By the time we’ve matured enough to reach the age of reason, most of us have forgotten the details of our journey. How, exactly, did we learn to read? Or to add and subtract? Or to spell, even our own names? Yet snippets of our earliest instruction remain.
We can still sing the A-B-C song, still count out “one, two, buckle my shoe,” and spell our names without conscious thought. Some of us even remember the words of a poem we learned in fifth or sixth grade — for me it is “O Captain, My Captain” by Walt Whitman — and who among us can’t remember a nursery rhyme or two?
Our teachers and parents knew, as we do now, that repetition and recitation were sure-fire methods when it came to early learning. From the very first, the fourth ‘R’ — recitation – has been a hallmark of the educational process, especially for the youngest learners. By repeating, out loud, over and over again, we learn. If the words are set to music, so much the better.
It stands to reason, then, that even during pioneer settlement here at the western edge of the continent, and at a time when a plow or a cookstove took precedence over books or writing paper, “Recitation” was a mainstay of education. Repeated rhymes and counting games — “This Little Piggy” and “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” were learned effortlessly and provided a strong foundation for more formal schooling. In the one-room schools of Pacific County, as in most grammar schools across the country, the basics of formal education were also taught through recitation.
According to early Pacific County teacher Arthur Skidmore, “We stressed mental arithmetic, and that needed neither board, slate nor pencil. They enjoyed rapid addition and subtraction. It was a pleasure to hear them recite their oral arithmetic, giving a full analysis of problems. omitting no step whatsoever. The County Superintendent, visiting one day, complimented them upon their ability to think and work rapidly. When they allowed mental arithmetic to slip from the schools, I feel it was a great mistake. “
“Memory Gems” were often a mainstay in the little one-room schoolhouses. Each week a new selection would be posted for all the children, no matter their age, to learn. Quotations from Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Nathan Hale or Horace Mann were popular selections and, whether or not children understood the full significance of a quotation, it was felt that they would come to understand these “gems” in time, perhaps not until adulthood. Meanwhile, according to Skidmore, “ I always figured that anything to the good helped out in the long run. Once a month we held rhetoricals. I believe they helped develop an appreciation of good literature. They brought out the children and made them more self-possessed.”
Many years later, Skidmore was remembered by Anna Wiegardt Perrow (1885–1975) as her favorite teacher in the Bruceport School. “He fixed the building up nice by whitewashing the walls, making cheese-cloth curtains, hanging pictures on the walls, and putting up window boxes of flowers inside,” she said.
“I don’t know whether we learned so much from him, but we did enjoy going to his school. He taught us memory gems which we remember yet today, and we always opened school with a good old hymn. We didn’t have any grades at all — we just studied together and helped one another. The seats were for six when he came, but he cut them up so that only two were together.”
At first, in Pacific County as elsewhere, standards for schools and teachers were not always uniform. By 1863, both Washington State and Pacific County Superintendents of Education were elected to oversee the local educational process. Even so, guidance for teachers and the actual schooling students received was hit-and-miss at best.
Equipment and materials provided through tax monies also varied from meager to sufficient, but seldom were they bountiful. Even the little one-room schoolhouses that dotted the county differed in sturdiness and in the number of amenities such as doors and windows. Essentials as basic as desks for students and teacher and provisions for heat and drinking water depended upon the tax base of each school district. In an affluent district such as Sunshine where a large mill was located, the school might be a cut above a neighboring district with more limited means.
In the first Nob Hill School in South Bend, for instance, two marks on the wall served as the classroom clock. Both were drawn across from the desk by the window; one caught the sun’s rays at noon, the other at four o’clock. “If the sun did not shine,” remembered Skidmore from his student days, “we were lost, and obliged to guess at the time.” Presumably, in our northwestern climate, there were frequent occasions when students and teacher were “lost” for days at a time.
Though facilities varied greatly, teachers’ salaries remained the same throughout the county. For many years before the turn of the twentieth century, the pay rate was $25 a month, though some years a bonus of $5 was offered a male teacher. No district’s school board could contract with a teacher unless the amount of salary stated was in the County Treasury and credited to that particular district. As each month ended, teachers were paid in gold.
Teaching assignments lasted for a term, or three months. If the district had money enough, the teacher might be kept on for another term but, in most cases, as the term at one school closed, another school’s doors opened and teachers moved from school to school, usually working steadily for an entire year. On the other hand, students were required to complete only one term’s work before moving on to the next grade, presumably the following year, if a teacher could be found.
The uniform pay scale was not a guarantee that teachers were uniformly prepared for their positions. In some cases, they were not much older than their students and, though most had obtained some high school education, it was not a job requirement. Normal Schools — institutions created to train high school graduates to be teachers — began in the eastern United States as early as 1823, but it would not be until 1882 and 1890 that such schools were created in the western states of Oregon and Washington, respectively.
Among those who enrolled in the first class at the new Normal School in Ellensburg were 19-year-old Daisy Colbert and her 16-year-old sister, Elfreda, from Ilwaco. Their mother had learned that the school officials at Ellensburg were having difficulty in obtaining enough applicants for their beginning class. To encourage enrollment, they prevailed upon each county in the state to conduct a contest with the two highest scorers awarded a scholarship for their first year of attendance. The Colbert sisters both graduated and went on to teach — Elfreda, for a number of years at the Ilwaco Elementary School.
Some teachers began their jobs with materials of their own. Bertha Allison who arrived by train at South Bend in 1898, all the way from Ohio, brought an entire set of Encyclopedias with her! Years later, in the 1940s, teacher Katherine Burton Bame brought records and phonograph from home to the schoolhouse in Oysterville so that students might be introduced to a variety of music.
Requirements for students were also slow in coming. In Washington, it wasn’t until 1897 that some schooling became compulsory for youngsters — three months of school each year for 8 to 15-year-olds (essentially, eight “school years”) was the total mandate. Secondary education depended upon the proximity of a high school as well as upon the family’s need for the child’s economic contribution to the household. Both boys and girls were often needed to help on the farm or at another job which would bring in additional income to the family.
By the time Henry Beasley (1905-1979) of Ilwaco began school, grammar school attendance was required and truancy was frowned upon. Even so, like many boys his age, Henry was a reluctant student. When he started the first grade Miss Huff was his teacher. For the first two weeks he would start off for school but he didn’t arrive there. Years later he remembered that he just “monkeyed around” until he was finally caught and returned to school. Though he never did like school, Henry finished all eight grades, but quit during his first year of high school to go to work.”
As a practical matter, of course, many children began school earlier than age eight. Martha Murfin (1918-2011) began school when she was four. Her father was working as superintendent of one of his father-in-law’s logging operations. Martha’s earliest memories are of the three years that her family spent at Grandpa Case’s Camp Henry on North River.
“We lived in a house built on stilts,” she once told me. “At first the camp had just a mess hall and a bunkhouse for the men, but as the men married, my grandfather provided housing for the individual families… The schoolhouse was built on stilts too, and had grades one through eight. There must have been quite a few kids in the camp the year I was four because they hired a primary teacher, Miss Ouren.
“I remember that all the little kids went down to the landing to meet her boat when she arrived. She took one look at all of us — all ages because if you could walk and talk you were considered ready for school — and she thought they were joking, so many of us were so young. All the four- and five-year-olds were put in first grade and if you survived you went to second the next year; if you didn’t survive, you got to try first grade again. I survived.”
From the beginning, compulsory education laws were put in place not only to improve literacy, but also to discourage the widespread child labor practices of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In Washington, mandatory school attendance came about slowly with the laws fine-tuned only every few years. Gradually, provisions were made for special education and for home-schooling. However, it was not until 1969 that school was mandated for 15-18-year-olds.
Course of study
Well into the 20th century, the grammar school curriculum, or “Course of Study” as it was called, was based upon a list of textbooks distributed to all teachers by the County Superintendent. Parents were responsible for providing the books, an onerous expense for large families. No matter the improvements in subject matter or presentation, a new textbook requirement was not always a cause for celebration. It meant an outlay of money that was often a hardship and frequently considered unnecessary by Pacific County parents.
Volumes passed from one family member to the next, carefully patched and mended as needed. Though not an ideal arrangement, it was sometimes possible for neighbors to share books. In a letter written by my aunt Medora Espy to her mother in November 1911, she describes one such possibility proposed by her teacher in Oysterville:
“…we are examined in Reading Circle work as well as just reading. Miss Blair is going to find out what books are needed and if the District will buy them or county or what. We have to read three books out of school, that much she knows. If we have to buy them, she is going to have Deane buy one and me buy one, and Edwin Goulter buy one. We three are the only ones who will take the eighth-grade examination.”
From the time that the “common schools” were established by Washington’s Territorial Legislature in 1854 until well into the 20th century, students were required to pass an extensive examination in order to continue on in a public secondary school. The exam was given in the late spring of eighth grade and covered all the curricular areas. It was anticipated with anxiety by both the students and their families, especially by those who wanted to continue with their schooling.
Students who failed just one or two parts of the test were sometimes allowed to begin high school on a provisional basis with the understanding that they would re-take and pass the tests within a set amount of time. Failure meant an ending to formal education unless a private school was affordable.
Trials and tribulations
When Medora was informed that she had not passed the arithmetic and physiology sections of the test, the entire family was distressed. Medora, the oldest of the six Espy children, had attended all eight grades at the Oysterville School, and there was the expectation that she would set the academic standard for her three sisters and two brothers who followed.
As a further complication, the closest high school to Oysterville was at Ilwaco, but there were not yet adequate roads from the north end to the south end of the Peninsula. Many of the isolated communities of the county were similarly hampered and, to continue school after eighth grade, it would be necessary to board with relatives or friends or, perhaps, to attend a boarding school.
Medora’s situation was at once easier and more complicated. Her father had recently been elected to represent Pacific and Wahkiakum Counties in the Washington State Senate and the family would be moving to Olympia in December 1912. In the meantime, arrangements had been made for Medora to board with “friends of a friend” and to begin her freshman year at Olympia High School.
As soon as Medora’s examination results were made known, adjustments were hurriedly made with the school which allowed her to enter in the fall term on probation. She had until mid-September to re-take and pass the arithmetic portion of the test with a higher score so that she could be officially enrolled. Apparently, the school was not concerned about the physiology grade. Her father took her to Olympia and saw to getting her settled at Mrs. Eadie’s home and, on Sept. 1, her mother, still in Oysterville, wrote:
Papa has returned and has told me all about you and the house. Of course, we are more than anxious that you should do creditable work these two weeks and pass your examination. Don’t let anyone distract you from earnest, diligent work. Mama and Papa are doing all they can to make it possible for you to get through and I know you will repay them by doing your very best. Get a tutor at once – every day without one is lost…get one quick and conquer that arithmetic before it conquers you.
…I know you will not disappoint us. We have absolute faith that you can and will make a good record for yourself...
Medora labored diligently under the tutelage of Miss Torrey, the 7th-grade teacher at Olympia’s Lincoln School and, fortuitously, also a boarder at Mrs. Eadie’s. Medora re-took the math portion of the examination and, on Sept. 25, Mama wrote:
Your good long letter just came and to say that we were happy that you had passed your examination only half expresses it. The tears would come when I read the glad tidings. Papa was at Nahcotta and I called him up to tell him and he too was delighted…
Some months later, when the family was well-settled in Olympia, Papa had reason to go to South Bend on business. While there, he wrote to Mama:
You and she [Medora] will both be glad to know, at this late date, that I yesterday saw Miss Bode [Lottie Bode, Pacific County Superintendent of Schools,] and she said Medora passed in both Arithmetic and Physiology. She recently discovered that [the] man who went over papers marked on basis of ten questions whereas there were only seven (or 8 possibly in one). She therefore received good marks. Pretty system isn’t it? She will issue her a diploma. Might be well for her to tell Prof. Aiken. [Principal, Olympia High School.]
In some ways, parents were more directly involved in the affairs of the one-room schools than is apparent nowadays. Many of the little schools served a small area — a district which might include only two or three families. Such districts were usually in isolated parts of the county, but before roads were built and better transportation was available, these small school districts were the rule rather than the exception. By 1905, Pacific County schools had an enrollment of 2,110 pupils instructed by 72 teachers within 46 districts.
As now, each district’s school board was made up of parents and prominent people within that district. They were responsible for locating suitable teacher candidates who would then apply to the county superintendent for employment. School boards were also responsible for the physical needs of the school — an adequate firewood supply or timely repairs to the building when necessary.
Generally speaking, academic and disciplinary concerns of the schoolroom were left up to the teacher with little interference from the community. Occasions which were likely to bring parents to school were usually extracurricular in nature — often a spelling bee arranged with the students in a neighboring district or an evening of “rhetoricals” when students demonstrated their oratory or debating skills.
For these presentations, great emphasis was placed upon elocution and the dramatic flair which students brought to their recited “pieces.” Said Skidmore, “We dramatized poems and other selections. It was difficult for some to throw themselves into it naturally, while others were very apt. Parents always visited these rhetoricals in numbers: nothing gave them greater delight than to see the children performing in a creditable manner.”
The Christmas program
Perhaps it was in the nature of the one-room schoolhouse to draw together the community it served. This was no more obvious than in the late fall of the year as the time for the Christmas program approached. It was considered the highlight of the year. In Oysterville, where the one-room school continued until 1957, the entire town was in a high state of excitement by the time the anticipated evening arrived. All fall, the school children had worked on their costumes, practiced the carols, and prepared their “pieces.”
A few days before the scheduled event, the men brought a big tree in from the woods and cut holly and other greenery for the women to place strategically throughout the hall. Everyone in town contributed to the gift exchange which ensured that, no matter how meager their own family’s celebration, each child, would receive a gift. Until 1921, when the building was blown down in a storm, the program was held in the Methodist Church, the most spacious accommodation in town. and everyone, young and old, attended.
Said beloved teacher Alice Holm in a reminiscence about the Oysterville Christmas program of 1917: “An air of expectancy pervaded the place. It was a gala event but each sensed the responsibility of doing his bit and doing it well. The Christmas tree with its uncertain wax candles twinkling might well have been considered the first number on the program.
“For days previously the children devoted his or her hand work to the making of paper chains and Christmas tree ornaments. These they added to the long fairy like strings of white popcorn and strings of rosy cranberries fresh from the nearby bogs. Bunches of holly from Mr. Stoner’s trees and the smell of cedar made one further to know that Christmas had come.
“The audience arrived early, mothers, dads, grandparents, visitors and all others. They came, more or less, laden with babies and the next to the babies, too young for school. They also carried cakes and coffee donated for the social hour. The class known as Baby Sitters was as yet unthought of. Mothers shushed intermittently to nip in the bud any wail that might unexpectedly peal forth from their offspring to mar the program or make the mothers, themselves, conspicuous.”
Too, it was a Christmas Program that was a life-long memory of Gary Whitwell’s when asked about his Oysterville school days in the late 1930s: “We had practiced for a Christmas play. For my part, I had to stand up and hold a long cotton sock and recite a story, something about Santa, etc. The night we went to school to do the play for our folks, things had been switched. Dad stood up and did my part. I think all the parents took their kids’ parts. All I remember is Dad standing up in his bib overalls, in front of everyone, holding up that sock and reciting my part. I can’t imagine how they ever got Dad to do it.”
It was at one of the Christmas programs that little Beulah Slingerland (Wickberg), 1893-1995. received a gift she would treasure for all of her very long life. The gift was the culmination of her earliest childhood recollections which involved making mud pies in front of her family’s home next to Oysterville’s Baptist Church.
Little Beulah normally made her pies in the morning which was when a neighbor, Mr. Wachsmuth, would take his daily stroll past the Slingerland house. He would stop and ask Beulah what kind of pies she was making that day. She’d tell him and offer to give him one which he always accepted and took away with him, later returning the empty pie tin and commenting on how delicious her baking had been.
This friendly exchange was repeated until one day, after Mr. Wachsmuth walked away with his pie, Beulah peeked over the fence and saw him furtively empty the mud from the pie tin, clean it out, and put it into his pocket. When he returned to give Beulah the empty tin, she angrily accused him of not eating her pie, saying that she saw him “dump it out.” And that was the end of her pie sharing with Mr. Wachsmuth!
During the next Christmas season when the community gathered at the Methodist Church, Beulah discovered that there was a beautiful doll under the tree with her name on it. The doll was about 14 inches high with a red dress trimmed with gold lace and wearing a gold hat and little gold slippers. Best of all, she could open and close her eyes! It was a long time later that Beulah learned that the doll had been given to her by Mr. Wachsmuth.
Change came slowly
Shirley Rowlands Wright (1925-2019) grew up on the Long Beach Peninsula during the Great Depression and the World War Two eras. By then Pacific County schools and teaching methods were well established. Yet, in isolated southwestern Washington, some things were still slow to change. Means for getting to school, for instance, had certainly improved during the eighty years of tax-supported education, but concerns about safety and expectations for student resiliency lagged behind.
By today’s standards, Wright’s story about getting to school in the 1930s seems almost unbelievable: “The bus from the north end of the Peninsula was owned and driven by ‘Pop’ Gove or, at times, his sons. In his later years, Mr. Gove had spells of passing out, which at the time was thought to be heart problems. So, a second seat was welded to the floor on his right and was usually occupied by Emogene Saunders, who we called our co-pilot.
“On one occasion, Pop Gove slumped forward as we neared Black Lake, north of Ilwaco. The bus crossed the road and nosed down into the lake just as Emogene got it under her control. The front end was in the water at the lake’s edge. We were mighty shaken up, but were taken on to school while they pulled the bus up on the road and check it and Mr. Gove out. He regained consciousness and drove us home that afternoon.
“We had some participation en route that made our bus rides a little less dull. Quite often a potato the proper size to fit a tail pipe on the exhaust system was passed out of the back window, and the last one at that stop to enter the bus was given the privilege of showing it up the tailpipe. Needless to say, the bus didn’t go very far before it stalled out.”
On a more serious note, Shirley remembered being punished for her failure to do well in spelling. “By the time we reached the fourth grade, I’m afraid I was known as the twin who couldn’t spell. You might wonder what this has to do with the Depression, so I might as well tell you the humiliation this problem caused me and how I got helped.”
She went on to tell of the day her older sister brought an added lunch treat — a hard-to-come-by orange — for Shirley and her twin sister, Corrine. She found Corrine in the hallway eating her lunch, but no Shirley. It was necessary to get Mr. McAnally, the superintendent to unlock the classroom door and then the coat closet door before finding Shirley. She had been placed there as a punishment for failing her spelling test. On being questioned, Shirley said, “No! I never get my lunch when Mrs. Johnson locks me in there!”
When it was found that she had not had a recess in over twenty days, the teacher was put on probation and Shirley was never locked up again. Meanwhile, Shirley begged her sisters “not to tell Mom and Day because Mom got up extra early to help me with my spelling and I still couldn’t get it and I didn’t want her to feel she’d failed me… I was in sixth grade before my family could afford to have my eyes checked and found I was very near-sighted in one eye and far-sighted in the other. That was a lot of my problem.”
One of Mrs. Wright’s stories seems right in line with the words to the old “School Days” song: You were my queen in calico, I was your bashful barefoot beau… “Our school bus was very crowded until the students south of Caples Corner got off. The little ones were quite often held on the laps of the older students until they left the bus. Corrine and I always shared Edwin “Penny” Wright’s knees until he reached his home just east of Butt’s Road. We thought he was really a nice 12-year-old young man when we started school. I later married him.”
Sources for first-hand accounts in this article:
”Readin’ ‘n’ ‘Ritin’,” by Arthur Skidmore – Sou’wester Magazine
”My Girlhood Days in Bruceport,” by Anna Wiegardt Perrow – Sou’wester Magazine
”They Remembered- Parts I & 2,” by Edgar and Charlotte Davis
”Pioneer Teacher,” by Bertha Allison
”North Beach Girls of the Teens and Twenties,” by Sydney Stevens – Chinook Observer
”Dear Medora,” by Sydney Stevens
”The Best Days of My Childhood,” by Gary Whitwell – Sou’wester Magazine
”When A Little Meant A Lot,” by Shirley Rowlands Wright