The first two weeks of September in this Sheltering Year of 2020 appeared to be much the same in Oysterville as those same calendar weeks in any year since 1957.
Perhaps there were a few more tourists strolling along Territory Road and, for the first time ever, some of them wore masks. But, otherwise, residents walked or drove to the post office to pick up their mail, in a few front yards a dog or a cat lazed in the sun, and on at least one of the mornings a fawn and its mother sampled the fruit on one of the heritage apple trees in the village.
On School Street, the one-room schoolhouse and play yard were silent. No teachers, no students, no school bell, and no roll call. For the 63rd consecutive year, Oysterville School District Number One was closed.
Even so, at least four youngsters were attending school during those weeks — a third grader and a seventh grader the first week and their cousins, a fourth grader and a seventh grader the second week. And right here in Oysterville, too! Never mind that their teachers were in far-off Portland and Hillsboro! Never mind, either, that their classrooms were actually in the loft at their Aunt Lina’s and the sunroom of their grandparents, “Opa” Tucker and “Oma” Carol Wachsmuth.
“Just imagine!” said one of the parents. “They are starting school in their favorite place in all the world — in Oysterville at Opa’s and Oma’s.”
“And we could wear our jammies if we wanted to!” chimed in one of the kids.
“But they did pull on a sweater over the top so they would look dressed,” explained their mom. Big smiles all around!
Portland area schools had begun virtual classes last Spring so the Wachsmuth children felt confi-dent in returning to school even in “far-away” Oysterville. Said Danielle and Gabi’s mother, Amy, “Yes, the virtual schooling started in March 2020. At that point they were spending about two hours a day doing school work. This year our school district launched a more complete school ex-perience called Comprehensive Distance Learning. The kids have a more normal length school day. Gabi goes from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Danielle goes from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Each class they spend about half an hour getting a live lesson over Google Meet then they have assignments to work on. They may also be assigned extra videos to watch. The teachers want their video on and audio off so he/she can see the students. Danielle hates that everyone can see her and she can see herself. Gabi doesn’t care. The kids switch their microphones on to answer a question, then back off to mini-mize background noise.”
Amy did stick around close to the girls while they were in school. “I’d call my role, ‘personal as-sistant/school facilitator’,” she said. For example, on the first day, Danielle had trouble logging into her Google Classroom using her Hillsboro School District login. So, I emailed her advisory teacher and she reset Dani’s password. I also made breakfast and lunches.”
Danielle and Gabi are the daughters of Charley and Amy Wachsmuth — Carol and Tucker’s oldest son and wife; seventh-grade Amelia and her third-grade brother Sam are the children of Clark and Mary Wachsmuth — Tucker’s youngest son and wife. For all of them, Oysterville is their favorite go-to place in all the world. Being able to begin their school year there was a special and unexpected treat. As twelve-year-old Amelia said, “It was fun starting the school year in Oysterville, but with how beautiful it was outside, it was hard to want to focus on school. I would rather be logging in to school from Oysterville, though, than being stuck in Portland.”
School in the 1860s
Not much more than a stone’s throw from where the Wachsmuth cousins were attending their first virtual classes of the 2020-2021 school year, the historic 1907 one-room schoolhouse still stands. I wonder if these present-day Wachsmuth students know that their great-great-grandfather, as well as their three-times-great-uncles and aunt, also went to school in Oysterville. Wachsmuth roots in Pacific County go clear back to the Pioneer Days when sailing ships from California came into Shoalwater Bay to load up with oysters bound for the gourmet restaurants of San Francisco.
For the first few years after Oysterville’s 1854 founding, there was no school building in the little settlement. Nor was there a need. Tales of those early years paint a picture of a lusty, bawdy waterfront village — the busiest anchorage on the northwest coast. Initially, as in most pioneer boom towns, Oysterville’s population was made up mainly of men.
Their primary goal was to get rich by harvesting the acres of native oysters that proliferated on the tide flats in front of town — each bushel basket fetching a dollar in gold from the ship captains who regularly plied the waters between San Francisco and Oysterville. Although many of the workers were young and had not had the advantage of much schooling, it was the dance halls and saloons that claimed their leisure hours, not the pursuit of book-learning.
Within its first year, the town was made the Pacific County seat and soon men began to send for their families. With the wives and children, came “civilization.” Curtains went up, gardens were planted, and churches were organized, the congregations meeting in one another’s homes. Families pooled their resources, hired schoolteachers, and offered their parlors as schoolrooms.
The earliest reference to school in Oysterville, though not to the place in which it was held, is in the memoirs of Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair, Oregon’s first female doctor. In 1860 she, herself, was a student in Oysterville for a three-month term while staying with her childhood friend Mrs. Munson. Intent upon gaining proficiency in reading and writing, Mrs. Owens was, at that time, a 20-year-old divorced mother of a four-year-old boy. There was a charge for school attendance and Mrs. Owens, determined to make her own way, earned her expenses by taking in washing.
Two years later, she had graduated from the ranks of the students and had already achieved some success as a teacher. She had taught for three months near Astoria, for another three months in Bruceport on Shoalwater Bay, and was then offered a position in Oysterville which, though it could boast the completion of its first school building, had been unable to keep a teacher, even for a three-month stay.
Reputation for good government
According to Dr. Owens-Adair’s memoir:
The Oysterville school then had the undesirable reputation of being ungovernable and it was my reputation for good government that secured me the situation…. On receiving the offer of the Oysterville school, my reply was: ‘I will engage to teach for you, if the directors will pledge their support to the government of the school.’ This they readily did.
There were three pupils in that school who made all the trouble — an Irish girl, and two boys, and the girl was the ringleader.
It was not long before one of the boys stuck a pin into the girl sitting in front of him. I reprimanded him, but he only grinned impertinently. I told him to bring his lunch on the following day, and stay in during the noon hour. He failed to make his appearance the next morning, but in the after-noon his older brother came, dragging him to school. I opened the door, and drew him in. He wore heavy shoes, and in his rage, he kicked me viciously. This was a trifle more than my temper could bear, and I seized him by the shoulder, and fairly churned the bench with him, which subdued the young gentleman (who had not to encounter such muscle in a lady) in short order.
At the close of the school, I gave him his choice between remaining in during the noon hour for one week, or receiving five blows on each palm with the ferrule at once. He chose the whipping, and I administered it.
The Irish girl was living with one of the directors, who afterward told me that she came running home that evening, exclaiming: ‘Well! I tell you, it’s no use fooling with that teacher. She don’t scare worth a cent!’ This girl of twelve proved to be one of my best pupils, both in behavior and aptitude.
Little red schoolhouse
The school building, itself, had been ordered by the citizens of Oysterville — a prefabricated building made of redwood lumber from San Francisco. Partially assembled, it was carried as ballast on one of the schooners coming north for a load of oysters. Upon its arrival, a holiday was declared and the townsfolk helped a few local carpenters erect the little schoolhouse at the north end of town, on the east side of Main Street between Pacific (now Oysterville Road) and Clark Street.
The school consisted of one room, 18’ x 30’. The teacher’s desk and a recitation table were placed in the center. Two wide boards nailed along the length of the room’s opposite walls served as student desks. Pupils on sat on benches with their backs to the teacher, boys facing one wall and girls the other. Attendance during the first few terms continued by private pay, but the school and teacher soon became the first in the county to be supported by taxation. In 1863 Oysterville was designated School District No. 1 of Pacific County; the first teacher on the county payroll was James Pell.
My own great-grandmother, Julia Jefferson, taught in that first little building during the 1869-70 school year. Newly graduated from the University of Salem (now Willamette University), she had been hired — because she was the prettiest graduate goes the family story — by Oysterville School Board members Lewis Loomis and Robert Espy to teach at Oysterville’s one-room schoolhouse. She was 18 years old.
I, of course, came along many years after Julia’s time. How I wish I could have compared teaching notes with her. According to family lore, the school population during those early years was considerably different from what is usual in today’s schools. First, and most importantly, the number and ages of students fluctuated from “the sublime to the ridiculous” and all according to the tides. If most of the oyster workers were required on the oyster beds, the student population numbered fifteen to twenty youngsters between the ages of five and 19 or 20.
However, during a poor run of tides, the little school room might be crowded with as many as fifty students, some young housewives, perhaps, but most of whom were oystermen who had never had an opportunity for “book learning.” On the whole, the adult pupils were intent upon their studies, but it must have been off-putting for Miss Jefferson to be dealing with students who were sometimes a dozen years older than she.
Unlimited class sizes
Her classes numbered up to 50 and often included “married ladies as well as hulking young oystermen.” Many had never had an opportunity to learn the three R’s and were eager take advantage of this chance to better themselves. I’ve always wondered if Julia accepted 44-year-old Major Espy’s proposal of marriage at the end of that first school year out of true love or as a graceful way to retire from the classroom.
Between 1871 and 1889, Julia and Robert had eight children, seven of whom lived to maturity. She taught all of her own children at home for their primary years — until they could read and write and do basic math. Perhaps she felt their home environment might be more conducive to early learning than in the midst of such a disparate group of classmates such as she had faced in 1869. Whatever Julia’s reasoning for homeschooling her children, all graduated from Oysterville’s 8th grade, and went on to attend high school and college. Their father, who put great store in education though he, himself, had never achieved more than an 8th grade education, was pleased.
Long before the R.H. Espy children were school age, however, the flourishing community had outgrown the “little red schoolhouse” as the redwood building was called, and, in 1874, master carpenter John Peter Paul was commissioned to draft plans and construct a new school building. It was built on a block of land donated by Gilbert Stevens “for school purposes” — the same location as the present-day one-room schoolhouse which, since Ocean Beach School District consolidation in 1957, has served as community center for Oysterville.
As the days grow shorter during this Sheltering Year, and though the schoolyard remains empty and the school building dark, it’s reassuring to know that there just might kids hard at work in virtual classes right here in the neighborhood. I wonder what our pioneer ancestors would think about 21st Century school days in Oysterville. As a matter of fact, I’m not even sure what I think, myself!