The Story of the Early Sespe School District, By Clara Smith
A later Sespe School
This is a verbatim copy of a history of the Sespe Schools, prepared by Clara H. Smith, who taught there in the 1886 -1887 school year. A long time teacher in Ventura County schools, she later taught in the Normal School at San Jose, Calif. She probably wrote this in the 1920s or 1930s. The items in brackets were corrections or clarification prepared by F. L. “Ted” Fairbanks, a resident of Fillmore from 1907 until his death in 1983. --
The Museum has no photograph of the Sespe School Miss Smith taught at, but it would have been similar to the school at Cienega, just east of Fillmore, built about the same time.
The original district known as the West Sespe included the land drained by the Sespe River and its tributaries, and also a portion of the land bordering the Santa Clara River. The eastern and western boundaries were the mountains, the southern boundary was the Santa Clara River. The region consisted of a Mexican land grant. Around the edge of this grant, the white settlers established homes.
A school for the white settlers’ children naturally followed. In 1874 or 1875 a schoolhouse was built on the north side of the Santa Clara River near the present site of the bridge crossing from Fillmore to Bardsdale. The builder was a Mr. F. A. Sprague. [This is the man sent to the penitentiary for the murder of T. Wallace More.] His son, Hartley and daughter, Ida, [should be Iva], hauled up the lumber from Ventura with team and wagon, and the father built the schoolhouse.
The first teacher was a Clara Skinner, followed by Lara Larson. Other teachers were Augusta Stevens, Maude Fisher, Ryal Sparks, and a man names Jordan. The last named showed his individuality by his way of dismissing the children at intermissions. Not the “one, two, three, four”, common in schools of the period, but “Get out of here.” The late Sol Sheridan began his school life in this little pioneer schoolhouse. [Robert M. Sheridan, prominent attorney in Ventura, says this is an error, that Sol Sheridan got all of his schooling in Missouri, before coming west.]
The school building was of the prevailing type, a wooden structure, 20 x 30 feet, having three windows on each side. The height of the ceiling varied according to the judgment of different teachers. It is recorded as being 11, 12, and 16 feet.
About 1879 or 1880 the schoolhouse was moved from its place on the bank of the Santa Clara River to the east bank of the Sespe River, or creek as it was called. This was about a mile north of the present rail (road) bridge crossing the Sespe. This was to give the school a more central place in the district. Here it stood in utter loneliness with only the roaring of the raging Sespe Creek in the winter, and the silence of the desert surroundings in summer. There were no trees, no shrubs other than the sage brush to break the monotony.
A glance inside the door shows a water bucket with a tin dipper standing on the floor surrounded by waste water. The water has been carried up from the creek, and the children quench their thirst until the teacher bans further drinking. A book case to the left of the door houses one hundred fifty volumes, many of which are beyond the ability of children to read. Supplementary reading material was unknown. The children sit in rows facing the teacher, whose chair and desk occupy a place on the platform at the other end of the room. Perchance an unruly child has a desk at her side. To the right of the teacher stands a manikin which shows the relative position of the different organs of the human body. This is the nearest approach to the instruction in hygiene which the children will receive. The three windows on the east side give plenty of heat in the forenoon, and those on the west side continue the warming process after lunch. Here the children of those early settlers learn according to their own abilities, and according to the skill of the teacher. Those whose names appear on the reports of the period are: Goodenough, Japson, Kellogg, Kinney [should be Kenney], Akers, Fine, McIntyre. There are no names of children born of foreign parents. Nor do the census reports show that there are any foreign children in the school.
The teachers are employed for eight months at a salary of sixty dollars per month. There is one record of a teacher being employed two years in succession. This honor goes to Miss Anna Persons who afterwards became a member of the Santa Paula School system. She had a record of being a superior teacher.
The chief agricultural products of the community were: grain and stock for the market, and grapes, olives, and garden produce for home consumption. It was not unusual for the children to be kept out of school to herd the cattle or to help with the farm work.
The railroad was built in 1887. Soon afterwards a water company developed and distributed water from the Sespe. The growing of citrus fruits began. The population increased. Mexicans came to work in the orange and the lemon groves.
Three districts were formed out of West Sespe, and three schools were built one further up the canyon was on what is now Grand Avenue. The second was the present San Cayetano and the third was Fillmore. San Cayetano became the school for the Mexican children.
Meanwhile the little pioneer school on the banks of the Sespe was moved to Fillmore. For a while it was used for a schoolhouse, when no longer needed, a doctor, J.P. Hinckley bought it and converted it into a drugstore, with a residence in the rear. After more than sixty years of service, it burned.
The writer recalls the faith the pioneers of the eighties had in the future of their community. They have passed on, and a few of their children are left to enjoy the fruits of their labor. And to see the marvelous changes that have taken place in this beautiful, fertile, Sespe Valley.
Clara H. Smith
Teacher in Sespe School District – 1886-1887