The Old Palmdale Schoolhouse 1888, and the history of the Palmdale School District
“Palmenthal” Settled. 50 Germany and Swiss families migrated from Nebraska and Illinois and settled in an area approximately two miles southeast of what is now modern Palmdale. They named their settlement “Palmenthal” after the “palm trees” that covered the valley floor.
Old Schoolhouse Built. The Palmdale School District was first formed in 1888 upon the petition of Ferdinand Tetzloff and 43 others. The old schoolhouse was erected on property at approximately Avenue R-8 and 27th Street East, one mile south of McAdam Park (it’s present site). In addition to the schoolhouse, the “Palmenthal” settlement included the homes of the original families, shops, a hotel, orchards and livestock. The first post office was opened in June, 1888. Settlers raised grapes, fruit, alfalfa, figs and dairy cows on 20 acre home sites.
Enrollment Declines. 30 children ranging in age from six to 16 attended school in the first schoolhouse and enrollment remained at about that level until after the turn of the century. But by 1906 only five children were enrolled and the last of the original settlers of the “Palmenthal” colony were gone, driven away by drought and problems in obtaining clear title to the land. The school used a graded system – 1st through 8th – and students attended for eight months, from October 8th to June 18th in the 1888 – 89 school year. The school’s first teacher, Mr. Henry Shirley, earned $65 a month for his services. Students in the high school grades had to board at schools outside the area, a number of them attended school in Pasadena.
Unified District Formed. With only a small number of students enrolled at the old schoolhouse, the area experienced its first unification effort. As a result, a new school district was formed from parts of the Lancaster, Palmdale, and Soledad districts. The new district was known as the Harold District.
Palmdale Grammar School Opens. With the “Palmenthal” colony abandoned by most families and settlement re-established around what is the present-day civic center (at Palmdale Blvd., and Sierra Highway), a new school was built near 6th Street East and Palmdale Blvd. Mrs. Clara Johnson was the first teacher at the new red brick school; and, although the school had two rooms, she taught the 56 students enrolled there alone for some time before a second teacher, Rose Gemmill, was hired.
Old Schoolhouse Moved. With only one student – Dora Nagel – left to attend, Mrs. Charles F. Ritter, a teacher with seven school age children of her own, was hired to justify keeping the doors of the old schoolhouse open. Finally, in1910, a decision was made to close down the school and sell it. It was purchased by Constable G.A. Carter for $230 and moved to Beech Ave, north of Lancaster Blvd., in Lancaster where it was refurbished for use as a home by “Grandma Jones,” a long-time valley pioneer. In 1959, Valley historians, Glen and Doreen Settle, acquired the old schoolhouse. The Settles moved the building to Tropico Gold Mine in Rosamond where it was restored and exhibited in 1960. In 1980, they donated the building to the City of Palmdale. It was moved to McAdam Park, its present site, in July 1987.
Name Changed to Palmdale School District. On October 12, 1912, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors granted a petition to change the name of the Harold School District back to the Palmdale School District. In the same year, the Antelope Valley Union High School and Community College District was formed. The high school district opened the doors of its first 9th – 12th grade school in Lancaster to eight students. Students in elementary grades (1st– 8th) continued to be served by “rural’ districts which existed in the scattered pockets of settlement that dotted the Valley floor.
Maryott School Built. On June 29, 1917 – for the sum of $10 – the Palmdale School District was granted the deed to land between 10th and 11th Streets East and between Palmdale Blvd., and Avenue Q-12 (land now occupied by Courson Park). The new Palmdale School, as it was then called (its name was changed on March 21, 1960 to the Roy R. Maryott School), consisted of a large central room that served as auditorium, lunchroom, and gym; two small conference rooms; and two classrooms at either end of the structure. On moving day, students from the Old Palmdale Grammar School – which had been condemned as “unsafe for use” – paraded down Palmdale Blvd. carrying books and the other contents of their desks to take up their studies in the new Palmdale School. Rose Kidd and Dana Gibbons were the school’s first teachers. There still was no kindergarten class, but there was a school bus driven by Mr. Hammond – who was affectionately known to students as “Ham-n-eggs”! At the time, Palmdale had a population of about 300 and consisted of one brick store, a railroad station, the school and a few houses.
PSD grows. From 1917 to the 50’s, the growth of Palmdale was a slow – but imperceptible – process. In the late 30’s, enrollment in Palmdale’s single elementary school was 226, but in the early 50’s enrollment shot upward to over 1,000 with the activity in aerospace bringing new families to the area. With the exception of a brief decline in the early 70’s, enrollment continued to climb through to today. The chart below shows the growth in student enrollment in the Palmdale School District.
School Days: A Look Back at the Old Palmdale Schoolhouse
The construction of the Old Palmdale Schoolhouse in 1888 coincided with momentous national change in education policy. The compulsory education laws, enacted in states from 1852 to 1929, were both a constituent and a catalyst for reform.
Deeply committed to the idea of popular education, Americans expected their schools to create a unified society. Education should, reformers stressed, instill good work habits and give rise to a common culture. Most schooling during the time was a “no frills, little nonsense” affair, and critics of the educational system saw too many schools as memorization factories where teachers used corporal punishment to instill rote learning.
Generally, reformers agreed on the need for required elementary education for all, a longer school year, more public high schools, and kindergartens. But while the broad goals of compulsory education were widely accepted, controversy existed over the content of education and who would provide it. Amongst those with misgivings, about public education, Catholics and Protestants, concerned with the need to infuse the curriculum with religious values, sought tax money to aid parochial education and debated other issues, such as the issue of language in California and the need to instruct in “English Only.”
One of the foremost school critics of the day was Joseph Mayer Rice whose firsthand study of 36 public schools in the 1890s led to a national progressive education movement. Mayer charged that “mindless memorization and poor teaching were widespread” and set three broad goals for reform. They included: first, the application of new research in psychology to school programs; second, the broadening of school programs to include health education and vocational training; and third, the tailoring of instruction to individual needs.
It was against this somewhat noisy national backdrop of criticism and change that a handful of German and Swiss settlers built a school on a lonely patch of desert ground so that their children could share in the benefits of an education.
Imagine the Past
From the distance of time, we can only imagine what it must have been like for the 30 students – 15 boys, 15 girls – who first attended school in the Old Palmdale Schoolhouse. We know that six to 16 year olds sat side by side in the same room, many of them were related to one another. The school day began somewhat late – at 9:00 AM – probably to accommodate the completion of chores. It ended at 4:00 PM. Attendance by students was irregular, with the decision to come to school often depending upon what needed to be done at home. Many students, if not most, attended for only a short time. Few completed an entire term.
With limited resources – no more than a globe, some maps, and a few charts (total value - $35) – a single teacher, Mr. Henry Shirley, conducted the day’s lessons. It is probably that Mr. Shirley, who took over the school in June 1988, lacking any formal credentials other than a “grammar” certificate obtained that year (he later attended the “County Institute” and completed the “American Teacher” Journal of Education), incorporated no more than a few of the ideas embraced in the educational reforms of the day. The kindergarten and high school grades called for by reformers were missing from his classroom and only first through eight grade studies were available.
Still, the teacher was not totally alone in his endeavors. Guiding his instruction was the State of California through its representative, Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools, F. E. Little. In the surviving Public School Register from 1888, it is noted that Mr. Little made a visit to the school for two hours on May 1, 1889 to ensure that all was as it should be.
Public School Register
Contained in the Public School Register, which mainly served to document school attendance, is a fascinating glimpse of the day to day operation of the school, as well as a record of the thought regarding the responsibilities of teachers and students.
Among the “Rules for Pupils” listed in the register is the expectation that a student will “…obey promptly all the directions of the teacher …observe good order and propriety of department … be diligent in study, respectful to teachers, and kind and obliging to schoolmates … to refrain entirely from the use of profane and vulgar language, and to be clean and neat in person and clothing.:”
Teachers were instructed in the register “to endeavor to make themselves acquainted with parents and guardians, in order to secure their aid and cooperation, and to better understand the temperaments, characteristics, and wants of the children … to explain each new lesson assigned, if necessary, by familiar remarks and illustrations, that every pupil may know before he is sent to his seat what he is expected to do at the next recitation, and how it is to be done..,” and “to exhibit proper animation …avoid all heavy, plodding movements …lest the pupil be dull and drowsy, and imbibe the notion that he studies only to recite.”
The daily routine of lessons, as listed in the register, included geography, numbers, language, reading, spelling, arithmetic, and grammar for A, B and C groups. Promotion to the next grade was determined by final examinations given at the end of term. If the routine ever varied, the records does not show.
It is true that the Old Palmdale Schoolhouse served only a small number of students in its brief history and its significance may seem limited. But it marked a beginning for an entire community and, further, did so at a pivotal moment in time for education. Debate on educational reforms continues, but beyond the swirl of opinions, it can be said that public education has endured these 100 years and more. The Old Palmdale Schoolhouse stands to remind us of the past: of the hopes and dreams of farmers and ranchers for a better life for their children and the dedication of a community toward attaining a national goal – universal education as the right of every citizen. It is for us to remember that in this big idea, the little schoolhouse too played its part.
Palmdale School District
39139 North Tenth Street East
Palmdale, California 93550