EL TORO : Schoolhouse Still Has Lots to Teach as It Nears 100 Years

Hundreds of students will return to Rancho Canada Elementary School this week, leaving their modern suburban homes for modern classrooms.

But just across the street from the campus is the El Toro Grammar School, a one-room schoolhouse and one of the Orange County’s few remaining reminders of what elementary education was like a century ago. In those days, because most children’s parents were farmers, classes didn’t start until the harvest was done.

The school, now part of the Heritage Hill Historical Park, will celebrate its 100th anniversary on Oct. 21 in a special ceremony re-enacting the original dedication. According to historian Jim Sleeper, the El Toro School is the oldest school still standing in Orange County. (A one-room schoolhouse at Knott’s Berry Farm was built in 1875, but it was moved from Beloit, Kan., to be used as a museum at the amusement park.)

Although the El Toro school is now a museum, the Victorian building still fills with fourth-graders many days during the school year. The students visit the Heritage Hill park beginning in October as part of their study of California history. Students dress in period clothing and re-enact part of a school day in that era, including being taught the basics, singing to the piano and going on recess. Students even take names of actual students who attended the school and learn a little about their families.


“The first week (after Labor Day), we’re booked for the whole year,” said Dan Thomas, senior park ranger at Heritage Hill. “We don’t even have to advertise.”

For any visitor, a walk inside is like a step back in time.

The school seats only about 32 students, enough to house all the children in grades one through eight who lived in Saddleback Valley in those days. Desks vary in size depending upon which grade students are in. Blackboards line all four walls to accommodate each grade level.

On the teacher’s desk are a large red apple, fountain pens and the McGuffey’s Reader, the basic instruction book of the day. The thicker the McGuffey volume, the higher the grade level.


On the walls are period artifacts, each placed in the school building as if it were 1890. The U.S. flag has only 44 stars. The Pledge of Allegiance has slightly different words. A map on the school’s wall reminds visitors that Thailand was then Siam, the Soviet Union was the Russian Empire and Iraq was just part of Arabia.

The schoolhouse was originally located at what was then the corner of 1st Street and Olive Avenue in El Toro. In 1914, the school closed when a new, two-room schoolhouse was constructed adjacent to it to house a growing student population.

A year later, the original El Toro Grammar School became St. Anthony’s Catholic Church and was moved nearby to El Toro Road. It remained there until 1968. During the early 1970s, the schoolhouse building was unoccupied and heavily vandalized. It was donated to Orange County in 1976 and moved to Heritage Hill.

Among those who plan to attend the 100th anniversary celebration at the park is George Osterman, who went to the school from 1907 to 1912 for fourth through eighth grades. He recalls that the school was in a remote area in the county. Rules in the classroom were strict.

“We used to say it was ‘reading, writing and arithmetic taught to the tune of a hickory stick,’ ” said Osterman, 92, who now lives in Santa Ana. “The teachers carried a buggy whip.”

Much also was made of keeping boys away from girls. Boys entered through a cloak room to the right of the main entrance, the girls to the left. The main entrance was reserved for teachers and their parents. On shelves in the cloak rooms were tin tobacco cans, that day’s version of school lunch boxes, and washbasins.

“They would come back from recess either too dirty of sweaty,” said park ranger Thomas. “The teacher made them clean up.”

But the rules were equally stringent for teachers--men or women in their late teens and early 20s hoping to teach someday in schools in bigger towns.


On the wall in the school is a list of guidelines for the teachers. One reads:

“Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.”

And the closest thing to a teachers’ pension plan was written advice for what to do with each $75-a-month paycheck:

“Every teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.”

Still, not everything was as strict as today. Dress codes in particular were more lax, Thomas said.

“They could come in dirty Levis and no shoes,” Thomas said. “Their shirt didn’t have to be tucked in.”

Osterman remembers that for farmers, money was so tight it often was impossible to buy a new pair of shoes or pants.

“If your pants wore through, you just put a patch over it,” he said. “In 1907, we had a panic. Not a depression, but a panic. . . . No one had money to go out and get a new pair of pants.”