Steamboat Springs When Brian Kelly and Rebecca Williams entered the Cow Creek Schoolhouse for the first time in January, a stray fast food cup and fresh scribbles on a chalkboard were the only items that hindered their dramatic leap into the past.
As they walked around the school that was built in the early 1920s, the two Steamboat Springs School Board members found dusty, 100-year-old textbooks.
The floors creaked.
The walls in a back room were insulated with metal plates dating back to the 1970s that were used to print the Steamboat Pilot.
And as they peered through the tall windows that looked out to vast, snow-covered fields, it was easy to imagine what rural education was like for the students who once rode their horses to class before Routt County's schools were consolidated in the 1950s.
“It was like stepping into the past,” Kelly said Wednesday. “That's how education took place 100 years ago.”
After sitting dormant for years, the little red schoolhouse on Routt County Road 43 southwest of Steamboat Springs is getting some attention.
It wasn't until last year that officials discovered the Steamboat Springs School District owns the building and the 0.9-acre parcel of land it resides on.
But there was a cloud on the title, and the property was for sale by a different owner.
“All we knew initially was there was a piece of property the district may own that was for sale,” Kelly said.
The confusion sent Kelly on a six-month, fact-finding mission that ended this year when the school district cemented its ownership of the building.
Now, the School Board will decide its future.
A rural character
The history of the picturesque schoolhouse begins with a contentious school board meeting 92 years ago.
In 1920, Routt County resident Virginia Andrew recalled that members of the School District 26 school board gathered to vote on the location of a new school to replace the small, 18-year-old log cabin that originally served students near Cow Creek.
Andrew, who was 4 years old during the meeting, later wrote that the vote was important, memorable and heated.
“A quarrel developed between (Elmer) Dorr and (Carrol) Hubbard over the matter of location, each wanting the new building on his property,” Andrew wrote in a short memoir about the Cow Creek and Hilton Gulch schoolhouses. “A fist fight appeared imminent but was quelled by my father.”
In 1921, the Routt County Sentinel reported the construction of the new schoolhouse was awarded to a contractor in Steamboat.
The new building originally was white and featured a two-room teacherage.
It brought education closer to home for students who lived on the other side of Emerald Mountain from Steamboat.
“Similar new frame school buildings were constructed all over Routt County, most of them during the 10-year period from about 1911 to the early 1920s,” Andrew wrote. “There were solid, well-built frame structures set on cement foundations, sided with ship lap and roofed with shingles.”
Starting in 1953, and after decades of serving a small number of students, the Cow Creek Schoolhouse took on a new purpose; it became a vibrant community center.
“People in the neighborhood used to have pretty regular dances there,” said Marda Frazer, a member of the Cow Creek Community Association that adopted the building and helped maintain it through the mid-1990s.
Although the schoolhouse hasn't hosted any gatherings for more than a decade, Frazer still beams when she talks about the old building.
“In the '80s, I remember going to a couple of parties there. I even remember somebody driving their motorcycle into the middle of the building,” she said. “It was pretty wild. There were a lot of raucous parties.”
When Frazer learned last year that the schoolhouse was for sale, she approached the School Board hoping to save it.
She started digging through the history of the building and presented the board with the muddled history of the building's ownership.
“My concern was that it was going to be sold for a private home, and that would have been really sad,” Frazer said. “I would like to see it go to the historical society and people still be able to use it because it is such a wonderful building.”
Clearing the title
The confusion started in 1993.
According to the minutes of an October Steamboat Springs School Board meeting, the board voted unanimously to deed the school house to the Cow Creek Community Association. But the deed never was recorded, and years later, the property's ownership was thrown into question as a result.
In 2007, records show the property was sold during a tax auction.
“The buyer thought he was buying 90 acres that may have subsurface rights (for potential oil and gas development), but instead, he got a little old schoolhouse,” Kelly said.
Kelly said he and the school district's attorney recently worked with that buyer and have cleared the cloud off the title in favor of the school district.
“We're now where we were in 1993,” Kelly said.
Now, the School Board must decide what to do with its schoolhouse.
Kelly said the board could opt to do nothing with it, to sell the property or to partner with an organization like Historic Routt County and restore the building.
Kelly hopes the district can find a way to do the latter.
“I think we need to take a hard look at trying to preserve it,” he said. “If it's going to have a financial impact on the district, that'll have other implications. That's why we're looking for some partners to potentially step into this situation."
The School Board already is reaching out to Historic Routt County and an architect to inspect the building.
Its preliminary efforts come at a time when another schoolhouse in Routt County is undergoing a major renovation project.
Historic Routt County has partnered with Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, Peabody Energy, the Historical Society of Oak Creek and Phippsburg and the Tracks and Trails Museum to restore the Foidel Canyon Schoolhouse and eventually open it for public tours.
Kelly said similar efforts could help preserve the school in Cow Creek.
"There's now a feeling in the community to value things like this," he said.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com