Cory’s Historical Corner

By Cory Peterman

Early Schools of Downieville

With graduation right around the corner, perhaps it’s time for the Downieville High School Graduates to learn about the early history of their school, if they have not done so already. The sign above the entryway to the school says “Est. 1884”, though this date could be debated.

In the Fall 1982 issue of The Sierran published by the Sierra County Historical Society, Downieville’s early schools are discussed, the publication stating that “Sierra County’s first school was a private one, started in Downieville in the spring of 1853. The finances necessary were raised by subscription from the few families who had children. Since teaching was not a very lucrative profession, each of the first three men who tried his hand at it soon resigned. In the fall of 1853, a Mrs. Schoemaker established a school in a town building with a succession of men following her as teachers.”

In 1856, George Hardy, an early pioneer and father of numerous children upon which he wished a good education, started a subscription to raise money to build a schoolhouse (the Hardy Ranch is now home to the Lure Resort). It is stated Hardy “raised $800 and the contract was let to George Webber and another party for $780. At this time, the public also owed a considerable amount of money to the former teachers. To defray this debt, a theatrical performance was given in the Downieville Theater. The play was a huge success, netting about $700.” The Placer Herald of May 3, 1856 comically reported “Speaking of a squabble in Downieville about a school house, in which it seems the members of the different churches are taking stock pro and con, [the editor of the Sierra Citizen] remarked quite pithily, that ‘a number here are just about far enough advanced in christianity to be jealous of each other, and for this reason the school should be a separate and distinct institution.’”

This original schoolhouse was located on Pearl Street, in the vicinity of the large lot across the street from the present-day Folsom/Clemo homes. George Webber, one of the men that won the contract to build the school, had erected a sawmill on Durgan Flat in May 1857. His newspaper ads of the time read “Contractor, Carpenter, Builder, and Lumber Dealer.” By 1886, a new school building was desired in Downieville, though the original school building would stand for many more years, being destroyed by fire on December 12, 1922. The Morning Union newspaper two days later reported “Fire on Tuesday night at 11:15 o’clock destroyed a two-story house owned by John Costa on Pearl street in Downieville. The fire occurred during a heavy rainstorm which probably prevented destruction of nearby property… The building was an old landmark in Downieville… used for many years as a school house. It was known in Downieville as the Nelson House, and was acquired by Mr. Costa some years ago.”

The Fall 1982 article in The Sierran states that “by 1886, there was need for a new school building, and through a bond issue the funds were raised. The new schoolhouse, constructed in 1887, stood on the site of the present school building in Downieville.” This schoolhouse, which was designed by San Francisco architect William F. Smith, was rather ornate in its architecture compared to other buildings in town (the original architectural drawings of the building can be found in the Downieville Museum). Many of the homes designed by Smith still stand in San Francisco, and it is possible to see how his Queen Anne-influenced architectural detailing was repeated at the schoolhouse in Downieville, though in a more simplistic, folkish form.

Of note, this building was constructed on the location of Downieville’s first cemetery, though by the 1870s, most of the interments at this location had either been washed away or transferred to what is the present-day cemetery. The Mountain Messenger of April 1, 1876 speaks of the sluicing off of this original cemetery: “In the old graveyard now being washed away lie the remains of Frederick Cannon, and close by those of the woman who was hung on Durgan Bridge for the killing.”

Unfortunately, by 1949, Downieville’s beautiful school building was found to be outdated, and in the summer of 1950, it was torn down. Katie Willmarth Green wrote “my father bought a load of lumber from the old school when it was torn down and used it in finishing the interior of the back bedroom/bathroom addition to the cabin.” The cabin she refers to is locally known as “Pancho’s Cabin” at Shady Flat, a few miles east of Downieville.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel of September 10, 1950 reported that Downieville was “now without a school for its children… [the town] voted $25,000 in bonds to qualify for $100,000 state aid, then tore down the old schoolhouse. Red tape has delayed the funds and now the little mountain town has no school at all. Children will be taught in private homes and wherever room is available.” Construction of the present-day school building eventually commenced in 1951, and the school was opened on January 5, 1953 as an elementary school.

Good luck on your next adventures, local high school graduates!

Leave a Reply