The history behind Jackson Hole’s first school days

JACKSON, Wyo. — With most students now going to school online and many kids missing being in person with their teachers, the Jackson Hole Historical Society & Museum is looking back to remember Jackson Hole’s very first school.

Built in 1896 in South Park, the school was a promise made by Sylvester Wilson to his wife, who threatened to move back to Idaho if she could not procure an education for her children.

School was a valuable resource for isolated communities like South Park, and the community banded together to make it available. Once early Jackson Hole settlers established ranches and the first cattle were brought to market, funds were found to bring on a school teacher and construct the schoolhouse.

Due to the arduous travel conditions for some children whose families lived in isolated areas, as well as the need to help out on the ranch with various chores, schooling days and the overall school year were often brief.

For several decades, the highest schooling offered in the valley was eighth grade. If any families or students had aspirations beyond this, it meant leaving their families and home. Boys almost never left to pursue higher education, but it was a popular choice for many girls. There were a few cases of young men who pursued education beyond the age of 17, but this was a rare occurrence.

Some of the first South Park students in front of Sylvester Wilson homestead cabin circa 1895 prior to the dedicated schoolhouse. Their teacher was Henry Johnson. JHHSM Collection, 1958.1781.001.

Winter classes started in 1900 and the school term grew to six months. Mary Jane Wilson recalls the tough first year when winter term was held:

“We would move to the schools. Three families lived in one room. Three mothers took turns taking care of the children, Alice Cheney with her five, Rebecca Robertson with her three and myself with five. We had one under school age. The teacher lived in one room and had school in the third. It was a very hard winter with deep snow and long cold spells and some of the children were sick with colds so we had to quit and move home.”

Families living near the schoolhouses grew accustomed to hosting children from around the valley during school terms. Without telephones or means of quick long-distance communication, it was impossible to cancel school on bad weather days. This often meant a long journey through inclement weather ranging from rain, hail, snow and ice.

Wagons were sometimes hitched up to carry the younger children, but even this was slow going having to break through feet of snow. Sometimes, dress hems would remain frozen all day until the girls returned home. The school was heated by a wood stove, which was also the responsibility of those living nearby to keep well-stocked during the long, cold winter months.

Subjects taught initially included reading, spelling, arithmetic and penmanship. Orthography, writing, language, geography, physiology, history and civil government were added later on. Students used slate and slate pencils to complete each assignment. Paper was a rare commodity in the valley, so each lesson had to be erased to allow space for the next one. The slate pencils broke often and squeaked, causing some minor distractions.

South Park School students. JHHSM Collection 1991.3874.034.

Over the years, school in the valley has changed. Multiple valley schoolhouses have consolidated to the current Teton County School District, although the walls of the South Park schoolhouse remain visible on South Park Loop Road. Students use tablets again, but now they’re less noisy and connected to the Internet.

With National Teachers’ Day coming up next week, the Jackson Hole Historical Society & Museum wants to give kudos to all the instructors, support staff, families and students for navigating this challenging time!

For more history stories and additional educational resources, visit jacksonholehistory.org.

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