BY BILL BELL

Banning Historian

Banning’s historic Eastside School was opened in the 1920s on East Ramsey Street. Also known as the “Mexican School,” Eastside School’s elementary age students were predominantly from Banning’s three Mexican barrios, Chancla, Sapo, and Lagartijo, although other Mexican children in Banning and from the Morongo Reservation also attended the school.

Eastside

Eastside School, circa 1940s.

The other public elementary school in Banning at that time was the Central Elementary School on North San Gorgonio and some children from the Morongo Reservation attended St. Boniface Indian/Industrial School.

A 1926 photograph reprinted in a Banning Mexican American Scholarship booklet shows students in front of the original Eastside School although there is no date as to when the school began or an address for it other than being on East Ramsey Street.

Extensive searches of school records and newspaper microfilm leave more questions than answers as to the origins and location of the original Eastside School.

A movement was initiated in the 1930s by the School Board and the Chamber of Commerce to move the Eastside School to another location.

There were two reasons given for the relocation. One reason was concern for the children’s safety in crossing Ramsey Street (also doubling as Highway 60) and the other was to create a more favorable impression of Banning by “removing this eyesore,” referring to the location of the school and its students.

Two articles in the Banning Record in May and June of 1930, mention the need to relocate the Eastside School to another location.

From the Banning Record of May 29, 1930: “Some very narrow escapes from death or injury have been experienced by Mexican school children in crossing the highway, going to or from the school.

This menace will be enlarged as years pass, unless the school is moved.

The school should be located in a safe zone, and if this is accomplished public sentiment will approve of the action of the School Board.

Next to the safeguarding of school children, comes the proposal of a plan for city beautification.”

From the Banning Record of June 12,1930: “The attention of the Board was also called to the fact that thousands of home seekers pass through Banning each year, and these people form an unfavorable impression of Banning because of the school they see on the highway, and consequently do not consider this community as a home.”

As Banning began to plan for the future successes of a desired, predominantly white residential community the moving of the “Mexican School” may have been an effort to avoid offending prospective white buyers as well as a genuine regard for the safety of the school children.

This was a similar motivation the city used when it supported the destruction of the barrios of Chancla and Sapo in order to make room for the I-10 freeway in 1960, although the State Highway Division recommended using an alternate route south of downtown that would have preserved the historic downtown as well as the Chancla and Sapo barrios.

Banning Unified School District records document the sale of the land on East Ramsey Street of the old Eastside School and also refer to it as the “Mexican School,” but no address is given for the property.

According to the Tom Hughes book, “History of Banning and San Gorgonio Pass,” a two and a half acre tract of land on Hargrave Street was purchased by Banning and the School Board in 1932. The 2-½ acres was bordered by Hargrave and Hermosa on the east and west sides and Lincoln and Barbour on the north and south sides.

Hughes states that in 1933, the school was moved from the East Ramsey site to the new land purchased by the city. The school faced south toward Barbour.

Wording in all the newspaper articles concerning the relocation of the Eastside School suggest that the actual physical building was moved to the new site but no photos of the building being moved have been found or articles written about the moving of the building. It could be the original building was moved and new structures were added to it in time for its opening for use in 1934.

Banning began as an agricultural community.

Deciduous fruits were principally grown; peaches, plums, apricots and prunes along with almonds, the town’s most successful crop.

The majority of the labor force supporting the orchards came from the Mexican community. This work force moved north from Mexico into the Coachella Valley and into the Inland areas as they developed.

Some of the Mexican labor was used for the construction of the railroad but this work was relatively short lived and families stayed in the area as agriculture developed.

It is within this context that Banning’s Mexican community also developed and three major barrios defined that community; Chancla (the old shoe), Sapo (the frog), and Lagartijo (the lizard).

For more information on Banning’s barrios visit the Banning Library District website and click Local History/Bill Bell’s columns, then, Historic Banning Barrios or click on https://www.banninglibrarydistrict.org/ckfinder/userfiles/files/Website-Barrios.pdf.

From 1931-1937, the building of the Colorado River Aqueduct through the hills of Cabazon also contributed to the economy of the area which experienced its largest economic growth to date. This massive economic boon utilized the Mexican labor force as well.

Even though the Eastside School transferred its students in the mid-1940s I was still able to locate several individuals who remembered attending school there and also gave clear remembrances of living in Banning at that time.

The following interviews are from Maurice Calderon, Leonard Hernandez, Lupe Ortega, Frank Vallesillo, and a few anonymous sources who all attended the Eastside School.

Maurice Calderon

Maurice Calderon was born in Banning in 1941, and grew up on Allan Street. His grandfather worked for the Robertson, Barker and Rutherford families in their orchards, mainly in southeast Banning.

He describes these early Mexican families as being tight knit, hardworking families with the children often helping in the orchards alongside their parents.

An excerpt from Maurice Calderon’s book written in 1995, “In Search of My Past, Fabian Reyes Calderon, Father, Patriot, Hero,” reads, “The poverty and social conditions in Banning in the 1920s and 1930s did not encourage Mexican youths to pursue an education.

Many barriers existed, including a practice of segregation in the public schools……The economic needs of the family compelled parents to place work over school and school authorities weren’t very concerned if Mexican children were absent from class.

These Mexican-American children did not represent a community interest.”

Maurice attended the Eastside School in the first, second and third grades. He remembers one of his teachers was a Mrs. Davis and he describes her as very strict.

He speaks well of Mrs. Coombs who was his teacher in the third grade. He remembers the Eastside School as having a music program with very limited resources under the tutelage of Mrs. Coombs who played the flute while some of the students played drums made out of cereal boxes.

Eastside

Photo courtesy of Frank Vallesillo

Students on steps of Eastside School, circa 1945.

After the third grade he was transferred to Central Elementary School as the Eastside School was being closed down.

His brother Stanley was sent to Hoffer.

After attending Mt. San Jacinto College, USC, and the University of Georgia, Maurice served as a trustee on the Banning Unified School District Board and later became Vice-President of Redlands Federal Savings.

Leonard Hernandez

Leonard was born in 1938, and attended the Eastside School until he was transferred to Central school.

Leonard had five brothers and six sisters and lived in the Sapo barrio in Banning while growing up.

He translates Sapo as “toad” although most remember Sapo being a name for “frog.”

As a boy growing up in Banning he remembers riding through the orchards on wagons delivering fruit and supplies and helping his family in between playing with his barrio friends.

Both his mother and his grandfather worked in the orchards.

He remembers his mother showing him a soldier’s encampment somewhere along the railroad tracks near Hathaway St. This was most likely a part of the General Patton operations which were initiated at the beginning of WWII.

He remembers running along the railroad tracks when trains of soldiers rode by, sometimes throwing coins out to the kids as they ran alongside.

He remembers sometimes having to go under the train while it was stopped so he could get to school.

The dangers Eastside School children faced with traffic on Ramsey/Highway 60 were replaced with new dangers of crossing the railroad tracks once the students were transferred to their new location at Central Elementary.

There was a cement culvert for controlling flood waters that ran under the railroad tracks near Hathaway St. The eastside children would sometimes use this culvert when crossing under the tracks.

Leonard enlisted in the Navy when he was 20 years old. After his service Leonard worked with pre-computer technology and as computers advanced he advanced into computer programming.

After retiring Leonard came back to Banning and has lived here since 1986.

Lupe Ortega

Lupe Ortega lives on Hermosa St., across from the vacant land where the Eastside School stood.

She went to Eastside from kindergarten through 3rd grade before being transferred to Central Elementary in the mid to late 1940s.

Lupe remembers a separate building for the kindergarten class being in front of the main school, facing south toward Barbour.

Bernie Howlett, Christian Tzintzun, Leonard Hernandez and I walked around the vacant land of the old Eastside School matching photographs with existing foundations and railings.

We found some foundation walls about two hundred feet south of the main school foundation which could have been the location of the kindergarten building.

Lupe remembers crossing under the railroad when it was stopped and also used to play and hide in the cement culvert near Hathaway. She has good memories of the Eastside School and her transition to Central Elementary.

Frank Vallesillo

Frank Vallesillo was born in Banning in 1935, in a house on Plaza St. Frank attended the Eastside School from kindergarten to 4th grade when he was transferred with most of the Eastside students to Central Elementary.

His family and most of his neighbors worked in the orchards with some traveling seasonally throughout the state.

He remembers his father working in the Barker and Jenkins orchards. As was the case for most boys his age he occasionally helped the family with orchard work, usually picking fruit from the trees or from off of the ground.

Frank remembers that many of the farm workers lived at the El Don Motel during the summer.

He also remembers the family doctor being Dr. Bramkamp (who was the local surgeon for the Southern Pacific and for the U.S. Forestry Department).

Frank started working with the Forest Service in 1954.

He was drafted into the Army in 1958, and served a few years in Germany before the Viet Nam War began.

He returned to Banning, working again with the Forest Service and retired in 1989.

Segregation in Banning

Both Frank Vallesillo and Leonard Hernandez have fond memories of growing up in the Sapo barrio of Banning.

When they were transferred to the Central Elementary School they remembered being accepted into the basically all-white school although they were aware of the segregation which affected them and their families.

The swimming pool, movie theater and most restaurants were closed to them because of their race.

Others interviewed for this article felt less comfortable in their new Central Elementary School surroundings, especially when forced to undergo lice inspections in front of the white students.

Segregation was a way of life in the San Gorgonio Pass just as it was in every community in the United States.

There were degrees of severity and social and moral awareness evolved differently in each community.

Some adapted sooner than others and others have still not adapted, perhaps outwardly but not inwardly.

Prior to the 1950s, Mexican-Americans could not attend movies at the Fox Theater or swim in the Banning Plunge.

They could serve in the military and become war heroes but their families could not attend the ceremonies that honored their service and heroism.

The following story by Maurice Calderon tells the impact of segregation on one prominent Banning family in a personal and lasting way:

In Maurice’s book written about his father he details Fabian’s life and his family growing up in Banning where Fabian was born.

Maurice also chronicles his father’s war experiences as a tail gunner.

While growing up in Banning Maurice heard his father tell many stories of the missions he flew with the 381st Bomb Group in Europe.

He flew 30 missions during his combat tour and received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three oak clusters.

Upon his return to Banning in late 1944, he was welcomed as a town hero. He was especially honored by the Kiwanis Club and Banning Mayor Robert N. Berlin in anticipation of a war rally the City was sponsoring which was to be held at the Fox Theater on Ramsey Street. Aligning itself with the heroics of one of “Banning’s Own” the City planned to raise money by selling War Bonds, something the patriotic Sergeant Calderon was honored to be a part of.

Ramsey Street/Highway 60, in front of the Fox Theater, was closed in preparation for the events and bleachers and a platform were installed for the ceremony. In anticipation of the event the Calderon family and Banning’s barrio communities were excited and proud of the honoring of Fabian Calderon. They were dressed in their finest and waited on Ramsey Street for the events to begin.

Just before the participants took their places Fabian Calderon was told it was an “Anglo Only” event and none of his family could be seated on the platform. This stunned Fabian who had not been told of this before he accepted the offer to be in attendance. The insult only got worse when Fabian was told that none of his family could enter the Fox Theater to partake in the ceremonies inside. Even though hurt and insulted Fabian continued participating because of his patriotic commitment to the war effort.

Outwardly he was a part of the ceremony but inwardly his heart was breaking. According to Maurice Calderon this hurtful act by the City of Banning officials never left his father and war hero Fabian Calderon felt it deeply until his death in 1972.

Even though there is no way to go back in time to undo a hurt that was caused to a war hero, his highly respected family and to Banning’s barrio history, acknowledging that it happened may be a beginning in building a community committed to honoring and respecting each other regardless of race.

The Eastside School was closed in the late 1940s as the students were transferred to either the Central Elementary School or the Hoffer School.

The buildings were sold and used for a short time as apartment buildings until they were demolished sometime in the 1960s or 70s.

It’s surprising how many people still live in Banning who attended Eastside School, the “Mexican School,” and remember that time period as being special in their lives.

Picture a Norman Rockwell painting of the 1940s with young boys playing catch and throwing rocks, full of mischief.

Now picture that same Norman Rockwell painting in brown tones …That was East Banning in the 1940s, south of the railroad tracks, with thousands of acres of peach, plum and almond orchards to work, play and live in.

Special thanks to Bernie Howlett, Maurice Calderon, Christian Tzintzun, Leonard Hernandez, Lupe Ortega, Frank Vallesillo and Kookie Williams for their assistance in the research for this article.

For questions or comments or if you have any photographs of the Eastside School or other barrio landmarks (Balderas Market) to share contact Bill Bell at: bill@banninglibrarydistrict.org or (951) 849-3192 – ext 228.

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