Western Traveler

Fruita School, Utah

We’re now well into the 21st century and there are those who take great pride in our education system. Students today have access to virtually all information every known, through the World Wide Web (though credibility remains somewhat in question on sources). There was a time however when it wasn’t so easy to learn, but the rewards of where you got to learn more than made up for it.

Let’s travel back in time to the latter part of the 19th century, to a remote part of Utah known as the Fruita (once called Junction) community. Located in what is today Capitol Reef National Park, this tiny haven was home to a hardy group of settlers who made their fame through agricultural accomplishment. In addition to successful orchards, they also produced sorghum, vegetables and alfalfa. The fruit was harvested pre-maturation so it would arrive in market when it became appropriately ripe.

This was the backdrop for the creation of the Fruita School. Built in 1900, this tiny building beckoned the children of the township every morning with the toll of the bell by 14-year old teacher, Nettie Behunin. Prior to the beginning of classes, two children dipped water into a barrel from Sulphur Creek while others collected firewood for the pot-bellied stove.

Fruita Schoolhouse #2

The land for the schoolhouse was donated by Nettie’s father, Elijah in 1896. He and other townspeople were the ones who actually built the structure. The first class of the school boasted 22 students, three of whom were Nettie’s siblings.

As class after class filed through the one-room building, it too changed with the times. The original roof, a flat, dirt-covered affair was replaced with a peaked, shingle roof in either 1912 or 1913 (date not certain). The bare, chinked log walls were plastered in 1935.

Life in the school was like most places in the early days of westward expansion. The homemade wooden desks would sit two students at a time as the children learned the three R’s (readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmatic). When more books became available (and when the teachers felt competent to teach the subject), other classes such as geography were added to the “learnin’.”

Fruita Schoolhouse #3

Sometimes the students would play pranks on their teacher by doing such fun things as hiding the school clock in the woodpile to delay the start of class, or by dropping bits of calcium carbide taken from lanterns (also used in miner’s lights) into the ink wells to cause them to overflow, or even explode if tightly capped.

The schoolhouse also became a community building of sorts. As the desks weren’t nailed down, they could be moved to accommodate other uses for the facility. As late as 1924, it was used for dances, town meetings, church youth activities, elections, celebrations and suppers.

If you’re headed to Capitol Reef, try to hit the Fruita area early in the day to allow yourself adequate time to enjoy the harvest, and the history.

Last modified on: January 30th 2014.
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