I don’t know if parents or grandparents still tell kids about “walking five miles to school in snow two feet deep — uphill both going and coming home!” True or not, the tales of the rigors of school days past were usually meant sympathetically to children who had to endure their own set of hardships in order to acquire an education.
In Pacific County, as in many rural areas, the first hurdle in acquiring an education was getting to the school — if there was one. At first, when homesteaders and settlers were isolated from one another, both by distance and by difficult terrain, most pioneer families taught their children at home. But when news came that an actual, bona fide teacher had moved into the area, parents (and youngsters!) often went to great lengths to obtain their services.
Sahra, the third of Ane and Frederik Frederiksen’s six children, was born in Bruceport in 1885. Seventy years later, she would write her reminiscences for the Sou’wester Magazine. She began her story this way: “The Frederiksen Ranch, where we moved from Bruceport, was located about three miles below and across the Willapa River from South Bend. The site is now known as Frederiksen Slough, and is at Mile Post Seven on the Raymond-Tokeland road. It consisted of 160 acres and had first belonged to my uncle and aunt, Jens and Sine Frederiksen, who were murdered there in 1890.”
Although Sahra would also write about that dramatic event, the outcome of which would affect the entire county for many years to come, it is Sahra’s memories of her childhood in the North River Country that provide a clear picture of pioneer family life in Pacific County. Even in the 1880s, the majority of the county’s population lived a long way from a settlement or town. Journeys to make necessary purchases, to get help from a doctor or midwife, or to simply seek a bit of human companionship were major events and were remembered clearly by Sahra.
Lucky break for Bud
Not far east of the Frederiksen place, the seemingly endless forests of the North River Country attracted many aspiring timber claimants. Among them was an eager young school teacher named Knapp, who Sahra’s father met on one of his treks upriver. He confided to Mr. Frederiksen that he hoped he might hold the claim and eventually begin to practice his profession, but he was discouraged to find that most of his neighboring claim-holders were bachelors. He confided that he was lonely and asked Mr. Frederiksen if his oldest boy, Bud, might come and stay with him. In return, he would teach the boy the Three R’s.
Bud, though almost 12, had only managed about two years of schooling before the family had left Bruceport, and so the decision was made to give the idea a try. Bud joined the teacher in the late autumn and had been with him about a month when Knapp found it necessary to take a rare trip to town. Like most of the early settlers, he had laid in an ample supply of staples to last until spring in order to avoid just such a journey. Traveling by skiff on the open bay in winter made for a hazardous expedition. But perhaps he hadn’t counted on victuals enough to satisfy the appetite of a growing boy.
It was on their return, while following the lonely trail back to the cabin from the boat landing and armed only with a lantern, they realized that they were being followed by a “gleaming, glittering pair of eyes.” The two kept moving and, once safely inside the cabin, did not go out again. As soon as they had retired, however, a giant cougar leaped onto the roof and began clawing at the cedar shakes, snuffling and moving about on its padded feet. Bud afterward reported that his hair “fairly stood on end” as they were without a gun and could only pray that they would be spared. But the new shakes held throughout the night and as the late winter day dawned, their ordeal ended as the creature went off into the forest.
Bud lost no time in rejoining his family, even though he had spent only one month at Schoolteacher Knapp’s. As for the young teacher, himself — he secured employment on the lower river tributary of Smith Creek, where he lived with a large family who had recently arrived. In time he gave up his title to the timber claim, returned to South Bend and, according to Sahra, “entered the shoe business.”
Sahra’s turn for school
“In the late spring of 1894, our friend, Charley Johanson visited us on one of his trips down from the valley to wind up his affairs on the old homestead a mile or more from our place, and extend an invitation for me to spend the spring and summer months with them and go to school,” Sahra wrote.
As her “everyday fare” was not considered suitable for school, her mother began to collect a wardrobe for her. Also, in on the project was her father who rowed to town and bought enough calico for two or three “coverall aprons” to go over Sahra’s best dress which had been given to her by their “good and wealthy friends, the Trotts.” The aprons were made from a pattern “that were sort of Mother Hubbard, with high neck and long, full sleeves gathered on a wristband.”
Meanwhile, her mother sat up late in the evenings fashioning a hat “or rather,” said Sahra, “a cap from a band of muskrat fur attached to a full crown of golden-brown velvet. The side was decorated with a rosette of brown satin ribbon and a cockade of mallard duck tailfeathers, which were beautifully curled and of a teal blue hue. It was very swanky! It dated back a generation or so, and was related to the coonskin cap of the wild frontier, and I was a miniature girl copy of Daniel Boone or David Crockett. Mama was proud of her talent, for she really could take a sow’s ear and make a silk purse of it without much ado!”
Then came the long-awaited Sunday. They were “up early and readied for the great event, dressed in our best, which was mostly donated by our friends in Sea Haven.” Of all the memories of her big chance to attend school, perhaps their trip to the photographer is the most telling of the pride and importance the entire family placed on this marvelous opportunity for nine-year-old Sahra.
“The little girls were starched stiff in white frocks, and black buttoned shoes. I wore a sort of heavy white cotton dress with blue bars, and Mama sewed a gold brooch onto the collar, and I felt very festive. I also had a beige double fronted jacket with tight sleeves, and also black button shoes which, after running barefoot most of my life, was like saddling a wild horse to get into them. Finally, the chores were all taken care of and we were loading into the big sail boat, all starched stiff and uncomfortable, and seated where Papa placed us, here and there out of the way of the sail.”
Frozen into insensibility
“After what seemed an aeon of waiting, we arrived in town and Papa tied up at a dock near our friend, Alex Gylfe’s photo gallery. Charley Johanson was there, too, and we were served coffee on our arrival and had our group photo taken, which we still have. It was the first ordeal before a photographer for us children and we were about petrified with fright and the strangeness of it all. And when the old gentleman admonished ‘Look pretty, please!’ we froze into insensibility. I look scared, poor Frank and the two little girls seemed belligerent, Freda seemed indifferent, but Bud seemed all right, and had a soft angelic expression. With the exception of Mama and Papa, we must have been the grimmest ordeal of that photographer’s life.”
The following morning, the family walked with Sahra to the train depot that she remembered as being quite a distance from the main part of South Bend. Their friend Charley, Sahra’s host for the school term, carried her “few belongings” in a carpet bag and they boarded the train and went through to the observation car. As they took their seats, the train pulled out, leaving behind the familiar coastal terrain and heading east to the Willapa River Valley.
All those year later, Sahra remembered, “It was the month of May, and the fruit trees were like so many picturesque brides in purest white, accented here and there with apple blossom pink. The train stopped and let us off midway between Menlo and Holcomb, near the school house, where, Charley proudly pointed out, I would be learning the Three R’s.”
If she felt the least bit homesick, Sahra certainly didn’t dwell on it. “It was all so different to my former mode of life. I thrilled to every greeting of welcome to the valley. The fences were picketed, white washed and in neat formation, enclosing rows and rows of flowering apple trees. At the end of the lane, we turned in and walked to a shed housing wood and farm implements. Then, through another gate, and there was a whitewashed cottage and yard, enclosed by another white fence protecting garden and a good-sized strawberry bed from being trampled by the livestock.”
Home away from home
Sahra continued, “Then my Godmother, Tanta (Auntie) Johanson, came out the back door and kissed me warmly. I wandered about the farm and her son Charley showed me the pigs and chickens. I had never seen a pig before, and I watched them eat out of a long trough, fight and squeal over the mixture fed them. I was not impressed by their behavior, so different from our gentle cows at home, and I left them strictly alone. My things were taken to a room off the parlor, and it was immaculately clean and smelled of soap and water and pure sunshine. It was sparsely furnished, as was the rest of the four-roomed cottage, simply curtained in white, with straight-backed chairs. In the middle of the stainless bare floor stood an unpretentious table just large enough to support an enormous open Bible.”
The next day, Tanta Johanson took the place of Sahra’s mother, walking to her school. Sahra was fortified with an “enormous” lunch pail and, in addition, had a red flannel rimmed slate and a second reader. Of the four second graders, Sahra was the only girl. The others were “Otto, of Swiss origin and Tanta’s two grandsons, Willie and Elmer Beck, whose father was German. The teacher’s name was Clara Englebritsen, of Scandinavian descent, who later married our friend, Knapp, in the shoe business in South Bend.”
“And I was becoming very spoiled with nothing to do but eat, play and go to school,” Sahra concluded happily. Her appreciative memories were echoed by many pioneer youngsters who were fortunate enough to get a bit of formal schooling. In Pacific County, as in many rural areas, “book learning” was hard to come by. There were few settlements at first. Families often lived in isolated areas, working diligently to prove up their donation land claims, establish farms and work their way into a better life for themselves and their offspring. Children were taught at home by tired parents in the evening after chores were finished, the Bible serving as “first reader, grammar and speller.”
It was the fortunate family who could find a boarding situation that would allow their children to take advantage of a school opportunity. If there were neighbors within a suitable distance, families worked together to educate the children — sometimes taking turns at teaching or providing space for doing lessons.
Whenever possible, families pooled their resources to build a school and to hire a teacher, but even finding a teacher in remote Pacific County was difficult. Often, teachers were not much older than their students as in the case of the first teacher in Deep River, who was only 14 years old. Some intrepid teachers came from long distances to work in the early schools of Pacific County. They, too overcame a great many obstacles.
Bertha Allison would fulfill her first teaching assignment, a term of seven months, during 1898. Even before arriving in Washington from her native Missouri, she had been forewarned about the rigors of getting to Nemah.
“There were no roads into the place,” she was told, and “all transportation was by boats, sailboats and dinghies; there were no motorboats in those days. To get there from South Bend it was necessary to take a small steamer, which made the trip daily to Nahcotta, across Willapa Bay, about 50 miles distant. Then once a week there was a mail-boat, a small sail boat, from Nahcotta to Nemah, which was not a town, just a post office in a farmhouse. Only a few families resided in the district along the small Nemah River, which flowed into the bay. A primeval forest of giant trees grew down to the river’s edge. In the woods were numerous wild animals, elk, deer, bear and cougars. But worse, than the wild animals,” she was told, “were the predatory men, loggers, fishermen, and ranchers, who were often known to get into fights with each other over who should have the first chance to gain the attention of a young school teacher who came into the district.”
Miss Allison managed to overcome her dismay at this report. Despite the novelty of being transported to and from school by boat, she had been teaching for several months before she began to get an inkling of the real challenges posed by the watery world in which she found herself.
“Just after Thanksgiving the winter rains began to come, with great intensity. I did not know that rain clouds could hold such vast stores of water. One day at school when the rain was coming down in sheets, and we could scarcely hear each other speak, I exclaimed, ‘My goodness, does it rain like this every year?’ One of the boys answered, “No, Miss Allison, if you think this is rain, you should have been here last year. It rained like this for a while, and then it set in to really rain. Oh, boy, that was a rain, and it kept it up for hours and hours!’ “
Not a joking matter
Miss Allison did not indicate whether she thought her student was telling a tall tale, but if such a thought crossed her mind, she was soon to learn that the winter rains were not a joking matter. Nor were the resulting hazards to transportation on the river.
“About two weeks later on a cold, raw December afternoon when school was dismissed, the children and I changed into our gum-boots and put on our raincoats, and scrambled down the muddy trail to the river’s edge. Great was my amazement to see the little river was no longer narrow enough to throw a stone across. Instead it was about a half-mile wide, and stretched to the wooded area beyond the tideland meadow. The December high tides were the explanation.”
Bertha would long marvel over that day. When she had gone to school in the morning, the tideland meadows were all neatly fenced but, by afternoon, the fenceposts were covered by water and all that was to be seen was a wide bay or estuary. Her landlady’s son, Mr. Williams, awaited teacher and students with his row boat, “as usual.” He rowed them up river, also “as usual,” but the familiar landing was three feet under water and necessitated leaving the river proper, maneuvering around stumps, over fallen logs, and through blackberry brambles, until it was impossible to go any further.
They were still 30 or 40 yards from land when Mr. Williams tied the boat to an uprooted stump, pulled up to his hips the high gum boots he was wearing, and stepped out of the boat into the water. “Come on, Gertrude,” he called to his little six-year-old sister. She gave a leap and was in his arms, hugging him tightly. Then he deposited her on terra firma, and was back for the next one. Meanwhile Miss Allison was pondering a momentous question: “To be toted or not to be toted.”
When Mr. Williams said, “You’re next!” with a twinkle in his eye, Bertha’s Victorian upbringing caused her to retort, “That’s what you think!” and she raised her long skirts and stepped overboard. Despite her gum boots filling with icy water, she slogged along valiantly until she became entangled in some blackberry vines and went “face forward over my head, but finally emerged dripping wet, and chilled to the bone. When I did at last reach land, my would-be ferryman had sat down on a log, thrown back his head, and was laughing at me uproariously.”
Wise Mrs. Williams, the “ferryman’s mother” and Miss Allison’s landlady had a talk with her son and also with her strait-laced young boarder. Both were chagrined but, of the two, it was probably Bertha Allison who had learned the most important lesson about the skills beyond book-learning that were a necessary component of life in the watery northwest. After that experience, she made it a priority to follow the ways of those who knew the countryside and it wasn’t long before she felt at home in her sodden environment.
Gradually, there were enough children and families along the Naselle River to warrant the construction of small schools. With roads primitive or non-existent, children in order to reach their schools might follow a path in the woods, walk the loggers’ railroad right of way, or row a boat on a river or slough. Hence schools of necessity were located in close proximity to the children they served.
Even so, children who lived in the Naselle vicinity often walked to school through soggy fields, rowed boats across rivers and streams, or walked across slippery, mossy logs. Some routes to school were impossible, especially where the rocky, steep banks precluded the use of a rowboat and log bridges were prone to wash away in the high water of winter. For these locations, swing bridges (popularly known as “swinging” bridges) were the ideal solution.
Swinging bridges of Naselle
It was well before the turn of the 20th century that swinging bridges first appeared near school locations along the Naselle River. Constructed of rough-hewn planks, small logs, wire cables and ropes, they swung and swayed with the fitful breezes that blew up and down the river canyons and, at some times of the year, were wet, slimy and slippery. They could be nearly as disagreeable and dangerous as the moss-covered log footbridges. Even so, the swinging bridges enabled children and teachers to reach their destination with greater ease.
According to Peggy Busse’s account in the Summer 1982 issue of the Sou’wester: “Most of the swinging bridges had handrails of a sort but they were often only a rope strung long small upright supports extending from the bed or walkway of the bridge. A well-constructed bridge might have a wire mesh along the sides to keep the walker from taking an unexpected header into the cold waters below.”
A generation or two ago, old-timers still recalled their trepidation as they crossed the bridges during wet and windy weather. At one time there were 10 swinging bridges spanning the reaches of the Naselle. The first one provided a crossing near the present-day location of Peaceful Hill Cemetery. Other bridges spanned the river at the Oman place, the Kolback farm, Bighill School, and between the Keiski and Pollari farms. The remainder were located upriver from the Keiski-Pollari bridge.
From the time the consolidated school for Naselle-Deep River was established in 1906, children were most often delivered to school and home again by a horse-drawn wagon and the swinging bridges were abandoned. By 1910, the county was building a road through the Naselle area and, gradually, the swinging bridges fell into disrepair. The last of them, the Bighill Bridge, was used up until about 1920. Now, no trace remains of these early day swinging bridges that were so useful in getting youngsters to school and home again safely.
The remembrances by our forebears of the many hazards they faced in order to get to an education here in Pacific County are often amazing accounts of fortitude and faith — not only on the part of the students, but by their parents and teachers, as well. Getting there — whether by boat or bridge or shank’s mare — was only the beginning of the story. Actually acquiring an education, “the main event” so to speak, was even more rigorous, more demanding.
And how would those early-day students have viewed the educational opportunities of today? Could they have visualized virtual classes? Or getting to the classroom by tapping a keyboard? From home? As improbable to them no doubt, as tales of a cougar on the rooftop or traversing a swinging bridge might be to the school kids of today!