7. The Doors Open

“The extraness was very apparent to all of us kids. … [I have these] indelible memories of looking up at all … the motifs that were everywhere in the building. … The library was really exciting – I remember how the [posts] hit these beautiful polished rocks, and how there was embedded silver and turquoise [in the wood] that made the structure of the library room. … We were very aware.”

–Caleb Dardick, student


By April 1976 the finishing touches were being applied to Oak Tree School. Shady Creek Construction Company had finished the job on schedule as promised. Teachers, parents and students welcomed the completion of the school with a big celebration featuring poetry, puppet theater, and local bands, including Cousin Cricket. During the course of the project, the population of the San Juan Ridge had grown to such an extent that the school was already undersized and plans for expansion were underway. In the fall, the first full school year at Oak Tree School commenced.

 Shelley Spalding: You know, building that school was very empowering. It was kind of like, we can do what we want to do, if we set our minds to it; if we work hard; and if we learn about the process. We can do this. This was [the time of] Vietnam War, Civil Rights. Those kinds of things were going on … [and] changes were being made – very significant ones – and our little community [was] out there feeling like we have some control over our destiny. Because we concretely actualized it. We did do it.

Bob Eiermann: It was unbelievable. I mean, my chest was puffed out. When that thing was done, I was like, “god, this is really cool.” … You know, everybody’s handy work was there to see. You’d walk in and say “yeah, I did this.” … So the sense of community was just overwhelming.

Jeff Gold: The pride in the school was evidenced by what took place when it was finished – when it became the centerpiece of the community. That’s where people gathered. There was no cultural center at the time. There were an enormous number of diverse events that were held in the Lodge. It was a great place that a hundred and fifty or two hundred people could get to share an event together. … It was extremely important to the community.

Steve Winkel: It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever been involved in. The sense of pride that everyone attached to those buildings … was just immense.

Holly Tornheim: I really think it’s truly one of the most beautiful elementary schools I’ve ever seen in my life.

Bob Erickson: There was a certain level of public service. Most of us hadn’t served in the military or the peace corps, you know. Some may [have], but most of us hadn’t done that. So it was like giving something back. And in that era, at that time, that was a really good way to do it – a public school.

Jenny Travers: The visual [imagery] – in the newspaper – and all the artwork that had been put in it was very inviting. So [it was] the opposite of what we see now, where kids are going to charters in town. Suddenly town people said, “oh, cool, I want to go there.”


Jenny Travers: Back then people might call a school “the plant.” So a principal might say, “I’ll walk you through the plant and you can see the classrooms and stuff.” And that was a really offensive word – it was like the factory-ization of education that we all grew up with, and culturally it was pretty offensive. [But] the building was beautiful, and made of real materials. It meant a lot.

Tony Mociun: I think that … one of the [ideas] of education that … a lot of the teachers [brought in] was … not what is the right answer, but what might be. It just allows for more expansive thinking.

Bill McQuerry: [Alice Hurley] was a delight. … You would talk to her, you would meet her in person, and you could see she was a sweet, older woman. But you couldn’t picture her in the classroom until you saw her in the classroom. And she was a different person. She came alive, and those kids responded to her. You can’t really know what a teacher’s like until you actually put ‘em in front of the kids, and then you see what’s really there.

Betsy Abrams: It felt like the quality of education was high because the teachers who I met were really interesting people – relaxed in many ways, but also committed to their job. … So, it felt like a really quality place to work. And a great place for me because I was totally comfortable there.

Jenny Travers: And in many ways we were just left to our own devices, which was such a luxury when you think of what came later in education with the standards and things.

Nancy Lorenz: The joy [was] you were teaching everyone’s kids: the kids with parents with professional backgrounds, the kids whose parents did work, the kids whose parents had driven log trucks their whole lives. It was everyone. And the children, they meshed together just delightfully.


Caleb Dardick: Most of the teachers were extremely permissive and accommodating of all of our various geniuses [laughing], you know? We were definitely given room to be creative, which I think is pretty special. And we were all treated as individuals.

Shelly Covert: Unless you’re doing extracurricular stuff after school, or you’re enrolled in a school of fine arts, or you’re doing it outside of school – you don’t get to experience those things. I’m an only child and my mom and dad had always worked, so there wasn’t a lot of time for any of that. And [I] would not have had that, had it not been for that atmosphere [of the school]. Because those are the things you feel proud of as a person inside – beyond school work. [Getting] to dance, or do your performances. That made me feel really proud to do those things.

Kris Murphey: As I grew older, I knew that the community was something different. When I went to high school I was part of a bigger pond. You know, we were real weird. But then later in my life I came to appreciate some of the artists and craftsmen, and amazing people who lived up [on the Ridge] by choice. And I remember that stained glass window – that was so important [to me] for some reason.


Nancy Lorenz: People were very, very involved with the school in the beginning. In fact, I remember my interview, which was held in the old North San Juan school – and I walked into this room, which was absolutely packed with parents. … I think questions came from the entire audience. It wasn’t just like you were interviewed by the School Board. It was sort of starting off as an inquisition. [Laughing] It was, “what were you planning to do with their kids?” And obviously I answered well enough that I got hired.

Tony Mociun: Probably the [biggest] strength [when] I was involved with the school [was] the ability to call on parents and community members, and to come and help. As I look back on my whole time in the school, that’s what made all the difference. There were two things – one was that almost all of the teachers had kids that were in the school, which really upped the ante, I think, for educational excellence. And then a lot of the kids were the kids of our really good friends.

Bruce Boyd: People felt it was theirs, you know. There were more adults there during school that first year than kids almost. It was like, this is ours, and we’re raising our kids.

Holly Tornheim: I have a very high opinion of the quality of education that [my daughter] got. Not just in the schools [where] there were just some wonderful teachers, … but [also from] a lot of the other people who were in the community … who helped to educate the kids. … And I still remember when she went off to the East Coast to go to college, she said, “There are people who I grew up with, living on the Ridge, who are every bit as intelligent and articulate as the professors that I have here.” And I think that’s really true.

Margo Meredith: We always had little cooking classes and stuff for [the kids], and I found that when the kids [were] hands on with the food, they were more excited to eat it. Even [if] it was the same thing we made every week – if they got to help and see, and make it themselves from the get-go, it was even better. … [And] there’s a handful of kids who went to that school, who ate school lunches, who are now chefs. They’re bona fide chefs – they’ve gone to the culinary academy and become chefs. And I’m not saying that that’s where it came from, but I think they saw [it] and they got turned on by cooking.

Shelly Covert: We were exposed to a different lifestyle because of that school. And because of the Ridge and the environment [and] because of the people who lived there at the time, especially. … You’re getting a lot of these well-educated people who are coming and participating. … All the [students] did work with Steve [Sanfield] and Gary Snyder … so who gets to say that?


Soon after the school had been completed and students and teachers were embarking on their first full year, the community was dealt a devastating blow. On February 4, 1977, almost all the buildings comprising the Oak Tree School campus burned to the ground. Various theories have been offered regarding the cause – from sabotage to psychic – but it ultimately remains an unsolved mystery.

Faced with the question of where all the children would go to school while the school was rebuilt, the San Juan Ridge Union School District lobbied the State legislature to pass a bill to temporarily allow the old one-room schoolhouses – the very buildings that the new school had replaced – to be used while Oak Tree School was rebuilt. The original builders – fatigued by the arduous process to build the school the first time – declined to bid on the job again.

With insurance money, the District hired another contractor to rebuild the school – this time with union labor from out of the area. In fact, in specific response to the conflict over how the prevailing wage was determined for the original school, in 1976 the State legislature also passed a bill – AB 2363 – which took the authority to establish the prevailing wage for public works contracts away from local agencies and gave that authority to the State Department of Industrial Relations – effectively eliminating any chance of another rural community emulating the Oak Tree School project.

Mondy Kowal: My mom was dating the principal, Pete Milano, and he went to go save [the school]. He threw us all in his car and drove over there. … By the time we all got there, it was burning. It’s a memory that I have of going to the school … and sitting in the back of the car, watching the school burn down.

Pete Milano: I was called at one o’clock in the morning [and then had to] watch it burn to the ground. And it was heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking.

Shelley Spalding: I remember Pete Milano coming up to my house knocking on my door at like three in the morning … and saying the Oak Tree School had just burned to the ground. We went out there and it was still smoking. … How could this possibly happen? … This was the heart of the community.

Bill McQuerry: [It] was a huge blow to the community. Maybe I’m an example of that because I poured myself into that classroom. [Other than when I retired] this was the only other time in my life when [my classroom] was perfect. I [would stay] there until two in the morning [sometimes to] get my files in order, … getting that classroom perfect for the kids. And then it burned down. And nothing was salvageable from my classroom. Nothing. I lost everything. And you couldn’t replace all that labor that we all put into our rooms.

Caleb Dardick: It was traumatic. … I remember going up the next day with my father and the smoke was still coming off the ground. And it was one of the most horrific days. I know Dad and I got out of the car and looked at the Lodge – where the Lodge had been – and the only remnant was the fireplace. It was a huge loss. It felt like we lost the center of our community.

Holly Tornheim: We were happy to see that the log cabins were still there. And the foundation – all those yards, and yards, and yards of concrete that people helped pour. It’s all still there, the foundation. … Even though it wasn’t there for that long, I think it was a beloved building – people felt they had done something very good for this area and for the children of the area.

Steve Winkel: That building was so unique in the way it had been built [with all] the artistic contributions. … The labor that had gone into each part, every board and batten was something that was never going to be replaceable. It was really like losing a person, with an individual personality – you were never going to get that person back.


Pete Milano: With Shelley [Spaulding], I remember I wrote the body [of the legislation]. I went down and I got [State Assemblyman] John Vasconcellos to support me. And I had to present my case in front of [the] [Education] Committee – which was a tough committee to get anything through.

Jenny Travers: There [was] so much more to it than just move back into a one-room schoolhouse. There was this incredible schlepping [of books and supplies], and searching in thrift stores for curtains, and those kinds of things.

 Bob Eiermann: So everything had to gear up again, because now, where are we gonna put these kids? Where are we gonna put these kids? … So we went down to the [North] San Juan School and spent about three days working on it. They had posts with no piers on it, we climbed under and did concrete.

 Bill McQuerry: Lenny [Brackett] actually made shudders for the Birchville school. … These were hand-planed, gorgeous shutters on this hundred and fifty year old building. And as I recall, they weren’t on hinges – I think they slid across. … [And] then you had a lot of volunteers who came into all those buildings and built cupboards, and put in carpeting – whatever simple things could be done to carry us over until the new school could be rebuilt.

 Shelley Spalding: Often when there’s a disaster it will bring people together. There were, I believe, … five schools. There was the North Columbia Schoolhouse, there was one on Sage’s Road, there was one up on Purdon Road – [called Toad Hall] – in the basement of somebody’s house.

Caleb Dardick: The kids at [Toad Hall] were of a different cut – we were all playing guitar, we were all writing poetry, we were … writing our own plays for the school pageant. It was a very creative and exciting time that mitigated the loss of the school. As a kid, we appreciated that. There was one down in [Birchville], and there was North San Juan [School].