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Eckert students renew friendships

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Photo by Pat Sunderland Eckert School students get together once a year to swap stories about their school days.

The Surface Creek school district once covered an area from the Gunnison River on the south to the upper crossing of Kaiser Creek on the north, and from Rogers Mesa on the east to Doughspoon Creek on the west. A Captain William Spalding taught the first school in the Eckert area at his home in 1884. In 1885 he moved the school to a one-room building a half mile south of Eckert. It was called the Central School. The original Central School still exists and has been remodeled into a private residence.

If as many as 17 pupils were in a school district, the school board could authorize a split and form a new district. A new school would be built and thus reduce the distance the students had to travel. By 1907 these splits had resulted in at least nine schools being established in the original Eckert school district. Still there was a need to expand Central, so another room was added to the original.

Eight grades were being taught at Central at this time. If a student wanted more education, it was necessary to travel outside the district, which in this case meant going to Delta.

In 1910 the citizens at Eckert started talking about building a local high school. A bond issue was passed and the brick building was completed in 1912. The first senior class of eight students was graduated in 1913. The Rev. James Hunsicker was the first principal at the new high school. Gertrude (Miller) Kehmeier was hired in 1915 to teach German, speech and dramatics. James Patton, former president of the National Farmers Union and agricultural advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was athletic director, coach and classroom teacher at Eckert during the mid 1920s. Mr. Patton grew up in Paonia.

The story is told that at about this time an English teacher at Eckert had her class write a letter to Sun Yat Sen, the farmous Chinese politician and philosopher, and that he wrote an answer to the class in return.

The Central School continued to house the first eight grades until 1937 when the middle school grades were moved up the highway to the Eckert high school building. In the spring of 1942 Eckert High School graduated its last senior class and that fall some 30 high school students were sent to Cedaredge. In 1947 Central School was closed and grades 1-8 were taught in the old Eckert High School building. In 1981 the building ceased being used as a school and all 12 grades were bused to Cedaredge.

The above was excerpted from the book "Across the Wilderness" by Norman Kehmeier, self-published in 2006.

Kehmeier was a junior the year Eckert High School graduated its last senior class. He and about 30 other Eckert students transferred to Cedaredge High School.

He recalls that when he was in his final year at Eckert, it was decided Eckert would field a six-man football team. In late November, the team traveled to Telluride, where there was about six inches of snow on the ground. The Eckert team was soundly defeated.

Other memories were shared during the annual school reunion Sept. 20 at the Eckert Presbyterian Church. Just one teacher was present. Alice Sanburg taught third and fourth grades in 1939 and 1940. She returned to the school in 1974, working as an aide until the school closed in 1981. She made the move to Cedaredge the same time as her students.

Other teachers mentioned were Clara Holden, Trent Davidson, who was the minister at the Eckert Presbyterian Church, Mabel Howard, Hazel Vela, George Wick and his brother Harold Wick, school principal for many years.

A not-so-fond memory was shared of being transported to school in the back of Archie Turner's flatbed truck. The flatbed was enclosed with what was described as a "dog house" lined with benches. The wooden box had air vents but no windows, and could only be accessed from outside. After the students were loaded, the door was closed and latched. "It was dark as anything in there," said an Eckert student. "It was awful! It was always a big relief to get out of there ... but we couldn't get out until he let us out."

The school reunion is held annually on the third Wednesday in September. Organizers would love to see students from the 1960s and 1970s. Learn more by calling Pat Moore at 874-0126 or Betty Reed at 835-3960.

Photo by Pat Sunderland Alice Sanburg teases Ron Aust about the childhood crush he had on her when she was his third grade teacher.
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