By Kathy Brown, Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum/Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society
Most Grovelanders know that the Premier Valley Bank on Main Street was once a schoolhouse. But were there other schools before it? If so, when and where?
The early mining camps of this area were populated almost entirely by men. By 1851 ranchers and storekeepers, often accompanied by their wives and children, arrived to provide for the miners' needs. Newspapers published complaints of children wandering the streets without supervision and proclaimed the need for schools.
The earliest known schools in Tuolumne County in 1852 were privately run and the first public schools recorded in the county opened in 1855. Usually only eight students were required in an area to qualify for a public school so early schools were built wherever a few families clustered to live and work. These schools only had to be open three months a year to qualify for state funding, with a change to five months by 1868. The Big Oak Flat and Groveland School District officially formed in 1858.
Area history locates the first school “on the hill” near the “The Scar” just west of the Oak Grove (Divide) Cemetery. There is mention of miners trimming a huge pine tree in that area for a flag pole for the school. Other sources cite the school near Mecartea’s Blacksmith which was near Cemetery Road. No specific dates were found for this school but it would probably have existed in the late 1850s and 1860s. Historian Carlo De Ferrari stated his belief that sometime after the Golden Rock Ditch brought water to that area in 1860s, the school was literally washed away by nearby hydraulic mining. After the school's demise Big Oak Flat children walked over the Divide to Garrote (Groveland) to be taught at a school that is known to have existed there by 1867.
No other school is found in Big Oak Flat until 1898. An economic boom caused by a resurgence of hard rock gold mining in 1895 brought the return of many miners and their families to live in Big Oak Flat and with them came the need for a new school. Tuolumne County acquired the estate of pioneer August Mann on which they build a two room schoolhouse complete with a wrap-around veranda. This school closed in 1960s when Tenaya Elementary School opened and is now a private residence.
Clair Weast, a student at the school in the 1920s remembered the stern discipline - being “taught to the tune of a hickory stick” - and having to draw a map from memory of all the continents with their countries and capitals, rivers and mountains.
Another early one-room school existed in Deer Flat by the 1880s where children of the nearby ranchers and miners attended classes. It closed in 1925 due to declining enrollment. In the 1920s and 1930s, Spring Gulch, an area halfway down Priest Coulterville Road, was also the site of a one-room school. Albert Gookin appealed to the county to educate the children of the families who lived there, including his own. He promised he would build a school and would provide housing for a teacher if the county would hire one… and they did. Two of Spring Gulch's students, Stella Gookin and Martha Alexander Scofield, went on to become teachers themselves.
Gravel Range School was located east of Groveland. It opened in 1885 for the children of miners and ranchers in the Smith Flat area. It was east of Sugar Pine Ranch at the end of Big Creek Shaft Road and was still in use during the building of Big Creek Shaft. Clara Fulton, who lived across from Mary Laveroni Park and attended school at Gravel Range, related that some of the children who went there caught the same bus that the Hetch Hetchy workers rode. Clara walked, or sometimes rode her horse part way to school, through what is now Pine Mountain Lake, picking up friends along the way. Elmore School came into existence in the 1940s near Hells Hollow Road where John Elmore developed a sawmill. In 1943 it had the minimum five students; by 1958 61 students were being taught there. The school closed in 1964 with the transfer of students to newly built Tenaya Elementary. It was then converted to use as a private home.
But what about Groveland schools, you ask?
Read Part 2 of “Chalk Board Days” in the next Taking You Back in History