When C.F. Philbrook became Bisbee’s school superintendent in 1904, his first challenge was space. The town was growing fast and miners were flooding in from all parts of the country and around the world. The camp was becoming a real city, a place for families to make a home.
In 1881, Bisbee’s first teacher, Miss Clara Stillman, had arrived from Connecticut to start a school for five pupils. The first classes were held in an old miner’s shack across from Castle Rock but the threat of Indian attacks was real and after a month, they relocated to the Miner’s Hall at the mouth of Brewery Gulch. Miss Stillman stayed just two years but during her brief tenure, attendance increased and the mining company decided the town needed a proper school. By the time Miss Daisy Robinson arrived in 1883 to take Clara’s place, a new one-room school built of adobe was ready on today’s Howell Avenue.
It was the real deal and an old picture shows the teacher and students posing in front of the building. It was topped with a large bell donated by the Copper Queen Company and cast in Michigan especially for the new school. The bell was the town’s internet summoning kids to class, announcing dances, speeches, church services, lodge meetings and in the early years warning of fires and Indian attacks.
By the time Philbrook arrived, Bisbee boasted a student population of 1200-2000 pupils at various times and other schools were popping up—Tombstone Canyon School, later called Lincoln, was up the road and farther down the hill the new town of Lowell had a school for the growing number of young people living there. The one room adobe structure in downtown Bisbee grew to four rooms, then added a second floor. By 1904, it was bursting at the seams, and the superintendent knew something had to be done. He needed a new school.
The town had relied on the mining company to foot the bill for most improvements, and at first everyone assumed they would pay the cost. But Philbrook knew that the community needed a personal stake in the education of its young people and that required an investment. In 1905, he proposed selling bonds to raise the estimated $75,000 for the project. Despite fierce resistance to any new tax—no surprise--an election was called and in true Bisbee spirit, the students marched in the streets to rally the townsfolk to get out and vote. Bisbee’s first bond election passed, additional land was purchased and in May construction began on the site where the 23 year old adobe building stood. The new structure was occupied on November 10, 1905 and called Central School.
Frederick C. Hurst was the architect. He had come to town in 1902 to work for the Copper Queen Company but later struck out on his own. Before leaving Bisbee, he made his mark designing many of the buildings that still stand in the historic district including the Post Office/Library, Old City Hall, the Elks building, Fair Store and Letson Block. He was especially active in the rebuilding of downtown after the disastrous 1908 fire. Central School was designed with three floors and a distinctive square Italianate tower where the bell from the old school was hung. Lumber from Oregon was shipped by boat to San Francisco and then by rail to Bisbee for construction. The school had two playgrounds and occupied a prominent spot on the hill just up from Main Street. As the town grew, the YWCA and Men’s Gymnasium were built nearby. The Copper Queen Hotel and Covenant Presbyterian Church were already in place and the school became a permanent downtown feature.
Students in kindergarten through twelfth grade went there, but it was much more than a school. The large yellow building provided space for war bond drives, a bomb shelter, first aid station, Red Cross headquarters and polling places. In later years it hosted blood pressure clinics, Halloween parades and community education classes. It became the center of Bisbee life and remained Bisbee’s number one school, even after the high school building opened farther up on School Hill.
Legendary Bisbee teachers like Ida Power taught at Central and several long time principals and administrators passed through its doors. For many years, it was home to the superintendent’s office. One of its early flagpoles had been brought to town from Charleston by saloonkeeper J.B. Ayers and moved from up the canyon when the school opened. The old pole was made of wood and strong with thorny sides marked by many bullet strikes.
Central became a movie star. In 1954, 20th Century Fox filmed “Violent Saturday” in Bisbee and the building served as the background of a scene shot on Howell Avenue, just in front of the gate. As actors Victor Mature and Billy Chapin play their parts, many of the school’s real pupils can be seen on the playground.
Central School served Bisbee from 1905 until after Phelps Dodge ceased operations in 1975. Eventually, as student numbers declined, the Bisbee Unified School District, faced with looming budget challenges, began consolidating its resources. Bisbee’s first and most distinctive traditional school fell victim to time and change. Location, aging facilities and dwindling numbers of pupils in Old Bisbee sealed its fate. Despite the pleas of older residents whose memories of earlier years were strong, the District sold the school to the non-profit Central School Project which owns and cares for the building today.
That turned out to be the best thing for everyone. Central School came back to life as a center for artists and performers to create and flourish. It provided a place for arts instruction for Bisbee young people. The small auditorium was renovated and today is home to the local theatre company. KBRP Community Radio broadcasts from a studio along side painters, potters and printers. Art exhibitions regularly occupy the wide hallways. It is a place filled with sparkling life.
More than most old structures, school buildings echo with memories and reminders of times past. Walk the halls or climb the stairs and you can hear the voices, the laughter, the thunder of small feet on polished maple floors. Up in the tower, the bell still hangs though it has been awhile since it called kids to class. Old school buildings never lose their distinctive smell of wood polish, musty books, chalk dust, and orange peelings even when mingled with fresh paint and clay. In Bisbee, there are lots of reminders of the early days, of mining, of its people. Central School, built in the heart of the city, remains at the heart of the town’s memory. For over one hundred years, the noble yellow structure has lived on. C.F. Philbrook’s vision and persistence gave Bisbee a grand school. He could not have imagined that he was also giving the old mining camp an enduring soul.