Sunday Profile: Violet Mooney — a force for preservation
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Nothing gives you appreciation for history like living it.
Violet Mooney, 92, sent her son to school at the Canyon Creek Schoolhouse in the years after World War II and remains a key force behind its preservation.
“I think it has nostalgic memories for many people – or memories of a like school somewhere,” she said.
Mooney, neé Willey, was herself educated in a one-room schoolhouse in the Black Hills of South Dakota. When her father, a miller, moved to Colorado to help harvest spruce beetle kill from the Flat Tops near the end of the war, she and her infant son made the move as well.
Her first husband, Earl Goodsell, soon returned from service in the Pacific Theater and, despite struggles with his health, went to work in the sawmill as well. The pair resolved to stay put.
“We moved all the time because of my father’s work, and my husband’s childhood was the same way,” Mooney explained. “We determined that we were going to be landowners.”
Together, they managed to buy a piece of land above Canyon Creek, where she lives to this day alongside some of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“That little voice down inside says you don’t sell, no matter how valuable it is,” she said. “I could not let go of the land.”
They quickly found that Colorado offered some advantages over their cold homeland.
“My mother coming here from South Dakota began gardening and was so delighted with the season and longer weather,” Mooney said. “We were drylanders. Here we have irrigation, and it made all the difference in the world.”
The land they bought, however, had not been treated well.
“When we got it, everything that could be taken had been taken, and nothing had been returned,” she said. “My husband understood when he saw the destroyed, eroded land how to fix it. It took real skill and real effort and real sharing with the land.”
Her husband continued to work at the sawmill while they paid off the land, and they managed to bring in extra income selling cream, eggs and produce.
“It was a way to get a toehold,” she said. “We moved here with a cow, eight chickens, and a pig. It grew until we were delivering eggs from 500 hens.”
EIGHT GRADES, ONE TEACHER
Garfield County was an entirely different community in those days.
“It was agricultural and rural,” Mooney recalled. “All our children went to school in the little schoolhouse. It had eight grades and one teacher: Margaret Donegan.”
Her son’s class planted a spruce tree the year they moved on to high school, which stands outside the little red schoolhouse to this day. He went on to work at the sawmill and later went into the military to help keep the peace in West Germany.
In 1957, consolidation shut down the school and funneled rural students into town.
“Vandals attacked that year. They shot the windows out of it,” Mooney recalled. “It was a determined effort. It’s a mystery to me why anyone would want to destroy something like that. It was the social hub of the community.”
The neighborhood, including Goodsell, banded together to lease the property.
“We kept it as a social thing,” Mooney explained. “We paid annual fees to take care of it. In later years, we’ve raised the money to put the windows back.”
More recently, the Kiwanis Club volunteered to build a new bridge over the ditch.
“So many people have helped,” she said.
In the years since, the school has hosted birthdays and graduations, weddings and funerals. It remains the site of a monthly potluck dinner complete with music, and hosts a craft fair in the fall.
Meanwhile, the community has changed and so has Mooney.
After taking a correspondence course in business, she spent 27 years in an administrative position for the U.S. Forest Service. She lost her husband in 1974 and remarried to Rex Mooney, but lost him to a heart attack after three short years. She also served as a custodian for the New Castle Library and continues to help out Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“Other than that I stay at home and mind my own business,” she said.
‘NEED SOMEBODY PUSHY’
But as much as she’d like to stay at home piecing quilts in the winter and gardening in the summer, the sole remaining original member of the Little Red Schoolhouse Club occasionally finds herself all fired up.
“Sometimes, I want to go stand on someone’s desk and forget that I’m a sweet old lady,” she said. “It’s old and needs repair, so you have to have money. We need somebody pushy.”
Built in or before 1907 on donated land, the historic site has had no shortage of repairs. The boiler was replaced when the old one began smoking. The bell was sold to pay for the playground, then bought back in an estate sale. Right now, work is wrapping up on roof and foundation improvements.
Locals and visitors alike continue to stop by the cute building just a short jaunt up Garfield County Road 137. Still, with attendance declining and many newcomers unaware of its existence, Mooney thinks further protection is an order.
“There’s not the financial support there was, and we have more than this little schoolhouse,” she said. “What we need, in my view, is a countywide organization to protect our history when people like me are no longer around.”
Until then, she plans to keep at it.
“At times I’m tired of taking care of it all, but it has to be done,” she said. “The school district is busy educating students. There has to be community interest, or we won’t have it anymore.”
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The Forest Service plans to replace the Carbondale Aspen-Sopris ranger district station with a newer, larger facility.