[ By Dawne Belloise ]
Jessica Rutherford doesn’t remember that very small part of her life spent in her birthplace of Englewood, New Jersey, because her parents packed up the car and headed west to Taos, New Mexico, to escape their corporate lifestyles after questing for the best ski resort. Jessica was only two and her elder sister, Molly (Eldridge), was just four years old when their parents bought the Hondo Lodge in 1974. “There weren’t a ton of kids since it was a young party scene kind of thing,” she says. “There was a ton of snow and we lived in this little A-frame while we built a house. There was a core group of kids and we all hung out together, spending most of our time skiing or running around in the woods pretending,” Jessica describes of her wild child youth in the 1970s.
Her parents started her on the slopes when she was still a toddler, so she’s been a skier as far back as she can recall. “I remember crying at the top of Reforma because the moguls were bigger than I was, and my parents were telling me I could do it.”
When she was eight, the family moved closer to town in Taos where, Jessica explains, it’s a tri-culture community. “There’s the Taos Pueblo, the Hispanic, which are the majority of people, and then, at that time, the minority white people. I had hair like a dandelion puff, it was so white, so I was definitely made fun of,” she says. Her parents sent Jessica off to the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire for middle and high school, where generations of her family were also alumni. “Exeter was intense with high academic standards, but it also made me a super strong person and made me find myself and my own confidence.” She graduated in 1990.
Jessica enrolled at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do so I ended up majoring in psychology. I had great friends and at times, learned a lot, and loved being in the city because I had always lived in a small town,” she says. But she moved back West right after graduation.
“The East allowed me to interact with a variety of people but I’m a girl of the West and I wanted to ski and be near mountains,” she explains. She moved to Yosemite National Park with a friend for the summer of 1994. “I wanted a summer of hiking, and we hiked every trail in the park.”
Jessica’s parents had taken her and Molly on a ski trip to Crested Butte in 1992, skiing at both the Irwin Lodge and on the mountain. Later, in 1997, her parents became part of an investment team called the Irwin 10 that bought the lodge. “My sister and her husband moved here to run the lodge,” which ran until 2002 and they were the last to have the lodge open. “We worked a lot of weddings up there and we cat skied a ton. It was a really fun time and got to experience the magic of that place.”
In 1994 Jessica had decided to move to Crested Butte, with Stephanie Prater helping to secure a winter job for her at the CBMR Kids Ski School. She was 22 years old and arrived on Halloween. “I’ve been here ever since,” she says with a smile. “We skied every day. I worked many jobs at once to survive.” However, after years of ski bumming and waiting tables to survive, Jessica felt it was time to pursue her interest of becoming a teacher and she enrolled at Western State College (now Western Colorado University) in their elementary education program.
She was working full-time while going to school full-time and then student taught for a year in Gunnison. She earned her teaching certificate in 1997. “I thought there’d be more jobs available,” she admits. “I applied for every elementary teaching position that became available in both Gunnison and CB.”
During her interviewing phase, Jessica was a teacher’s aide and a literacy intervention teacher. “I was a substitute teacher. I tried to stay in the school as much as possible so I could get my foot in the door and I was still waiting tables at the Idle Spur. Teaching positions were impossible to get at that time,” she explains.
One day, Jessica had a revelation. “After my very last second runner-up rejection, I was super upset and I felt I couldn’t apply for another position and be rejected,” she says. That was the impetus for her to consider opening her own school. She and Jamie Lewis, another teacher who was also working at the Spur, wrote down all their ideas on a bar napkin at work. “From there, we researched what it would take to open a preschool. We had to take more classes to get certified,” she says. In addition, they needed money and a place to build the school. “We had to find investors for the down payment on the loan for the school and we still had to find a place to put the school.”
An owner in CB South stepped up and agreed to sell them a lot, and the duo got to work designing the building, but eventually had to give in and hire an engineer. “We didn’t have any money, but we persevered,” Jessica laughs. They opened their doors to young students on September 4, 2001, and this year The Little Red Schoolhouse celebrates 20 years. “We only had four kids enrolled. We started with kids from two and a half years old and up. I’m still in touch with those kids,” Jessica says. The two teachers were still working at the Idle Spur while running the school. “We worked our butts off. We always paid our bills but couldn’t pay ourselves for three years,” Jessica says.
Jessica had her daughter, Amelia, in August of 2003. She had met Amelia’s dad, Thomas, during her summer stay in Yosemite National Park in ‘94 and the two were married for 27 years before going their separate ways.
In 2004, her business partner, Jamie, decided that she wanted to start her own family back East, so Jessica bought her out. Reaching the three-year mark, the school was doing much better with 15 students a day and Jessica was able to complete the upstairs of the building, which increased enrollment and expanded the classes to include pre-kindergarten and 4- and 5-year-olds, in addition to the already enrolled toddler and up kids. In 2010, during the recession, Jessica opened Teeny Red Schoolhouse specifically for infants and toddlers. “I figured it was beneficial for families to have all their younger children in one place, even though it was a huge financial risk.” The school now boasts a staff of a dozen for almost 70 kids. “It’s cool to see the growth of the school from four students to 70,” says Jessica.
Jessica still loves to ski, both Nordic and downhill and, she says, “I hike a ton in the summer and SUP, everything outside. I love to travel too. I went abroad for junior semester in college, living in Florence, Italy and traveling all over Europe. I travel to warm places after the winter, Costa Rica, Belize. It’s really fun going to the beach after all that snow. We all need some sun and sand,” she smiles. These days, the school is even busier in the summer but, she says, “It brings me so much joy. I just love all the kids and I feel I have a lot to give. It’s a rewarding job for sure.”
Jessica is deeply entrenched in Crested Butte’s community and her friendships here through so many decades, plus, she says of Molly who also lives here, “My sister is my best friend. I feel like our community is so supportive of others and it’s a fun place to be with all of our traditions and antics that happen all year. Even though there’s so much growth, I still see the heart of CB shining through. It makes me sad when people are bashing our town because I still see the core, I still see the beauty. I choose to be positive.”