Tassajara School House
If buildings could talk, the Tassajara School House would tell of children reciting lessons, ciphering and singing in a classic one-room school. Students from Tassajara Valley ranches attended this school from 1889 to 1946.
Today the School House sits in rural, restored splendor on its original site at 1650 Finley Road in Contra Costa County’s Tassajara Valley. A belfry tops the building, original outhouses, restored stable, picnic tables, new flag pole, handicapped restrooms and a redwood water tower complete the picture. From February to June, the Museum of the San Ramon Valley provides a living history program for every third grader in the SRV Unified School District — 2800 students in 2012.
The School House was the second Tassajara grammar school, built when the student population outgrew a smaller structure. On Jan. 12, 1889, ten out of ten Tassajara School District voters approved the sale of bonds amounting to $1700 to purchase a lot, build and furnish a school. Peter Anderson was paid $200 for an acre of his ranch land on Finley Road.
The Livermore Echo Newspaper (March 14, 1889) reported that the contract for the new school was let to J. L. Weilbye of Sunol. In those days, such a small building would have been constructed soon after the contract was signed.
Students from first to eighth grade walked, rode horses and took buggies to get to school. In 1889 Richard D. Williams was the teacher and 41 students attended that August. Roger Podva (born in 1884) began school in 1890 and said there were 42-75 students at the school when he attended, sitting two to a desk. They learned mental arithmetic, reading, geography, spelling and writing. A picture of George Washington hung on the wall.
The Contra Costa Gazette announced that the Tassajara School children raised their new flag on August 1, 1890, with appropriate ceremonies. As part of the program, George Fergodo, Tony Silver and Walter Scott gave the recitation “Red, White and Blue” and county school board member A. J. Young gave a speech “appreciated by young and old.”
According to historian Vivian Coats Edmonston, “Roger Podva said that the black walnut trees in the school yard were planted by the children, starting with the oldest child down to the youngest ( Roger). His tree was planted by the ‘rest room’.”
Students from Portuguese and Danish immigrant families regularly exchanged lunches — linguisa and sweet bread for sandwiches slathered with butter.
A public high school in downtown Danville opened in 1910 and some of the students traveled into town for higher education, joining grammar school graduates from five other small schools.
Because of dirt roads, the school year calendar varied. In 1921 school opened for the fall semester on July 18, according to the Contra Costa Gazette. It opened early “as a mid-term vacation of two months is taken each year during the heavy rains of the winter when students residing in the rural sections are unable to attend.”
In 1946 Tassajara School enrollment shrank to 11 after two large families moved away. Several parents thought that students could get a better education by going to a more modern school. That year the school closed, and students and teacher Gertrude Arendt went to Danville for elementary school. The desks were transported to Danville as well.
Gordon Rasmussen, who was in sixth grade when the school closed, said “It was like hitting you with both barrels. In 1946 I had one other kid in my class, but then all of a sudden the next year there were 40.” (Times, 1972) His younger sister, Nancy, worried about learning all the names in her Danville class, since she had been the only one in her grade. A yellow bus took them into Danville.
The abandoned school fell on hard times. The bell disappeared, windows were broken and Washington’s picture was stolen. But people in the Tassajara community organized to restore and care for the School House, replacing the foundation and roof and putting in new wiring and floors. They created the Tassajara-Highland Improvement Association and, in 1970, a new volunteer fire district.
An annual picnic at the school included a barbecue, raffles, auctions, games and recruitment for fire volunteers. Funds were raised for the restoration. Eventually the picture of Washington was returned anonymously by the youth who took it; in a note he said his conscience had bothered him. Mrs. Arendt donated a World War I Liberty Bell from Pleasanton.
The Twenty-first Century
Today the School House is in excellent shape because of the efforts of the Tassajara and San Ramon Valley Fire Districts, dedicated volunteers such as Gordon Rasmussen and Vera Reinstein and others in the supportive Tassajara Valley community.
The SRV Fire Protection District, which managed the building and grounds from 1990 to 2012. installed the flagpole and water tower on the original site. A historic plaque was placed by the San Ramon Valley Historical Society in 1999. In 2006 Shapell Homes reconstructed the historic stable, restored the outhouses and installed handicapped restrooms as a community project. Garden clubs have planted bulbs for a spring flower display.
Recently the school has been used for meetings, rentals, tours and picnics. Beginning each January, the popular one-room school program taught by Museum of the San Ramon Valley docent-teachers draws over 3500 students and parents to the Tassajara School.
For nearly 125 years the School House has been an important feature for the Tassajara Valley community. It was a school, first and foremost. But it has also been used for graduations, dances, 4-H and fire board meetings, church services, picnics and voting. The picturesque school is a favorite subject of artists and photographers.
The restored Tassajara School stands as a tribute to the caring community which worked to save it.
Contra Costa County Book of Deeds, April 20, 1889, Vol. 55.
Contra Costa Gazette, Aug. 21, 1889, Aug. 2, 1890, July 23, 1921
Edmondston, Vivian Coats, Tassajara School, 2 pp. monograph, no date. From the Ox Team to the Moon, June 1987.
Nilsen, Eleanor, “Little Tassajara School Still ‘Belongs to Area’”, Contra Costa Times, Sept. 27, 1970.
Personal communications: Betty Casey, Irma Dotson, Betty Maffei, Gordon Rasmussen, Nancy Rasmussen Ramsey, Vera Reinstein.
Tassajara Fire Protection District minutes, Jan. 15, 1970
Reinstein, Vera, To Whom It May Concern, 1 page summarizing Tassajara School history, no date.
Swenson, Steve, “Tassajara Valley Youth to Celebrate Old School,” Contra Costa Times, Aug. 30, 1972.
Acknowledgments: photograph from Ralph Cozine, drawing from SRV Historical Society, text by Beverly Lane