Monday, May 2, 2011

Reviving Daniels Schoolhouse

Published: Wednesday, August, 2010


Tucked away underneath the redwoods, Daniels Schoolhouse stands empty and silent in the hills above Healdsburg. Cars occasionally pass by on Mill Creek Road, often driven by the children and grandchildren of the original settlers who first came to the logging community of Venado in the early part of the 20th century.

Gloria Egger and Bonnie Cussins-Pitkin remember a time when the one-room schoolhouse was not silent. A time when perhaps a dozen students—children of a handful of families living in the remote hills of Mill Creek—gathered to learn.

The two Mill Creek Road residents, along with neighbor Kimberly Flowers, have come together to raise money to restore the schoolhouse so future generations of children may visit and understand how the original settlers lived. They estimate they’ll need up to $50,000 for the project--$10,000 for county permits and up to $40,000 to rebuild and maintain the structure as a local landmark. They’re also looking for the schoolhouse’s original furniture and any items rescued by neighbors in the years after the school closed.

“It’s like a dream come true,” said Cussins-Pitkin. “I always came back here thinking, when will we bring this back?”

The school closed in 1951 when the number of students had declined to the point where it became necessary to send them down the road to Mill Creek School, another one-room schoolhouse. It’s sat nearly undisturbed for long decades.

Daniels, like most of the one-room schoolhouses in the Healdsburg area, was housed on private property. Unlike many of these buildings, the property owner spared Daniels.

Local historian Kay Robinson has researched one-room schoolhouses in recent years, documenting 15 in the Dry Creek watershed including Daniels School. “About a third of the ones I researched still exist,” she said. “The others, I’m pretty sure, have been destroyed. Burned, removed, taken down for lumber, I don’t know.”

The fate of these schoolhouses varies from district to district. Of the five in what is now the West Side Union School District, only one, Felta School, has been totally restored.

Junction School was converted into a residence after it closed in 1952. Mill Creek School was dismantled in the late 1950s.

Lafayette School was dismantled around 1970. Jerry Arrigoni, the owner of the Westside Road property where the schoolhouse once stood, said it was in bad shape when he bought the land in 1969.

“When I bought the place hippies were living in it,” he said. “They’d burned a hole in the floor and were tearing out the old redwood for firewood. It really wasn’t worth putting a lot of money fixing it up because of the fire they did.”

So Arrigoni, a former school administrator himself, sold it to a neighbor for $1 to build a barn.

While the area’s other four schoolhouses met various fates, Daniels School sat undisturbed. Property owner Stanley Stuart—Cussins-Pitkin’s uncle—lived in Concord and left the structure alone. Then in 1993 Cussins-Pitkin bought the property and inherited the schoolhouse.

“I was delighted,” she said. “I was hoping that one day it could be renovated.”

Her hopes were nearly met in 1998 when the Venado Historical Society formed to restore the schoolhouse and community post office. In 1999 contractors raised the schoolhouse building and put in a new foundation, cripple walls and a front entrance porch and stairs. The full restoration halted when Floramay Caletti — a former student at the school and teacher at Mill Creek School — fell ill.

Now, nearly a decade later, the new group of Mill Creek ladies have come together to continue Caletti’s work. “Floramay started it and practically had it finished,” said Cussins-Pitkin.

Egger and Cussins-Pitkin chattered back and forth on a recent weekday afternoon, recalling stories of their youth at the schoolhouse. Egger, a few years senior, attended the school for one year in the late 1940s when her father fell ill and she lived with her grandparents. Cussins-Pitkin, who also attended the school for only one year, attended the Daniels for the school’s final year in 1951.

“We’d build forts on the hillside above the school, and throw rotten fruit and vegetables at each other at recess,” said Egger, standing inside the long abandoned schoolhouse. “We wouldn’t hit each other. Those are the things I remember. The good, clean fun.”

The two spoke of Christmas recitals, of drawing water from the spring and ladling out of a bucket, and dunking for apples. “Our teacher went out wildflower picking with us,” remembers Cussins-Pitkin. “I knew the name of every flower, or every tree.”

The Venado Historical Society is now accepting donations for the project and ask donors to send a check to the Venado Historical Society, 7751 A Mill Creek Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448. Those with questions can call Gloria Egger at 707.433.7732 or Bonnie Cussins-Pitkin at 707.433.3301.

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