Sense of Place: Who was Ida Clayton, and why was a local road and mine named after her?

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Ida Clayton Road climbs from Knights Valley up to the Napa County line on the northern flank of Mount St. Helena. It was named for a 19th-century schoolteacher who remains a bit of mystery.

Ida’s parents were easterners. Her father, Furman Clayton, was born in New Jersey in 1815, while her mother, Eliza, was from New York state. By 1850 they were living in Brooklyn with four kids.

Soon after the gold rush, the Claytons emigrated to San Francisco, probably by ship. Ida was born within a year of their arrival in California. Out here, Furman was employed as a “steamer engineer,” possibly working on ferryboats on San Francisco Bay and sternwheelers making the trip to Sacramento.

What do we know of Ida? In 1870, at the age of 14, she was attending a private school in San Francisco.

Three years later, cinnabar, from which mercury is derived, doubled in price. As an essential ingredient for extracting gold in those days, it was in high demand and the increase set off a short-lived mercury rush. Dozens of mines were started in the northwestern part of the county and one was dubbed the “Ida Clayton Mine.”

Why was a cinnabar mine named after a 17-year-old? Was her father a shareholder in the mining company? Was she the heartthrob of some lonely prospector? Or just a family friend? We don’t know.

We do know that almost simultaneously Ida’s name appears in the newspaper as having qualified to be a teacher in Sonoma County. In 1874 she took a position at a school in the brand new town of Kellogg in Knights Valley. The new redwood schoolhouse was “perched up demurely alongside the road.” Ida was called “the presiding divinity of this temple.” She was just 18 years old.

The “heroic little teacher” taught about a dozen students between the ages of 5 and 17. Every morning she rode her horse six miles to work “by a lonely road” and returned in the evening, seeming “to enjoy and prosper with the exercise.” In class “much attention” was “given to oral instruction, music and drawing.” A visitor wrote that there were “no idle scholars … all seemed to have something to do and appeared to be busily engaged in doing it.”

Though Ida was a very popular teacher, she returned to San Francisco after just a couple years. Moving back in with her parents, she found another teaching position. The last known record, from 1900, shows her as a single woman with 25 years of classroom experience and still teaching. Did she perish in the 1906 earthquake? We don’t really know.

Though Ida’s father survived the earthquake and lived to the ripe old age of 99, he is not well remembered. But his daughter’s name is still familiar to us.

Ida Clayton Road may be the only one in the county named after a teacher. And how many people can also claim to have a mine named after them? Like the best teachers, Ida’s legacy inspires more questions than answers. In that way she lives on.

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