Discovering Steamboat: Preserving rural school history in Routt County
Steamboat Springs — The Foidel Canyon Schoolhouse is a reminder of a bygone era when one-room, white-clapboard structures dotted the Northwest Colorado landscape. Many of these schoolhouses have fallen into disrepair and even collapsed, taking with them memories of the children who studied there and the teachers who dedicated their lives to educating those youngsters in some of the most remote places in Routt and Moffatt counties.
As I stood on the wooden plank front porch of the schoolhouse, which stands in the shadow of the Foidel Creek Mine, I looked out at the “teacherage” in front of me and imagined what life must have been like for the young women who lived in that tiny home and taught school there.
On the afternoon I visited the rural schoolhouse, I could hear the rhythmic sound of an approaching train as the wind blew cold through the canyon. The schoolhouse is located at the intersection of Routt County Roads 27 and 33 approximately 20 miles from Hayden, Oak Creek and Steamboat Springs. The setting is austerely beautiful with clumps of sagebrush and one single tree offering shade from the sun.
In my mind, I saw the children of ranchers and farmers arriving at the schoolhouse by foot, horseback and wooden skiis, and I thought how desolate some of the days must have seemed for the lone teacher, especially in the silence when the students were not present. I imagined the fortitude, the strength and the faith of those early educators and marveled at their obvious resilience and dedication to their chosen profession.
The Foidel Canyon Schoolhouse has stood empty since it was closed in 1957, but it has not been forgotten. Thanks to the efforts of Historic Routt County, Peabody Energy and Twentymile Coal Co., the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and Tracks and Trails Museum in Oak Creek, the schoolhouse has been the target of a renovation project that began in June 2012 and continues today.
The clapboard structure is painted white with green trim around the window and door frames, and an empty belfry sits atop the galvanized sheet metal roof. The front door leads into a small entryway, and then two doors allow entrance into the classroom. The interior walls of the schoolhouse are a combination of beadboard wainscoting and decorative pressed tin. The floors are unfinished wood throughout.
The teacherage echoes the architectural design of the schoolhouse and is located just yards from the school. A small coal shed is the third structure still standing on the site.
According to local history, the Foidel Canyon area was not settled until after the discovery of gold at Hahn’s Peak in 1861. The Foidel family settled in the area in 1887, and it is estimated that the schoolhouse was built in 1925 to replace the original school building, which was built in 1913.
Due to harsh and unpredictable weather conditions, rural one-room schoolhouses typically opened in April and closed in December. Usually, grades ranged from kindergarten through eighth, and student numbers fluctuated from school to school. These schoolhouses often were used as social gathering places, as well, and it is likely the Foidel Canyon Schoolhouse hosted pie suppers, dances and weddings.
The schoolhouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the structures and land where they sit are owned by Peabody Energy. According to Meg Tully, executive director of Historic Routt County, funds for the $55,000 renovation project have come from several different sources, including a $25,000 investment by Peabody Energy, a $3,500 grant from the Yampa Valley Community Foundation, donations from various community members and proceeds from the sale of a donated Greg Block oil painting of the schoolhouse.
A huge supporter of the project has been Jerry Nettleton, manager of environmental affairs for Twentymile Mine. Meg has described Nettleton as the Foidel Canyon Schoolhouse restoration project’s “go-to guy,” and I suspect he is the one who opened the lock on the schoolhouse door so that I could explore the building during my visit this past week. For his efforts, Nettleton was the recipient of Historic Routt County’s 2013 Historic Preservation Leadership Award.
Another source of support for the project has come from the Historical Society of Oak Creek and Phippsburg.
“These volunteers rock,” Meg said. “It’s really fun to work with them and hear them tell stories about the old schoolhouse. Its been really cool.”
Renovation work at the schoolhouse, which has been overseen by a professional contractor and fueled by volunteer labor, has included foundation repair, scraping and painting, roof work and repairs to windows, siding, doors and porches. The before and after pictures of the schoolhouse testify to its progress, and more work is being planned.
“We’re working slowly but surely,” Meg said. “We plan to have more volunteer workdays and keep plugging away. It’s been an amazing team effort.”
Like me, Meg often reflects on what life would have been like for the teachers who taught at Foidel Schoolhouse during the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s.
“I think about a teacher living there all by herself in the winter,” Meg said. “I can’t imagine that type of life. It would have taken a special person.”
After visiting the Foidel Canyon Schoolhouse and talking to Meg, I am committed to volunteering my time at an upcoming workday, and I would encourage others interested in preserving local history to do the same. For more information on the project, call 970-875-1305.
I invite readers to help me discover more about Steamboat and Routt County by suggesting places you’d like me to visit, people you want me to meet or activities you’d like me to try. You can reach me at lschlichtman@SteamboatToday.com or 970-871-4221.
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