Historic and Present Roles of Schools

Ralston Community Hall, Park County (former school, 1914)
Ralston Community Hall, Park County
(former school, 1914)

Photo: State Historic Preservation Office
The school has always played a central role in the life of the community. Citizens came together to form a school, taxed themselves to build and support a school, participated in decisions about the school building, and often helped to maintain and repair it. Parents could decide to move a school from one area to another based on where the pupils lived, or could decide to open a school in the bunkhouse of their ranch. Because of this, they considered the school theirs and not just a building owned by the county. Especially in rural communities, schools have traditionally been the center of social life. Often the school was (and still is) the only building large enough to accommodate religious services, plays, dances, fund raisers, weddings, funerals, club meetings, voting, and other community endeavors.

The Territorial Legislature of 1876 formally acknowledged the central role of the school building by granting to the local school districts the authority to use public school buildings for other than regular day school purposes. Community use of school buildings has been justified as a way to allow the community to reap the greatest possible return on its investment of tax dollars to build schools, and as a matter of economic efficiency to avoid building duplicate community facilities such as gymnasiums and auditoriums.

Americanization Class, South Superior, Sweetwater Co., 1925-26
Americanization Class, South Superior,
Sweetwater Co., 1925-26

Photo: Supt. of Public Instruction Biennial Report, 1926
In the Progressive era, schools were routinely used for evening classes for immigrants, who received training in English and American citizenship. As the state’s vocational education programs expanded, so did after-school and weekend use of school facilities for adult vocational education classes such as vocational agriculture, industrial trades and home economics.

Today, in larger towns, use of the school by the community has declined for a number of reasons. Many larger towns in the state have their own auditoriums, events centers, recreation centers, senior centers, community centers, and other facilities, so that the school is no longer the only option for recreation and large community events. Safety concerns have discouraged use of school buildings by non-school groups. Even voting, traditionally an activity that took place in schools, has been moved to other locations. The demise of neighborhood schools has also contributed to this trend. Large consolidated schools on the outskirts of town (often referred to as “sprawl schools”) are not convenient for neighborhood social and political events.

In cities and towns that have retained their older, multi-story school buildings, the school has taken on added architectural importance as a local landmark and symbol of the community. Natrona County High School (NCHS) in Casper, with its Collegiate Gothic tower, is perhaps the state’s finest example of this. Typical of high schools of the 1920s and 1930s, NCHS has a handsome auditorium that is still commonly used for concerts, theater and other community events.

Natrona County High School's Tower, Casper
Natrona County High School's Tower,
Casper

Photo: Photographer: Mary Humstone,
2007
In most rural areas and small towns, the school remains the center of community life, and there are a number of small communities in Wyoming – Arvada, Albin and Granger to name a few – that are threatened with extinction due to the closing of their school or the replacement of their commodious older school building with a smaller building that lacks a large assembly room.

Once a school is no longer used as a school, its fate is uncertain. Especially in cities and towns, school buildings represent a significant investment of state and local funds and an attention to architectural style and detail that makes them stand out as community landmarks. Once the school has closed, the school building becomes a good candidate for adaptive use. About 60 of the 400 Wyoming school buildings included in the "Historical Context Study of Schools in Wyoming Database" have been adaptively used. A sampling of uses includes fraternal organizations (Green River, Lusk, Lander), community centers (Pine Bluffs, Laramie), youth center (Evanston), school district administration (Cheyenne, Evanston), Boys and Girls Club (Laramie), residences or apartments (Laramie), mixed commercial use (Green River), Head Start (Rock Springs), senior center (Newcastle, Green River), healthcare facility (Cheyenne) and church (Casper). Some former public schools are used as private schools or alternative schools.

East Elementary School, now Youth Center, Evanston, Uinta Co.
East Elementary School, now Youth Center
, Evanston, Uinta Co.

Photo: Photographer: Mary Humstone, 2007
In the past, when a rural school was abandoned, local residents would often acquire or move the building for a residence, business, ranch outbuilding, or for use by an organization such as the Grange. While some rural schoolhouses have been adapted for mundane uses such as bunkhouses, chicken coops, or even a “windbreak,” others have been moved to museum grounds, where they are restored and used to interpret local school history. The Little Blue School located at Five Mile Flat in Sheridan County was moved to the grounds of the Tongue River Elementary School in Ranchester and outfitted by local residents with early school furnishings such as desks, pictures, books, maps, and other teaching aids. The school is used as part of the teaching program in Sheridan County, especially for fourth grade students studying Wyoming history. Other examples of rural schools moved to museum grounds are found in Lander, Big Piney, Fort Bridger and Centennial.

Owen School (Little Blue School), Moved to Ranchester, Sheridan Co.
Owen School (Little Blue School),
Moved to Ranchester, Sheridan Co.

Photo: State Historic Preservation Office
Wyoming Cultural Sites Inventory Form, 1981
Several rural schools continue to play an important role as centers of community. An example of this is the Delfelder Consolidated School of Fremont County. After the school closed in 1929, the school building served as a community social center. In 1940 local residents formed the Delfelder Hall Association to acquire the Delfelder School for the use and benefit of the community. In addition to social events, the school building has been used as a polling place and for regular meetings by extension clubs, 4-H, and the Grange, which obtained a long-term lease on the building in 1968. The Delfelder School was listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its long history as a rural community meeting house, as well as its history as an early educational institution in the Riverton Valley.

Another example of a community use of a former rural school is the Pioneer School in Park County, one of the state’s first Standard schools. The original school, built in 1914, was a one-story, wood-frame building with a raised concrete basement and a single large classroom. In 1953 a two-room teacherage was added to the building, with a combination living room and kitchen and a separate bedroom. In 1970, the school district deeded Pioneer School to the Pioneer Service Group to be used as a community center. The old Standard school has hosted benefits, reunions, and wedding and anniversary receptions, and still serves as a gathering place and landmark tying the community to its past.

Pioneer School (1914), Park Co.
Pioneer School (1914), Park Co.
Photo: State Historic Preservation Office
With the creation of the Wyoming School Facilities Commission in 2002 and the subsequent evaluation of all district-owned school buildings in the state, many schools have been closed and many older school buildings have been demolished. Wyoming communities face difficult choices about what to do with the older and historic school buildings that remain. See Smart Growth America for more information on the important role of schools in our community and how we can preserve them.
Department of State Parks & Cultural Resources