As I travel the familiar roads that lead me away from Tehachapi and back again, I look for the assorted landmarks that have become so recognizable to me after many years and many journeys. These points of interest, the result of either natural forces or human activity, are all like subtle signposts — each announcing a different little segment of the trip.
One of these personal mileage indicators for me is the old stone Willow Springs School.
The townsite of Willow Springs quietly slumbered for decades in the Antelope Valley about 20 miles from Tehachapi. For the past 70 years, the approximately 300 acres of Willow Springs have been owned by the Nelson family.
In more recent years, members of the family have been revitalizing Willow Springs — reroofing and renovating buildings, starting businesses and planting an orchard and vineyard. Brothers Mike and Richard Nelson have been responsible for much of the work, while their nephews Donnie and Danny Reeves have also been crucial to the rebirth of Willow Springs, and they operate a you-pick fruit orchard and vineyard.
The road leading from Tehachapi to the area is named, appropriately enough, Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road, though many locals call it simply "the back way" to Lancaster. To drive through Willow Springs itself you have to turn off on either Hamilton Road or Truman Road, but it's easy to see the clusters of hardy trees and old stone buildings that mark the townsite west of the road. There is only one of Willow Springs' original rock structures on the east side of the road. This crumbling relic is the old school house.
Located on the flanks of an arid foothill overlooking town, the school is both the furthest east and the highest in elevation of Willow Springs' cluster of stone buildings. More than 115 years of harsh desert weather have left the school house without a roof, door or windows, and while portions of the walls are fairly intact, others have collapsed and lay where they tumbled, the stones scattered on the splintered tongue-and-groove flooring.
The actual water source from which Willow Springs derives its name has a long and varied history, having provided dependable water for antelope and other animals, Native Americans, Spaniards, stagecoach passengers and teams, early settlers and more.
The town itself, however, is almost entirely the result of one man: Ezra M. Hamilton. He was the owner of a Los Angeles pottery company that made fire brick and sewer pipe. Some of his raw material came from a clay deposit located on Crandall Hill a few miles west of Rosamond.
While formerly prosperous, Hamilton and his business suffered during a major recession in the 1890s. With little business and much time on his hands, Hamilton practiced gold panning with some of his pottery clay samples.
Surprisingly, Hamilton found flecks of color in a sample from Crandall Hill, so Hamilton eventually bought the reddish hill from Dr. L. A. Crandall and came to the Antelope Valley in 1894 searching for gold. It took him almost two years, but Hamilton's persistence was rewarded with the discovery of substantial deposits of high grade ore.
Mining began in earnest and the Rosamond area experienced a gold-fueled boom. Productive mines, especially the Lida, Fairview and Tropico would eventually result. Hamilton took some of his profits and bought historic Willow Springs from the estate of Edward F. Beale. Using local rock, Hamilton then had more than a dozen stone buildings constructed, including a hotel, saloon, bunkhouse, stores, residences — and a school.
Willow Springs was the only school in the Rosamond area when it opened about 1902. The small foyer served as a coatroom and the remainder of the building was the classroom. Most of the students were the children of miners and Hamilton personally paid the teacher's salary and furnished the school with supplies.
The school is elevated enough that it has a good view of the Antelope Valley, and I imagine that students often gazed distractedly out the three large windows that were on both the west and east sides of the building. The structure's thick stone walls provided good insulation and the school site is well-placed to receive any cooling breeze, so during hot days I'll bet the Willow Springs kids were more comfortable than their counterparts in either Bakersfield or Lancaster.
The late Blanche Kimberly of Tehachapi was once a student at Willow Springs and she told me that she remembered her days there fondly. Willow Springs School apparently fell into disuse prior to World War II and has been derelict for many decades, with only the ghosts of its former students still attending when the unheard bell rings to call them to class. When I drive by, heading north, I nod to the old school house and know that I'm one step closer to home. . .
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.