, and youth educator Reg Elgin of the Dry Creek Pomo Rancheria, as well as a harvest meal with soup, rolls, cider, and desserts.
Though their ostensible goal is to rebuild the school so it can serve as a destination for area fourth graders studying the Pomo as part of their curriculum, their motivation is clearly to keep alive the tenuous contact of today’s children, and coming generations, to the one-room school experience.
Once a common childhood experience, the one-room school has become a novelty, if not a rarity. A couple remain standing in the county, but few as remote or loved as Daniels School, near the always modest, now absent town of Venado.
You can read about their efforts at http://danielsschool.blogspot.com/, and make your own large or small donation online.