The Montezuma Schoolhouse was built in 1884 on the east side of the mining town of Montezuma. The one-room schoolhouse replaced an earlier school building and was intended to accommodate the area’s growing population during that decade’s silver boom. The school remained in operation until 1958, when Summit County consolidated its schools, and it is now preserved as a historic site by the Summit Historical Society.
Early Years in Montezuma
Montezuma is located at an elevation of about 10,300 feet in a valley along the Snake River southeast of Keystone. The area’s mining potential became clear in 1863, when a prospector named Coley made the first documented silver discovery in Colorado on nearby Glacier Mountain. In June 1865, D. C. Collier camped in the valley with Henry Teller, M. O. Wolf, and others, and suggested that a proposed town at the site be named Montezuma, which conjured visions of the wealth with which the last Aztec emperor impressed the Spanish conquistadors.
Montezuma’s real development started in 1868, when the first rough road over Loveland Pass was completed and miners started making their way over the pass from Georgetown. By 1869 Montezuma had two hotels and was one of the top mining districts in Summit County. The town continued to grow as more mines opened and transportation options multiplied: a wagon road over Argentine Pass opened in 1869, and the Webster Pass Wagon Road to Breckenridge was built in 1878.
In 1876 residents formed Montezuma School District 2 to serve the town and nearby mining camps. That year a school—known as the Halfway School—was built halfway between Montezuma and nearby Saints John. Soon Montezuma’s growth outpaced the school’s capacity, so in 1880 a new log schoolhouse was erected in Montezuma. The school still served children from Saints John as well, but they now had to walk all the way to Montezuma instead of only halfway.
A New Schoolhouse for a Growing Town
Montezuma continued to boom through the 1880s. The town was incorporated in 1881, and its first newspaper started in 1882. That year the population reportedly hit 800, and the school had twenty-one students. By 1883 the area’s continuing growth rendered the 1880 schoolhouse too small. Bonds were issued for the construction of yet another new school. Constructed by Dick Robinson and T. C. Blaisdell, the building was completed in June 1884. In addition to the new schoolhouse, the bustling town boasted a bank, a Catholic church, a post office, three general stores, three hotels, and the usual assortment of saloons and restaurants.
The one-room schoolhouse was a rectangular building measuring about twenty-four feet by thirty feet, with board-and-batten siding and a front-gable roof over a west-facing entry. Inside, the schoolhouse had a single room with a raised platform at the eastern end, which probably served as a teaching stage. On July 7, 1884, a Miss Pope welcomed students to their first day of class in the new building.
Like many rural schools, the Montezuma Schoolhouse served as both a school and a community center because it was one of the largest public buildings in town. The town’s Protestants never built their own church, so the schoolhouse hosted services whenever traveling preachers passed through; members raised money to buy an organ so that they could have worship music. The schoolhouse also held socials and other civic meetings, events, and celebrations.
The schoolhouse saw several changes in the early twentieth century. Sometime before 1910, an entry vestibule was built onto the west facade, providing a small anteroom where students could hang their coats, and the original siding was covered with white clapboards. A bell tower was added to the roof above the entry; the town donated the bell, which was cast in 1908. Another addition at the rear of the building was used for coal and storage. In 1911 the schoolhouse got electricity, and at some point the original coal stove was replaced by a heater.
During nearly seventy-five years in operation, the Montezuma Schoolhouse had fifty-two different teachers, only one of whom was male. Until the early 1900s, school sessions lasted a few months at a time and were not held if no teacher was available. Starting in 1910, sessions shifted to a nine-month term. Enrollment fluctuated with local mining fortunes, which experienced a downturn after the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893, increased again in the early 1900s, and subsequently entered a long period of decline after World War I. By 1932 the schoolhouse was serving fewer than ten students. Playground equipment was added near the school in the 1930s, and formerly freestanding two-seater privies were attached to the rear of the school (with direct access from inside the schoolroom) by the early 1940s.
Consolidation and Preservation
Montezuma’s student population rose briefly in the early 1950s, but the schoolhouse held its last class in 1958, when Summit County consolidated its schools. The school board kept the building, however, and used it for storage, while volunteers from the town kept it in good repair so that it could still host community meetings and social events. On June 14, 1988, the Summit School District gave the Montezuma Schoolhouse to the Summit Historical Society for preservation. Since then the historical society has maintained the building as it would have appeared between about 1920 and 1950.
Today the 1884 schoolhouse is the oldest intact rural school in Summit County that remains in its original location. The 1880 Montezuma schoolhouse still exists, but it has been converted to a private residence. The 1883 Dillon schoolhouse also remains standing, but it was moved when the Dillon Reservoir was created. The Montezuma schoolhouse is also the only historic public building left in Montezuma, which suffered major fires in 1889, 1915, 1949, 1958, and 1963. Tours of the schoolhouse are available by appointment with the Summit Historical Society, and the building can also be used for holidays and events. In 2007 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2008 the Summit Historical Society received a State Historical Fund grant to rehabilitate the school’s exterior.