Residents Rally To Build Little Red Schoolhouse

Jilted by the state, community of Tonto Basin makes new preschool building a reality


What’s in a schoolhouse? Well, a lot if you are a little red schoolhouse. Especially if you were a famous landmark for one small, rural community that housed classes, church services, dances, weddings and even a few funerals within its wooden walls.

On Saturday, Tonto Basin and Punkin Center residents fondly remembered their famed schoolhouse, which was torn down 30 years ago and celebrated their newest schoolhouse, built with painstaking detail to the original.


photo courtesy of Katy Taylor

More than two dozen classmates that attended the Little Red Schoolhouse in Tonto Basin from the 1930s to the 1980s attended the dedication ceremony for the new schoolhouse Saturday, which will be used as a preschool.

From the barn red siding to the school bell hung over the door, everything looked the same from the outside. The only difference was the size. The latest schoolhouse is a lot smaller, built to house preschool classes instead of civic functions.

However, the new schoolhouse almost didn’t happen.

When the Tonto Basin School District asked the State Facility Board to build an addition to house the preschool program (formerly housed in a tiny room in a nearby library), the state put a moratorium on all new school construction.

This put a stop to the project.


Alexis Bechman/Roundup

The original bell that rang in the early years was restored and dedicated to Maude Jennings, who taught at the school for 12 years.

“I was pretty devastated,” said Superintendent Johnny Ketchem.

Luckily, a number of parents and concerned citizens, including Laura Schroeder, met to find another way.

“She (Schroeder) said, ‘Well let’s just build one,’” Ketchem said.

Schroeder pointed to the fact that years earlier residents had helped build the existing Tonto Basin elementary school when the state said it could not be done.

A plan was made and the wheels were set in motion to collect as much donated supplies and labor. The rest would be raised through fund-raisers and donations.

It took a year to earn enough money, with the district chipping in $50,000 it raised through federal forest money paid in lieu of taxes.

When the call was put out for workers, retired contractors in the area and Payson High School’s building and trades class students stepped up, eager to help erect what has become a landmark and point of pride for residents.

All along, the team’s goal was to make the outside look as much like the original schoolhouse.

Ketchem joked that the iconic red color took some time to get right.

“There are more coats of paint on it than any eight buildings combined,” he said.

As many as 10 coats were added, enough “they probably didn’t need any nails.”

After it was all done, Ketchem said he stood back and realized he was glad the state had dropped funding. If they had not, they would have built a box with little personality.

“Only in Tonto Basin” could this have happened, he added. “I thank everyone who contributed.”

Teri Cline, a lifelong Tonto Basin resident whose family has seven generations that attended the school, said the original schoolhouse represented more than just four walls.

“It was a community center,” she said. “We held funerals, potlucks, fund-raisers, weddings — everything there.”

Betty Sue Conway, one of the last teachers who taught at the original red schoolhouse, said it was sad to see the schoolhouse get torn down in 1984, but it was structurally too unsound.

“It is a part of our history,” said resident Jeannie Cline.


Alexis Bechman/Roundup

To celebrate the new “little red schoolhouse,” Norma Cline decorated a cake to look exactly like the original.

“Even though it is gone, our memories are not,” Teri said.

The residents of Tonto Basin have always been a tight-knit bunch.

“If anyone needs anything, we are there for them,” Teri said.

Nowhere was the resident’s sense of pride and community more evident than at Saturday’s dedication ceremony for the new schoolhouse.

Old and young reminisced over photos, scrapbooks and memorabilia from the original schoolhouse.

Volunteers contacted alumni and some 25 classmates that attended from the 1930s to the 1980s shared stories and their favorite memories at the schoolhouse. Leroy Tucker, who attended the school from 1943 to 1945, said he remembers the time a boy ate mesquite beans and got sick and another time the school served cod fish, which was one of the worst smelling things ever. Most of all, Tucker said he remembers the good times.


Alexis Bechman/Roundup

Photos and memorabilia from the original schoolhouse were spread out on tables.

The original bell that rang in the early years was restored and dedicated to Maude Jennings, who taught at the school for 12 years.

The preschool includes a testing room, office space, storage room and a large classroom.

While there will not be any dances or funerals held there, plenty of good memories are sure to be made by the next generation.


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