Schools, Teachers In Rim Country

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This region’s schooling was quite different 125 years ago than it is now. One-room schoolhouses and shorter school terms were the norm. Teachers who traveled long distances and sometimes endured less than stellar conditions were typical. Here’s a look back at teaching in Rim Country.

Schools were big news in the early days. Calls for new schools often found their way into the paper and the building of a new school building was usually the occasion for a dance.

“The completion of the Tonto school house was the occasion of a dance in the new building recently which attracted thither nearly all the residents of the Valley. Dancing began at six o’clock p.m. and continued until the following morning.” – Dec. 13, 1884 Arizona Silver Belt

These dances were an all night, community affair, whose style can still be found lingering in various social gatherings in the region to this day. Folks often had to travel miles by horseback or on foot to these dances, so they were often a family affair, with a meal served at midnight. Such events captivated outsiders who came to the area, including author Zane Grey who often had schoolhouse dance scenes in his novels.

For a long time, people’s comings and goings would be reported in the newspaper and this was no different when it came to teachers, something that still can be found to a certain extent in the Payson Roundup.

“Mrs. Vena Thomas, who has been engaged to teach the Tonto public school, arrived from Oakland, Cali., on Wednesday’s buckboard. Mrs. Thomas formerly resided in Globe, and afterwards at Florence. Mrs. Thomas is a capable teacher and the people of Tonto school district are fortunate in securing her services.” – September 22, 1888 Arizona Silver Belt

In the early days, the region was cut up into a number of small school districts. At one point Gila County had upwards of 30 different school districts, all of which were basically their own schools run by local trustees; trustees who often had children in that school, just as is often the case today. Yet even in relatively “later” years, sometimes a schoolteacher could not be found and it became of great concern to the community, as this 1946 Prescott Evening Courier article shows:

“Pumpkin Center Scholars Lack Teacher This Year

“PUMPKIN CENTER, Ariz., Aug. 30 (AP) - Folks in historic Tonto basin are trying mighty hard to find a schoolma’am to follow in the footsteps of the brave women who years ago taught the kids of this cow country region while savage Indians menaced the settlement and rival stockmen fought it out in the west’s bloodiest feud.

“But it looks like there’ll be no teacher for the first six grades when it’s time for the Pumpkin Center school to open.

“In the early days of Arizona, adventurous young women came to the wild and wooly west to teach school, but none seems to want to come here now.

“The situation looks so bad that Storekeeper G.E. (Gyp) Toot figures he may have to take time off from weighing beans and flour to try his hand at school teaching.

“I’m sure no great shakes as a teacher,” Toot said from behind a rough wooden counter in his general store, gathering place for cattlemen and miners in this isolated eastern Arizona region. “But we can’t let our kids grow up without knowing how to read or write.

“We’d sure like to get a teacher,” he continued. “We can’t afford to pay more than $175 a month, plus the teacherage (a small furnished house free, with fuel), but we feel that a teacher who takes over here would get something more out of the experience than just her salary.

“John “Grandpa” Cline, 92, opined that kids ought to be able to get an education a lot easier than he did when he came to Pumpkin Center in 1855. He learned to read and write, he said, between Indian raids on the little town.

“Uncle Garfield Blake, who was born here 65 years ago, recalled that school kept during the Pleasant Valley war between the Grahams and the Tewksburys, and the teachers steady on the job while bullets were cutting down the fathers, brothers and uncles of the pupils.

“The Graham - Tewksbury feud formed the basis for Zane Grey’s novel, “To The Last Man.” The warfare ended only when there were no more able-bodied men of the two families to carry it on. There were 19 known deaths. Many old-timers say at least 25 were killed, and some of the extravagant fix the toll at 75.

“Today Tonto Basin is a quiet, sparsely settled ranching and mining area. Nevertheless the spirit and zest of the old west live on as vibrantly as anywhere west of the rockies.

“Maybe the salary isn’t great,” said Toot, “but we’ve got something here that might interest a school teacher in the crowded drab cities of the east and midwest. We’ll sure try to make it pleasant for the gal who takes over the first six grades in our little school house.”

In the past, schools weren’t without conflict either. Sometimes folks didn’t care for the teacher and attempted to get them removed, as this clip from the November 29, 1900 Arizona Silver Belt shows,

“We learn that there was a feeble attempt made this week to secure names to a petition asking for the removal of the teacher of our school. It is an undisputed fact that there never has been a teacher engaged in the district for the past ten years that some chronic kicker did not come to the front disappointed. But when foul means are attempted to question the character of others, especially of strangers in our midst, and to attempt to break up a school, people generally should at once condemn such actions as ungentlemanly and against good morals.”

Author’s note

Photos Wanted — As I move forward with an upcoming photo book, I’m still looking for old photos of the region from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. You can best reach me at timothy@zanegrey.net.

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