The Dixie School House
The Dixie Schoolhouse is both historically and architecturally significant in relationship to early California. Not only does it provide a valuable link to the well-known James Miller family, but it is Marin County’s last remaining mid-Victorian one-room schoolhouse with is substantially unaltered, and intended for viable, contemporary public use as an educational museum, meeting hall, and historical monument for visiting classes of school-children. The other schoolhouses of this era have either been converted to private residences or demolished.
The Schoolhouse is a rectangular one-story building with simple classical details. Originally the school building was located on a deck which projected approximately five feet from the building. (Restoration plans provide for the reconstruction of this deck.) The original foundation has been replaced by a concrete foundation on the school’s new site. Deterioration of original materials is minimal because of continuous and various use. The process of restoration has revealed the original wooden floor materials, interior walls and blackboards.
The Schoolhouse has a symmetrical façade with windows (four over four lights, double-hung wooden sashes) flanking the entrance. This entrance is a double-door with a single light transom above. The building has three bays across the principal façade, and two bays on the side facades.
A simple porch is supported by two posts which originally contained simple decorative brackets. Originally the porch was surmounted by a low balustrade and a flagpole on the front right-hand corner. The corners of the building had simple pilasters which only partially remain today. Details include simple Italianate bracketed roof and window cornices and a simple dentil course below the roof. The building has a hipped roof with a central pediment above the entrance on the principal façade.
Originally the school was painted white with details and trim in a darker color. An earlier and much smaller rectangular school building is now attached to the rear of the main school-building. It has no decorative details. In the 19th century the school was surrounded by a picket fence with will be replaced during the restoration process, as well as the “window’s walk” above the front porch. The main school-building had interior louvered shutters with will eventually be replaced.
In 1862 when James Miller’s son, Bernard, was six, Miller donated three-quarters of an acre for the Dixie School which was to be built near the Las Gallinas home ranch so that Bernard would have a school to attend. On November 3, 1863, the Board of Supervisors formally established the “Dixie Public School District”, making Dixie one of the earliest districts to be established in Marin. The original Dixie Schoolhouse, which later became an annex and library to the larger and newer schoolhouse, was built in 1864. This fact is confirmed both by Bernard Hoffman’s notes and the Superintendent of Schools Report in 1899. Mr. Hoffman, raised by the Miller family, attended Dixie in the 1870’s and later served as a trustee of the District for fifty years. His notes state that the “present annex to the main building was built in 1864. I have seen ‘1864’ printed on its side. The large building was built later.”
Mr. Hoffman’s memory served him well. An 1899 report of the Superintendent of Schools confirms this date. “The District was organized November 3, 1863 and a house was built and school opened in March, 1864.”
Mrs. Frances Miller Leitz, granddaughter of James Miller stated that her grandfather not only donated the land but helped haul redwood from the Nicasio Mills for construction of both school buildings. Mrs. Leitz also uncovered the origin of the school’s name (“Dixie”) when she stated that her grandfather, no being a man to turn down a challenge, named the building “on a dare”. Marin County in 1864 was hotly pro-Northern and the fact that several Southern sympathizers helped in the construction of the first schoolhouse prompted someone to dare James Miller to name the school “Dixie”.
Until the 1868-69 school year, Dixie School property, which included schoolhouse and equipment, was consistently valued at $300 but at this time, the total “valuation of property” suddenly jumped to $1,100, and for the first time, the evaluation included a “library”. A note in the Marin County Journal dated May 29, 1873 confirms the use of the annex as a library. “The Dixie School, under Miss Giffin, has sixteen pupils enrolled with a good average attendance. They have a good school room with library attached which contains a very choice selection of works. It is considered a model school in all its appointments.”
In 1869 James Miller was listed as the only trustee of the school district in the records of the Marin County Superintendent of Schools. It is evident from these records of schools trustee membership during the first decades that James Miller and John Lucas were the backbone of the early life of the school. (See Appendix C)
Finally, on January 9, 1874, James Miller deeded the three-quarter acre site to the Dixie School District on the sole condition that the property be used exclusively for public school purposes. (See Appendix D).
Josephine Leary Burke was the last teacher to teach in the little Dixie School. Mrs. Burke recalls leaving the schoolhouse in 1954 after her experience as superintendent, principal and sole teacher for fourteen years. She had twenty-six pupils at that time. Known as “Joie” to her many friends, she was highly individualistic and creative in her teaching methods and truly a “progressive” teacher (though the term would never be hers.)
“She followed deer trails with her pupils dressed as Indians, identified animal tracks, picked up bits of fur and hair which they placed under a microscope; collected rocks, watched birds. Snakes, toads and frogs were brought into the classroom for study. They made cheese, ice cream and butter….The best way to learn is by use of the five senses.’”
(North Marin Advance, September 1961)
Mrs. Burke retired from teaching in the Dixie District in 1971 but it should be noted that, in fact, Mrs. Burke is far from “retired”. She serves as Executive Director of the Dixie Schoolhouse Foundation and Will act as “teacher” and docent in the Schoolhouse for visiting schoolchildren from all over.
Mrs. Burke’s last year in the schoolhouse (1954) marked the beginning of dramatic growth for the District. At that time the district enrollment was fifty pupils and the entire staff consisted of Mrs. Burke, Mr. Dennie Willis, and Mrs. Wilma Ingwersen Goss. With the rapid development of the subdivisions and the sharp increase in population, the need for a school building program was imperative. What had been a one-teacher school with twenty-three pupils in 1953 had increased its enrollment to 381 by the school year 1955-56. Today Dixie District has ten schools and a student population of 4000.