Although gold was discovered in Calaveras County in 1848, and numerous mining camps were established, children were not counted until 1851, when there were 110 children, but no schools, according to the county’s report to the State Superintendent of Schools. By 1852, there were 430 children of school age, but no schools as yet. In 1853, public schools were operating in Angels Camp, Campo Seco, Mokelumne Hill, and San Andreas; the private Franklin School and two others were operating in Murphys. When the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors established the Murphys School District in 1855, it included Murphys, French Gulch, Peppermint, Murphys New Diggins, Spring Garden Camp, Douglas Flat, Vallecito, Macaroni Flat and Owlsburg, but it is unknown exactly where a school or schools were located, except that the first was established at Vallecito that year.
Although the exact date of construction of the Douglas Flat School has not been ascertained, according to one account it was first built as a one-room building ca. 1852 down near Coyote Creek, and used as a church and for meetings and dances. It was later dragged up the hill to be used as a schoolhouse as well. Other accounts note that it was built in 1854 by members of the Methodist Church who had expected to share a church with Murphys, but when Murphys built their church on Church Street in 1853, Douglas Flat constructed their own Methodist church in their community (Doris Castro, in Stockton Record, November 14, 1966).
One certainty, however, is that the Douglas Flat School District was established February 12, 1856 (Minutes of the Board of Supervisors Book A:78), and the building was then converted for use as a school but continued to be utilized for public meetings, dances, events, and as a church. Reputedly, as pay was so low, the teacher was allowed to pan and keep whatever gold they recovered on the school property.
When the present church/school was erected or rebuilt, it was constructed on a sloping lot west of the residence of Stephen A. Perry, built by 1858, and northeast of the store of Joseph Winn (later S.A. Perry & Sons). By 1861, the stone store of Antonio Gagliardo & Co. (later the Malespina Store) had been constructed on the southwest. In 1857, it was noted that 28 children were in attendance, although the building was evidently still occupied as a church in 1859, it was noted in Perry’s assessment that year and the next as “adjoining church property on the south” (Calaveras County Assessment Rolls 1859, 1860). It appears evident, however, that the school was located in the building by 1858:
A Calico Ball was held August 12 to benefit the Douglas Flat School. Dancing from nine to midnight when ice cream, prepared by Mrs. Proper, was brought in. Dancing then continued until supper was served, and then until ‘broad daylight.’ Ladies of the committee were Mesdames Proper, Gunn, Ginter, Henly, and Johns. Over $200 was raised (San Andreas Independent of August 21, 1858).
On June 7, 1859, on petition of the citizens of Murphys and vicinity, the two school districts of Murphys and Douglas Flat were consolidated and called the Murphys District (Minutes of the Board of Supervisors 1859). The two districts decided to build a school midway between the two communities that was large enough for both. However, Dr. William Jones then donated land for a new school in Murphys; built by local men and completed in 1861 at a cost of $4000. Douglas Flat renovated its old school building, adding a belfry (which matched that of the Murphys School), and presumably made other improvements (Wood 1971).
Five years later, on August 3, 1864, in the matter of a petition of David E. Roberts, C.C. Holems, and S.A. Perry and others, the Douglas Flat School District was established from portions of the Vallecito and Murphys Districts. On March 15, 1871, the Douglas Flat School District was transferred to the Murphys School District. Douglas Flat again formed its own district on March 5, 1875, taking in land roughly from the Stanislaus River at Abbey’s Ferry to the Milk Ranch north of Vallecito, westerly to Six Mile Road, up to the Snyder Ranch, thence easterly to a bit north of Pennsylvania Gulch Road, to the head of Peppermint Creek, thence easterly to the Stanislaus River at Big Bend and down the river to the beginning.
The boundaries were again changed slightly on July 1, 1881, December 5, 1882, March 6, 1883, and June 7, 1897 (Minutes of the Board of Supervisors, various). The reason for the changes in district boundaries is unknown, but as it was noted that there often were not enough children in Douglas Flat, so that school was suspended several times, perhaps they were attempting to add more children to their rolls. Based on the available school pictures, there were 33 students in 1889, 20+ in ca. 1890s, 11 in ca. 1900, 13 in 1904, 18 in 1908, and 15 in 1909.
In the early years, the position of teacher was also held by the pastor of the church, and included Messiers Bovee (Wm Henry?), Beale, and Wells. Stephen A. Perry was the teacher in 1867, Amos Everhart in 1870, and Julia Perry, daughter of Stephen and Julia, in 1880.
Some of the other teachers at the school included Kate Thomas (1893), William L. Redding (1899-1901), Ida M. Manley (1901-1902), Luna Carter (1902-1903), Kate Kennedy, (1903-1904), Carrie Rufe (1906-1907), Elles E. Brockway (1907-1908), Louise J. Oneto (1908-1910), Leo Valente (1910-1911), Carrie Rufe (1911-1912), Florence Adams Darby (n.d.
Between 1908 and 1910, a small Craftsman style portico was added to the primary façade, altering its Classical style. By ca. 1925 a photograph of the school demonstrated that it was not in very good condition, but evidently still in use. In 1940, the school was notified that it didn’t meet state regulations, but classes continued to be held there until 1956, when it was closed for lack of students.
In 1945 the Residents of Douglas Flat formed the Douglas Flat Community Center (DFCC), organized to prevent the building from being razed after it no longer met current codes. In 1945, Judge J.A. Smith deeded the school property to Louise Copella, Frank Grinetts, and Frank Lavagnino, as trustees of the Community Center (Community Center Minutes, July 1, 1945). In 1955, the Douglas Flat School District was combined with the Vallecito School District, and in 1956 the building was returned to the community, although the district retained title, paying $1 a year in rent.
The Vallecito Union School District was formed in 1971 (Vallecito, Douglas Flat, and Murphys), and with overcrowding, moved the kindergarten class into the Douglas Flat school building. Small repairs were made, the exterior repainted by volunteers, an electrical system installed, but no structural changes were made. Ninety-six year old Frank Cooper, a former student, rang the school bell for the rededication in July 1971, and Dr. Richard Coke Wood recounted its history (Sacramento Bee, July 14, 1971). In recognition of its rehabilitation, the school received the Calaveras County Historical Society’s Architectural award in 1972.
The school was last used as a classroom in 1973, for the kindergarten class of the Vallecito School District, when all students from the Vallecito-Douglas Flat area moved into the newly completed Michelson School in mid-1973. On November 14, 1974, the Vallecito Union School District leased the building back to the Community Center.
At that time Cliff and Louise Johnson, who resided next door in the old Gagliardo/Malespina store and residence, became the caretakers. Louise, who worked for the School District, spent years researching and preserving old school records and furnishings and returning them to the Community Center. Under her stewardship, many of the original furnishings, including the slate blackboards, master’s desk and chair, and many of the student desks, were located and returned to the building. The Johnson’s also had the picket fence erected, replacing the barbed wire (Miller, April 2002).
In 1977, the Vallecito Union School District began restoration of the school financed with funds from state recreation bond funds. Under the program, most of the work was conducted by young men and women from the California Conservation Corps camp in Murphys. Donations and loans of old furnishings of the schoolhouse were solicited, so that the building could be restored as nearly as possible to the appearance of an 1860’s classroom. It was planned to make it available for use by classes of children in California (“Children May Learn Again in Restored Lode School,” Stockton Record. December 12. 1977).
The school was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, as Federal Register No. PH0047279, Historic Building No. 73000397, at the same time as the Murphys School.
In 1987, the Board of Directors of the Vallecito Union School District voted to sell the Douglas Flat School to the Douglas Flat Community Club, a non-profit organization. The building was then being used by the Community Faith Center and for a variety of community meetings (Calaveras Enterprise, June 17, 1987). The transfer was made December 5, 1988, a month after a 20-foot wide easement for a driveway from Main Street was recorded.
By Judith Marvin