Sitting Astride the Past and the Future
Piceance Creek, Colo--The Meeker Massacre, in which a small band of Ute Indians killed 30 white men and kept Josephine Meeker and several others captive for 23 days, occured about 20 miles northeast of where the Rock School now stands.
In 1881, two years after the massacre, the government stripped the Utes and their neighbors, the Uncompahgre Utes, of 12 million Colorado acres and moved them to Utah, opening the Western Slope of Colorado to a new surge of white settlement between 1882 and 1900.
While the towns of Meeker and Rifle grew, more people also moved into the Piceance Creek area, a basin midway between the Colorado and White Rivers, west of a range called the Grand Hogback, and north of the Book Cliffs.
Creek residents built the Rock School with oil shale,the same kind of oil shale on which the school still stands. Although neither the first nor the last school built in the basin, it has proved the longest-lived. The only school left in the Piceance Creek area, it has operated without interruption since 1897.
It sits just off Piceance Creek Road, at a point about midway between the creek's White River starting point to the northwest and the service station at Rio Blanco to the southeast.
The Rock School has not changed much over the years. The building is still a plain gray structure, and it still rests on a brown hillside sparsely dotted with sage, oakbrush, and juni6per. A slab imbedded in the front facade reads: "Public School Dic. No. 6: 1897 J.C. Taylor." Mr. Taylor was the builder.
Improvements to the original building have been made, of course. It is now gas-heated, well-lighted, equipped with storm windows and a new roof outside, and paneled inside.
Inside the building are the predictable elementary-school features: globes, skinny readers and children's stories, objects clearly labeled as to their colors (RED, BLACK, GREEN), science equipment, and brightly-colored bulletin-board projects ("Rock School Stallion's GOAL: CARE of the BODY.")
But the school's age shows in spots. In the middle of the floor are burn marks from the wood-burning stove that heated the room. Rolled up on the ceiling are a dusty red velvet curtain and a screen that once divided the room between upper and lower grades.
But now the district has added a second, modern building for the lower grades, and several years ago it transported and modernized the abandoned Stuart Gulch school to serve as a home for Rock School teachers.
Recently, the district spent $15,000 on improvements on the "teacherage" and erected a four-foot chain-link fence on the school's perimeter.
These two events are related. Both are direct results of the rapidly growing oil-shale industry booming in and around the Piceance Creek Basin.
The renovations were made because the boom has already brought in enough extra revenue to pay for them; the fence was erected because the boom has also brought so much commercial traffic that the children have to be protected from passing trucks.
But mixed gains are typical of the shale industry's effects on the region. With every benefit comes a problem, and the mix generates many questions about how the boom will affect the region as a whole and a place like the Rock School in particular.
So far at least, as the teachers there quickly say, modernization has not brought monotony. The Rock School is still a curious place in which to teach.
Culmination of a Dream
"We do not fight the drug circuit. The worst vice is 'chew'. These people have done this generation after generation and it is basically harmless unless they spit in your direction."--from "A Rural Teaching Experience: Dream or Nightmare?" by Donna M. Chrouser.
"This is no union job! We are scraping deer hides at recess and lunch for school trip money. We had a bake sale on Saturday. We sold yummies to hunters--there were thousands invading these remote parts. Had our first 70 mile an hour drive to town with our emergency lights blinking--Billy Dan had a crash in his red fire engine, quite an 'egg on the head, but no concussion, and a bruised kidney.' He is to take it easy for a few days."--D.M.C., correspondence.
As Mrs. Chrouser was describing the yearly trip she and her husband (William, with whom she teaches at the two-room school) arrange for the children, a plastic football soughed past her head. ("Watch out, now." "Sorry, Mrs. Chrouser.")
The children raise the funds for the trip themselves, she was saying, supplementing money from the normal fund-raising methods by selling elk skins to tanners.
"Hunters give them to us and the children scrape and salt them during recess," Mrs. Chrouser explained. Last year they raised $400 toward a trip to the National Western Stock Show in Denver that way, she said.
In a shed, amid half-deflated dodgeballs and antique children's cross-country skis, this year's skins were already piled a foot high with the elk season only a few weeks old.
"We go to the trouble to take them somewhere because a lot of these ranch children have never been anywhere. Their parents have the money, but they work all the time," she said.
So do the Chrousers, and the trip for them is as much a break from the isolation of Piceance Creek as it is for the children.
When the district advertises to fill positions in the Rock School, it requires that applicants be a married teaching pair because there is little or no social life.
The Chrousers responded to this ad: "Two-room rural mountain school needs a totally compatible married teaching couple ... [that will] eat, drink, and sleep SCHOOL together."
The rate of turnover is high. One former teacher put it this way: "The first year it's neat, the second year it's still neat but not so6much as it was, and the third year you're ready to get back to civilization."
The Chrousers, for whom the Rock School experience is the "culmination of a lifetime dream," agree. "We're not going to be here forever," Mrs. Chrouser said. "It's not healthy to stay in a spot like this too long." This is their third year.
She teaches kindergarten through third grade; he teaches the fourth through eighth grades.
They have taught in Colorado and Rhode Island, on an Indian reservation in Arizona, and in an isolated fishing village in Nova Scotia.
Before they were married they talked about teaching in a two-room school, and the Nova Scotia experience convinced them that their children could "handle such a lifestyle."
"You want to know what I really think about teaching here?" As she asked the question, Mrs. Chrouser searched for the article she wrote about the experience for The Small School Forum.
In that article, she cited as "positives": being far from the "rampaging child drug circuit," the lack of materialism, children who are "unusually independent and individualistic," and parents who back them in matters of discipline.
"The parents won't take criticism well about the child's abilities though," she wrote.
"We must be friendly to all but close to no one. A normal teaching problem can develop from a mole hill to a mountain far too easily in the wrong context."
In a setting where day-to-day performance is evaluated almost immediately, teachers have to worry more about what parents think. "Fortunately, they like us," Mrs. Chrouser said. "Still, we don't fraternize with them."
The Chrousers also share duties as the school's janitor, plumber, electrician, nurse, principal, music teacher, art teacher, gym teacher, librarian, and any other role that needs to be played. They and their children were almost asphyxiated by a faulty gas furnace before they became expert in maintaining the heating system.
In addition to making the school run, they have to prepare each evening to do it all over again the next day, including the teaching.
"It is not easy to begin swabbing the floors when one realizes that 24-30 preparations for each subject area await planning, dittos need running off, science experiments need setting up...." Mrs. Chrouser wrote.
The Chrousers both hold advanced degrees. He has a Ph.D in science education, she a master's in special education.
But as she aptly put it: "...truly a doctorate degree and a master's degree are not the basic qualifications."
Nevertheless, she wrote,"Our dream is a dream come true"; and she still says it is "not without its frustrations, but the positive aspects outweigh the negative."
"One Friday night after I finished sweeping out the schoolhouse, Marie was already on her horse ready to go home. So, I jumped on mine and one of the girls came running up and said, 'Oh, Gen, get off your horse. You didn't kiss me goodnight.' So I thought, 'Oh, is that in the schedule?' But I got down and kissed her and several others."--from "Recollections of the Old Rock School," by Genevieve Ebler Castle.
The Rock School educates the children of the Piceance Creek ranchers and those of the ranch laborers. Enrollment has been as low as two; about as high as 50. This year there are 26 students.
The children look no different from those found at other schools.
They answer questions from a stranger the way schoolchildren everywhere do.
"You like going to school here?"
"You ready to go to ninth grade in town?"
Obviously, they are more comfortable outdoors than most children, so the Chrousers use frequent field trips in their educational program.
They have been visited by reporters and observers often. Several years ago people from the Northwestern Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Ore., came to the school to study the "individualization" process.
Robert King, superintendent of the Meeker RE-1 district that contains the school, said that many educators have told him the Rock School is "one of the best" rural schools in the nation.
Andrew Gulliford, who studied rural schools in eight western states as part of a project supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, said, "I would consider it good, but I would not say 'one of the best'."
When the children from the Rock School move to the high school in Meeker, "they stick together," Mr. Gulliford said. Their academic achievement varies depending on their backgrounds. As a general rule, he said, "the rancher kids do well, and the hired-help kids do not quite as well.
"Like most places, a lot depends on expectations," Mr. Gulliford noted.
"The advice we had been given at the Teacher's Institute about dealing with mischievous children was 'have the child repeat the prank before the class until it ceased to be funny.'
"One time the singing instructor had said to have the children make nice round mouths when singing as that would assure nice round tones coming out. I repeated this to my class and they tried to make nice round mouths.
"Of course, some of them overdid it, especially Helen, who really looked funny and was causing a big laugh.
"I asked her to step to the platform and demonstrate, which she did. After two or three minutes, I told her that was enough, but horror of horrors, she couldn't shut her mouth."--from "Recollections of a Frontier Teacher," by Genevieve Buttram, a Rock School teacher.
Keeping the Rock School open is a good idea, valley residents feel, if only for practical reasons. Bus rides to Rifle or Meeker are long--and in the winter, with an annual snowfall of 90 inches, sometimes impossible.
But to creek residents like Helen Love, keeping the school open is more than a matter of convenience.
"As long as the older people are here we will fight for it," Ms. Love, who lives on a ranch across the road from the school, said. "We've fought for it for a good many years. The younger people, too."
Rock School has been the chief community center in the valley for many years.
"There's been a tradition of having parties and things over there as long as I can remember," Ms. Love said.
Many one-room schools in the area closed after a 1958 statewide reorganization of school districts, but the Piceance Creek ranchers wanted to keep their school and were allowed to do so.
The last serious discussion about closing it and busing the children into Meeker was in 1975, but the creek residents voted against the change.
"It does cost more per student to run Rock School," Mr. King once said, "but as long as the people want it we'll keep operating it."
"The superintendent told us that the people said they would lynch him if he closed that school," Mrs. Chrouser added.
But the energy boom may bring change to the creek area whether the residents want it or not.
"I would hesitate to guess on future growth," said Ms. Love. "These oil companies are so undecided themselves. People are screaming for housing, camped in trees and bushes now. But who knows what'll happen?"
"That's a tough question," said Jerry Oldland, whose great-grandfather homesteaded in the creek area in 1884 and helped settle the range war between the cattlemen and sheepherders. "I'm hopeful it will remain as it is," he continued. "I think it will experience some growth, but the country is very strict on zoning regulations and they won't allow any of the employees to live on site."
"How much are any of the district schools going to grow? That's a good one," said Mr. King. "If you'd have asked me a week ago, I'd have said probably not too much in the next year, about 10 percent. Two weeks from now I might say 50 percent."
Mr. King is having a number of problems predicting the boom's effects on all the schools in his district. This fall he had to deal with an anticipated enrollment surge that did not occur. The district was supposed to expand from last year's 900 students, to 1,500, but enrollment grew only by 200.
But the school board is still operating on a projection that enrollment will quadruple in the next five years. The board is developing a plan for a new city council-fire station complex where the Meeker elementary school now stands, along with construction of a new, larger elementary school in the northern part of town.
Mr. King has to juggle the number of books he will buy and teachers he will hire based on such predictions.
He also has more immediate problems. For example, the energy boom has increased traffic so much on Piceeance Road that some school-bus drivers have quit their jobs rather than face driving on it.
Still, Mr. King said, "Rock School at the current stage of county zoning and growth planning should not change very much. Probably it'll stay the same structure for at least the next five years."
There has been talk over the years of building a new town at either end of Piceance Creek.
That would probably eventuate in the closing of the school--but the new town is not likely to be built any time soon.
"The majority of the people would be opposed to a town, to people being moved in, and to the school being closed down," Mr. Oldland said. "The existing communities wanted to grow. Exxon talked about purchasing that Rio Blanco town and building there, but that proposal was turned down. For the time being I don't see it happening. But if they decide to, so be it."
Cattlemen hired forty men to kill the Hurlburt sheep, $100 apiece. They drove the sheep down the gulch where a stream empties into Clear Creek. They thought they would3drive the sheep over the ledge, but the sheep were smarter than they were; when they got so far they stopped. They went to a grove of quakers and6cut clubs, and would hit the sheep over the head and just kept piling them up. They also used bowie knives, drawing them across the
sheep's neck.--from "Book Cliff Range War," as told by Mark Hurlburt.
The Piceance Basin survived the changes in the ranching economy that started the range war. Jerry Oldland's great-grandfather helped end it with the Rees-Oldland act, which defined grazing areas for sheep and cattle.
The Rock School has survived the side effects of progress before, too. In 1973, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Interior detonated a huge underground nuclear blast about five miles southwest of the school.
The explosion was supposed to free huge natural-gas deposits trapped in underground shale formations.
A wooden framework was built to keep the school from collapsing. Jerry Oldland was part of a jeep patrol assigned to keep people away from the blast.
Project Rio Blanco, as it was called, was a failure, and the Rock School remained standing.
The only legacy of what was to be the beginning of a huge natural gas boom was a cavern of underground rubble and a few flat jeep tires.
Next week reporter Tom Mirga examines the effects of the energy "boom" on education in nearby Parachute and Rifle, Colorado.