Oak Tree School > 1. The Seed is Planted

“So the State just said, ‘you need some new schools out there.’ Plus there was a whole bunch of people moving in, and having kids, and so the schools were starting to grow. … But the State didn’t want to build two separate schools. They said, ‘you really need to merge these two districts together and then build one school’ … and as I recall that was the basic scenario.”

—Doc Dachtler, teacher at North Columbia Schoolhouse and construction volunteer


In the 1960s, the San Juan Ridge – known to locals as “the Ridge” – was primarily still the home of the mining, logging, and ranching families who had settled there during the previous one hundred years. At the time, the some of the original one-room schoolhouses of that era were still in operation. Toward the end of the decade and into the next, a new generation of homesteaders began to arrive in search of a simpler lifestyle and a connection with the land. A state law requiring existing schools to be earthquake resistant by 1970 would compel the community to build a new school.

ONE-ROOM SCHOOLHOUSES

At this time, the San Juan Ridge was still split up into two separate school districts: the San Juan School District, which operated North San Juan School and Birchville School; and the Cherokee School District, which operated the North Columbia School. In 1967, Doc Dachtler and Shelley Spalding moved to the San Juan Ridge to jointly teach at the North Columbia School. They were considered some of the early pioneers for the new generation migrating to the Ridge. Meanwhile, in 1971 at San Juan School, Bill McQuerry had become principal and a teacher. The following recounts some of their experiences prior to Oak Tree School being built.

Shelley Spalding: We did not know anyone living [on the San Juan Ridge]. Doc was a five-year bachelor-degree student – we were both at UC-Davis – and he had just gotten his degree in Philosophy. He had taken the Civil Service exam, and they had offered him a job as a revenue collector, to go collect taxes. That wasn’t very appealing. We heard from his cousin that there was an opening for a schoolteacher [at North Columbia School] – I don’t know how his cousin heard of this – so then we pursued it. I was really excited because we’d been living in Davis – which is very flat and hot and dry. And this was up in the Sierra foothills, and the names of the towns, and the rivers, and the fact that there would be pine trees was like a dream come true. So – in order to look really like a schoolmarm [for the interview] – I borrowed a dress from my mother and put my hair in a bun. I don’t know how much that helped us get the job!

Doc Dachtler: [The Cherokee School District] was looking for a teacher in this one room school. And you didn’t need a teaching credential, you just needed a bachelor’s degree, and then you had to start working to get your credential. So that’s how I came up here. And it was [at] what’s now the [North Columbia Schoolhouse] Cultural Center. And it was pretty much a country school. They had just put running water into the school that year. And we used outhouses for a couple of years.

Shelley Spalding: Neither Doc nor I had ever had an education class or were credentialed teachers. This was at a time when there was a shortage of teachers. So the fact that we applied three weeks before school was to start … and that they had had several teachers prior to us that they were not very happy with, they decided to go with us. … They could only hire one teacher under State laws because of the enrolment size – so the School Board gave us every job they could think of.

Doc Dachtler: We promised that we’d both teach, because it was a one-salary school. And it also turned out they needed a bus driver and a janitor, so we took those two jobs too! We had a Volkswagen bus, so we could haul like seven kids at a time, and we made three trips up and back, you know? And I think that the first year the teaching salary was $6,800. And the school bus driving was I think $3,200. And the janitor was a thousand. … I never saved as much money in my life as when I was working there!

Shelley Spalding: When we interviewed, there were three members on the School Board … and they asked Doc how fond he was of his beard. This was ’67 when Haight-Ashbury was going on and people were starting to trickle out of the city up into the foothills, so they were a little leery of Doc having a beard, and he told them that he’d had a beard since he was 16 and he was rather fond of it. And so they said, okay. That was never an issue.

Doc Dachtler: Our school boundaries went down to just before Highway 49 and then they came up kind of along Tyler [Foote] road, and – along the south side of Tyler as it came up – and then at some point, like around Cherokee, we took in that area on the north of Tyler, and then up. And then it went all the way up to the high country where the Washington school district took over.

Shelley Spalding: [The North Columbia Schoolhouse] wasn’t quite a hundred years old when we started teaching. But of those 16 children that we taught, about 12 of them came from three families and then the other four were only children that came from other families. In the three years that Doc and I taught there, the enrolment doubled from 16 to 32, which was a really big deal.

We had support from the community. … We would have occasional work parties, and again this was the North Columbia Schoolhouse. There was another school in North San Juan, so it was about half of what the district is now was at the North Columbia Schoolhouse.

Bill McQuerry: I was the principal in the North San Juan School. Which meant that I read the mail. I think you were expected to have a teaching credential, but what I’d always heard was that, before I arrived, the superintendents office dragged somebody kicking and screaming out to North San Juan and put them there. So that was sort of a beginning teacher job, and as soon as you could, you went some place else. I think that was the gist of it. When I arrived in 1971 there were three bars in North San Juan for the population of 125.

When I came in 1971, there were only three of us that applied for the job, and within a very short time that changed radically. I believe I remember at one point in the ‘70s [after the districts unified] we had 800 applicants as part of the back to the land movement. It suddenly became very popular to move to the country, to move to a simpler lifestyle, to move to a smaller school. And we suddenly had a huge influx of educated people who wanted to teach in the country.

Shelley Spalding: Gary Snyder hadn’t moved up there yet, the back-to-the-landers had not moved up there yet. We were pretty lone cowboys out there in terms of people… the majority of people were miners, ranchers, or loggers. In fact, that’s what everybody did, unless they were a school teacher. So that was out constituency … and we were… the community really appreciated… we took it very seriously, teaching those kids. You know, I felt like, this is their future, you know? I’ve got to be sure they all learn how to read and write. And the community really appreciated that.

[During] that particular three years, we joined the square dancing club, participated in horse shows with the Ridge Riders. … That experience and our connection to the existing community helped us to be a bridge as more people came up with an alternative lifestyle. Doc and I were often considered… at one point we were called the founding mother and the founding father. But that was in kind of a negative context. There was a point where there was a lot of tension with the old timers.

 

EARLY EXPERIENCES

Some of the people who would become part of the core crew for the Oak Tree School project first came together during the summer of 1969 to help build a home on the San Juan Ridge for poet and author, Gary Snyder. Daniel Osborne and Zach Stewart, who would become the architects for the new school, had earlier become acquainted with Snyder after discovering that he was the author of the “Smokey the Bear Sutra” – a playfully subversive poem about the need to oppose the degradation of the planet by industry. Osborne and Stewart proceeded to design a home for Snyder, which was to be built with old techniques of construction. Unbeknownst to the crew at time, the project would serve as an early prototype for how to work together and overcome the challenges of Oak Tree School.

Gary Snyder: Jimmy Coughlan came out here one time, somebody drove him out when we were at the height of doing a lot of building work. [Ed. note: Jimmy Coughlan owned a ranch with his brothers – still in operation by his heirs – across from the North Columbia Schoolhouse.] The siding wasn’t on – you could see through everything. And he was obviously pleased, he said, “Nobody’s built a house like this around here in a long time.” That was definitely part of his praise for it. He couldn’t figure out where people who would want to do that came from, even.

Bruce [Boyd] and Jeff [Gold] were very much part of that. So the things that they had done here, and the kinds of tools they had used here, were very much in their mind when they started working [on Oak Tree School]. And they knew that they could get certain kinds of Ponderosa pine logs, they knew they could work with hand tools, or with machine tools.

I think that probably the most important thing, was that we had good organization here. And the organization, which I imposed on it mostly, started with Forest Service labor camps, seasonal trail crew camps, and the way we divided up the cooking, and what kind of cooking utensils we had. And that was part of that background. And some of the Buddhist monastery cooperative cooking and dishwashing, and daily schedules, and so forth. … So handling the crew was something they already had some experience with here. That’s probably more valuable than most of the other stuff – that people realized they can work together. A lot of them had never done that before.

Bob Erickson: I [do] think that part of the model of the building of the school was the building of Gary’s [house] – because that came earlier. People [were] learning how to interact, and work together, and really do a major task. And doing something that was unusual, or hadn’t quite been done like that before.

Gary Snyder: So that all lies behind building the school. That certain pride of the possibility.

 

THE DISTRICTS MERGE

An amendment to the 1933 Field Act had required all school buildings in California to meet higher standards for earthquake resistance. Schools could either be retrofitted, or replaced. With the population growing, the two school boards chose to merge and build a single campus. In 1971, the San Juan Ridge Union School District was formed and got a bond measure passed, which also released matching funds from the state. Subsequently the site along Oak Tree Road was purchased for the future school.

Shelley Spalding: I knew that there was going to be a school-building project … and I wanted to be involved in that process. As I remember, they formed a special school board to deal with the building project – getting the architect, getting the bids, getting the specs, getting the [project] going. [At that time] there was a school board in North San Juan and a school board in North Columbia, [each of which handled] the budget and operations of the two schools.

Jenny Travers: I was very excited about the Oak Tree School project. We were crammed into one-room schoolhouses, sometimes 15 miles apart. My mother said it was something out of her childhood when she was going to school in Idaho at the turn of the century.

Bill McQuerry: I think the philosophy of education in our district was driven by the board members. So we went from a very conservative board [at San Juan School] in 1971, expanded that to [the unified school board] and ended up with some folks who had very progressive ideas about education, not all of which were based on any kind of facts, but perhaps just from reading all those books that I was reading about also in college that talked about giving kids freedom. So our school swung towards open classrooms and a lot more freedom for the kids. … That was a very popular idea in those days. Open classrooms. Open schools, without walls necessarily separating classrooms.

Shelly Covert: I do remember [hearing about] some contention at some of the meetings. You know, that’s one thing about the Covert women – they never held anything back. You just, you get it all. You don’t even have to ask for their opinion, you get it. [Ed. note: Shelly Covert’s aunt, Idabel Covert, served on the School Board.]

Pete Milano: In July 1972 I applied for the teacher-principal-superintendent job, for the San Juan Ridge Union School District, which had just unionized. [After I got the job] one of the first things I was just tickled pink to find out about was that [we were] gonna build a new school. … We were going through a real, serious transformation.

Bob Eiermann: Well, I listened to those school board meetings. This side, and this side. This side and this side. And it was like, “man, are we gonna resolve this?” And all of a sudden Gene [Stuart] would speak up. And he’d go, “Well, I think that what we need to do is boom, boom, boom, boom.” And all of a sudden everybody would kind of look at each other. And I swear – I say it now – common sense is so rare, it’s a super power. And Gene had it! Gene had it.