As early as 1876, a small schoolhouse was serving pupils in the East Fork School District, south of Gardnerville, Nevada. Parents were so unhappy with the school’s location, however, that a vote was held that year to compel its removal to “a more central” spot.
Back then, folks thought nothing of dismantling an entire building and hammering back together again somewhere else. Soon, the early East Fork school had been spirited off to a new and improved location.
Now sitting just north of Wheeler’s Twelve Mile House (today’s Smoke Shop) and three miles south of Gardnerville, the reconstructed school was perched on the east side of the river, across from the Wilslef home. No bridges crossed the river there, however. And that meant that “in the spring when the water was high, there wasn’t much school,” as Peter Wilslef chuckled in an interview with the Record-Courier in 1958.
But just moving the old building to this new, more-felicitous location wasn’t enough for the ambitious East Fork school district. By July 1880, bids were being solicited to construct a spanking new school building. Miss Emma Jennison, the East Fork teacher in those days, must have been heartily pleased with her fresh classroom. As for the old, original school building? It wasn’t forgotten as a potential revenue source; the empty shell was auctioned off to the highest bidder in December, 1880. Waste not, want not.
Local parents aspired to make the East Fork School the “best schoolhouse in the county, outside of Genoa.” So after the new building was up, additional improvements quickly followed. New desks were purchased for the pupils in 1882, and a “fine Chapel organ” was acquired in 1884. Somewhere along the line, the school acquired a warm and welcoming school bell, too.
The school building served as a meeting place for the whole East Fork community. Sunday services were held inside its walls for decades. And when voting time rolled around, the schoolhouse was turned into a polling place. On Christmas Eve in 1884, the entire East Fork community gathered there around a communal Christmas tree at the little school to exchange presents and greet Henry Beste, all dressed up as Santa.
Enterprising teachers pulled together “programmes” for the enjoyment of the community, with students as the entertainment. Fidgeting youngsters would recite carefully-memorized pieces and sing off-key but chipper songs. Much to the delight of parents and grandparents from the “Old Country,” sometimes those memorized tunes were even sung in German. Fees for admission to these gala events (50 cents a head) went toward purchasing new books for the school’s library.
Teachers were a precious commodity, and not just for the book-learning they dispensed. Marriage-age female teachers, often from other towns, could be important additions to the local gene pool. One teacher followed the other at the East Fork School in rapid succession, typically leaving when either a husband or a better position was found. Following Miss Emma Jennison behind the teacher’s desk in the classroom were Julia McCord, Ida Pettegrew, Kate Nevin, and May Tierney. Miss Hattie Cushing, one of the longest-lasting East Fork schoolmarms, taught there from September 1893 through 1902 before moving on to teach at Mono Lake.
Competition among districts to snag the best teachers could be intense. Miss Eugenia Arnot, daughter of Alpine County judge N.D. Arnot, was lured away from her post at the Gardnerville School in July, 1902 with a can’t-refuse offer of $70 per month to teach at East Fork — a twenty-five percent increase over what she previously had been making.
In its hey-day, East Fork School attendance ranged from roughly twenty to forty students. A list of those who learned their ‘Three R’s’ within its walls reads a bit like a “Who’s Who” of old Carson Valley: Allerman, Bartels, Berning, Frantzen, Hussman, Dangberg, Jacobsen, Robishaw, Rodenbah, Settelmeyer, Springmeyer, Syll. Kids arrived in carts and aboard wagons, on horseback, and by foot. But by 1915, the East Fork School had outlived its usefulness. Its twin doors (one for boys, one for girls) were closed for good.
Such a sturdy wooden building couldn’t be allowed to go to waste, however. Henry Elges bought the structure and moved it near the “S” bend in Gardnerville, to become Elges’ “green goods and vegetable store.” Elges was followed by John and Norma Ellis, who briefly operated their own grocery store there. By the mid-1930s the former school building had become the Gardnerville Laundry, operated by George Oka before being acquired in August, 1940 by the Nishikida family. And they continued to own the establishment for over 25 years.
Today, almost no one gives this humble wooden building a second glance. But next time you drive by, we hope you’ll remember its past. Not so very long ago, it was the pride of East Fork parents, the cheerful roof under which a community once gathered. Listen carefully and maybe, just maybe, you’ll catch the faint echo of a welcoming school bell.
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Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. For more about Karen, her books and other fun stuff she’s written, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.