Tales from the Tread: Back to school
September 6, 2017
As the kids get back to school and their lives seem to get busier and busier by the year, we can look back to a simpler time in Routt County history when kids had less toys and after-school activities, no screens or video games, more chores and responsibilities, and the rhythm of life seemed to move at a significantly slower pace.
The book, "Steamboat Springs: Memories of a Young Colorado Pioneer" by David Merrill Primus, features stories of Primus' grandfather Marcellus Samuel Merrill. The book chronicles Marcellus Merrill's boyhood growing up in Steamboat Springs, after moving here in 1905 at the age of 4, with stories full of fishing and swimming in local creeks, hunting, mineral springs, punching cows, games and pranks, attending a log school, building forts and ski jumps all over town, Winter Carnival, and of course, skiing.
"We had three cows to milk, which warmed us up in the morning, even though the odor wasn't too wonderful," Merrill wrote. "We skied up on the ski jump on Howelsen Hill with no tows, so we got plenty of exercise climbing the mountain, especially with Carl Howelsen, our Norwegian coach, who made us tramp down every ounce of snow on the hill."
Merrill describes his school days as a struggle — a time for spit ball fights, carving the desk, pulling girls' pigtails, waiting for recess to play marbles or "migs" as they called them and exhausting the teacher. Living in town, Merrill attended grade school in the little log school on the south side of Pine Street between Fifth and Sixth streets.
For the students in the rural areas of Routt County, getting to the schoolhouse could be the hardest part of the school day. Although school districts were centrally located, many children had to walk, ski or ride a horse or mule several miles to attend school.
Children in one-room rural schools were able to work at their own pace. The school room had a family-like atmosphere with older students helping the younger ones. The schoolhouse became the centerpiece of many rural communities serving as the gathering place for meetings, dances, dinners, funerals, weddings and more.
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The curriculum of most rural schools consisted of spelling, arithmetic, English, geography, history, science and penmanship. Many former country school students attest that the small class sizes allowed for more individualized attention and flexibility, however lacked in extra-curricular activities. Many rural school students had to hurry home after class to attend to waiting chores on the ranch.
In December of 1944, the Steamboat Springs school system was the first in the country to introduce skiing as an accredited part of the public school curriculum. Seventy-five percent of students in the system enrolled in ski classes. Perhaps this is one key to why more Olympic athletes call Steamboat home than any other town in the nation.
Though Steamboat's early families certainly experienced hard times, and children were not exempt from family responsibilities and hard work, reading the recollections of these childhood days gone by reminds us to slow down, simplify and appreciate the timeless treasures in Steamboat Springs that can create a meaningful life for our children today.
Candice Bannister is executive director of the Tread of Pioneers Museum in Steamboat Springs.