Thanks goes to Carolynn Birilli, assistant curator of the Museums of Lake County, for her assistance with this article.
The Lower Lake Historic Schoolhouse Museum’s a place that has lived multiple lives. It first began as a school, built by Leslie Nichols and his brother in 1877. It not only was the only school in the area built from locally fired bricks, but it also was the largest in the county at the time. The school at that time had three classrooms, two large ones on the south end, and one central one, with a large bell tower mounted on the front. Back then, lower Lake wasn’t a sleepy small town; it was an up-and-coming place fighting for its rightful place in the county and, if it weren’t for some foul play on Lakeport’s part, would have ended up the county seat.
The schoolhouse was two stories high and, built on a rise, towered above Main Street Lower Lake. The top floor was made to be an auditorium, and with a seating capacity of over 100, hosted many plays and served as town hall and the lower story held students. That was the building’s first life and one it served for many years. But, as the county grew and changed, the school became abandoned. Then the Masons picked it up and held meetings there for years before abandoning it again. There it sat fallow, slowly decomposing, until finally it was taken over by the Lower Lake Historical School Preservation Committee, which updated much of it and turned it into the Lower Lake Schoolhouse Museum, its current iteration.
Step inside the door and an array of objects greets the eye. There’s a drum from Chinese workers at Sulphur Bank in one case, a change collector in another, a set of child’s cowboy boots, and an old Spanish knife in a third. The eclectic collection begs time; each glass case holds a wealth of artifacts from Lake County’s history. To the right, next to the bookshelves, there’s a display of the notorious outlaw and coward Buck English. He spent his days hiding out in the hills around Middletown, then causing trouble when the mood was right.
Another wall’s filled with old tools. Hand planes, saws, jigs, and all kinds of old woodworking items stretch towards the ceiling, each begging to be studied. And rock samples spread around the case with the Chinese drums, each tagged and described: cinnabar, gold, pyrite.
But the real treasure of the museum’s found further back. Walk through the back doors, enter a small hallway, and a large room opens up. It’s a recreated schoolroom, showcasing not just desks but many books and items that young students used to formalize their education. And, off to the right, you’ll find a piano from Lillie Langtry’s estate, now known as Langtry Farms, one of Lake County’s many wineries. Lillie lived a scandalous life, being one of the first society women to go on stage (actresses were looked down upon at the time). She also was mistress to the Prince of Wales–later King Edward VII, and was known as the most beautiful woman in the world during her career. It’s easy to see her sitting at the piano, lighting the two candles on swinging candlestands to give her enough brightness to view the keys, then playing and singing the evening away.
That’s what makes the Lower Lake Schoolhouse Museum so special. Each artifact comes with a story, a history, and a memory. It’s worth the trip to walk back in time for a while.
Lower Lake Historic Schoolhouse Museum
16435 Main St, Lower Lake, CA 95457
Hours: Thursday – Saturday, 10-4