Visiting a Pioneer Schoolhouse

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Prescott Daily Courier

Back when my husband and I lived in Mayer, Arizona, there was an area south of us with plenty of dirt roads to explore. One of them, near Cordes Lakes, ran by the site of an old school outside, with a short and easy hiking trail from a primitive parking lot. The schoolhouse site always intrigued me because there were no other homes close by and the nearest landmark was the Agua Fria River. How far, I often wondered, did children have to walk to attend this school?

Naturally I wanted to know more about this early house of education. I found that although it was opened on September 9, 1889, the ruins are now known simply as the “1891 Schoolhouse”: a plain 16′ x 28′ wood building perched upon a sturdy rock foundation. Based on archaeological assessments, a door, several windows and a single chimney completed the structure. Only surveyor notes and a Yavapai County Superintendent’s Report give limited information about the school and its use. “The school has sufficient school grounds that are suitably improved, is well ventilated,” reads one notation, “but poorly supplied with furniture and apparatus, and has no library but a water closet.”

In order to justify building the school, officials needed to find ten prospective students within a two-mile radius of the chosen spot. They found willing participants in the way of rancher’s children, scattered throughout the area and perhaps as far away as Cordes. These hearty kids walked or rode horses to the school each day, beginning on the second Monday in September and continuing for the next five to eight months.

For fourteen years, both male and female teachers taught here. Their names are lost to history, as are those of the students who learned here. If this was actually the Big Bug School which some historians refer to, some of the pupils would have been from the Cordes family ranch some four miles west. Both the Big Bug School and the “1891 Schoolhouse” closed in 1903, according to documentation, due to a decline in enrollment. Depending on what you read, the decline was caused by a sweep of scarlet fever, small pox, and /or local mining labor disputes that closed down operations in the area.

By the time this schoolhouse was rediscovered and documented 2009, the building was long gone. An interpretive sign includes an artist’s rendering of what the school might have looked like. The drawing strongly resembles the only known image of the Big Bug School, which can be viewed at Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott.

What I like to imagine is how the kids and even the teachers overcame the urge to dip their feet in the river just some 50 feet away on a hot day. And I wonder how long it took them to get home after class since the remote area was, and still is, filled with overhanging trees, rock strewn pathways, beautiful flowers, lizards and frogs, and two big, beckoning swimming holes. Stopping to play along the way must certainly have been a learning experience unto itself.

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