Olema schoolhouse on the block

06/05/2014

Nearing its centennial, the onetime Olema schoolhouse is on the market for the first time in decades. Built in 1915, money for the one-acre property was donated by Emma Shafter Howard, a principled woman who wanted a memorial for her father and a means to save youngsters from “certain lowering influences common to many pioneer towns,” namely, gin, brandy and her cousin Payne Shafter’s Sunday horse races, as historian Jack Mason tells in “Olema, Dear Valley.” She intended the wooden building to inspire an “eminence commanding a broad and inspiring prospect.” According to an oral history with JoAnn Stewart, all the desks—with built-in inkwells—were fastened to the ground. A small stove provided heat from burning coal or cypress limbs the older boys chopped down. When it rained and was too dark to work, the teacher had the kids sit in front of the large bank of windows. Within a short time, Olema lost its stature as the hub of West Marin to a train station farther north known as Point Reyes; hotel occupancy lagged, the Catholic church closed and eventually, even a much-loved saloon burned to the ground. The number of children in the district soon bottomed out, and in 1953 the last pupils left as Shoreline Unified merged 11 different school districts over a quarter-century. The new trustees auctioned the house to Warren Merritt, a San Geronimo Valley watercolor painter, for $4,100 in October 1954. The blackboards became his “sketch pads”; the cloakroom was converted to a kitchen and bathroom; and a partition was removed to create a living room large enough to house two grand pianos, where the church choir’s Christmas rehearsals were held. After his wife died in 1965, Mr. Merritt sold the house and moved to Santa Cruz. More recently, as part of the West Marin Cooperative, tenants revived the home as a place of learning with weekly art classes for roughly a dozen home-schooled kids. Owners Maya Bauer and Brian Buch, who both live out of state, purchased the property because they wanted to own a piece of Olema history, said realtor B.G. Bates. The asking price for the schoolhouse at 9840 State Route 1 is $795,000.