There is an ongoing enchantment with old-time school houses and the tales of the teachers and students from days of yore. Debbie Soto, great-granddaughter of Carlo “Charles” Fiscalini and wife of Bob Soto of another founding family of the Central Coast, has been steeped in the history of our area and its value for education.
Two structures which remain in the North Coast area serve as a vivid reminder of that ethic, and Soto has also catalogued a wealth of memories from two other long-gone schools in her book, “Glimpses of a Bygone Era: One Room Schools Along the Hearst Ranch.”
The earliest, Washington School, which actually began in a tent, was moved more than once, due to the re-districting according to the residence and small numbers of pupils who would attend. Typically there could be 10-20 (never fewer than five) children of all ages and grade levels, all taught simultaneously in the one room by a teacher marvelously underpaid for all her creativity in providing learning activities in addition the traditional “three Rs”: “readin’, ’ritin’, and ’rithmetic.”
During the winter at least one child was unable to attend because he could not cross the rain-swollen creeks on his usual walk to school, disappointed not to be the earliest arrival and so ring the school bell, a cherished task. Some of the anecdotes indicate a fondness for attending school with others from the nearby ranches and Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, and the resulting socialization and opportunities to perform in the frequent plays.
Imagine acting before a roomful of parents and neighbors in “Romeo and Juliet” with many of the roles played by boys in costume. One teacher had so many male pupils named with various forms of James that they re-named one of them Joe.
The book is chock-full of fond recollections, even including the knuckle-rapping with a ruler, and a visit to the cloak room for a reprimand. Deportment was as important as academics. (Raise your hand if you remember those terms: cloak room and deportment.)
The much-photographed and painted Pacific Schoolhouse has been preserved in a field near Sebastian’s General Store & Café in San Simeon, an area where once there was a large and thriving community serving George and Phoebe Hearst’s ranch — and, eventually, magnate William Randolph Hearst’s La Cuesta Encantada (enchanted hill).
The longest segment of the book covers the reminiscences of many local residents who attended the school during its 65-year run, 1881-1950; they remember each other and teachers with affection, including one who endured mischief for two years. The school benefited from the munificence of the Hearsts to the residents as well, with Christmas gifts of jewelry, toys, clothing and fabrics, including “35 yards of lavender pussy-willow satin” going “to the lady with the red hair.”
Soto has done her homework, including much research from The Tribune, legal records, journals, maps, fleshed out with interviews with locals, vividly illustrating the social life which centered about the schools. Meet the petite 16-year-old who taught at the Polar Star School near San Carpoforo Creek for a short time, while packing a loaded pistol in her gun belt. And, speaking of guns, you’ll not want to miss the saga of young Evelyn Clemence and how she met and ultimately married handsome, lively Tom Evans, who caught her attention on more than one instance.
Farther north and higher in the Santa Lucia range was the aptly named Alta School, which spanned but six years in an area on the route between the coast and the inland San Antonio Mission. All that remains are some fruit and olive trees which had been planted by the Franciscans. The Portola expedition describes the rugged and isolated route they had taken in 1769, and not much has changed through the years that pioneering families homesteaded there with large families since then.
Awe-inspiring also is the almost insurmountable task of building and furnishing the school, complete with a pump organ, hauling everything up into that wilderness on horses and mules. Ultimately, the building itself was salvaged as timber for other purposes, a common practice.
Author Debbie Soto will sign copies of “Glimpses of a Bygone Era: One Room Schools Along the Hearst Ranch,” which will be available for $19.95, from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 14, at the Cambria Historical Museum.
Complete with fascinating personal anecdotes, punctuated with the pathos of lonely walks and unfortunate death, and an occasional reference to weight gain due to cream cakes or venison and beans, it is a valuable resource for all the families who have roots in the Central Coast — also for fans of our rich and vivid history.
Consuelo Macedo is a volunter with the Cambria Historical Society. The Cambria Historical Museum at the corner of Burton Drive and Center Street is open 1 to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday. For more, go to www.cambriahistorical society.com.