Pagosa’s Past: School days: Fil Byrnes and Pagosa’s first school

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Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Pictured in the center is Fil Byrne, proud of the brand new .30-30 rifle cradled in his arms and with which he shot this black bear while hunting along the Blanco River.

By John M. Motter
PREVIEW Columnist

In mid-October of 1878, troops under the command of Capt. William Hartz marched across the Continental Divide from Fort Garland and temporarily set up camp in Pagosa Springs. Their mission was to protect Pagosa Country settlers from a perceived threat from the Southern Ute Indians. Among those settlers was a young man named Fil Byrne. Now we’ve reached the target I was aiming at when I started the school days series of columns a few weeks ago — Pagosa’s first school.

Byrne rode into town shortly after Hartz and commenced teaching school. Welch Nossaman had come to the Hot Springs a few years before the Army and Nossaman is said to have built a log cabin on the locale of what today is Town Park. A bit of guesswork is involved, but it is possible Nossaman’s cabin was later used by Byrne as a schoolhouse. Byrne was the first school teacher and at one time was county superintendent of schools.

I could write a book about Byrne and his contributions to Pagosa Country history, but now is not the time. As in other early communities, as settlers moved out of town, crossed a divide and began clearing land for another town, they also built a schoolhouse for their children. In Archuleta County, schools were soon built at what became Chromo, Edith, Pagosa Junction, Cat Creek, on the Upper Blanco River, on the Lower Blanco River, at Frances, Arboles, Allison, Yellow Jacket Creek, Chimney Rock, Turkey Creek and many more. Several of those school buildings remain. Fred Harman III moved the Upper Blanco schoolhouse his father attended to the Fred Harman Museum in town.

At the beginning of settlement, Archuleta County was covered with huge stands of ponderosa pine trees and mills were built in every stand. Each mill created a need for another schoolhouse and often another commissary. Temporary narrow gauge railroads were built to most of the mills. The lumber companies were awarded free land on which to build the railroads and a square mile of free timber on either side of the railroad. Considering that encouragement, it is little wonder the timber was clear-cut and has not grown back.

Two major lumber companies did most of the cutting, Ed Sulllenburger’s Pagosa Lumber Company started at Pagosa Junction, and the Biggs Lumber Company started in New Mexico and entered Archuleta County at Edith. Sullenburger later moved his mill to south Pagosa Springs. He moved it to Dulce in 1916.

Back to schools. There was a time when teachers could punish misbehaving children with a paddle or a belt. I have personal experience with this particular “used to be.”