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High schools gone, but not forgotten

Almost gone, Nevada City High School, 1985 - The wreckers have almost completed their demolition of the old building. Only a partial shell of the 1912 building remains. The two cedars in the background are still standing.
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Some 50 years ago, Grass Valley and Nevada City maintained separate high schools. A natural geographic rivalry existed between the two, with the Nevada City-Grass Valley football game as the athletic highlight of the year. The year 1952 was the last in which each high school held separate graduation ceremonies, and 1951 was the last football game between the schools. In fall 1952, the new Nevada Joint Union High School District became the only provider of public secondary school education for all of western Nevada County. Grass Valley’s high school facilities became the first Nevada Union High School.

The late Doris Foley Larsen, Nevada County’s official historian, was a career teacher and public school administrator. She also researched and wrote a number of monographs dealing with aspects of Nevada County history, including its schools.



According to Larsen, Nevada City’s first high school was established in 1862. By 1866, there were 40 students enrolled in classes in a brick building at the corner of High and Nevada streets, site of the present Trinity Episcopal Church.

As enrollment climbed to 58, classes were moved into the new Washington School, completed in 1869 at a cost of $19,800. It was on the site of the present Nevada City Elementary School at Main and Cottage streets.




In the beginning, there was no formal graduation for students. They stayed in classes until they felt qualified to enter their chosen field. Many took the county teacher’s examination to teach in rural county towns. A few went on to college.

On June 13, 1880, Nevada City High held its first graduation ceremony in Nevada Theatre on Broad Street. Commencement speaker was U.S. Sen. E.P. Preston, a former Nevada County school superintendent, after whom Preston School of Industry in Ione is named.

By 1911, Washington was bursting at the seams and could not accommodate primary and intermediate schools, plus a high school with an enrollment of 125. In April, a $30,000 bond issue was passed, and a high school was built on a portion of the Lopez Ranch on Zion Street. The building opened for classes on Sept. 12, 1912.

Fast-forward to the evening of June 5, 1952, to the school auditorium and Nevada City High School’s last graduation.

Principal Edward A. Frantz presented the class of 47 seniors to parents and friends. Class president Jack Montgomery welcomed the guests as the graduates, “in caps and gowns … marched … to the stage to a processional by the … orchestra conducted by Willard Goerz … (the) chorus led by Mrs. Marian Libbey, sang ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ … after which Ruth Imus played a piano solo …”

The first class speaker was Shirley Hoar, who recounted the school’s history. Her speech was followed by a piano solo by Dorotha Smart and Jack Egan’s rendition of “Danny Boy.” Speaker David Mott issued a call for cooperation in order to make the transition to a new union high school district as smooth as possible. The district would be effective July 1.

In a short speech, Frantz echoed Mott’s plea for cooperation and said that all fall class offerings would remain the same, with a few new ones added. The district would maintain a Nevada City and a Grass Valley campus.

“Ultimately, we must have a new union high school building,” he said. “I hope the voters will support it.” They did, and some 10 years later the Ridge Road campus of Nevada Union HIgh School opened its doors.

Frantz announced the senior academic and athletic awards, after which the chorus sang a rendition of the Nevada City High hymn, after which “many eyes in the chorus and in the audience became moist.”

Harold A. Berliner Jr. a district trustee, called the class of ’52 a milestone class, graduating at a time “marking the end of one era and the beginning of a new one.” He then awarded diplomas to the graduating seniors.

The old Zion Street school building has served as a high school and junior high and as Seven HIlls Intermediate School. In 1936, a Spanish-style addition including a gymnasium was added. This structure conformed to California’s school safety requirements under the Field Act.

By 1968, the old 1912 building was crumbling. Classes had moved into the gym, cafeteria and all other usable space. Finally, after Nevada City voters turned down for the second time a bond issue for repairs, classes were divided among other schools, and the facility closed. It was later condemned.

For the next 10 years, the building’s fate was argued. Finally, in 1985, the wrecker’s ball won out and down it came.

Bob Wyckoff is a retired newspaper editor, an author of local history, a lifetime student of California history and a longtime resident of Nevada County. You can write him at The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.


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