In 1914 a small clapboard schoolhouse was built on a Wyoming ranch owned by Charles and Constance Waegele, at the location of the current The Ranch at Ucross, about ½ mile from Ucross Foundation. The school was moved to “downtown” Ucross in 1916 – the same year the name of the town was changed from Cedar Rapids to Ucross.
Teachers over the years included our Ucross maintenance manager Mike Latham’s aunt Rose (Fowler), who taught at the Ucross School between 1932 and 1945. One notable student at the school in the 1960s was John Sargent (Neltje’s son), who is now the CEO of Macmillan, the world’s fourth largest book publisher.
The Ucross School closed in 1968 and Ucross Foundation acquired the building 12 years later. In 1983, after renovations, the schoolhouse became the first building to house artists-in-residence. (On a side note, the founder of Ucross, Raymond Plank, was born in 1922 and turns 95 on May 29.)
The schoolhouse became the heart and soul of the residency program – the place where artists gather for group dinners after intense studio time all day. In the beginning, Ucross supported a mix of four artists and writers, all of whom lived in the schoolhouse and worked in studios in the Big Red Barn. Early residents at the schoolhouse included Terry Tempest Williams, David Romtvedt, and Jim “Tex” Garry.
Since then, Ucross has grown into one of the premiere artist-in-residence programs in the United States, accommodating 10 artists, writers, composers and choreographers at one time.
The historic schoolhouse remains a key ingredient in the magic of a Ucross residency.
Every evening, individuals from these varying disciplines come together for a nourishing dinner prepared by the Ucross chef. (Our chef, Cindy Brooks, typically receives a standing ovation from the artists at the end of each work day.) Sculptors sit next to poets, musicians sit next to novelists, dancers sit next to painters.
Residents report that these evenings have lasting impacts on their creative lives: lifelong friendships and sometimes even collaborative teams are formed.
The schoolhouse, once a setting for children learning to read and write, has now become a place where accomplished authors and artists from all over the world encounter each other for daily meals and conversation. The program’s alumni list now has eight Pulitzer Prize winners, including two of this year’s Pulitzers, Du Yun in music and Colson Whitehead in fiction, as well as ten MacArthur “Genius” Fellows and even two Academy Award winners. Among the many honored individuals who have enjoyed meals at the schoolhouse dining room are Annie Proulx, Doug Wright, Claudia Rankine, Elizabeth Gilbert, Karen Russell, Charles Wuorinen, Ricky Ian Gordon and Theaster Gates. Six of the recently announced Tony Award nominations spent time at Ucross: William Finn, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, Paula Vogel, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Dave Malloy.
On May 1, Ucross was excited to begin the first renovation of this beloved building in more than 20 years. Working with StoneMill Construction of Sheridan, we are expanding the dining room to seat 12, and creating a new state-of-the-art kitchen.
A new screened porch with French doors opening to the dining room will provide additional space for artist use, as will the newly refurbished outside deck. All will be ready for new artist arrivals in early August.
We’ll invite the community to an opening celebration – stay tuned for the date! This 100-year-old school house will inspire its residents for many years to come.
Sharon Dynak | Guest columnist