Melvin School at Smoky Hill a piece of history

Schoolhouse built in 1922 continues to function as library, museum for historical artifacts

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Sitting between Smoky Hill High and Laredo Middle schools is an old, small building that sticks out: the Melvin School, which has also been called the Melvin Schoolhouse Museum-Library, according to the National Register of Historic Places.

The schoolhouse was built in 1922 on the west side of the Cherry Creek waterway in what was then the small farming community of Melvin — it stood as the second of two schools serving that area, according to the national register.

At its current location next to Smoky Hill High, the schoolhouse has served as an overflow classroom with “old-style desks,” said Garry O’Hara, president of the Cherry Creek Valley Historical Society.

“The whole thing is laid out as a schoolroom would be laid out in the 1930s or ‘40s,” said O’Hara, whose organization has a history closely tied to that of the schoolhouse.

'You can have it if you move it'

Originally, the school stood in an open field near Belleview Avenue and also served as a community building. It remained at its original site until around 1950 when the land on which it was built was condemned for the construction of Cherry Creek Dam. When the dam was completed, nothing remained of Melvin, according to the national register.

A private individual bought the school at an auction in 1950 and moved it to the southwest corner of East Quincy Avenue and South Parker Road. At that time, the building was converted for use as a tavern.

“It was used as the original Emerald Isle Tavern,” O’Hara said. “It was right next to where the current Emerald Isle is” at that same intersection in south Aurora.

When that second site was zoned for commercial development in 1975 and the school was slated for destruction, a movement arose to save the building, according to the national register. The Cherry Creek Valley Historical Society formed, and negotiations ensued with the area’s school board to find a location for the structure.

The tavern’s owner wanted to build a new Emerald Isle Tavern where the current one is now, O’Hara said.

“People went there and said let’s save the school,” O’Hara said. “He said you can have it if you move it.”

The schoolhouse was moved in 1976 — on a flatbed truck, O’Hara said — and underwent restoration under the supervision of the historical society with members, students, Cherry Creek School District personnel and community volunteers, the historical society’s website says.

“A group of five was trying to save the school,” O’Hara said. “It was the assistant superintendent of Cherry Creek Schools (who) said, `Let me do some looking around,’ and he’s the one who found the current location of the Melvin Schoolhouse.”

Starting in 1976, Melvin School has sat on the Laredo and Smoky Hill campus, roughly three miles from its original site. Its current location is near the border between Aurora and east Centennial.

Teaching a lesson

Cherry Creek School District has used the facility as an overflow for special reading classes, but its primary purpose is to serve as a community meeting place and a museum for historical artifacts, according to a 1983 letter from Cherry Creek School District for the national register.

And the schoolhouse’s use has, at times, been more colorful than that.

“We used to have a schoolmarm who would teach lessons,” O’Hara said, using a term for a stereotypically strict teacher in a rural school. “It was a member of our (historical) society that did that. We’d like to do that (again). The kids really liked it. It was kind of a break from regular school for them.”

The students — young kids from local schools learning about Colorado history — got a taste of what school was like in the 1930s or ‘40s from the “schoolmarm’s” reenactments of what teaching used to be like back then, O’Hara said. “She was kind of strict — no chewing gum and that kind of thing.”

The historical society’s vice president is a teacher in the area, and he’s brought at least one history class to the schoolhouse, O’Hara said. And the building still has served as an overflow classroom from time to time in recent years, he added.

The historical society holds its meetings there at least once a year but hasn’t met there recently because of the pandemic.

A local branch of the Daughters of the American Revolution — the Piney Creek chapter — has used the space as well, O’Hara said. That organization, founded in 1890, is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving American history, according to its website.

The schoolhouse also features historical materials in glass display cases, including school artifacts such as teacher’s notes, schoolbooks, pens and pencils, O’Hara said.

The Clarice and Fred Crowle Memorial Library, located in the schoolhouse, is a collection and archive of the history of people and their communities along Cherry Creek, according to the historical society. One whole wall is dedicated to use as a library, O’Hara said.

The library was named in honor of Clarice Crowle, the founder of the historical society and a passionate historian, the historical society’s website says.

The historical society helped place Melvin Schoolhouse on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, and it was honored in the late 1980s as Aurora Historic Landmark #1, the historical society’s website says.

The national register is the federal government’s official list of “the nation’s historic places worthy of preservation,” according to its website.

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