By Jude Schuenemeyer
To the pioneers there are many things for which I am grateful. Not the least of which is Battle Rock, my daughters’ school house. Early on I learned that school districts and orchard districts were not mutually exclusive clubs, but the overlap and integration of communities. Where there were orchards there were farmers, and where there were farmers there were schools.
Planting an orchard, like building a school, is an act of forward thinking; the rewards for both are years off. Doing either represents a belief that this place is worth having, this thing is worth doing. Trees will die, buildings will come and go, but the essential grit that makes a place remains.
I knew that the Montezuma Valley was marketed as the last best place for a poor farmer to make a living. It could be the Nile of the West, a powerful fruit economy. All that was needed was for people willing to work it, and for people to make it work. And people came believing in the promise of our republic; if you worked hard enough, success was always within reach.
But these were people that did not have a lot. On a good year on a farm, enough was plenty, but on a bad year, enough was hunger. I marveled at the generosity and ambition that planted these orchards, dug the ditches, and built the schools, all of which I benefit from today.
In 1900 the average American was 23 years old. The average American died in his or her 47th year. This was a young population filling in the cracks of a continent that had not been crossed by an American explorer 100 years earlier. Yet somehow they looked forward.
Somewhere in my learning the question arose in my mind: Why did the farmer build the school?
When Harry Longenbaugh lived on top of Trail Canyon as a boy he had to take the livestock, including the team that pulled the teacher’s buggy, down to the spring for water, bring them back and feed them before he could eat breakfast and get himself ready for school. How many 6-year-old kids now could get the job done? he quipped.
Back then teachers were often boarded with the families on the farms. “Middle class” meant a roof over your head, a meal in your belly, and the skills to pay your way. The beanstalk of health insurance, pension plans, administrative overhead and ancillary positions had yet to sprout and grow. Obviously they could not foresee paying the retirement and health care of public employees that could retire in their 50s and live until their upper 80s, two things that remain elusive today to small business owners, which farmers are.
In the century that has passed since the construction of Battle Rock our country has gotten older, more secure in its wealth, and perhaps less willing to care about the future of others. Our national debates are about how to preserve programs for current populations but pass the cost with reduced benefits to future generations. A school that was built 40 or 50 years ago and “good enough for me then” when it was new is somehow still good enough for the next generation in spite of its many structural failings. Not that old is bad if old is functional. But when the old is not working and is instead a pit to burn resources, why keep feeding that fire?
Part of the difference between now and then, when the first schools were being built across the county, was that schools were built by the community. Land was donated, materials hauled, labor provided by the community itself. Schools were not the dark and distant bureaucracy of government. They were community. They were a proud part of the place.
Somehow along the road to standardization, professionalism, and accountability, people have become divested from their schools. In that divestment the structural belief in a better future has fallen. Disbelief and anger over waste and inequity, and incompetency perceived or actual, has become an excuse for non-investment of time, of energy, of money. Selfish fear has replaced daring optimism, and like so many things now the price of this barter is the future of others.
Across Montezuma County, residents will be deciding on the fate of new schools. There will be many legitimate arguments for and against these proposals. But in our deliberations we should consider that which was passed to us from those other generations, our debt to them for their belief in the future of this place that we love so much; and perhaps we should ask ourselves: Why did the farmer build the school?
Jude Schuenemeyer is co-owner of Let It Grow Garden Nursery and Café in Cortez, Colo.