Archeologists begin unveiling story of burned Silver City Schoolhouse
August 22, 2004
Friends and neighbors wearing white coveralls and masks began the healing task of cleaning and removing debris from a burned Silver City Schoolhouse Sunday, uncovering community treasures as they plucked through ash and broken wood.
Workers cried out as they held up a leather-bound, scorched, town meeting log. The book was left on top of the piano in the corner when fire burst through the basement and climbed the walls July 7. In the 1950s, U.S. senators, county officials and residents began signing the book.
“It’s toasted on the outside,” said volunteer and resident archeologist Larry Steinberg. “All the writing inside appears to be fine.”
Two books dating to the 1930s were found in attic remains, along with a linen dress and photographs.
In the next few months, the historic grounds are expected to unveil a story rarely told about children who ran through the Comstock schoolyard.
Born to millers, blacksmiths, small-scale miners and saloon owners, children often sneaked under the building’s large, open, crawl space to play or leave hidden secrets.
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“When you look at the cavalcade of Nevada history, this is as close to the beginning as you’ll find,” Steinberg said.
In the town of about 100 a few miles south of Virginia City, residents have turned the tragedy that destroyed the 1867 structure into a historic discovery. Nearly all volunteers at the site were specialists.
“It’s hard to work,” said lead archaeologist Ron Reno. “Everybody’s just in tears working on this site.”
Classes were held at the school through the 1950s, then the building became a community center, Generations of families held town meetings, elections, holiday celebrations, dinner parties, picnics and musical events inside. The bell and bell tower were renovated in 1993.
The fire began in the basement, sparked by a worker’s torch during a maintenance repair. The fire spread through the walls into the attic and ceiling, which fell and preserved the flooring.
Before snow starts falling in the hills around the site, the group expects to salvage the perfectly preserved original wood floors made of old-growth timber from Lake Tahoe and architectural details to use in building a new community center. The group will try to piece together drawings and old records to recreate the past spirit.
“I’m particularly interested in salvaging the usable wood,” said Erich Obermayr, who can point to his house overlooking the site.
“There’s a lot of spirit there,” he said.
The working-class community building was constructed simply, but included small Greek-inspired details, inset corners and rounded molding.
Some wood from framework might be salvaged to make repairs on an old firehouse. After the large pieces of debris are carefully discarded from the area, the project will be transformed into a full-scale archaeological dig.
Most important, the group may begin discovering how the children lived. They are expecting to find books, mining tools made into toys, hidden stashes or clothing. One resident in her 90s said she once hid a cache of nickels in the dark crawl space.
“This is actually the archeology of kids,” Reno said. “Anybody who was anybody found a way to sneak under the crawl space.”
The schoolyard, buried for a century under as much as 3 feet of fill dirt, will also be excavated to its original surface.
“There could be all kinds of things,” Reno said. “The representation of children in the 1880s – you just don’t ever find that.”
The State Historic Preservation Office and Lyon County is working with project organizers to find the best way to remove the wooden floor boards. The wood will be cleaned and planed to be used as decorative details in the new building.
Bricks fired in the Comstock and the cut-stone foundation will also be preserved and may be used as facing for the new foundation, Reno said.
For many of the 30 volunteers already interested in joining the excavation, the project represents a community healing.
“It’s like a big bruise,” said Mona Reno. She points to the spot she said her wedding vows 18 years ago, where workers hosed down black ash. “It’s really sad. All these people have stories like that.
“I’m looking for the feelings left behind,” she said. “The healing needs to start now.”
Volunteers can participate in every phase of the project. Special training, however, is required because of toxic lead and safety concerns.
Call Ron Reno at 847-0577 to volunteer.
Contact Jill Lufrano at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1217.
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