When Martha Forth first saw the one-room rural schoolhouse where she would land her first teaching job in 1938, her heart sank.
"I thought, I can't do this," recalled Forth, then 23 and a university graduate with a teaching credential from USC.
The building stood in a field in the remote Leona Valley, about 10 miles west of Palmdale. There were a couple of outhouses, a windmill that pumped water to the building and no electricity.
But Forth knew she had to take the job. It was August. City schools had already hired their new teachers in the spring. And with the country still in the Great Depression, it wasn't wise to be too picky, she figured.
Decades later, Forth, now 97, described her teaching days at the Old Leona Valley Schoolhouse as some of the most rewarding of her life. Today she is among several old-timers, local history buffs and descendants of area pioneers who are supporting efforts to restore the heirloom structure and get it designated as an official California Point of Historical Interest.
Last month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed to ask the California Office of Historic Preservation to grant the status. Meanwhile, supporters are seeking to refurbish the building by its 100th birthday in 2015.
"It would be wonderful if they could restore enough of it so that people realize what it really was like when it was a one-room school," said Forth, speaking by phone from her home in Laurie, Mo.
Hand-built by local volunteers around 1915 for $1,500, the one-story structure had a redwood frame, clapboard siding and an asphalt shingle gable roof. An open cupola served as a bell tower. Students in the first through eighth grades studied side by side.
Today, the schoolhouse is perched on a hilltop property on Elizabeth Lake Road. It is one of the only schools in Southern California still standing from the homesteading boom when pioneers settled northern L.A. County, local historians said. The inside of the building is gutted, but its floor plan and original design remain, except for the removal of a cloakroom. A portion of the painted plaster blackboard that once covered an entire wall has been preserved. The original glass windows have been removed for safekeeping.
John Seymour, president of the West Antelope Valley Historical Society, said his group — which lobbied the county to seek the historical designation — plans to use the schoolhouse as an interpretive center and conduct tours there. Members have started to collect period artifacts and memorabilia to furnish it. They have acquired a child's desk, a wood-burning stove and a portrait of George Washington, which was often hung in public buildings back then.
"The goal is to gather all the history from the area and use the schoolhouse to teach kids what it was like to go to school during that period of time," said Seymour, 77, who moved to the Leona Valley in 1967. "Maybe they'll realize how well they have it today."
The schoolhouse survived being moved twice, in 1939 and 1989, and has suffered decades of earthquakes, wildfires, general wear and lack of maintenance. Seymour said members of the pioneer Ritter family, who owned more than 15,000 acres of ranch and farmland, used it as a gun club and hosted Hollywood stars there who visited to fish and hunt. The schoolhouse's second move came after it was threatened with demolition by developers.
"I admire it for its tenacity," said Peggy Fuller, who heads the grant committee for the West Antelope Valley Historical Society.
When Forth was the teacher, she had about 17 students ages 6 to 14. Most were from three or four pioneer families, including the Ritters, whose ancestors settled in the area in the late 1800s.
"Most of the school was made up of Ritters," said Joy Kostlan, 82, whose maiden name was Ritter and who started first grade at the schoolhouse in 1936. "I have cousins by the dozen."
Kostlan, a former teacher who lives in Newport Beach, recalled eating her packed school lunch on a hillside nearby and playing kick the can. Once, as a 6-year-old girl, she couldn't get to the outhouse in time and ended up drying off in front of the wood-burning stove, she said, laughing.
For Forth, one of the most "exciting things that happened" was when she killed an 8-foot rattlesnake that had crawled onto the schoolhouse porch. She used a shovel to decapitate it. Two older students later skinned it.
"We studied rattlesnakes for a couple of weeks and had the dead snake on display," she recalled.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times