Steamboat Springs There was a time not long ago when the little red schoolhouse seven miles east of Steamboat Springs on U.S. Highway 40 wasn't so shiny. In fact, the Mesa School was flat-out forlorn, neglected and vandalized.
"It was derelict with a million-dollar view," said Jayne Hill, who spearheaded efforts from 1998 to 2002 to restore the building and preserve it for public use.
"The preservation of the Mesa School keeps a rural symbol of the country's early history in an area where the landscape was rapidly changing," she said.
The city of Steamboat Springs, which owns the historic building that harkens back to a bygone era, announced Nov. 13 that the Mesa School was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
"It was worth saving," Hill said. "People have referred to it as a landmark, and we felt it was the one school more than any that deserved to come back into public use."
In a video recorded during a 2002 talk at the Tread of Pioneers Museum, Natalie Stanko, who passed away in 2005, reminisced about her time teaching at the Mesa School in the 1930s.
"When you were given the job of teacher, you were also given the job of janitor," she said. "It was your responsibility to keep the school going and clean, keep the fires going in the winter and carrying in coal and kindling."
Some students came by horseback, others by foot or automobile, but all of the students who attended the Yampa Valley's country schools received an education far different from that provided by the consolidated school system of today.
At one time, about 40 school districts existed in Routt County, and 96 schools dotted the landscape from Steamboat Springs west to the Utah border, including such areas as Mount Harris, where homesteaders have all but packed up, leaving their stories to be told by a historical marker.
Each community had a simple, wooden schoolhouse, often heated by a coal-burning stove, with no running water. Morrison Creek, Fly Gultch, Deep Creek and Sidney are just a few of the school districts that were incorporated throughout the years into the Steamboat Springs, Hayden and South Routt school districts.
"The are few of these schools left in the county," Hill said. "Some are used as houses, and others are now granaries, but most just disappeared."
Local builder and stonemason A.E. Gumprecht, who was responsible for many of Steamboat's earlier structures, built the Mesa School in 1916. It replaced a primitive log structure built in 1890.
The three-room schoolhouse, which was unique in that it had a library and art room, was a second home for Stanko from the fall of 1935 through the spring of 1938.
"My biggest problem in teaching at a country school was that with so many grades, you had to develop a curriculum among all the grades with different subjects," she said. "But the biggest duty - in the winter time - was keeping the schoolhouse warm."
Hauling in pails of coal, sweeping floors and articulating education for 24 students in eight grades may have been exhausting, but Stanko said it was among the happiest days of her life.
"We were very close knit and the children were very cooperative," Stanko said during that 2002 presentation. She lived in a two-room house adjacent to the schoolhouse and was paid $85 a month.
Her son, Jim Stanko, attended school in the smaller South Side School, where his mother later taught after she married Peter Stanko.
"These country schools was where the community met," Jim Stanko said. "That's what fostered the communities coming together, and that's why we have the Mesa, South Side and the Sidney schools because they were the focus point for those communities and where they gathered."
Christmas plays, Thanksgiving celebrations, quilting, pinochle and anything else that may bring country people together - the rural schools were the community. Jim Stanko's life - and the lives of other country school kids - changed in 1959 when dozens of districts were consolidated into the Steamboat Springs School District.
"Suddenly, I was in the eighth grade with everybody else in the eighth grade," he said. "In the country school, where there was just nine of us from first through eighth grade, it was more like a family thing."
Hill said the Mesa School District was one of the last districts, along with the Sidney School District, to agree to consolidation.
"They really fought it," she said. "It was part of their community, and they didn't want it erased or changed."