For most Napa County teachers and students, the summer ended a few days ago with the start of the new school year. This ritual has been a local tradition since the 1840s.

The first Napa County students were the children of pioneer settlers. Prior to the late 1840s, these children received a rudimentary education at home. For instance, they may have learned how to count while collecting eggs from the chicken coop.

Then circa 1848-1849, Napa County’s first, and California’s second, private school opened on the upper Napa Valley property of William Nash. This rustic classroom was essentially a lean-to made of a thatched roof supported by four poles. The teacher was Sarah Graves Fosdick Forbes, a Donner Party survivor. A year later, Nash constructed a wood-frame building to replace the open-air structure.

In 1855, the first public school opened in Napa County. Located in Napa City, this primary grade school was a two-room building and had two teachers.

Thirteen years later, a new era of educational sophistication began in Napa with the construction of the Central School. The community dedicated this, its first eight-year grammar school, in 1868. This academic facility was located on the current City Hall site. Yes, that’s why the street City Hall faces is named School Street.

According to accounts of that era, the Central School was the pride of Napa City. It was an elegant and ornate two-story building with a cupola and “widow’s walk.” The bell in its tower rang out every morning to warn the dawdlers and daydreamers to be mindful and hurry onto school.

Funds to construct the school were raised by a special tax levied on the inhabitants of the district. The construction project costs were considerable for the 1860s: $17,000.

Also in 1868, another public school was constructed in the Napa area. The first Salvador School was built on Big Ranch Road. It was named in honor of Salvador Vallejo as he was the original owner of the land grant that had once contained the school’s site.

Only a handful of children attended this one-room Salvador School but those students did not do without because of their school’s small enrollment. The building was warmed by a wood-burning stove, and kerosene lamps amply illuminated the schoolhouse.

Unfortunately, those lamps or the stove caused a fire that significantly damaged the schoolhouse in 1893. Quickly thereafter, a new building was under construction. This new Salvador School was located approximately a mile west of its original Big Ranch road location, the current Salvador School site.

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By the time the second Salvador Elementary School was built in the 1890s, Napa had been experiencing a substantial population increase of school-age children for about two decades.

Beginning around 1875, this rise in enrollment resulted in the overcrowding of Napa schools. In response, the Franklin Street Primary School was built. Today, it serves as the Women’s Club building.

The number of Napa elementary schools continued to grow during the 1880s. One of these new facilities was the Main Street, then Lincoln Grammar, school constructed in 1881. According to the local newspapers, the Lincoln School was considered the Central School’s architectural rival.

The first Lincoln School was a two-story building with an oval balcony and bell tower. These structural features served as observation decks and offered great vantage points, especially during floods.

Of these earlier schools, Salvador and Lincoln (now New Tech High School) continue to serve Napa as educational centers as they have for more than a century.

Rebecca Yerger is a Napa-based writer and historian. Email her at yergerenterprises@yahoo.com.

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