The school down the road

Longtime resident remembers Sidney School House

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Vernon Summer, 88, spent Wednesday morning fixing a wire fence on his Sidney homestead.

"It's been a long winter, hasn't it?" Summer said to two visitors as he laid down his tools, squinting behind a pair of sunglasses. "Well, it's better than droughts and fires."

The area of wide-open fields, ranches and old barns isn't called Sidney anymore. The turn-of-the-century town that Summer grew up in, south of Steamboat Springs and west of Routt County Road 131, became part of Steamboat long ago. But to Summer, who graduated from the one-room Sidney School House in 1930, the town has never gone away -- no matter what its name is.

Last week, the old railroad and farming town received a permanent spot in local history.

On Tuesday, the Routt County Board of Commissioners approved the addition of the Sidney School House to the Routt County Register of Historic Properties. Standing in his front yard, Vernon Summer can see the school by just looking down the road.

"It was one of the bigger country school houses," Summer said, speaking about a time more than 75 years ago. "There were two of us in the (eighth-grade) class. I got the second-highest grades."

According to local historian Jim Stanko, the student who beat out Summer for valedictorian that year was Oliver Bartholomew.

Ringing the bell

These days, Nancy Graves lives in the Sidney School House building at C.R. 14 and C.R. 22. She engineered the effort to get the school onto the county historic register.

According to her application, the first Sidney school was organized in 1894 across the road from the current building, in a sod-roofed log cabin that was originally a saloon owned by Milo Baxter, who served tobacco and liquor to travelers, Graves said.

A log house was built on the current site in 1895. In 1910 or 1912 -- depending on various sources, including the Oak Creek Times -- a carpenter named Joe Critchfield built the clapboard structure that, with renovations in 1986, still stands today.

"There were two outhouses and a coal house out back," Summer said, adding that a well in front of the school supplied water. "Kids would have to sit around the stove on real cold mornings."

Summer said his parents, Louis and May Summer, served on the Sidney School Board in the 1920s. Summer said his mother solved a significant problem for the school, which originally had a door only on the south end -- with the coal house all the way around the building on the north side.

"The first thing she did was hire a carpenter and put a door in the north end," Summer said. "She said there was no sense in carrying that coal all the way around in the cold."

Eighty years later, school renovations are a little different. In March, the Steamboat Springs School Board approved a $1.2 million addition to Steamboat Springs Middle School to provide more classroom and office space.

Summer said 30 students attended the one-room Sidney School House when he began first grade in 1922. He told Graves that his first day was a challenge.

"When I went home at noon, I thought that was all," he said. "My parents had to pull me kicking and screaming back to school. I wanted the afternoon for playing."

Throughout the years, numbers dwindled at the school. Only 12 students attended first through eighth grades in 1930, said Summer, who continued helping out at the school after his graduation while he worked on his parent's ranch.

Standing in front of the school Wednesday, Summer pointed to a cupola on top of the building. The cupola once contained a school bell, he said.

"They had a lot of country dances here," Summer said. "Sometimes, after the dance, you'd hear that bell ringing about midnight."

At a summertime Farmer's Union dance at the school in the early 1940s, Vernon Summer met his wife, Edythe. They had been married nearly 50 years when she died in 1991.

Work until you're tired

Summer said he helped his parents raise chickens, cows and sheep on the family ranch, while growing crops including grain and potatoes.

"There were a lot of potatoes grown here before World War II," he said. "There was always something to do."

His current house was built in 1962, Summer said, a stone's throw away from where he grew up. On the kitchen table is a guest book, with the first name dated 1963. Longtime Routt County locals -- including a Pilot & Today photographer -- likely can find cousins, parents, aunts and neighbors in the book.

"There are people in there who I don't even know," Summer said.

Before coming inside from fixing his fence, the tall, lanky Summer stopped in the garage to take off the galoshes he wore over his faded cowboy boots. There's a lot of work to do this spring, he said.

"You can never quite get it done -- when I get tired of working, I quit."

Although schools in 2006 are multi-million dollar facilities designed to meet rigorous state academic standards and provide a myriad of extra-curricular activities, Summer said he preferred a simpler time.

"I liked the country school best -- I didn't like being in town," Summer said.

"But it couldn't last forever."

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