One Room Mountain School Houses

Written by Ken Fisher
Originally published in the ECHO 5/1990

Our earliest pioneers, offshoots of the 49ers, came as bachelors, with no need for schools. Later came wives, and finally children. The County’s first schools didn’t start until about 1859. Until 1870 Kings Mountain was part of the Half Moon Bay School District. Probably no one from here ever attended school in Half Moon Bay then. It was too far. But kids on the Mountain’s north end got an early alternative. In 1862 the Laguna School District was formed at the Mountain’s base, about 40 yardS east of what is now Highway 92, in between the lakes and Highway 35, right by the power pole now sitting at the top of the straight stretch, a few hundred yards above and across from the rock quarry–on a small knoll hidden from Highway 92 by some cypress trees. This was before the lakes were built and what is now under the lakes was then farm land and heavily occupied–hence the need for a school. Among the district’s founders were King’s Mountaineers: Peter S. Van Winkle (see my 10/89 & 11/89 Echo articles on the Van Winkles) and Joshua Underwood.

Underwood had a shack at the head of Soda Gulch, about where the Barrys and McEwens now live on Comstock Road. His participation shows how far folks traveled for schooling. But the Mountain got its own school in 1870–at Summit Springs. Its exact location has never been detailed, but was supposedly at the base of the northern edge of the large meadow by Kings Mountain Road and Highway 35. For unknown reasons, locals petitioned the county in 1873 to create the San Raymundo School District at the same site. Interestingly, among the petitioners where again Peter Van Winkle, the only person known to be involved with the founding of both schools. Sadly, the school burned down. In 1876, Sheldon P. (Purdy) Pharis donated lumber for a new school and money for the school bell, teacher’s platform and desk–and until 1912 we had the Pharis School District. Amazingly, Pharis, the local “Shingle King” and the County’s largest landowner, had neither child nor wife. When this school, too, later burned down, it was rebuilt Close to Purdy’s house on Star Hill Road, supposedly about where the Moores live now. Kids walked or rode horses from allover the Mountain to the Pharis School.

School was irregular. Attendance was neither mandatory nor predictable. Children came when their parents could spare them from more productive chores. And school was not taught all winter. As the Times-Gazette said on December 28, 1878, “About all the schools in the county have closed for the Christmas vacation. Some will not reopen until next spring, while others, more fortunate as to good winter roads and financial matters, will open soon after the holidays.” That’s us–poor, with treacherous roads. In 1889 we had peak attendance of 40 students and a total school budget of $505.60 — $12.64 per student — adjusted for inflation it would be about $250 per student today. As with the Mountain as a Whole, the school population fell steadily through 1900, when only 11 kids attended. By 1905, the budget had fallen to $435.20 and attendance to six. To gain perspective, consider this: at about the same time as the school closed, the County was spending roughly $3,300 a year on squirrel extermination.

Teachers didn’t stay, moving on after a few years to some other County school. What shocks me is how uniformly nifty their names were: Blanche Bean, Eva Greene, Minnie Mullen, Delia Munroe, Lily Rose, Electra Rumsey, and Sadie Savage–all from our Pharis School–sounds like stage names. Below is a rare photo of Eva Greene, who taught in 1885. The Laguna School’s budget and attendance was similar to the • Pharis School. For example, in 1905 there were nine students at Laguna and the budget was $442. It closed in 1927, 15 years after Pharis.

Eva Greene, Pharis School, 1885
John Nash(left)  and George Hartley (right), Laguna School, 1878

William J. Savage taught at Laguna in 1889 and was related to Sadie Savage of Pharis School (1893). A knowledgeable observer, he later wrote: “•• the buildings were primitive and small and the desks homemade. Necessarily each one gave accommodation to learners of all grades, in a single room. From the middle of December until the first of March the schools were closed while the land was being plowed and the crops put in. The children were kept home to help during each busy period, there being no law, except that of conscience to forbid. If a boy or girl did stick to going to school, when he or she was strong and able to work, it was necessary for him or her to have the courage to bear the neighbor’s unfavorable comments … The irregular attendance caused the education to be lengthened, over years, considerably. In the higher classes it was not unusual to see, occasionally, big boys and girls close to adult age … During school hours it was a common sight to see half a dozen saddle ponies in the shed, or lot, or tied to the fence, as those who lived at a distance rode horses to and from school ..• The textbooks were purchased by the parents. The books were handled with care and were handed down from the older to younger members of the family. Many pupils prized their books highly and kept them even after they had left school.“ Savage claimed the early texts were as good as anything that existed decades later. A twist: In the early days, the County School Superintendent was George P. Hartley–whose main influence on Kings Mountain was not on our education, but in his later years as a mill in Purisima Canyon with Charles Borden.

The hartley Shingle Mill at Grabtown Gulch in Purisima Canyon