The Little Red Schoolhouse Tree

Little red schoolhouse.  Photo by Jim Reed.
Little red schoolhouse. Photo by Jim Reed. 

At first I imagined a small tree growing in a planter in the corner of the old red schoolhouse when Kevin told me there was a tree inside.

"Why is that unusual?" I asked. "Lots of people put trees inside homes.

"No," responded Kevin, "It’s a big tree. They put a big tree inside the schoolhouse."

Sitting at a picnic table behind The Trading Post at Three Rivers, I had already spent the better part of the day mystyfied by more than 21,000 Indian carvings at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, 23 miles north of Tularosa.

Fortunately, Kevin’s trading post customer flow was slow enough to afford me the opportunity to pick his brain about local lore. I turned my sight toward the old red schoolhouse, looking for a glass section in the roof which would denote an atrium that would allow light to aid in an interior tree’s growth. Finding none, and remembering that I had already taken pictures of the other side of the building, I gawked at Kevin, the puzzlement in my eyes pleading for an explanation.Kevin smiled and responded, "I’ll show you. When you are done with your lunch, come get me." Fifteen minutes later, while relating the tale of the tree inside, Kevin unlocked the door to the former Three Rivers School. Sure enough, in the middle of the large main room, there stands a tree. A large dead tree, at least four feet at the base, sawn flat and placed upon the 115 year old hardwood floor, two thick branches reaching upward and six branches meeting the ceiling’s cross beams where sheetrock had previously been installed. I had to see it to believe it.

I took pictures.

Lots of pictures - with added flash to compensate for the absence of light as I shook my head in amazement , wondering what motive would spur someone to place a huge dead tree inside this charming historic building. Kevin, having researched the oddity, provided an explanation.

Tree inside the little red schoolhouse.  Photo by Jim Reed.
Tree inside the little red schoolhouse. Photo by Jim Reed. 

From 1941 to 1965, Thomas Fortune Ryan was the owner of the 60,000 acre Three Rivers Ranch and the almost populationless village of Three Rivers. The landmark adobe building at the crossroads of Highway 54 and the small road to Three Rivers Petroglyphs Site served as a combination gas station, post office, curio stop and, for those with a desire to wash down the trail dust, a saloon. Fifty yards to the rear of the pit stop, the circa 1883 red schoolhouse stood idle, having been closed in 1945 when the community started bussing children to schools in Tularosa.

Ryan, it is alleged, violated the first rule of bar ownership and the bartender profession by being "his own best customer." During one of his "escapades", Ryan turned to a friend and declared, "You know what that old schoolhouse needs? A tree inside!" And so it came to be, Rancher Ryan, one the wealthiest members of Lincoln County, got what he wanted - a tree inside the schoolhouse.

A dead tree was found, cut roughly to size and brought to the site. From the rear of the schoolhouse were three large windows facing west. One of the windows and some masonry were removed, and the huge tree was pushed inside, uprighted, trimmed, and installed in the center, its massive branches reaching upward and fastened to the ceiling. And so it stands today, numerous owners later, the dead tree propped solidly in the center of the aged hardwood floor of the one room schoolhouse.

Casey Schell and Kevin Brown, present owners of the red schoolhouse, say they plan to totally renovate the little red schoolhouse in a few years and create a retirement home for Casey’s parents. The fate of the tree, at this time, remains unannounced. My initial surprise at seeing what I thought to be a senseless act of ruination, has softened somewhat between the time of discovery and the time of writing. Designing a home around a tree has been done before, but I’m not sure it’s ever been done in this manner. Would you object to having a tree in your living room, bedroom, kitchen and bath - the tree in all areas being one and the same? Hindsight being 20/20, and with honesty, I’m no longer certain that I would. Being close to nature has been a life-long passion of mine. And also, as you know, one can never have enough places to hang things or branch out when the need arises.

On your way to Three Rivers Petroglyphs, Carrizozo, Tularosa, the Valley of Fires or any of the area’s numerous natural attractions, stop for a short visit with Casey and Kevin at the Three Rivers Trading Post. They have accumulated a wealth of knowledge about the area which they willingly share with visitors. Perhaps, if they are not too busy when you arrive, one of them will show you the unique tree in the charming old red schoolhouse.