FRUITA SCHOOLHOUSE READIN', RITIN', and 'RITHMETIC The sound echos off the sheer, red Wingate sandstone walls that crowd the narrow Fremont River Valley as 14-year old Nettie Behunin rings the old bell to start school The echo is answered by the shouts and laughter of the children as they run toward the new one-room Fruita School. Early morning chores need to be done before school starts. Two children dip the old barrel in Sulfur Creek to collect the day's drinking water. Other children bring in fruit wood for the old potbellied stove and another child raises the 44-star flag. The year is 1900.
Classes had been going on for two years before this building was constructed as the community wasted little time getting a school started. Nettie, the daughter of Elijah Cutlar Behunin, one of the first settlers, had previously taught the children in the Behunin home.
In 1896, Elijah donated land for a school building that he and other early Junction settlers built. Even though only eight families lived in Junction, these farmers had large families. The Behunins raised 13 children. Nettie's first class had 22 students, three of whom were her siblings: two brothers, 7 and 12, and a sister, 10.
In 1880, Nels Johnson became the first homesteader in the lush Fremont River valley. He built his home near the confluence of Sulphur Creek and the Fremont River. Soon, other Mormon settlers followed, establishing small farms and orchards near the confluence, creating the village of Junction, Utah. The name was changed to Fruita in 1902, and the site is now part of Capitol Reef National Park.
Originally, there was a flat, dirt covered roof on the school. A peaked, shingled roof was added in 1912 or 1913. The interior walls, originally bare and chinked logs, were plastered in 1935.
The first desks were homemade, constructed of pine, and seated two students each. These were sometimes used to quiet unruly students. The teacher would seat a troublesome boy with a girl, and the resulting blow to his ego would often bring him under control.
Teachers taught the "three-Rs" to the eight grades at the school. If the teachers felt qualified and had enough textbooks, other subjects such as geography, were added.
The students were full of pranks. To delay the start of class, they often hid the teacher's alarm clock in the woodpile. Kerosene for lanterns used during night meetings were stored in the school, and a few enterprising students found that dropping a small piece of calcium carbide, taken from a lantern, into an inkwell would cause it to overflow. If the inkwell was tightly capped, it would explode and spatter ink all over the room. .
The log building also served as a community meeting house and church. Desks were not bolted to the floor, so the room could be cleared for different needs. As late as 1924, the building was also used for dances, town meetings, elections, church youth activities, box suppers, and celebrations.
A DYING ERA REMEMBERED In 1900, the building was loaned to the Wayne County School District for the first county approved classes. Nettie, then 22, was the first authorized teacher. She was paid $70 a month while her male counterparts received $80 per month. Classes, of varying sizes, continued until 1941 when the school was discontinued for lack of students.
In 1964, the National Park Service nominated the school to the National Register of Historic Places and subsequently restored the structure to the 1930s period. Today, the school stands alongside Utah Hwy 24. Visitors can hear a recorded message by one of the teachers at the old school. They may also peer through the windows into the furnished structure and imagine what school was like, so long ago. Those with a good imagination can still hear that old school bell ring.