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It’s been 78 years since Florence Nylander Bates attended a one-room schoolhouse in the hills west of Healdsburg, but the memories are still vivid — the white dresses the girls wore on graduation day, the play they staged in a meadow, the potbelly stove they warmed themselves with on rainy days, and the 12-mile, daily round-trip journey she made on her horse to get to school.

Bates, 90, sat outside the 132-year-old Daniels School on Mill Creek Road last week recalling those halcyon days.

“It was almost idyllic. You felt protected and everybody was nice to you,” said Bates, who graduated from the school’s eighth-grade class in 1938.

She is part of a handful of alumni working to restore the schoolhouse, an effort that has regained momentum thanks to a $14,500 grant from the Sonoma County Landmarks Commission, coupled with donations and volunteer work.

A new roof and windows were installed this spring on the schoolhouse, which was built from old-growth redwood but exposed to the elements following its closure in 1951. Next comes siding and interior work, including a renewed electricity supply, something the old structure only had after World War II, when its kerosene lanterns were replaced.

“I’m making real progress,” said Bonnie Cussins Pitkin, 71, who is spearheading the $40,000 restoration effort for the cherished school, which she attended one year prior to its closure, when she was in first grade.

Pitkin’s vision is to provide an opportunity for local schoolchildren to take field trips to Daniels School and learn what it was like to go to a one-room school, which were common in rural areas across the country. At Daniels School, one teacher taught academic basics to boys and girls in grades one through eight, the typical arrangement.

In 1916, there were 120 one-room schoolhouses in Sonoma County — including Daniels School — according to a thesis written then by Stanford University student Tillman Elliott Baker, who proposed reorganizing the school system.

Today, only a handful of the one-room schoolhouses survive.

Daniels School sits on a slope up winding, redwood-lined Mill Creek Road, seven miles from the intersection with Westside Road and a little more than eight miles from Healdsburg.

Pitkin’s family owned it until they donated the 16-by-26-foot building and a half-acre around it to the Venado Historical Society, which draws its name from the surrounding community established in the early 1900s.

These days, about the only time Venado gets mentioned is when a meteorologist calls out the impressive rainfall totals it can reap in winter storms. Located in a step of the steep hills on the edge of the Cazadero “rainforest,” one TV weatherman dubbed it “the rain capital of the Bay Area.”

Venado, Spanish for “deer,” was named by mining engineer Stillman Batchellor, the first postmaster in 1921. By then, earlier generations that came to log the giant redwoods and work a magnesite mine had departed.

The schoolhouse was built over eight days in the spring of 1883, following a bitter fight over where it should be located. The land was donated by Daniel Davis, a sea captain from Maine whose wide interests landed him in Sonoma County, according to Holly Hoods, curator for the Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society, who wrote the grant proposal to help restore the school.

By 1903, the resident population dwindled and the school shut down for lack of pupils. But it reopened four years later and was rechristened in honor of Ray A. Daniels, a primary mover and shaker in re-establishing the school.

Fruit ranching and the tanbark industry brought new purpose, people and prosperity to upper Mill Creek, according to Hoods.

“The land that has been cleared has proved fine fruit land, and vineyards and prune orchards are taking the place of the redwood groves,” is how the Healdsburg Tribune described Venado in 1925.

One of those who attended the school at the time, from 1921 to 1929, was centenarian Stewart Wade, whose father was a contractor and road builder who helped complete Mill Creek Road.

“We had very good teachers; I thought they were quite dedicated,” Wade said of the female instructors who came for two-year stints and were put up in the homes of area families.

Wade, who will turn 101 in November and still works part time as a real estate agent, spoke by phone from his Honolulu home this week.

He remembers there was no running water at the school.

“We had to carry a bucket from the spring down the road,” he said, adding that all the children used the same dipper to drink from. If one caught a cold, he said, they would all get it.

The oldest boys in the school got the job of janitor and were paid a few dollars a month for sweeping the floors with redwood sawdust soaked in oil.

“The only playground we had was a road where we played most of the time,” he said. “It was very safe in those days. Cars didn’t travel very fast, and the wagons, we could hear them coming from a long way.”

One wagon in particular, Wade said, came from a Santa Rosa candy store, but it wasn’t there to satisfy the children’s sweet tooth. It was during the Prohibition era and the sugar hidden under a canvas in the back of the wagon went to a nearby still where it was used to make booze, he said.

Wade also recalled the “fruit tramps” who came to work the summer harvests. They hailed from the Midwest and typically had one big car with all their possessions and family inside. They were on a circuit that included the raisin harvest in Fresno, with a swing through Sonoma County before heading to Oregon for the pears and apples.

Usually, they had two or three kids with them, who would end up for a short time at Daniels School.

When Bates graduated in 1938, a decade after Wade, Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, Babe Ruth was coaching the Brooklyn Dodgers, a gallon of gas was 10 cents, and the average price of a new car was $763.

But her family was poor and she was still riding to school on her horse named Lady, sometimes having to navigate the rain-swollen East Austin Creek with the help of her father and sometimes getting home after dark.

“My sister would ride double with me to the top of the ‘ladder,’” she said of the steep grade at the top of Mill Creek Road where her older sister would get off the horse and walk back home while Bates headed for the schoolhouse.

On the way to school, she said, “you would talk to yourself, which I still do,” and look out for bird nests to see if the eggs were hatching. “If I saw a rattlesnake, I killed it. That’s what you did in those days,” she said.

Bates relishes those bygone school days.

“I remember the teacher taking us to the creek and reading out loud to us. I loved that,” she said.

She also lifted her forearm to show the scar she has from when she fell onto a broken windshield near the school and needed stitches to close the cut.

There hasn’t been a lesson taught in the little schoolhouse since 1951, when unification brought five small schools (Felta, West Side, Mill Creek, Junction and Daniels) together in the Westside Union District.

Efforts began in the late 1990s to rehabilitate the old schoolhouse. The foundation, porch and awning were rebuilt, but renovations were delayed when the leader in the effort, Flora May Cootes-Caletti, became ill.

In 2010, a fundraising drive was renewed, with local contractors, including Mike Flower, donating time to the rebuilding, ZFA Associates doing the structural engineering and local businesses like Healdsburg Lumber Co. donating materials.

Contributions are still being solicited to complete the interior work. And Pitkin is still looking to hear from former Daniels School pupils.

Contributions can be made at danielsschool.blogspot.com, or sent to the Venado Historical Society, 8000 Mill Creek Road, Healdsburg 95448.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@clarkmas.

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