Timber and Conejo Schools
The First Schoolhouses in the Conejo Valley
In the second half of the 1800s, Conejo Valley was a frontier where many pioneers started new lives, new families, and eventually new communities. As more and more children arrived or were born in the area, the community banded together in 1877 to build a schoolhouse. On March 24, 1877, the Conejo School District was established for the purpose of educating the children of the entire valley. The new schoolhouse, known as Conejo School, was located near the northwest corner of present-day Westlake Blvd. and Hampshire Road. Today there is a rock monument designating the location of the original school.
When land became available for sale in the Conejo Valley in 1873, Howard Mills of Santa Barbara was one of the first land developers, buying 22,000 acres. He sold most of it, but kept 6,000 acres for himself which he called the Triunfo Ranch. (This land eventually became Westlake Village.)
In 1876, he brought his three small girls from Santa Barbara to live with him. Because there was no school in the Conejo, Mills hired Julia Anderson to hold classes in his home for his own children and others in the area. The Ventura Free Press stated that the school was a private school and that it was called "The Triunfo School."
Early the next year, Mills led a group of concerned parents to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors to request the formation of a school district in the Conejo Valley. A census of the area was required to see if there was need. During the first months of 1877, a count was taken of the Conejo residents. It was found that there were 126 people living in the area. 54 were children under the age of 17, which was enough to qualify. So on March 24, 1877, the Conejo School District was established for the purpose of educating the children of the entire valley.
At that time, most of the children lived at the eastern end of the valley, so it was decided to have the first public school classes at Triunfo, a tiny settlement on Mr. Mills' Ranch. The type of building in which the children first assembled was probably a shanty. Conditions must have been very poor, because four months after the establishment of the school district, parents of the district voted unanimously to be assessed $750 for a proper school building. This was a great sacrifice for them because the Conejo Valley was in the middle of a disastrous drought during the year 1877, and many ranchers were having terrible losses.
Mills donated two acres of his land for the school site. Mr. Richardson of Santa Paula was hited to construct the building. When it was completed, the structure was given the name "Conejo School." According to Pat Russell Miller, who attended the school in the 1920s, the school was a plain, rectangular wooden building with a front porch that stood on a rock foundation. There were three paneled windows on each side to let in the light. It was painted white and had a red gable roof. During the 1920s, two cloak rooms were added on the porch; one for boys and one for girls.
The school yard was surrounded by a wooden rail fence with a large front gate. The yard included two outhouses, a shed where coal and wood were stored and another shed to protect the horses that some children rode to school. The only play equipment was a see-saw and in later years, a push merry-go-round was added. Shading the entire yard was a huge White Oak tree. A creek ran past the school yard and because its source was from a nearby canyon, the canyon was called Schoolhouse Canyon.
After Conejo School was built, many ranch families were forced to leave the valley due to financial difficulties caused by drought. Howard Mills went bankrupt and was forced to sell his property in 1881. He moved to Los Angeles where he recouped his fortune through real estate and became a prominent member of that community.
Andrew and Hannibal Russell purchased Mr. Mill's 6,000 acre ranch for approximately $15,000, and renamed the ranch "The Conejo Ranch" but most people just called it the Russell Ranch.
Andrew and his wife Abigail had six children, and Abigail was determined to have all of her children attend school. To remain open in those days, it was necessary for a school to maintain an average daily attendance of five and one-half children. Consequently, Abigail tried everything in her power to see that Conejo School did not close. Many stories have been told about her creative and valiant efforts to maintain the daily quota of children. One of the ways she did this was by insisting that her husband hire only ranch hands with school-age children. Abigail drove her horse and buggy down into Triunfo Canyon one day and brought back three children of the John Ballard family (the only African Americans homesteaders in the Santa Monica Mountains) to add to the Conejo School enrollment. They were the first black children to attend the school.
As land near the site of today's Civic Arts Plaza was sold off to developers, more people moved into the valley. Most did not want their children traveling such a great distance to Conejo School, so it was decided that a newer school should be built closer to the new housing development.
On July 15, 1924 a meeting was held to assign the contract for the construction of the new Conejo School. Work was to be started immediately. After much controversy, men of the community moved a green cook shack to a location near present-day Los Feliz Drive and Conejo School Road to serve as a temporary schoolhouse for the children's education until the completion of the new school.
In 1929, the new Conejo School opened at its current site on Conejo School Road. It was dedicated to Abigail Russell for her years of dedication to the school and the education of all of the children in the community. An inscribed plaque in her honor still remains on the wall of the school building and the present school library is named the Russell Library. Like many schools of that era, the new Conejo School was built in the Mission Revival Style. It had at least two classrooms and an auditorium.
When Conejo School was built, it was to accommodate all the children in the Conejo Valley. Ten years later, enough children had moved into the western end of the valley that another school was needed.
Interested citizens who spearheaded the plan to form a new school district included Cecil Haigh, Mr. and Mrs. Wadleigh, Richard Hunt and Caspar Borchard. On January 5, 1888, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted to establish the second school district, the Timber School District, so called because of the tiny community of Timberville that surrounded the Conejo Hotel (the Stagecoach Inn).
In December 1888, Cecil Haigh sold two acres of his land for a school site for $50.00. The original Timber School was built at the current intersection of Newbury and Kelley roads. Until the schoolhouse was finished, classes were held in the Conejo Hotel, owned by Cecil Haigh. Miss Mosher, the first teacher, received a salary of $40.00 per month. Initially there was an enrollment of 22 pupils. When the building was completed 1889, the class size was increased by an additional 20 children.
The new building was a one-room schoolhouse with two tiny anterooms which were used as cloakrooms; one for the boys and one for the girls. Two entrance doors opened into the school through these cloakrooms. This was the accepted method of configuring a school in 1889. When completed, the school building was painted white with green trim. There were two outhouses behind the building. The school was equipped with blackboards, desks, an organ, storage cabinets, a mirror, a broom and dustpan, a shovel, and a coal oil lamp. Each child provided his own slate. The building was heated by a wood stove. Hands were washed in a tin basin set on a wash bench. Two hand towels hung on hooks above the basin; one for the boys and one for the girls. Clean towels were provided weekly. All of the students shared a single tin cup for drinking.
Back in the 1890s, Conejo Valley schoolchildren were responsible for the chores at school. Boys carried in wood from the woodshed and kept the fire stoked for warmth. On Friday afternoons, the students took turns sweeping out the school room. Students studied from McGuffey Readers and did their figuring on slates.
A bell, which hung in the prominent bell tower, called the children to class and signaled recess and lunchtime. Ringing the heavy bell was a special honor, usually reserved for one of the older, stronger boys. Timber School's bell was cast by the Rumsey Company of Seneca Falls, New York.
Most of the children lived close enough to the school to walk to class. Those who lived farther away rode horses to school or traveled in a horse-pulled cart. While waiting at school, the horses were unhitched and tied in a nearby shed until it was time to make the trip home.
Timber School was used for church services and many community activities. May Day celebrations and school picnics were especially popular. At least once a month there was a dance at the Conejo Hotel, Timber School or Conejo School.
The Annual School Census, reported in May of 1900, lists Conejo School as having 25 students, and Timber School with 34 students.
The original Timber School was replaced in 1924 by a new two-room Timber School, designed in the Mission Revival architectural style by Roy C. Wilson, the first licensed architect in Ventura County. The new school, sited in front of the old, was bigger, and had running water and electricity. The old building was demolished in 1925. A Timber School Auditorium was constructed in 1948.
Both the school and auditorium buildings remain in place and are designated City of Thousand Oaks Historical Landmarks.
Timber School at the Museum Complex
The Timber School at the Stagecoach Inn Museum is a replica of the original and was constructed by students of Newbury Park High School under the able direction of their teacher, Randy Porter. A host of volunteers contributed both energy and materials. Many community groups and individuals donated needed funds for the project.
An effort has been made to portray a schoolroom of the 1890s in furnishings and decor. The contents of the room and its dimensions were found in historical records. Features include: original wall slate boards from the 1892 Santa Paula High School, and wainscoting from Dupar's Restaurant, an early landmark in Thousand Oaks.
Among the antiques displayed are: desks, organ, wood stove and clock, an 1893 map of the United States and the original California State Public School Register for Timber School from 1891 through 1893.
The school bell in the tower was specially cast. It is a duplicate of the old original bell which is now located in the grounds of Cypress Elementary School in Newbury Park.