SANTA CLARITA — In September 1872, Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant was in the fourth year of his presidency, California had been a state for 22 years and outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez was hiding out near Escondido Canyon in an unusual rock formation that would eventually bear his name.
A few miles down the road from those rocks, two pioneer families were laying the foundation for the Santa Clarita Valley's first school.
Named for the foul-smelling sulfurous wells that bubbled up in the area, Sulphur Springs School initially held classes at the homes of its founders, Col. Thomas and Martha Mitchell and John and Lizza Lang.
By 1886, the original enrollment of 17 children had grown so much it was no longer practical to continue shuffling students between the two homes and the families pooled their resources to build the district's first schoolhouse.
On Saturday, on the site where that one-room adobe school stood, the Sulphur Springs School District will celebrate its 125th anniversary with an old-time spring picnic that will evoke the area's historic past.
To honor the spirit of the Old West, the celebration will include period costumes and hands-on activities such as panning for gold, grinding wheat, knapping arrowheads, hayrides and at least one hands-off activity: a watermelon-eating contest. Other events include a barbershop quartet concert, horseshoe pitching, a baking contest, relay races and a variety of old-fashioned games and contests.
"We've tried to keep everything as authentic as possible to show what a spring picnic would have been like in the 1870s," said Lee Souleles, a Sulphur Springs parent who helped organize the event.
"All the games will be from that time and we'll have root beer and lemonade, but no modern soft drinks."
Several teachers and parents have also been recruited to appear in costume as some of the area's most significant historical figures, such as the Mitchells, the Langs, the bandit Vasquez and Remi Nadeau, a late 19th century entrepreneur who drove mule teams between Santa Clarita and the silver mines of Inyo County.
"I grew up in the Santa Clarita Valley and I attended Sulphur Springs School and I think its really important to show the kids how things were back then," said Michele Horvath, vice president of the PTA. "This is a really cool way to get back to the beginning and show our kids where we come from."
With a $5-million renovation recently completed at the original campus and nearly 5,000 students enrolled at seven elementary schools, the district has grown up quite a bit since the days of its humble origins.
But Canyon Country residents, many of whose families have lived in the area for generations, remain closely tied to the area's past, said Sulphur Springs School Principal Sandra Smith.
"We just feel that it is something very important. It's ingrained in this community that we talk about our history and our heritage," Smith said.
And a truly colorful heritage it is.
According to a history of the Santa Clarita Valley written by Jerry Reynolds, a longtime Santa Clarita resident who died two years ago, Col. Mitchell, who earned his rank with the Texas Mounted Volunteers in the Mexican-American War, was a gold prospector and rancher who became one of the region's most distinguished early residents. His wife, Martha, was the Sulphur Springs School District's first teacher.
John Lang, who was known as "Lang No. 2" because there were no fewer than four John Langs in the area, parlayed 160 acres of land that he bought from the railroad near Soledad Canyon into a prosperous 1,200-acre dairy. On July 7, 1873, Lang shot a large grizzly bear on the banks of the Santa Clarita River. The grizzly, known as Ol' Monarch, was reputed to have eaten seven men and more than 100 head of cattle before Lang killed the animal with his Henry rifle.
As for Vasquez, the notorious outlaw with an itchy trigger finger and a weakness for the ladies became the subject of the biggest manhunt in California history in the mid-1870s. He was finally captured and hanged in March 1875. Years later, one of his favorite hide-outs was named Vasquez Rocks County Park.
Saturday's anniversary celebration, which is free and open to the public, will be held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Sulphur Springs School, 16628 W. Lost Canyon Road. Some food will be served but guests are asked to bring their own picnic lunches.