Living - May 27, 2005
School day the old-fashioned way
One-room Tassajara schoolhouse teaches history lesson to third-graders
by Casey Reivich
On a cloudy cool Friday morning, a class of third-grade students from Sycamore Valley Elementary gathered around the front gate of the old one-room schoolhouse off Tassajara Road.
The girls wore bonnets and country dresses that came to their knees. The boys wore a variety of hats. Some had raccoon caps, others straw hats. The students brought their lunches in pails, and one student had his meal wrapped in a handkerchief tied to the end of a wooden pole. They were there, along with parents who also wore 19th-century garb, to experience what a one-room school was like in 1888.
An older gentleman who was wearing a black vest, a black bowler hat and a pocket watch welcomed them to19th-century rural Danville. He called himself Master Kurtz.
The children were excited by the new rules of the old world. They were all given names traditional to the time like Caleb, Noah, Archibald, Bessie and Faith.
"Edward, did you feed the hogs today?" asked Kurtz to the children's delight. "How many chickens do you have?"
Before the school bell rang, he told them what their life would have been like if they were schoolchildren back then. The teacher would have come early to feed the stove and fetch the water. In 1888, the teachers were not allowed to marry and would have boarded with a family in the area. The students' lunches would have consisted of foods like cornbread and fried frog legs. They would have had chores to do before and after school.
When the school bell rang, the girls and boys lined up in separate lines. The girls, as Master Kurtz instructed, went first. They were greeted by the school marm, Mistress Kurtz. "Nathan" got to hold the American flag because it was his birthday. Mistress Kurtz pointed out that the flag only had 38 stars at the time. The children said the 1888 pledge of allegiance.
The inside of the schoolhouse was lit entirely by the natural light pouring in through the large windows. Photographs of U.S. Presidents lined the walls of the classroom. A single kerosene lamp sat on the teacher's desk.
Throughout the day, the children experienced what school lessons and playtime were like in 1888. They are asked to recite poems and their multiplication tables. When they answered Mistress Kurtz's questions, they had to stand up, bow or curtsy and speak in complete sentences.
During their math lesson, the children figured out the problems with the slates and chalk that were underneath the benches.
At recess, they ran relay races and played old-fashioned games like marbles, jacks, stilts, and hoop-and-stick.
After recess, they practiced writing with a quill and ink, and read from their McGuffey readers. Their full and stimulating day in 1888 ended at 12:30 p.m. The children all seemed fascinated by the strange and new world of the one-room school.
Ten years ago, Joan and Don Kurtz proposed using the one-room school on Finley Road off Tassajara for educational purposes. They were struck by how the historic building was underutilized.
"We knew the school was out there and it wasn't being used for anything other than 4-H and voting. This has been a dream in the back of our minds," said Joan. She and her husband Don approached the Museum of the San Ramon Valley and the Fire Protection District, which owns and maintains the schoolhouse, with the idea of using it as a living museum.
They researched the history of the area and the old Tassajara Grammar School and came up with a pilot program. Ten years later their program is a hit. From March through June, all 1,800 third-graders in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District get a chance to step back in time.
"It's living history. When they live something they become a part of it and it becomes a part of them. They remember it," said Joan.
The school is remarkably untouched. The Fire Protection District updated its windows and roof. The refurbished hardwood floor inside the schoolhouse, however, is original to the school as are the teacher's desk and chair, the slates on the walls, and the non-functional clock. The Kurtzes along with volunteers from the Museum of the San Ramon Valley work hard to maintain the look and feel of the schoolhouse.
"We are looking for desks all the time," said Joan. "We get donations. We also find them and buy them. One of the museum workers, George Malleck, restores them. He even gets the gum out."
Don remembered finding the original teacher's desk in the neighboring barn.
"It was full of spiders and mouse droppings," he said.
The wooden benches in the school were handmade by Michael Carns, who was then working toward becoming an Eagle Scout.
Over the years, Joan and Don Kurtz have been joined by other volunteer teachers at the schoolhouse - one even attended the schoolhouse as a child.
Betty Casey was a student at Tassajara's one-room school from 1942-46.When the school closed in 1946, she was in third grade.
"This was during the war. There were only about 16 students. We all came from nearby families. Our families were either of Danish or Portuguese heritage," said Casey.
Casey recalled there were other schools in town, but the one-room schoolhouse served the farming families on the Danville-Pleasanton border. Some of her fellow students' chores included milking the cows and feeding the farm animals. Casey helped with her family's rabbits and chickens, she said.
The one-room schoolhouse was eventually closed because people believed it was outdated. They thought the students could get a more varied education in town. Casey spoke fondly about the one-room school experience. She felt a mixed grade classroom was actually beneficial. When she finally transferred to Danville Grammar School, which was located where San Ramon Valley High is today, she tested into the highest reading group.
"Being there with only one teacher, an older student would come and help the primary grades," said Casey. "I found it kind of interesting because the teacher would be putting a lesson on for the seventh-graders and I would see what she was doing."
Due to the efforts of people like Joan and Don Kurtz and Betty Casey the charming schoolhouse off Finley Road is still being used to educate children, although in a different way.
"It's exciting to come back there as a teacher. I can really relate to the third-graders there because I was in third grade at that school," said Casey.
Through the years, the Kurtzes have received many letters of thanks from children who attended their history program.
One of their favorite letters said, "Next to Disneyland, this is the favorite day of my life."