Oak Tree School story on center stage
Special to The Union
In the 1970s, an unlikely collaboration between old timers and newly arrived back-to-the-land homesteaders came together against all odds to build a handcrafted public school for their children on the San Juan Ridge.
Next month, the story of San Juan Ridge Country School (later known as Oak Tree School) will be the centerpiece of an exhibit at the Canessa Gallery located in the heart of San Francisco’s legendary beatnik birthplace, North Beach.
“I remember the work days when the whole community united to build the new school by hand. It was more than an elementary school for me; it was the center of my universe, a work of art where we performed school plays, listened to great poets, and danced till dawn to the Cousin Cricket Band,” remembers former student Caleb Dardick, now Executive Director of South Yuba River Citizens League.
Dardick will be part of a panel of original participants during an Opening Reception for the exhibit, “Foundations of Community – The Story of Building a Handcrafted 1970s Sierra Foothills School” on Oct. 8 at the Canessa Gallery, 708 Montgomery St., San Francisco. Opening Reception begins at 4 p.m. with light refreshments followed by a Q&A starting at 6:15 p.m. The show will hang for the month of October.
Produced by nonprofit organization, North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center, the 2015 project was made possible by a $10,000 matching grant from California Humanities, a nonprofit partner for the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The exhibit will include panels with text excerpts from a year’s worth of interviewing nearly 40 people, photographs, architectural drawings, original artwork including a one day display of an embroidered “Ridge Tapestry” and artifacts such as a wheelbarrow used during a community workday when the foundation was poured.
First on public display last year at the Cultural Center, the upcoming exhibit will be a fine tuned presentation with added interviews and multi-media elements.
Collecting the story before it’s lost
“It’s an incredible story. I think it really represents a unique moment in time,” said Jeff Adams, a licensed architect and former Executive Director of the North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center.
Adams led the direction of the storytelling project and a team composed of Researcher Sara Keene, Archeologist Hank Meals and an advisory board that included Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet Gary Snyder.
“I saw it as a chance to collect and connect the stories of a subculture and an era that was beginning to fade with only haphazard documentation,” said Hank Meals, who was a young man when he first moved to the region from the Bay Area with dreams of moving back to the land.
In the 1960s, the San Juan Ridge – known to locals as “the Ridge” – was primarily still the home of mining, logging, and ranching families who had settled there during the previous century. At the time, some of the original one-room schoolhouses of that era were still in operation.
Toward the end of the decade and into the next, a new generation of homesteaders – many from the San Francisco Bay Area city and suburbs – began to arrive in search of a simpler lifestyle and a connection with the land. A state law requiring existing schools to be earthquake resistant by 1970 compelled the community to build a new school.
“People moving out there were seekers and dreamers and artists. They wanted to be the change. The school was the ultimate embodiment of going against the grain of the prevailing ideas of the time.”
During the project year, three people connected to the project passed away before they could share their story, including one of the projects advisors Steve Sanfield, writer and founder of the Sierra Storytelling Festival. This created a sense of urgency to capture history before it was lost.
“We are all starting to die now. All these tremendous stories are going with them,” said Hank Meals.
The Oak Tree School board wanted a building that was a departure from the concrete blocks and stucco monoliths of the day.
So they hired San Francisco architects Daniel Osborne and Zach Stewart, the same men who had designed Gary Snyder’s house in the late 1960s. Stewart owns the Canessa Gallery where the storytelling exhibit will be housed in October.
Shady Creek Construction Company broke ground in 1975, made up of a team of folks who had been involved with the construction of Snyder’s house, a job where they had learned a cooperative working spirit inspired by Snyder’s summers spent in Forest Service work camps and Buddhist monasteries.
“That’s probably more valuable than most of the other stuff – that people realized they can work together. A lot of them had never done that before,” said Snyder.
Over one hundred volunteers worked several weekends that summer to mix and pour concrete by wheelbarrow. Lumber was milled at local mills. Custom details like a stone fireplace for the lodge assembly hall, log cabins, truss plates made out of ornamental iron and a stained glass window of the Yuba River emerged. When it opened in 1976, the school for kindergarten through 8th grade students – was a collective work of art.
On Feb. 4, 1977, shortly after the school opened and students and teachers had embarked on their first full year, the Oak Tree School burned to the ground. The cause of the fire remains a mystery.
“As an 11-year-old, I was devastated when it was burned down. My first classroom when it was rebuilt was called the Phoenix Room with its beautiful stained glass image of rebirth,” said Caleb Dardick.
San Juan Ridge pioneers picked up the pieces and rebuilt.
For the next 15 years or so, the school system on the San Juan Ridge thrived, described by many as a “golden age.” Oak Tree School is now a Family Resource Center where children visit for art classes and summer camp.
Former student Shelly Covert, now the spokesperson for the Nisenan – Nevada City Rancheria remembers her days at Oak Tree School and how her education on the Ridge had a profound impact on her life.
“Many of us who went to school on the Ridge during that era were shaped by our schooling. I think it affected us for the better,” said Shelly Covert.
View the full storytelling project online at: http://www.northcolumbiaschoolhouse.org/oaktreeschool.
Check out the Canessa Gallery at: http://www.canessa.org.
Contact Freelance Writer Laura Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-913-3067.
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