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Historic schoolhouse becomes popular Valley Ford camping spot

More information

To learn more about staying in the Valley Ford schoolhouse, visit hipcamp.com/california/brittany-j-s-land-1/charming-rural-historic-schoolhouse.

At a time when tens of thousands of local students are attending school over the Internet, an old — and iconic — one-room schoolhouse near Valley Ford is cashing in on low-tech learning face to face.

The catch, of course, is that the schoolhouse has been closed for years and remains closed to formal education today. Today the only learning that happens there are the lessons one gets from camping in an old building with generations’ worth of stories to share.

Consider the schoolhouse one of Sonoma County’s newest vacation rentals. Thanks to a partnership between a local government entity and a San Francisco-based technology company that promotes peer-to-peer transactions, visitors can sign up to use the more-than-100-year-old structure and its entire parcel year-round.

Brittany Jensen, executive director of the Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District (RCD), said her organization is working with a business named Hipcamp to rent out the schoolhouse for a minimum of two nights a pop.

“The building needs a lot of love,” she said. “Rather than have it sit empty, we thought we’d open it up to guests and offer a fun and safe way to share it with people visiting the area.”

The new digs represent a growing trend of private entities opening parts of their land to the public.

For these property owners, the moves unlock extra revenue at a time when income is scarce. For travelers, even those coming from elsewhere in the county, the decisions offer once-in-a-lifetime chances to stay in places they likely wouldn’t otherwise stay — an opportunity to create some safe and special memories in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Going to school

The Valley Ford schoolhouse certainly is worth getting excited about.

Built in the early 1900s as the American Valley School, the 2,300-square-foot building operated for decades as a one-room school. The facility closed in the 1960s and was deeded to the RCD, which turned around and leased it to the Valley Ford Volunteer Fire Department. That group ran the facility as a community center — at $150 a day it was one of the cheapest facility rentals in the county.

When the Fire Department’s lease expired at the beginning of 2020, the RCD wasn’t sure what to do. That’s when Jensen and her agency started thinking about making it a vacation rental.

The organization listed the schoolhouse on Hipcamp in mid-October and has welcomed a handful of guests since then.

Those visitors have enjoyed many throwbacks to the past, including original wooden seating benches, separate bathrooms marked “boys” and “girls” and hardwood floors that have more than a century’s worth of scuff marks. The building has modern conveniences such as an updated kitchen, tables and chairs, electricity and heat, but it lacks beds, showers and Wi-Fi.

The allure of the old schoolhouse isn’t just about the inside of the building — it’s about the outside, as well. The property backs right up onto the Estero Americano tidal estuary, and some of the old basketball courts are still there in the yard.

Jensen said that when campers book here, they have access to the entire property, which means they can pitch tents inside or outside and use the building as they see fit.

“You have access to the whole spot,” she said. “When you’re here, it’s all yours.”

Perspective of history

The Valley Ford Schoolhouse isn’t the only Sonoma Coast property on Hipcamp; all told, there are about a dozen others, including three or four on ranches in Valley Ford, Bodega Bay and Salmon Creek. Alyssa Ravasio, the company’s founder and CEO, said that overall, Hipcamp has 25 hosts in the county with 84 different listings.

Ravasio noted that with the COVID-19 pandemic limiting the kinds of trips people are taking, larger numbers of travelers are turning to camping and road trips to escape.

“In 2020, getting outside became more important than ever because it is a great source of healing, both physically and mentally,” she said. “This year, we've seen a surge in those looking to get outside, and have heard anecdotally from our hosts that they are meeting a lot of first-time campers, which is amazing that so many people are now reconnecting with the outdoors.”

She added that the schoolhouse should be particularly popular in winter since it “offers a stable place where campers can have warmth and comfort during colder months.”

Real estate agent Sarah Schoeneman knows all about the value of old schoolhouses. She was the listing agent on the old Albion Schoolhouse, a one-room structure in Albion (on the Mendocino County coast) that sold for $1.3 million in 2017.

More information

To learn more about staying in the Valley Ford schoolhouse, visit hipcamp.com/california/brittany-j-s-land-1/charming-rural-historic-schoolhouse.

That building opened in 1924 and was in use for nearly four decades. Once it closed in 1967, the building had numerous lives as a supermarket, community center and more. It sat vacant for a while, but between 1995 and 2005, the 5,000-square-foot building was converted into a fancy vacation rental, complete with restaurant-quality kitchen, skylights. It also had seen time as a musical recording studio, and had a stage with professional-quality acoustics.

Schoeneman said the stage was always one of the features that captured people’s attention.

“Schoolhouse accommodations can spark your imagination and (when you’re there), you are always aware of the fascinating history that preceded your visit,” she said recently from her office in the Village of Mendocino. “(Being in one of these spaces) can give you a space to feel romantic, creative, and the enjoyment of being with family.”

Other considerations

It’s worth noting that beyond the basics, camping at the Valley Ford schoolhouse is a little different from staying elsewhere.

For starters, because of the building’s size and location (as well as special pandemic protocols), it costs $200 to clean the place, a steep fee considering it’s only $125 per night. Second, the toilet in the girls bathroom is tiny — like, kid-sized. This is great if you have kids; it’s not ideal if you don’t.

Jensen admitted that she is ultra-sensitive about another issue: relations with the local community. She said that because her organization has had a connection with Valley Ford for so long and because the schoolhouse is so important to so many locals, she sees it as “critical” that the RCD manage the site responsibly and communicate to guests about preserving the legacy.

“We need to be careful,” she said. “We have great respect for the history and the town.”

Shona Campbell, co-owner at the Valley Ford Hotel and Rocker Oysterfeller’s restaurant on Shoreline Highway, seemed unfazed by the status of the school.

In an email message, Campbell said she didn’t even know the property had been converted to a vacation rental, but added she was happy that outsiders might have a new reason to come for a visit and get to know her Sonoma Coast town.

“We have a lot of fun things happening here,” she wrote.

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