Learning and Community
In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously claimed the year 1890, three years prior, marked the closing of the American Frontier. It seemed in the 1890s that America’s expansionist spirit was shifting from the continental Wild West to locations abroad such as Cuba and the Philippines, pivoting away from consolidating a land empire and toward questing for a sea empire. Pioneers in Fruita, Utah, however, were still preoccupied in the 1890s with frontier processes. Although they had secured their isolated, red rock land, even in 1890 their community lacked important infrastructure such as education, a postal service, and a building for worship.
As they settled in and secured the land, the pioneers were able to gather sufficient time and organization to put together more of a society, beginning with an education system. Nettie Behunin, a young girl 12 years of age, became one of the first teachers. Nettie might not have been a truly qualified teacher by twenty-first-century standards—or perhaps even by her own—but her endeavors marked the beginning of the first community project in the area: the schoolhouse.
In a collection of childhood memories of Fruita, Clay M. Robinson reflects on his experience as a young boy in the newly built Fruita schoolhouse as his mother was the teacher at the school during his childhood. He writes, “Most vivid of all in those memories, are Mama and the little one-room sawed-log Fruita school where she taught all eight grades in the years 1925–1927.” He also mentioned that the schoolhouse was used for Sunday church services and Sunday School—most of Fruita were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons—because there was no dedicated chapel in Fruita. Since residents could rearrange the in the schoolhouse, the small building served as a community center that could host different events like dances, box socials, knitting group meetings, and gatherings for men and young boys who enjoyed baseball. The Fruita schoolhouse evidently served as a center of the community, where the small number of settlers could gather to enjoy each other’s company.
The Fruita schoolhouse still stands today. Tourists can easily see it as they drive through the park since it is located just to the side of the highway. At times the Park Service offers tours in the old schoolhouse that allow small children to briefly roleplay pioneer school life. This schoolhouse represents the first community building of the Fruita settlement, as well as a reminder of what life was like for the small community of Latter-day Saint settlers.