‘Learning before Laptops’ historical exhibit opens in Breckenridge
If you go
What: “Learning before Laptops: The First Schoolhouses of Summit County”
When: The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday through Sunday; starting Friday, June 12, hours change to 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Barney Ford Victorian Home, 111 E. Washington Ave., Breckenridge
Cost: Admission is free
Summit County’s three historical organizations, the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance, Frisco Historic Park & Museum and Summit Historical Society, have come together to create a new exhibit exploring education in our mountain community at the turn of the century.
The exhibit, titled “Learning before Laptops: The First Schoolhouses of Summit County,” opened last week in the Barney Ford Victorian Home on Washington Avenue in Breckenridge. The opening included a presentation by Christy Nelson, administrator for the Summit Historical Society, who spoke about what it was like to go to school in Summit long before the age of iPads and the Internet.
Evolution of schoolhouses
Prior to public education, Nelson said, there were private schools, and individual mines operated most of them in our area as a way to attract miners with families. The typical Western schoolhouse was a log cabin, she said, and that held true for the mining towns of Slate Creek, Montezuma, Breckenridge and Kokomo. Structures changed as railroads moved in, bringing more refined supplies from the east.
“When the railroads came into the towns, schools were made out of wood clapboard siding. Examples of that are found in Breckenridge, Dillon, Montezuma and Kokomo, all in the span of the late 1800s,” Nelson said, adding that Frisco also had a clapboard-sided schoolhouse, which was repurposed from a defunct saloon.
In the early 1900s, a couple of brick-and-mortar schoolhouses with multiple classrooms were built in the county. The Breckenridge schoolhouse building opened in 1909 and is now home to the Breckenridge Grand Vacations Community Center and South Branch Library. It became the only high school in the county, and because of distance, students would board in Breckenridge in order to attend school.
Dillon’s masonry schoolhouse was built adjacent to its original clapboard building. When structures were moved to make room for the reservoir, the clapboard school was transported up the hill and would eventually become the Summit Historical Society’s Schoolhouse Museum on LaBonte Street. The masonry building couldn’t be moved, so it was demolished.
Typical day at school
In the early days of education in Summit County, school would usually take place from about 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but for the children, the day started much earlier.
“The school day was really long for the kids,” Nelson said. “They would have to do chores before school, and they would walk 2 or 3 miles to get to the school. If they were lucky, if their family could afford a mule, pony or horse, they could ride to school.”
In the late 1800s, there was a lot of separation of the girls from the boys, from separate cloakrooms to change in when they arrived at school to sitting on opposite sides of the classroom to taking trips to the outhouse and different times. The day started with the recitation of a moral lesson, a song or, after it was introduced into schools in 1892, the Pledge of Allegiance.
“They did the most important lessons in the morning, first reading, arithmetic, then writing, because they felt those were the most important things that any kid would need,” Nelson said. “And then in the afternoon, they would do grammar, spelling and history, geography.”
Heat was usually provided by a potbelly stove, which was so inefficient that kids had to wear wool clothing to stay warm, especially if they were farther away from the stove, Nelson said. Portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and, of course, the American flag, were ubiquitous in schoolhouses across the country.
“The early schools generally went up to eighth grade, so eighth-grade graduation was really big,” Nelson said. “A lot of students, that’s as far as they went.”
Creating the exhibit
Placards around the room that houses the exhibit explain more details of early schools in Summit County, from corporal punishment and the origins of the dunce cap to the utilitarian use of windows. Cindy Hintgen, operations manager for the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance, said the opening of the community center in January was the catalyst for putting together the exhibit.
“During the preparation stages of the opening, there were so many photos and memories shared by numerous people who attended school in the building,” she said. “This was a project that brought the community together in 1909, just as it did again in 2015. The journey from one-room log structure to the 1892 school house to the remarkable building we just celebrated begged to be shared.”
The Heritage Alliance updates the rotating exhibit at the Barney Ford home every 12 to 18 months, Hintgen said, and the “Learning before Laptops” exhibit was inspired by similar collections at the Frisco Historic Park & Museum and the Schoolhouse Museum in Dillon.
“The artifacts, mostly photographs, are from the Summit Historical Society Photograph Collection, courtesy of the Dr. Sandra F. Pritchard Mather Archive,” Hintgen said. “Kris Ann Knish, archivist, was instrumental in researching the photos and has included details and background for them. The desks and books are on loan from Frisco Historic Park.”
Hintgen said Summit County’s three historical organizations enjoy having opportunities to work together on projects, which increases access to knowledge, artifacts and creativity, and the trio is already discussing plans for future collaborations.
Nelson said the “Learning before Laptops” exhibit is important, not only as a way to build relationships among the historical groups and to share interests and passions but also to educate current Summit County students on what school life was like more than 100 years ago.
“I think it’s important that kids understand where we’ve come from,” Nelson said. “This was so much a part of the heritage. Whether you were in the gold-mining community of Breckenridge or the ranching communities of Dillon and Slate Creek, everybody valued education.”
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