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Dunbar Old School

Dunbar Old School
Students of the Dunbar Unified School District pose for a class photo outside a schoolhouse at the turn of the twentieth century.Source: Dunbar Elementary School

By Tracy Salcedo

In Dunbar Elementary School’s library, old-time students captured in images dating back more than a century gaze sternly at their modern counterparts. They are silent, serious, and dressed funny. Today’s scholars gaze at their frozen-in-time faces and wonder: Are they dead? Is that Dunbar School? Why aren’t they smiling? Why aren’t they in color?

Back in the Day

Dunbar, established in 1857 and touted as the second-longest continuously operational school in California, is the last physical link to the Dunbar Unified School District, which encompassed a family of old-time schoolhouses scattered across the north valley from Sonoma Mountain to the Mayacamas. Historic records housed on the Glen Ellen campus document the rise and demise of the district, which included Trinity School, on Trinity Road near the junction with Cavedale; Los Guilicos School in what is now Kenwood; Glen Ellen School, which moved around “downtown” in the wake of a series of minor disasters; Dunbar School, then located closer to the mouth of Nuns Canyon; and Enterprise School, on Enterprise Road on the north slope of Sonoma Mountain.

What was schooling like in those days? Records dating back to 1896 and kept by teachers with meticulous penmanship provide a glimpse. Scholars were required to come to school with “clean hands and faces;” if sent to wash, they stayed 10 minutes after dismissal. If caught snapping their fingers, punishment was writing “25 words;” in the back of the 1899-1900 record, the words “motion,” “theater,” and “particular” are scrawled 25 times in progressively sloppier fashion. A pair of fourth graders were recommended for advancement to fifth grade “on condition of great improvement in arithmetic and deportment.” A teacher noted little Maud would perform better if she weren’t deaf.

Dunbar’s schoolmistresses kept attendance and recorded honor rolls, suspensions and explusions, and notes on students’ performance in Public School Registers. The lesson plans were all-inclusive: On every school day, pupils spanning nine grades studied arithmetic, mental arithmetic, bookkeeping, and “number work”; reading, word analysis, language, spelling, grammar, composition, and penmanship; and geography, civil government, physiology, history, and natural history. Any spare time was filled with drawing and singing, morals and manners, rhetorical exercises and, of course, “busy work.”

Miss Alice Griffin was a favorite among students. “One day,” Louise Mangiantini told historian Bob Glotzbach, “we had an eclipse of the sun and she got us all together outside. She was telling us the story about how her father had to go out during an eclipse and milk the cow because it got so dark the cow thought it was milking time. She was waving a piece of paper and saying, ‘Hey kids! This is what will happen; we will have to milk the cow because it’ll get so dark and cold.’ She was walking up and down and telling that to all the kids. She was so excited.”

Fire and Flood

Reading the recollections of students in Glotzbach’s Childhood Memories of Glen Ellen, it becomes clear that one of the biggest events in the district’s history was the day, in 1925, the two-room Glen Ellen schoolhouse burned down.

“A prankster on Halloween stuffed several empty grain sacks down the chimney to fill the classrooms with smoke,” Bud Frideger remembered. “Instead the school burned to the ground.” All that was left of the schoolhouse on the knoll above the Chauvet Hotel, according to another student, was “the old school bell with its burnt supports, still lying there in the grass.”

There was a suspect: Herb Bruning, who grew up on Sonoma Mountain and had transferred to the Glen Ellen school after Enterprise School closed in 1924. “I remember I got ‘burned up’ at one of the teachers about something (I’m not sure what about) and told several kids that I hoped the school would burn down; and it did burn down a few days later,” he recounted. “I really had nothing to do with that, but they called me into the office and asked me questions.”

Whomever the culprit, the fire riled the children. The next morning, Joe Lennon recalled, “all the kids (were there); some were crying, some were laughing, jumping around, and clapping their hands. The school burned down; so we didn’t have to go to school.”

But eventually students did go back, now to a little red schoolhouse off O’Donnell Road near the confluence of Sonoma and Calabazas Creeks. One of Verna Bliven Morris’s happiest memories came shortly thereafter, when that school “washed away down the creek one stormy day. My teacher despaired that I’d ever learn math. I could hardly contain my glee when all those blackboards I hated so washed down the creek.”

The Glen Ellen school moved from place to place after the fire and flood, according to Glotzbach’s history. Classes held in a nearby home were split into two rooms, grades 1 through 4 next door to grades 5 through 8. “It was a good way to learn,” Frideger recalled, “because you heard your lessons for the next year.” The Gaige House and the Castle Cozy on O’Donnell Lane were also enlisted as schoolhouses before the district consolidated on today’s Dunbar school site in 1930.

Disasters notwithstanding, Glen Ellen’s Stan Larkin, like other students at the time, eventually graduated high school, even if it took “a little while to do it.” In those days, Larkin recalled, “if you lived on a farm or ranch, you worked when the prunes or grapes or whatever were ready to pick, and if it was a late season, you worked when school was going. You didn’t go to school, and the school system accepted that.”

Then Larkin’s curmudgeon kicked in: “But not anymore. Kids worked at a young age in those days and knew how to take care of themselves. When I was 11 years old, I’d been bailing hay for two years already.” And, no doubt, walking both ways to school uphill in the snow.

Tracy Salcedo is an award-winning author based in Glen Ellen.