When Eagle residents talk about “Brush Creek school,” they are most-likely talking about the elementary school located in Eagle Ranch.
That wasn’t the case in the early 1900s. Back then, any reference to “Brush Creek” and “school” meant you were talking about the Upper Brush Creek School.
Remember “Little House on the Prairie?” The Upper Brush Creek School resembles the building where Laura and Mary Ingalls attended classes. The school provided education to children in the Upper Brush Creek area between the years of 1915 and 1941. With its gable roof, overhanding eves and large covered porch the building was a typical rural one-room schoolhouse.
An expansive history about the school can be found in local author Kathy Heicher’s “A History of Sylvan Lake State Park.” The book is available at the Eagle Public Library and the history was commissioned by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The agency worked closely with Heicher to record the important history of the area.
“This work has included seeking state and federal historic designations that may provide future opportunities to stabilize and preserve the school house,” said Dave Meline, Sylvan Lake State Park manager.
The Upper Brush Creek Schoolhouse effort was inspired by a program launched a couple of years back when the Eagle County Historical Society installed plaques around Eagle to give locals and visitors a snapshot education about the community’s history. Meline approached John Bronn and Heicher of the Eagle County Historical Society to install a series of history plaques, similar to those found around Eagle, at 10 sites located within the state park. The plaques are titled “Honoring Historic Brush Creek” and they are located along West Brush Creek Trail, at the Meadows day use area, the Borah Gulch parking area and at the Sylvan Lake dam and picnic area.
And, naturally, there is a plaque at the now ramshackled building that once served as the Upper Brush Creek School.
Ranch families school
Before the Upper Brush Creek School, the closest school for East and West Brush Creek families was located at the mining camp of Fulford, about nine miles away from where the Upper Brush Creek School is now located. When the fortunes of the mining camp faded, so did the number of students. By around 1912, there were only a few students at the Fulford School.
There was another school on Lower Brush Creek, about seven miles downstream from the forks of Brush Creek. The trip to school was long for children who had to walk or ride horses. Concerned that there was no school in the immediate vicinity of the forks of East and West Brush Creeks, local ranchers of School District No. 17 began to talk about the need for a school on the upper reaches of Brush Creek.
A vote was scheduled and on Election Day, the concerned parents of Brush Creek traveled to Fulford to decide the future of the local schools. The majority wanted a facility at the forks of Brush Creek. It was decided to close down the Fulford school and re-open a new school farther down the valley.
Initially, lacking a building, classes were held in the “new room” – the largest living space – at the Halfway House home of Edward and Sarah Fulford. When they welcomed a new baby, Adelaide, into the family, a room in the Charles Gordon home became the school.
Once the community agreed on a location for the new school just above the fork of West Brush Creek, the challenge was to raise money for a schoolhouse. Historic reports indicated the neighbors held a fundraising supper and dance at the Halfway House. Tickets sold for $2 each – which was high in 1916. A crowd turned out to support the new school.
The structure was built by volunteers and by 1916, classes could be held in the building, despite the fact that it was not fully completed. Eventually, the old log school in Fulford was torn down.
Eagle County Historical Society archives include the names of several teachers who taught at the school. A series of teachers were employed between 1916 and 1923. In 1923 a recent widow, Mary Bemis, was hired as the teacher. She remained in that job until her retirement in 1941. Her husband Sam had been a rancher and miner who came west to explore Fulford. Bemis and her young daughter, Sophia Jane, lived at the schoolhouse.
Much like today’s schools, the building was also used as a community gathering place – but in a different way. The building was the site of many potluck dinners and dances. It closed when Mrs. Bemis retired, and was not used as a school again.
When numerous little schools scattered around the valley started consolidating in the 1940s, the Upper Brush Creek School was no longer used. During the height of logging activity on Brush Creek in the late 1950s and 1960s, the schoolhouse was converted to a dormitory of sorts for loggers.
For more information about the history of the Upper Brush Creek School and other historic locations at Sylvan Lake State Park, check Heicher’s publication at the Eagle Public Library. Or just trek out to the area and read the signs.
“Getting the stories of the park’s cultural history is similar to understanding the area’s natural resources; wildlife, vegetation and geology. Our staff is asked questions about the park’s history on a regular basis and we love sharing those stories with visitors,” said Meline.
Information provided by “A History of Sylvan Lake State Park” compiled by Kathy Heicher – November, 2011