Little Schoolhouse in the Big Woods

Over the past couple of months I have had the pleasure of driving to Ukiah weekly to see a foot doctor.  This has given me the opportunity to become familiar as never before with every twist, turn, and straightaway on Highway 20, and to notice for the first time the little red schoolhouse tucked into the woods on the east end of the meadow at the Camp 20 rest stop near Chamberlain Creek.  I suppose I had failed to see it because the highway at that point is suddenly straight and it’s possible to pass the RV that’s been lumbering on ahead of me for ten miles.  But last week I finally slowed down, pulled off, and investigated.  

There isn’t much information about the building there, but a search through the Kelley House Museum library turned up a book that provided everything I wanted to know.  What Became of the Little Red Schoolhouse (Facts and Figures, Tales and Photos of Early Mendocino County Schools, Volume 1), published in 1986 by the Mendocino County Museum, recounts the construction of the building and its long career in elementary education.  In 1912 the Caspar Lumber Company established Camp One on the south fork of the Noyo River about eight miles inland by rail.  It consisted of cabins, a cookhouse, and a large roundhouse for locomotives. 

At first, only single men lived there, but couples arrived soon and, by 1914, there were ten families with 22 children.  They petitioned the county schools office and in 1915 the Woods School District was established.  It was probably not named for its sylvan setting, but rather for Casimir Woods, Superintendent of the Caspar Lumber Company, which furnished the land and lumber for the school building.

With an eye to the future, the camp carpenter built it on three 12’ x 12’ skids so that it could be moved relatively easily.  A large wood stove heated two large two rooms that were divided by a hallway; somehow, these accommodated a student population in grades 1-8 that ranged from 15 to as many as 30 over the years.  The building was located on top of a knoll, with a small flat playground area that held a seesaw made of a plank laid across a log. 

A cabin was provided nearby for the teachers, the first of whom was Miss Florence Weeks, who taught there for several years.  She was followed in 1921 by Miss Callie Coombs, who was paid the rewarding salary of $1,350 per year.  After she died in 1927, Miss Cecelia Hendrickson arrived and served until 1936.  What a life that must have been for those women!

Though the Caspar mill and many logging operations were closed during the early years of the Depression, many families remained at the camp and the school stayed open.  When the mill reopened in 1933, all the cabins and the schoolhouse were moved to Camp 19, about 13 miles east of Fort Bragg on Highway 20, where today a large pond lies north of the road.  The cabins were hoisted onto flatcars and the school building was cut into three sections to facilitate its placement on the railroad cars.  At its new home it was stitched back together with vertical siding, and the roof and a new front porch were slapped on, but no doubt it was pretty drafty after that.

When the timber around that camp was depleted by 1941, everything was packed up and moved again to the Camp 20 Chamberlain Creek location.  The teacher, Miss Violet Rowe, came along and continued teaching at the school—without missing a day–until it closed in 1955, when mill operations ceased.  After that, the district’s children were bussed to Fort Bragg, but it’s almost as if their spirits remain: as I stood next to the venerable old structure, I swore I could still hear ghostly youthful voices reciting the multiplication tables.  Next time you drive by, stop there and listen yourself. 

Caspar Mill Schoolhouse