Times Past

Cambria’s historic schoolhouse has a role in one of SLO County’s oldest cold cases

The schoolmaster was often the most trusted man in America’s rural school districts. While some of his students might hold different opinions, the schoolmaster’s probity, impartiality and wisdom were valued by the community.

In at least one instance, this trust contributed to the death of the first schoolmaster at Cambria’s Santa Rosa School. Orson Kirk “O.K.” Smith was a person of accomplishment years before he arrived in Cambria.

Smith had served as a California State Assemblyman representing Tulare County in the 1861 Legislature. He was also a Deputy Sheriff in Tulare. In 1866, when the boom in dairy farming and cinnabar mining struck Cambria simultaneously, Smith moved to the North Coast. He took a job teaching in the original log cabin Santa Rosa School for $50 a month.

By 1867, his pay was raised to $60 a month and at 39 students, his class had the highest enrollment of any school in the county except for the Mission School in San Luis Obispo.

By 1870, Smith had become a Deputy Marshal for the U.S. Census. He was so highly regarded by his neighbors that they entrusted him with their county tax payments that needed to be paid to the tax collector in San Luis Obispo.

In February 1871, he disappeared under mysterious circumstances somewhere between Cayucos and Morro Bay. He had $600 in tax payments with him. His disappearance is arguably the oldest “cold case” file in the history of our region. It was certainly a sad end for Cambria’s first teacher.

Despite economic prosperity, beset by floods and fires, Cambria had acquired the derisive name of “Slabtown.” A spirit of municipal pride set in as businesses in the town and homes on the surrounding ranches improved their appearance. By 1878, Santa Rosa School was still located in the old log cabin that O.K. Smith taught in.

In July 1880, the editors of the San Luis Obispo Tribune wrote that the school “looks like a dilapidated barn, built sometime before California was ceded to the United States... we doubt if there is another as miserable a structure in the State used for school purposes.”

The following year, a proper, clapboard-covered school was constructed. It was used until 1952.

Debbie Soto’s “Let the School Bells Ring” tells the story of the Santa Rosa schoolhouse and its rural companion, the Mammoth Rock School.

As the grandson of a one-room “school marm,” I’ve heard many similar stories, but I never tire of them. My favorite story that happened in schools from rural Pennsylvania to our own North Coast is that of boys asking to go to the outside restroom, one at a time, only to meet in the schoolyard where their fishing poles were concealed.

In 1964, Delfino Molinari saved the 1881 Santa Rosa School House by donating and having it moved to the west end of Cambria. The Cambria Historical Society is now charged with relocating and renovating the School House. The new site is a 6-acre parcel at the eastern entrance to town, which would return the Santa Rosa to its original rural setting.

In 1908, there were more than ninety rural school districts in our county according to a list published in the San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram.

Each was the nexus of a small community of ranchers and farmers. All manner of activities were held in the schoolhouse. In 1867, the Rev. Alden Spooner, who later founded the town of Morro (Bay), preached one of the first Protestant services in our county in the Santa Rosa School House.

Now only a handful of schoolhouses remain, some converted to wine tasting rooms and several, like the Los Osos School, have been moved to park settings.

If you would like to help move and restore Santa Rosa School, either with your talent or with money, contact the Cambria Historical Society at 805-927-2891 or go to cambriahistoricalsociety.com. The Cambria Historical Museum, located at 2251 Center St. and is staffed by volunteers Monday-Friday from 1 to 4 p.m.

You can purchase Soto’s “Let the School Bells Ring” at the museum.

You can hear her speak on the one-room schools of Cayucos at the Cayucos History night Friday, Sept. 27, in the Cayucos School auditorium at 7 p.m.

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