Friday, August 3, 2012

Virginia City’s Fourth Ward School

Historic school opens new Comstock Archives and Research Center.

STORY & PHOTOS BY ADAM ROBERTSON

Virginia City is one of the most historic places in Nevada—a bastion of the Old West in a modern age, residence of Mark Twain, resting place of the Suicide Table, location of the Comstock Lode, and home to the Fourth Ward School.

The school, opened in 1877 and operated until 1936, recently opened the Comstock Archive and Research Center—a collection of documents, maps, books, and memorabilia all pertaining to the Fourth Ward School and the history of the Comstock. Operation of the Archive and Research Center will work very much like similar collections.

“[The center will work like] the state Historical Societies, the library archives,” says Cindy Southerland, director of the Archive and Research Center, “where you come in, if you need help doing research [someone is there to help].”

Shelves of books containing documents and records of the
Comstock are available to researchers.
As you enter the school, you immediately head down a staircase, the old planks worn and warped from nearly 60 years of traffic by students and faculty. At the bottom, you turn into a classroom that was once the school’s home economics room. It still holds vestiges of its former life: a work station with a sink, stone slab, and plenty of workspace.

Across from it lies an old gas stove with two ranges and a glass-front, two-rack oven. By the entrance is a wall of wooden lockers, with notes scrawled by students long-since graduated. Though it wasn’t allowed at the time, after the school closed in 1936, many students returned to write their names or messages in the school and, in some places, these notes are carefully cleaned and painted around in order to preserve them.

In the middle of the room sits a long table filled with documents from the school’s heyday: diplomas, pictures, and newspaper clippings of sports teams and class photos, plus a copy of the rules to be followed by students and teachers—these are the start of the archives. The remainder of the documents are stored in a connecting room containing a vault—named the Purple Monkey for an anonymous donor who helped fund it—and a nearby storage room.

Documents of the Fourth Ward School laid out as an exhibit for
museum and archive visitors.
Originally, the plan was to have the archives focus solely on documents and records related to the Fourth Ward School. However, after some consideration, it was decided to expand the idea.

“We quickly realized that, up on the Comstock, we needed a place where people could come and find more information on more topics than just the Fourth Ward School,” Southerland says. “So we really expanded our mission statement; we expanded our collections. People can come in here now and start researching bonds, the mills, the railroad, and all the schools in the Comstock Historic District, including Gold Hill, Silver City, and Dayton.”

Over time, the collection has been organized into a database—part of which is to be made available to the public via computer. People will also be able to request help in doing research on documents and genealogy. The general public will not be allowed into the vault, however, and the full archive will only be available by appointment.

For more information about the Fourth Ward School museum, the Archive and Research Center, or to make a donation to the school, visit fourthwardschool.org.

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