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

t 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 around them.”

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.

A 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  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.

Best Wishes,

Ray Bonnell