This Retired Teacher Restored a One-Room Schoolhouse to Give Epic History Lessons

Class is still in session for this retired teacher who gives history lessons in a one-room schoolhouse.

Country Magazine schoolhouse retired teacher 2Courtesy Laurel Ann Wallace
Velma delights in sharing the schools history.

Given the tradition of students bringing apples to their teachers, it somehow seems fitting that an old apple barn would find new life as a one-room schoolhouse. And it is just as fitting that a retired schoolteacher would become the caretaker of that historical treasure.

My friend Velma, a teacher for more than 30 years, has been retired for some time now, but that doesn’t stop her from giving history lessons at the old Englewood School, located on her family’s California ranch. The lovingly restored building was constructed with redwood logs around 1850 as a home for a woodsman. It later sat idle for a few years before being used as an apple barn. Then, in 1870, it began a new life as a schoolhouse.

Country Magazine schoolhouse retired teacher 3Courtesy Laurel Ann Wallace
Original desks still sit in the schoolhouse.

Originally located in the nearby Englewood meadow, the school closed in 1907, and the unused building began deteriorating in a muddy pasture. It was moved to its current site in 1978 by Velma’s late husband and his brother, Robert and Richard, who thought it would help keep Velma busy in retirement. The relocation was quite a challenge: No nails had been used in the original construction, so each piece of wood had to be carefully marked and the building reassembled on its new site. The brothers worked with much care and diligence to ensure a perfect fit of the mitered corners.

After the relocation, Velma and her family furnished the school with some of its original desks, along with an old woodstove, a working Victrola and a shelf holding assorted lunch pails. They also added a collection of schoolbooks, the oldest dating back to 1845. Perhaps the school’s most cherished memento is the diploma of student Hettie Essig, who graduated June 30, 1904. Hettie’s daughter, Flora, entrusted Velma with this precious keepsake.

Robert and Richard even built a belfry, installing the bell from a nearby school that was destroyed in a flood. Over the years, many delighted children have had the chance to pull the rope and hear the ringing of the bell that once summoned pupils to their studies.

Another interesting feature is the “necessary,” the outhouse behind the school. According to Velma, the 1870s facility was nothing more than a trench with a board over it. The current outbuilding has two sections: one left as is but with glass protecting it so it can’t be used, and the other featuring a “modern” Victorian toilet.

Country Magazine schoolhouse retired teacher 4Courtesy Laurel Ann Wallace
The belfry was built by Velma’s husband and houses a salvaged bell that visiting students ring.

Nowadays Velma gives tours to local schoolchildren and other groups, who learn what it was like to attend school back in the good old days. She has kids ring the school bell, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing “Good Morning to You” as they might have done in days gone by. Then, with twinkling eyes and much enthusiasm, she tells the history of the school, gives a short sample lesson and demonstrates how to use the old Victrola.

She’ll probably also tell a favorite story, the one about a school board trustee, Mr. George, who took a creative approach to the problem of declining enrollment at Englewood. Fearing the demise of the school, Mr. George, who had only four students at the time, wrote to Mary, an acquaintance who had three children. “I’ll marry you and we’ll have a class,” he proposed. The merger seems to have been a success. Within a few years the school had about a dozen students!

Both Velma and the Englewood School have seen many students and many apples come and go through the years. Both the veteran teacher and the venerable building have greatly enriched the lives of those who are fortunate enough to have learned a history lesson here.

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Originally Published in Country