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Pitkin County Blog

Posted on: January 29, 2024

Emma Schoolhouse now an open space asset

Emma Schoolhouse

The historic Emma Schoolhouse is now an open space property.

Longtime members of the Emma Community Trust – the entity that has overseen use and maintenance of the one-room schoolhouse since 1948 – approached Open Space and Trails last summer with a proposal to turn the parcel over to the county. The Open Space and Trails Board supported the move. The transfer was recently completed, putting another element of historic Emma under OST stewardship.

The quaint school has a long history, dating back to the days when Emma was an epicenter of activity in the midvalley. In 1909, W.L. Phillips carved off a ¾-acre parcel from his adjacent land and sold it for $1 to Joint School District No. 3 for school purposes. The district then erected the one-room school building in 1910-12 and children living in the Emma area attended first through eighth grade there with a single teacher handling instruction, according to the Basalt Regional Heritage Society.

The spring of 1948 saw the final classes held at the Emma School, taught by Mrs. Kimuel. In the fall of that year, students began attending a new school in Basalt and the school district granted the schoolhouse parcel to the Emma Community Trust for community use.

Interestingly, the deed from Mr. Phillips to the Joint School District contained a “reversionary interest” that returned the schoolhouse property to the parent parcel from which it was created (the former Phillips land) if and when it ceased to be used for a school. That parent parcel? Today, it is Emma Open Space – 64 adjacent acres purchased by Open Space and Trails in 2000.

Despite the legalese in the 1909 deed, the Emma Community Trust generously donated the property to Open Space and Trails in late 2023 and a Quit Claim Deed formalized the transfer to Pitkin County. Longtime Community Trust representatives Janice and Leroy Duroux and Larry Fite handed over the keys to the school to Open Space and Trails in January.

“I think it’s great for us to own it. We thank Janice and Larry for looking after this building for all these years just out of the kindness of their hearts,” said Dale Will, acquisition and projects director for Open Space and Trails. “I think it’s awesome. It kind of completes our preservation of old Emma.”

Open Space and Trails had already long been responsible for upkeep of the parking lot and grounds at the schoolhouse. The lot also serves as a trailhead for the Rio Grande Trail at Emma. In addition, Emma’s other historic structures – the old Emma Store buildings and the Mather House, located opposite Hwy. 82 from the school – are also Open Space and Trails assets.

All of the buildings were constructed in close proximity to the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad – a corridor that is now the Rio Grande Trail. Emma was founded as a stage stop before the railroad was constructed in the late 1880s.

With the demise of rail service, sleepy Emma Road served as the thoroughfare through Emma. The scene changed dramatically with construction of the Hwy. 82 four-lane Basalt bypass, which bisected the heart of the once-quaint burg. The historic buildings at Emma mark the entrance to Pitkin County from the north.

To some degree, the schoolhouse remains much like it was when students came to school on foot or horseback from the ranches surrounding Emma. The building was heated by a wood and coal-burning stove that remains (unused) in the building. A chalkboard still hangs on the wall. The school had no electricity in its day; outhouses and a shed for coal and horses were located out back, according to the Basalt Regional Heritage Society. The teacher carried water to the school each day; youngsters brought their own cups. Classes began in mid-September with a break in October for the potato harvest, and ended in early spring so students could resume their ranching tasks. 

Under the Emma Community Trust’s stewardship, the schoolhouse has seen light use for a handful of community functions. They will be permitted to continue. 

- By Pitkin County Open Space and Trails

Emma School students and teacher outside the schoolhouse in 1920. Aspen Historical Society, Vagneur Emma School students and their teacher outside the school in 1920.
Aspen Historical Society, Vagneur Collection

Emma SchoolhouseOpen Space and Trails plows the schoolhouse parking lot.

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