FAIRBANK — Think of it as a very long recess.
Classes ended in 1944 at the small schoolhouse in Fairbank — a once-thriving railroad hub that finally fizzled out and became a ghost town in the late 1970s.
Now, 63 years after students filed out of the schoolhouse for the final time, the building has been restored and opened to the public as a museum and information center.
A visit to the school and other nooks of the ghost town south of Benson is a trip back in time — an on-location look at life long ago. . – Doug Kreutz
FAIRBANK — Fifty-six.
Frances Darnell Goodman says that number is one of the many things she learned — and learned for life — back in the 1930s at the historic schoolhouse here.
"I was in the third grade. I had to go up and write a math problem on the board," Goodman recalls. "The problem was to multiply 7 times 8. I had no idea. I stood there and squirmed. . . . Now I will never forget 7 times 8."
The schoolhouse where Goodman learned to multiply closed in 1944 and fell into disrepair when tiny Fairbank became a ghost town in the 1970s.
This year, after extensive renovation, the school building was reopened as a museum and information center.
It's a centerpiece of the Fairbank Historic Townsite — a part of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area south of Benson.
Under the direction of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the townsite is open to the public daily at no charge. The interior of the schoolhouse is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with no admission fee.
Read on to learn about the colorful past and recent revival of Fairbank — and discover other attractions in the area.
Fairbank, nestled into green groves of mesquite trees near the banks of the San Pedro River, sprang to life in the late 1870s — mainly as a result of a silver boom in nearby Tombstone and the surrounding area.
"They didn't actually mine here in Fairbank," says Jane Childress, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management and overseer of restoration work on the schoolhouse.
"They had mills here because of the water available in the river — but Fairbank's most important role was as a transportation hub," Childress says. "Three railroad lines passed through the area."
Those rail lines served not only to haul precious ore but also to bring prospectors, miners and materials into the mining district.
By the late 1880s, passengers stepping off the train in Fairbank would find a town with a railroad depot, post office, hotel, stores, restaurants, saloons, houses and a wooden schoolhouse established in 1883. That building burned and was replaced by the current schoolhouse — constructed of cast gypsum blocks in the 1920s.
"My mother was born here in 1901. She went up to fourth grade" in the original school building, says Bea Figueroa, 82, who visited Fairbank recently from her home in Sierra Vista.
"My mother loved it here," Figueroa says. "Our family moved to Hayden, and my mother used to cry when she told us stories about Fairbank. She said there was a grocery store, a place to dance, a little bit of everything."
Archaeologist Childress says Fairbank — named for Nathaniel Kellogg Fairbank, who had mining and railroad interests in the area — probably reached a peak population of up to 500 people in the early 1880s.
"There was still a population of up to a few hundred into the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s," she says.
Recalls Goodman, 76, who attended the Fairbank school from 1936 to 1942: "It was chilly in the winter, but it didn't hurt us. We had a little round brown enamel stove. It was a coal-oil stove. When we got there in the morning, we had our coats on and we all huddled around the stove until the bell rang."
Goodman, who went on to become a grade-school teacher herself, remembers that the school and its furnishings could seem quite big to a little girl.
"We sometimes had programs and they brought in a stage for us to stand on," she says. "I must have been little because that stage seemed so big — and it was probably all of a foot high."
Childress says the school, which offered classes from the first through seventh grades, closed in 1944 because students were being sent to Tombstone.
"The population dropped off in the '50s and '60s until there were just a couple people running the store," she says.
Eddie Figueroa, Bea's son, says the little town clung to life for a few more years.
"I could still buy gas here in the '60s," Figueroa says. "I could still get a soda in the store."
By the late-1970s, Childress says, Fairbank had become a ghost town except for occasional residents or transients.
The BLM obtained the site in 1986 and later opened it as a public historic site.
Fairbank today is but a dusty, sun-baked hint of its once-bustling self — but just enough remains to offer a sense of the town in its heyday.
Lying along Arizona 82 on the east side of the San Pedro River, it's made up of a central street and a half-dozen remaining structures.
In addition to the schoolhouse, visitors will see a large mercantile building in need of stabilization, a small house, a building known as the teacher's house or frame house, a garage-type building and a structure that probably served as a stable, tack room or chicken coop. An outhouse from the WPA era also remains on the site.
One end of the schoolhouse building is a replica of a classroom — with the original wooden floor, desks common to the period and a pair of blackboards.
Former students say the restored schoolroom looks and feels very much like it did in their day — but Goodman has a minor nit to pick.
"The one thing I told them that they didn't do right is that the blackboard on the east end is way too high," she says. "It was for the first grade and it would have been lower."
Archaeologist Childress says restoring the schoolhouse and making it suitable for public access cost more than $100,000 — but the exact costs are hard to calculate because some of the work was done by volunteers.
The project involved a fair amount of old-fashioned elbow grease.
"We had to scrub down the old paint from the walls," says Kelly Timmerman, a historic-preservation assistant who works at the site. "We sanded the floor down and put on a polyurethane coating to protect it. . . . Everything we do out here is very hands-on."
In addition to the classroom replica, the school now houses a visitor center with an information desk and a small bookstore.
Foot trails departing from Fairbank lead to the ruins of an old mill and other sites.
A 0.4-mile walk will take you to the hilltop Fairbank Cemetery. It's a place to remember those who lived here long ago — and also to get an expansive overview of the area.
If Fairbank once attracted hardy folks who would work on the railroad and in the nearby mills, it remains a strong magnet for former residents and their descendants.
The BLM holds an annual Fairbank Reunion in the fall for people with ties to the town. This year, it's scheduled for Nov. 3.
"I'll be there," says Bea Figueroa, "God willing."
If you go to Fairbank
• Drive: From Tucson, take Interstate 10 east toward Benson and exit onto Arizona 90. Go south on Arizona 90 about 18.5 miles to Arizona 82. Turn east onto Arizona 82 and follow it about 10 miles to the townsite entrance on the north side of the road. The site is just east of the San Pedro River.
• When: The townsite is open daily during daylight hours for self-guided tours. The Fairbank Schoolhouse is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
• Cost: Free admission to the townsite and schoolhouse.
Did you know . . .
An attempted train robbery and shootout rocked the peace of Fairbank one day in 1900.
Burt Alvord and members of his gang tried to rob a safe on a train stopped at the Fairbank depot — but the heist was foiled by former Texas Ranger and lawman Jeff Milton.
Milton shot one of the would-be robbers and was himself seriously wounded in the arm by gunfire before the melee was over.
Source: Bureau of Land Management