The Journal of San Diego History
July 1960, Volume 6, Number 3
Jerry MacMullen, Editor

By Rollin Peirce

The peaceful Santa Maria Valley: Ramona, in the days of The Little Red School-House. More than three quarters of a century have passed since the first school-house was erected in the vicinity of Ramona.

I cannot recall whether or not it was a “Little Red School-House,” but at any rate, it was built on a hill on the old Ortega-Stokes Rancho, just above what now is the “Shangri-La” Ranch on the right hand of the road to Julian. Being the only school at the time between Poway and Julian, it was attended by the children of many of the pioneer families living west of Ballena — the Stokes, Warnocks, Swycaffers, Casners and Mulkins, and by the Stocktons, from over San Vicente way. After only a short occupancy this frame building of the 1880s burned; the Stokes family then provided an acre of land for a larger structure in the valley near their new home. It was known as the Santa Maria District until 1921, when it was taken into the Ramona Union School District. At that time the school-house was “transplanted” to the Ramona school grounds on D Street and served there for a dozen years. In the early 1930s it was again uprooted, and now is an attractive home on Eleventh Street, Ramona.

Back in the horse-and-buggy — or saddle — days, a community having seven or more children of five years and older, could establish a school district, provide schooling facilities for eight grades, and employ certified teachers under a County Rural School system.

According to available data, the next school-house in this neighborhood was in the Spring Hill district – a little adobe, home-built affair on the Rotanzi Rancho, just northerly of the fine Rotanzi vinyard. A flattened, weather-beaten mound of adobes still marks the location. About 1897 it was replaced by a frame structure on the Sutherland Road, a few yards below. Mrs. Alvin Rotanzi and Mrs. Harriet Brown were teachers in this school, which continued in operation until 1943. Like the Santa Maria school, it now is a private residence.

During the 1890s and after the turn of the century, many settlers with children were arriving in the valley, and the need for schools continued to grow. With nothing but horses — or walking — available for transportation, a “one teacher” school was located about every three or four miles; a check of records shows no less than ten such little “grammar” or elementary schools in the district now included in Ramona Union, which now covers some 150 square miles and includes the Union High School District.

In addition to the three pioneer districts mentioned — Santa Maria, 1881; Spring Hill, late 1880s; and Ramona, 1888-89 — there was the Earl school of 1889, its original building being near the Dennison turkey ranch on San Diego highway; a new building was provided for it in 1896-97, on the old San Diego highway. One of the first teachers in the old Earle building was Mrs. Clara Keys Graham in 1890, and in the new one was Olive Elder Peirce, 1896-97. The customary salary for teachers in these “one teacher” schools was $65 and $75 a month for a nine-month term; board, with horse transportation, was $2.50 a week, in some nearby home.

Also operating at this time was the Montecito School three miles from Earl, and half a mile south of Montecito Rancho. It was closed in 1910 and its five or six pupils were absorbed by Ramona. The building slowly vanished, piece by piece, and today only a lonely eucalyptus tree marks its site.

About three miles northeasterly was the Viego School, of 1886, attended by the children of the John, Pope, Clevenger and Howe families. It was on the north rim oi the valley, close to the Pamo road, and in 1895 its few remaining pupils went to the Santa Maria (Goose Valley) school. Following the Pamo road down into that pretty little valley, one came to the Almond school, which served the Moore and Ross families. Like Montecito, it “faded away” — carried off piecemeal by “Pack rats.”

The Julian mining boom of the 1880s attracted not only prospectors but land-seekers — and squatters — and many took up government land in this new section of San Diego County. Some settled around Ballena, and this called for another “Little Red School-House” — which was built on the Warnock Rancho and served until the middle 1940s.

In the late 1880s new settlers located about three miles to the southeasterly, in the vicinity of the Charles Littlepage place, and as there were seven or more children the Rosebury school was established. It lasted for but a few years, and was taken over by the Ballena District.

Like the old red brick school-house of 1888-89 at Eighth and D, these schools were the centers of community social and literary activity in pioneer days. In 1899, increased attendance demanded a new building, which was erected at Ninth and D — a two and one-half room structure for the upper four elementary grades, as well as the small first grade, which held forth in the “half room” at the rear of the building. The principal, or teacher in charge, taught the seventh and eighth grades.

At this time also, the high school moved from the “attic” of the Town Hall to the old 1888 building, remaining there until 1912, when the first High School building was built. On its completion, the three or four lower elementary grades moved back into “Old 1888.”

In 1921, when the Unified District was organized, the Goose Valley building was moved over the hill to a location a few yards west of the old brick structure to accommodate about twenty-five pupils taken into the new Union; it housed three or four of the elementary grades, with one teacher. When it was moved off to be remodelled as a residence, in the 1930s, the land was used for a structure of four class-rooms, an assembly-room and an auditorium. It lasted for about ten years; then, one winter night, a faulty oil heating system started a fire which destroyed it.

So there were, in all, fifteen buildings associated with the “Little Red School-House” era in Ramona — two each at Santa Maria, Earl and Spring Hill, four at Ramona, and one each at Montecito, Almond-Pamo, Viego-Clevenger’s, Ballena-Warnock’s, and Rosebury-Little pages.

The history of the Ramona Union High School — which I attended in 1894-95, in the old Barnett Town Hall — is a story in itself, and one which someone should compile. I am indebted for material in this brief paper to the staff of the Ramona Union High School annual, El Año, for 1947, who did a creditable piece of historical research in this field.