The old historic Kentucky Flat Community
Hall on Newtown Road, where Jen Norris is opening the Kentucky
Flat Community Preschool this fall.
Kentucky Flat School reopens for
‘the little ones'
By Trina Kleist
155 years young, the Kentucky Flat Schoolhouse may be the oldest
continuously used one-room schoolhouse in California. The
building with its iconic high porch and roof-top bell tower, at
the corner of Newtown and Kentucky Flat roads west of Grass
Valley, operated as a school for 108 years, until 1963,
according to historical records. It has continued to be a focal
point for residents of the surrounding farms and ranches, many
of whom attended classes there. The building remains a community
center operated by the Kentucky Flat Community Association,
which holds monthly potlucks, allows 4-H groups to gather there
and leased the space for years to a Head Start program.
Rough and Ready resident Jen Norris is
returning the building to its roots, this time as Kentucky Flat
Community Preschool — with “community” as a key element.
“There's lots that happens here already, but there's so much
more I think we still can do,” said Norris, a Nevada Union High
School graduate and former manager for Head Start locally. “I
want this to be a place where parents feel relaxed and
comfortable,” Norris added. “I want to create a beautiful space
for children ... where they feel safe to discover the world
Smell, touch, hear
Inside the schoolhouse, branches of dried
oregano hang by the front door. Nearby is a comfy sofa with
pillows and blankets, inviting parents to sit with a cup of tea
while listening to the Gypsy Kings before launching into their
busy day. A string of white starfish and colored crystal beads
hang by a window. A deep tray on legs is filled with bird-seed
mix, measuring spoons and old gelatin molds Norris found at a
thrift store. Nearby, a wooden cabinet holds recycled juice
bottles filled with colored water, glitter and a little object
to be discovered in each; can you find the one with the frog?
Abalone shells, sand dollars and a globe to fit a child's
palm sit near baskets of pine cones and polished stones. Puzzles
with chunky pieces, latches and little doors lay on another
table. In the art cabinet are crayons in the form of yellow,
blue and red waxen lumps — suited for stubby fingers — and
colored pencils formed from fat, rough sticks whittled to a
point. A wooden toy stove, small tree stumps around a short
table and a little rocking chair create a scene for playing
house. Another basket holds brightly colored gardening gloves —
ready for the little box of flowers and vegetables already
growing out in the yard.
Beyond, the natural world is a
natural classroom, where Norris hopes her students will learn to
love nature and to care for it. Norris also is looking for
learning opportunities in the neighborhood and as far away as
Ghana, in west Africa, where her brother, Ryan Allmandinger,
already is looking for a sister preschool.
Past and future
New students will join a proud heritage.
The original Kentucky Flat School served families that continue
to make their mark in western Nevada County. Children from the
Personeni, Pardini and DeMartini families are among the alumni
that appear in a book of articles and photographs Norris leafed
through on Thursday. It was founded in the earliest days of the
Gold Rush and named after a mining camp in the area. It moved to
its present location — across Newtown Road from the old Empress
Mine — in 1855. Water came from a nearby spring, and students
and staff used an outhouse well into the 20th century. A 1947
letter to a school administrator from Pacific Gas and Electric
Co. indicates the building still had no electricity at that
time. Students would come in on horseback, tying up their mounts
in a lean-to — later converted into a shed — out front.
black-and-white photo from 1960 shows small David and Tim
DeMartini with fellow students on what apparently was a favorite
climbing structure: An enormous boulder out in the field.
History will live on in Kentucky Flat. Alumna Francis
Personeni, for years a librarian at Ready Springs School, will
come back to read and garden with the children, Norris said.
Ribbons from 4-H competitions from the late 1940s and early
1950s are in a case up on a wall, waiting to greet modern 4-Hers
to bring their animals. Across the room are prints of presidents
Washington and Lincoln — the same ones that appear in a 1954
graduation photograph. Part of a green chalkboard from the
original school still stretches partway across the back wall,
which now opens into a kitchen and bathroom added on sometime
after 1960. And the big boulder is still outside, waiting for
playtime. Though a master's degree in child development,
teaching at Sierra College and management offered a different
career path, Norris — now the mother of a 2-year-old girl — is
where she wants to be. “This is where my joy is — just being
with the little ones,” she said.
This picture was taken around 1934 at
the Kentucky Flat Schoolhouse and includes (back row, from left)
Yvonne Dwight, Audra Goforth, Agnes Atkins, Robert Allen, Leroy
Allen, Laurence Personeni, George Jerdon, Marion Dwight, (middle
row) unknown, Wilford Allen, Herbert Brown, Lorna Goforth, Jack
Dwight, Chad Mathis (front row) unknown, unknown, Wilma Brown,
unknown, Francis Personeni, unknown and unknown. (To contact The
Union's Senior Staff Writer Trina Kleist, e-mail
email@example.com or call (530) 477-4230).
Francis Personeni (sitting front-left)
holding her 65th Grass Valley High School
class reunion sign during their
gathering in September 2010.
I just wanted to let you know how much
I enjoy your site. I grew up in Nevada City (Nevada Union High
School, class of 1974) and accidently stumbled on your site
while looking for photographs of the courthouse in Eagle,
Alaska. I live in Fairbanks, Alaska and was looking for
reference photos for a drawing I am working on (I'm an artist).
I lived on the opposite side of Nevada City from you--the
Indian Flat/Newtown Road area. All the stories on your site
brought back lots of memories--particularly the one about
Kentucky Flat school. The only running water we had was
from an NID ditch, so we used to go through Kentucky Flat all
the time to get drinking water from Bitney Springs.
Anyway, keep up the good work.