The Garden Park School is a one-story brick schoolhouse completed in 1895 to replace an earlier school that was destroyed by fire. Standing at a prominent bend in Garden Park Road about nine miles north of Cañon City, the school served local students until 1961 and served as a community center for the rural Garden Park area. Recently, residents have stabilized and restored the school with the goal of reviving its historic role as a community center.
Early Garden Park
Cañon City was established during the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 as a supply center for mining camps farther up the Arkansas River. By the end of the 1860s, white settlers moved north from Cañon City into Garden Park along Oil (or Fourmile) Creek and found the area favorable for agriculture. Over the next few decades, local farmers and ranchers made a living by selling crops and beef to miners in Silver Cliff, Salida, and Leadville.
The area truly thrived in the 1890s, when the gold boom at Cripple Creek and Victor led to increased demand for Garden Park produce. The Cañon City and Cripple Creek Toll Road opened in 1892, connecting Garden Park directly to the mining district. Until the 1910s, activity at Cripple Creek kept Garden Park farmers and ranchers in business producing fruits, vegetables, beef, and other goods.
In 1869 Garden Park’s early residents established a local school district. The first school was built in an area called Schoolhouse Gulch and had an average attendance of about twenty-eight students before it burned down in 1891.
By 1893 Garden Park residents mobilized to build a new school about a quarter-mile from the original building. Local families started by laying a foundation of adobe bricks made of clay from nearby Oil Creek, then erected one-story adobe brick walls topped by a front-gabled wood-shingle roof. Inside, the south-facing building had a single schoolroom with wood flooring and wainscoting. Four windows on the east and west sides of the building let in light, while a partial basement served as storage for wood and coal. The new school took two years to build and opened in 1895 with nearly fifty students.
For the Garden Park School’s first forty years, it served an average of about twenty-six students at a time. The school year lasted from Labor Day to mid-May, with time off at the harvest so students could help their families with the crops. The school held a community picnic in May to mark the end of the year. As the only public building for miles around, the school served as an important community center, often hosting Sunday school meetings, dances, theatrical productions, and other local events.
The Garden Park School’s adobe bricks were designed to make the building resistant to fire, but adobe proved susceptible to deterioration over time. To help protect the adobe from the elements, local rancher Luther Langford covered the brick walls with stucco in 1916–17. Other alterations during the school’s active years included the addition of concrete steps at the front entry and the relocation of the building’s chimney from the west wall to the east wall when the original heating stove was replaced. Additional facilities built over the years included outhouses, a stable, a baseball diamond, and playground equipment.
In 1951 the school received electricity, but its attendance was in decline as Garden Park’s population dwindled. By the end of the 1950s, only five students attended the school. It finally closed in 1961 when district schools were consolidated in Cañon City. The building continued to function as a community center for several more years. Eventually it stopped being used and began to suffer from deterioration and vandalism. During the late twentieth century, the school’s outbuildings were all lost.
For decades, the Garden Park School stood as a vacant landmark along what is now the Gold Belt Scenic and Historic Byway. In 2005 Garden Park residents formed a group called Friends of Garden Park School to restore the building and revive its historical use as a community center. The group conducted engineering surveys of the school and got it listed on the State Register of Historic Properties in 2008. Over the next seven years, they received more than $110,000 from the State Historical Fund to complete much-needed work on the building’s exterior, including repairs to the foundation, restoration of the western wall, and replacement of the windows, door, and roof.