A short drive down the windy Fossil Creek Road, past dozens of modern homes, is a piece of history quietly nestled on a corner lot of Strawberry.
Surrounded by development, the Strawberry Schoolhouse, a 125-year-old “fossil” has outlasted most everything around it and will likely outlive these new structures.
You wouldn’t know it from the outside, but this little schoolhouse has been around since Geronimo was still on the loose and being pursued by 20 percent of the U.S. Army, the Pleasant Valley War was raging in Tonto Basin and pioneers were still settling the state.
The Strawberry Schoolhouse stands as evidence of the pioneers’ quest for knowledge.
The schoolhouse is made of thick, worn pine logs, chopped from the surrounding forests and hoisted into place during a one-day log-raising party in the autumn of 1884. Today, the logs grudgingly support a refurbished roof of shingles.
Although tired, evident by a slight tilt and slouch the entire building takes, these boards, crafted together with a half dovetail notch, have held up through enough students, cowboys, landowners and ranchers to make anything keel over in exhaustion.
Where others have fallen, however, dedicated volunteers and residents have kept this one room schoolhouse standing, allowing visitors the opportunity to peek at what it was like to attend school in the Wild West.
The interior, painstakingly refurbished, holds what you might expect to find in a sparse, turn of the century schoolhouse: a few rows of seating, a black, pot-belly stove, slate chalkboard, organ and teacher’s desk. The space also holds a few surprises that hint at the social norms of the time.
A dunce’s corner for misbehaving pupils and a set of rules hung neatly on the wall. The rules for teachers, who were primarily women, include no keeping company with men, loitering in ice cream stores, smoking, dressing in bright colors and under no circumstances, dying your hair.
Schoolhouse volunteer Mary Hunt laughs at the list, noting things sure have changed for teachers in the 21st century.
Although Hunt did not attend the school, her mother-in-law, Donnetta Lufkin Hunt did and her husband, Albert Lufkin Hunt, grew up in the area and visited the schoolhouse frequently throughout his life.
Hunt’s family history is intertwined with the schoolhouse and the family donated several items to the building when it was restored.
The organ, which was donated to the schoolhouse during reconstruction, was found in the chicken coop owned by Albert’s grandmother. The original organ, now long gone, was given to the school by Lois Fuller, granddaughter of Rosetta Hunt.
Mary said her husband loved to visit the schoolhouse and its restoration meant a lot to him, like so many other old-timers in the area. Mary has been a volunteer at the schoolhouse since the Pine-Strawberry Archaeological and Historical Society opened it in the 1980s.
Mary can recall nearly the whole history of the schoolhouse, from its humble beginnings to its current state today.
She explained in 1884, the beginnings of the schoolhouse took shape. Families living in the area at the time asked the county school superintendent to build a school for local children. The superintendent approved the request and the Strawberry Valley school district was formed. The school opened for students in 1885.
The location for the schoolhouse was decided by cowboys who used a cattle rope to count the distance in lengths between one cabin on the west end of the valley and another cabin on the east end. In the middle, the schoolhouse was built.
The outside of the schoolhouse featured a shake roof, glass windows on the east and west sides and a bell over the front door.
Inside, the interior was outfitted elegantly for the time. Wainscoting covered the lower half of the walls with wallpaper above. The ceiling, originally cloth, was replaced with wood and the floor was made of sawn boards. Students sat at two-person factory-made desks, an upgrade from wooden benches and tables common at the time.
The building was well used for many years as a schoolhouse, social center and church.
After three decades of use, however, officials were forced to close the school due to a lack of students.
Several families subsequently lived in the building until it was ultimately abandoned and left to rot. Over the years, the schoolhouse structure deteriorated until only the pine logs remained.
Finally, in 1967, an official from the Page Land and Cattle Company bought the site just before the schoolhouse was to be torn down and handed it over to the Payson-Pine Chamber of Commerce. Volunteers shored up the outside of the structure so it was weatherproof and secure.
More than a decade later, in 1980, the historical society restored the interior and opened the schoolhouse once more to visitors. In 1981, the building was dedicated as a historical monument.
The Strawberry Schoolhouse is a place of history and rightfully holds the title of Oldest Standing Schoolhouse in Arizona.
If you go, the schoolhouse is located on Fossil Creek Road, 1.75 miles from Highway 87 in Strawberry. It is open on weekends and holidays May through September.
If you are lucky, Hunt might even let you in during the off-season. Hunt still lives nearby and often lets curious travelers in if she sees them standing outside.
For more information, visit www.pinestrawhs.org/schoolhouse.html.