A sign of an established settlement in the Wild West wasn’t necessarily how many miners, hotels or saloons had collected in one spot; those came and went.  The sign of a viable community was the establishment of a school. It represented family life, a stable society, and educated children who would become the foundation of their community. But there was no school to greet the first Euro-Americans who settled in the northern Owens River Valley.handcars However, that fact would quickly change. In 1861, Samuel Bishop and his wife arrived in the valley with 500 head of cattle and settled for a brief period. The Bishops apparently had no children and moved away a year and a half later. The stream near their abandoned site was later called Bishop Creek, and it would become the name of the largest early settlement in the valley.  In a few years early settlers began to arrive in earnest, attracted to the fertile land:  --and along with those pioneers, came the pioneer children.  Among the first families in the new settlement of Bishop Creek was Mr. and Mrs. Joel M. Smith and their six children. They reached the Valley in March of 1866 with plans to eventually move on to Southern California; fortunately for the children of the new land those plans never materialized.

Within a year of the Smith’s arrival a few more families with children arrived. And it was just those few children that sparked concern.  A quote found in the Laws Museum archives captured the concern over the lack of a school, and “the American anxiety for schooling for the children led to the establishment of the first school in the valley.”  And the first teacher was Mrs. Joel M. Smith.

Featured Authors present a variety of Tales from Laws past and present. According to archives, the first unofficial school was established in 1867 in a small house west of the town of Bishop Creek.  Mrs. Smith began with about ten children, and “private subscription maintained the venture, there being no public funds available.”  Her teaching career lasted 5-months, with the rest of the school term completed by Margaret Kinkaid and Margaret Hutchison. 

Despite primitive conditions, Mrs. Smith gave the pioneer children an education. That one class opened the door to rapid growth of education across the northern Owens River Valley.

Less than a year after Mrs. Smith’s pioneering school, the Bishop Creek Elementary School District was formed and encompassed a broad area from north of Independence to near the Mono County line.  The district was purposely made large to generate a broad tax base, since the only settlement within the district was the town of Bishop Creek.  

The district’s first class took place in a house on land owned by William Powers west of Bishop Creek, Inyo County’s first elected school teacher was Milton Clark, and the fall semester of 1868 was underway. The next year, a more permanent school was constructed downtown.

In 1869, land was donated by Andrew Clark with the expressed purpose of education.  An elementary schoolhouse was built on the property bounded by West Line, North Warren, and Church Streets.  This brand new schoolhouse stood adjacent to the site of a future grammar school that would eventually become Bishop City Hall.  

These were pioneer times when horses and horse & buggies were the basic modes of transportation - along with walking.  Children, born and arriving, needed schools in close proximity. So more schoolhouses, primitive as they might be, began popping up.  More schoolhouses meant more school districts, and more districts meant breaking up the new huge Bishop Creek Elementary School District.  

The carving up of the Bishop Creek District began as early as 1871 when the Round Valley Elementary School District first appeared in the record.  The following year, Irving District was formed covering a wide area west and north of the town of Bishop Creek.  Its school was built on the corner of West Line Street and Brockman Lane. 

A wave of new districts formed from 1883 to 1898: to the south was the Warm Springs District; to the north, Station and Riverside Districts; Valley and Poleta Districts were carved from the new Warm Springs District.  Center School served a region between Bishop and Big Pine, and students reportedly had to walk up to ten miles to get to class.

These districts would later unite back into a single district; but not as an elementary district. A school of higher education was in the works.  In the second wave between 1898 and 1923, the districts of North Inyo, Power Plant, Pleasant Valley, Sunland, and West Bishop were formed.

Before Alice Piper successfully fought for Native American rights to attend public school in the mid-1920s, Laws Museum archives revealed that “Indians were excluded from attending public grammar school.  Some Indian boys living with whites attended the grammar school along with white children.” The first “Indian School” building was located on East Line Street near the bridge over the Bishop Creek Canal.

During the first wave of new districts, people began considering a school of higher education; those people turned out to be members of the Methodist church. 

In 1885, the Church’s annual conference was held in the town of Bishop Creek. The record read: “Minutes of Nevada Mission, session held at Bishop Creek, Inyo County, California August 20-14, 1885.  We are greatly impressed with the necessity of at once entering upon the work of building one of more schools of Academic Grade . . .” The Church saw the passion local residents had in their quest for education.  A resolution to create a school was adopted with an initial investment of $100, and the Inyo Academy was born.

The Academy began classes in the Methodist Church on March 1886 with 31 students, each paying $10 tuition.  While classes were underway, architectural designs were being created for an impressive new school, which came to fruition that same year. On September 30th a cornerstone was laid, and a 2-story building was soon completed, which was described as the “largest building south of Carson City on the Eastern Slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.”  Then the trouble began.

According to The Story of Inyo, even though “control of the school was in the hands of a board of local citizens . . . the church's fostering care had caused some of the original subscribers to repudiate their subscriptions, resulting in litigation; and the same objection was used to hold the attendance at an unprofitable level.” The Academy was never a denominational institution.  Regardless, unable to pay its mortgage, the church sold the Academy building and closed its doors in the spring of 1896. 

The region was now without a school of higher learning. So work began to create a high school under the laws of the State of California.  After three years of the effort it all came down to the election of 1899.  On February 25th the votes were tallied, and the effort failed by a vote of 145 to 121. Over the next two years, hope of reviving the Academy languished.  But advocates were tireless in their resolve.

On September 1901 a public meeting was held, and their efforts were rewarded.  According to The Story of Inyo: “nearly $3,000 was subscribed as a guarantee fund for the payment of a high school teacher.  School was opened in a room of the [newly built] Bishop Grammar School, and received good attendance.” Momentum continued, and soon the dream would be realized.

As a result of a March 29, 1904 election, a vote of 176 to 72 successfully created the Bishop Union High School District, made up the union of the original seven elementary districts created between 1871 and 1989.  Three years after the vote, the Academy building was purchased for $10,000.  The school system was complete, and the children of northern Owens River Valley could now have a complete education.

By 1919, increasing enrollment exceeded the capacity of the old Academy building.  To replace the aging structure, a $150,000 bond election was held which passed overwhelmingly. The old Academy was replace with a then modern building that still stands today at the end of Academy Street.  The Academy building ended up on West Line Street where it was eventually torn down around 1960 to make room for the volunteer fire department.

In the late 1800s, communities held classes wherever they could. It made no difference whether school was held in someone’s home, in a one-room shack, or even a boxcar - school was going to be in session. Those pioneer children became the life-force of nascent settlements developing during turn-of-the-century Owens Valley, and it all began when a few children took a class in the pioneer home of Mrs. Joel M. Smith. 

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