“It is interesting… I never come in here at night by myself, “ said Goldfield Historical Society vice president Steve Foutz as he rounds another corner in a maze of a basement that gives me an immediate spooky vibe even though it is a sunny morning in October. Foutz, along with his shadow, a herding dog named Tucker, is giving me a personal tour of Goldfield High School. The school was built in 1907 and is the original high school in the small mining town with strike-it-big dreams located 150 miles north of Las Vegas.
It is an interesting site indeed, rising three stories, with hardwood floors, hand-laid brick and exposed walls that were originally nailed by hand, then plastered over. A slew of fixtures, desks, chairs, pianos – all teachers had to play back then – and debris, most of which was left by the last students who attended, in the early 1950s, are lying here and there. An occasional doll is left behind, brought by night tour groups hoping to spot ghosts. At the building’s heart is a grand, wooden staircase that turns and twists, connecting all levels. As I follow my guide up the steps carefully, I can imagine decades of students running up and down these stairs in their wholesome clothes, toting books and laughing, teasing one another.
The school that housed students for decades until about 1952 now stands empty, somewhat dilapidated and quite serious. There is no laughter today. The only souls here are a handful of men working on structural renovations to keep the building upright and safe from the harsh desert elements. Students eventually left the building mid 20th century and were bussed to nearby, larger Tonopah, due to a dwindling population in the mining town.
John Ekman, the society’s weathered and determined president, is working with a friend on window casings this morning. When I ask about the renovations, he says with a sigh, “It’s a slow process; I don’t think I’ll live long enough to see it.”
The efforts of the society and community members, both their physical labor and applying for and receiving grants, are important work. It ensures that this part of history in the small mining town of Goldfield is preserved for generations to come. At this time it is unclear whether the building will eventually open to the public or as a museum.
As we make our way to the top floor, my guide points to names scribbled in pencil outside a classroom. George Koocher. Blanche Packer. Ken Goodrich. The long lists of names are dated around 1940. Foutz pauses a moment and says that 50 percent of these people probably went off to World War II, and 50 percent of those never made it back. I pause too, as the moment sits heavy between us.
On the ground floor, original desks line a classroom where many students sat day after day. Old window panes are warped, distorting the view through them. Foutz points out the mines nearby through the windows and says that the view must have been tempting during lessons. I think of my own high school, a massive compound of historic buildings back in the Midwest. I agree with him remembering that I liked to gaze out during class too.
Foutz shows me the current mascot for the high school, a giant Great Horned Owl that has taken up residence in the rafters of the attic above a small auditorium. Although the workers have not given the majestic bird a name, it is a permanent fixture at the school, returning season after season, keeping watch. Foutz jokes that they do not have a vermin problem.
My time with the school was short, but I will long remember it. That time was special, like listening to the reflections of a wise elder.
I was honored to make its portraits.
Goldfield is a historic mining town often referred to as “The World’s Greatest Gold Camp” and is located part way between Las Vegas and Reno, northeast of Death Valley. Ronda Churchill is a freelance photojournalist and is available for assignments worldwide. You can follow her on Instagram @rondachurchill