Ask almost anyone about their memories of school and you are bound to hear about at least one teacher who made a difference — usually for good, but sometimes for another reason. And certainly, in the first-hand accounts by early Pacific County students, teachers loom large in the telling. They are easily seen to be the heart of every one-room schoolhouse, of every classroom from kindergarten through 12th grade, and among almost every adult’s important childhood memories.
Perhaps in pioneer days, when most of the schools in Pacific County were one-room buildings, the teacher’s influence on students was even greater than in more recent times. For one thing, the teacher was responsible for all of the students in all of the grades, which usually encompassed one through eight but could also include high school grades as well. Often there were siblings in attendance which could mean a family felt a double, triple or even a quadruple influence by that teacher. Similarly, if a teacher stayed for several years, families and the entire community were likely affected.
In the county’s earliest days, there weren’t many parameters for hiring teachers. In fact, the specifications for education, even in its broadest sense, took time to develop. Though an act establishing “the common school system for the Territory of Washington” was passed in 1854 during the Territorial Legislature’s second session, no provision was made for funding school construction or for teachers’ salaries or for any sort of local, county governance.
As in most of the state, pioneer education was a hit and miss proposition in Pacific County, dependent primarily upon the priorities of parents. If they were eager for their children to learn at least the rudiments of reading and writing, and if this could not be provided at home or by a near neighbor, families often sent their children to live with a friend or relative where access to a teacher or a school was more available.
Sometimes settlers pooled their resources and hired a teacher for three months, which was the usual length of a school term in those days. In some instances, the community managed to construct a small building to serve as a school. Parents contributed toward the teacher’s salary and their children attended “by subscription.”
The first Territorial Superintendent of Public Instruction — the equivalent of today’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction — was Rev. B.C. Lippincott who began an eleven-year term shortly after the Legislature established the “common schools” in 1854. However, it would be two years before a 2-mill school tax was imposed on all territorial citizens and public education could finally begin. In Pacific County.
George Wills of Oysterville became the first county superintendent in 1859. He was paid $25 a year for his service. Two years later he was succeeded by Henry Gile under whose stewardship Pacific County’s first tax-supported school was established — Oysterville School District Number One. James Pell was hired for the 1863-’64 school year, becoming the first teacher to draw his salary from the public coffers of Pacific County.
Minimum requirements for teachers
Still, there were few standards for teachers. Arthur Skidmore, who was both student and teacher in South Bend schools, later wrote extensively about his experiences. He first attended the one-room school built on Nob Hill in 1871.
“Teachers were few in those days,” he said. “Only by chance could one be secured. They must be able to read and write. Further education was not required. Anyone who felt the call visited a district and received some kind of approval or consent to conduct the school.”
Although expectations for the moral character of teachers was apparently well-defined, there seemed to be no particular requirements for a teacher’s academic achievement, nor were there any provisions made to help them improve either knowledge or skills. According to Skidmore: “John Dodge was our first teacher. He was about 65 years of age, rather short of stature, with long hair and full beard, both slightly gray. His general appearance was anything but that of a teacher; nevertheless, he filled the lone requirement, for he could read and write. He was engaged for a three-month term at a salary of twenty dollars a month.
“John Dodge knew how to sing out the alphabet, or the A B C’s, for the little folks. They must spend at least one year learning these letters before they were allowed to begin to read. When I close my eyes and listen, I can hear him yet, singing in a loud raucous voice those tiresome old A B C’s.”
Skidmore, perhaps because he was somewhat older than other beginning students, was painfully aware of the consequences of Dodge’s pedagogical ineptness: “The monotony for the little fellows was broken twice a day when they went to the backless recitation bench and sang in a parrot-like fashion after Mr. Dodge. He never seemed to realize how tired they must have grown sitting on the high hard benches with their feet not able to touch the floor and the tops of their heads just reaching to the edge of the desks. This, all day long, and with nothing to do. Those days must have meant nothing less than torture to them. Even then I used to wonder how I would manage their restless little bodies when the years should pass and I would become a teacher myself.”
As for the older students, Skidmore recalled: “The only studies we older pupils had were reading, writing, and multiplication tables and spelling. Mr. Dodge told us we were not old enough to take up grammar, although some of the boys were 16 and 17 years of age. Since uniform textbooks were a thing unheard of, we each had different readers and Mr. Dodge had just as many classes as there were books. One by one we moved up to the recitation bench for our oral reading.”
Skidmore described Mr. Dodge’s teaching method for handwriting as the ‘pot-hook’ system. “He set the copy, which consisted of a row of crooked marks shaped like pot-hooks, or capital’ S’s. We wrote no words. The idea was merely to get the habit of being able to swing the hand in making curves-but it was ‘RITIN’ just the same.”
With regard to arithmetic Skidmore said, “The multiplication tables had to be wholly mastered before we were considered qualified to work one problem. The three-month term was never long enough. We remained on the tables, taking up the grimy, old printed sheet, or what was left of it, at the beginning of each successive term.”
Inkwells and nib-pens, later the cause of many a blotted copy book, were not a problem at the South Bend School in the 1870s. Said Skidmore, “Each pupil possessed a noisy slate in a red-trimmed, wooden frame, on which he spent much time scratching and drawing and then spitting -after which he erased the picture with his coat sleeve. You could hear this sequence on those old slates all day long. It was many years after, I remember, before the tablet and pencil came into use — a wonderful advancement toward sanitation and the betterment of conditions in the schoolroom.”
Progress at a snail’s pace
As the 1870s came to an end, 24 schools had been established throughout the county. It was the superintendent’s job to visit each, to discuss local problems with the teachers and administrators and to hold teachers’ meetings — ordinarily in the form of workshops called “Teachers’ Institutes” — where ideas concerning better methods of teaching were discussed. It would be half way through the 1880s before such a gathering took place.
In 1885, newly elected County Superintendent Mrs. Ada Hicklin wrote this evaluation of a young teacher: “Salary $35.00; Enrollment 28: Attendance 14; Methods, poor; discipline, very poor; Government, poor; Rank of school, 50%; Rank of teacher, 60%; Remarks: This lady ought to marry. She will never make a teacher!”
Perhaps evaluations such as this prompted Mrs. Hicklin to arrange for the first Teacher’s Institute. It was held in the two-story schoolhouse at the county seat in Oysterville on Aug. 14, 1885, a few weeks before the beginning of the Fall School Term. There is no record of how long the Institute lasted or of the subjects covered by the sessions. Nor is there any indication that there was discussion of a uniform curriculum or of approved textbooks throughout the County by that time. But it was a start.
Yet, years later, in 1898, 18-year-old Bertha Allison’s description of the equipment and materials available to her at her first assignment at the Nemah School clearly indicate that school improvements, at least in some areas, were occurring at a glacial pace. As she would write in her book Pioneer Teacher: “A blackboard extended across the north, on the east and west two windows each. The one door was in the south.
“The children’s text books were purchased by the parents, and handed down from one child to another. All used slates instead of pencils and tablets. There was no library, nor books of any kind for supplementary reading or reference. No maps nor charts. I had brought along a set of encyclopedias and dictionary, for which I was thankful. There were about a dozen song books put out by the State Board of Education which contained familiar and patriotic songs.”
On the other hand, at the end of that first three-month term, Miss Allison received another assignment — this one a five-month term from April to August 1899 at Sunshine at the mouth of the Naselle River. Her experience there was quite different from her assignment at Nemah. “When I saw the school on opening day I was delighted,” she wrote. “It was in great contrast to the one at Nemah.”
She went on to explain, “In those days the rural districts were not flush with funds with which to build and equip schools. Sunshine district having a lumber company as taxpayer had more available monies to use than did many rural schools. Lumber was cheap and plentiful. Probably the schoolhouse was built by the Lumber Company, as most of the pupils then were children of the mill’s employees. As a consequence, it was very commodious and well-equipped, with plenty of windows, a cloak room and closets.
“There were up-to-date desks for pupils and teacher, charts, wall-maps, and other teaching aids. In the yard was a tall flagpole, up which the children proudly raised the flag on non-rainy days. This was visible to boatmen far out in the bay. Since the term was to continue five months, from April through August, there were many beautiful sunny days, in contrast to the almost constant rainy days for weeks at a time throughout the winter term at Nemah.
“The enrollment was small, about the same as the former school… I believe the pupils were not as industrious as the Nemah group. I attributed it to the delightful weather. As sunny days were not very numerous in that climate it was natural for them to wish to be outside enjoying them. All were nature lovers. Almost daily they brought me pretty flowers, shells, and other interesting objects, which they had picked up in the woods or on the beach. I shall always remember the hummingbird nests they located and led me to see. They were exceedingly numerous. The tiny nestlings resembled bumble-bees more than birds, I thought.”
Gradually, schools improved
By 1905 Pacific County schools had an enrollment of 2,110 pupils instructed by seventy-two teachers within 46 districts. These were impressive statistics for a region that was still comprised of small pockets of developing towns and villages. The most modern of the schools provided were large with bright airy rooms. They were equipped with central heating systems, good laboratories, the best of the latter located at the Menlo school. Some had small libraries, but a central circulating library in the superintendent’s office was shared by all the schools, and the books were always in constant use. Long Beach, Naselle and Raymond were consolidated districts, each with a grade school. Frances, Lebam, South Bend and Menlo had graded schools and high schools’ instruction was provided as required.
Even so, it would be years before all (or, perhaps, any) Pacific County Schools had state-of-the art equipment and materials. Ninety-six-year-old Bud Goulter, as Oysterville’s oldest resident, remembers that the village school didn’t have electric lights until 1935 (but, to be fair, neither did most of Pacific County’s residents.) “Up until then,” he said, “if it was a dark and stormy day, the light was dim and we would have to go over to the window to read. With three electric lights hanging from the ceiling on each side, we could stay at beginning our desks to read, even if it was a dark day.”
Larry Freshley attended Oysterville School for first through sixth grade, in 1943 — long after the “Pioneer Days” but with teacher and students still meeting daily in a one-room school with conditions not all that much different from eighty years beforehand. “It seems now, thinking back, that we had an appreciation of what we had. When the school got a new wall map of the United States, all of the students crowded around to look at the map and find Oysterville.”
Larry also recalled the periodic visits by the County Superintendent of Schools. “ Even at that age, we could sense the teacher was a little “up tight” when the Superintendent from South Bend arrived. He would always walk over to the thermometer on the south wall and check the temperature. It was later on that I wondered if he drove all that way just to check the temperature. I’m sure he didn’t, but this was one of the many and varied events that I remember and share with my grandkids about attending a one-room school.”
Larry, now a retired teacher himself, remembers his 3rd-6th grade teacher Mrs. Bame, with special affection. “We didn’t recognize the educational term ‘enrichment’ but Mrs. Bame provided much enrichment to our education. She would bring her own record player and record collection and introduce the students to classical music and music from musicals like ‘Oklahoma.’ The students would skip to the music in and around the chairs as an integral part of our enrichment. In the Spring we were invited to her home for picnics and we all got to turn the crank on the ice cream maker. Mr. and Mrs. Bame lived on the bay and had a beautiful yard with a pool full of goldfish.”
Ann “Memi” Sherwood Anderson, too, had fond memories of Mrs. Bame. “I will never forget her homemade peppermint ice cream with the little bits of butter in it. She was a kind lady, a wonderful teacher, and truly loved all her Oysterville kids.”
Mrs. Bame was not only a favorite with the children, but was well-respected by parents, as well. When it became necessary for my Uncle Willard’s family to be in Oysterville in the fall of 1947 while he was still at home in New York, twin daughters Mona and Freddy were six years old and eager to begin first grade. Their mother, Hilda was a bit uncertain about this one-room country school but Willard later said he could hear the great sigh of relief that arrived with the following note:
I called on Mrs. Bame, the teacher, and saw the school. It has been a marvelous experience for the children. Mrs. B. says, these children have more sheer excitement about and affection for the school than any school children she has ever encountered anywhere… this is the only place where she has ever taught school where there has never been a single instance of disrespect… they have wonderful manners, as a group, and soon bring into line any outside child, or newcomer, who doesn’t join in with the spirit of loyalty and love for the school. The first graders are seven of the liveliest young ones I have ever seen and Mrs. B. says they go through their pre-primer books so fast she is having a hard time keeping pace with them. I wish Mona and Freddy could continue to have such a wonderful school environment. Learning is such fun for them now. They can’t wait to get there mornings, hardly pause to eat their lunch.
A few weeks later, Hilda wrote: The children brought their first workbooks home from school and you would have been very pleased. They are very progressive workbooks, and equal to, if not better than, the ones which were passed out at Ripp last winter. (‘Ripp’ referred to Rippowam, the rather exclusive country day school where the twins had attended Kindergarten in Westchester County, New York. Hilda’s reaction to the books provided by the one-room Oysterville School was high praise, indeed.)
Tune of a hickory stick
Again, it is Arthur Skidmore’s memories that give us a clear look at accepted disciplinary measures taken by teachers in the 1860s and ’70s: “Mr. Dodge never used the rod, but he was a firm believer in the dunce block. If a boy failed to have his lesson, or was caught idle, he was put upon the dunce block and left there for half a day at a time. I well remember one unfortunate fellow who never did recite a lesson, but remained upon that block the greater part of every day of the term, and those were long days, too, let me tell you.
“Occasionally he would slip slyly down and move away from his prison, but Mr. Dodge’s eye was sure to catch him. “Get back there on the dunce block! You can’t learn anything,” he would cry out, and the boy always responded, meekly. He did have diversion, however: he chewed a hole in the back cover of his book. Bit by bit the pages were chewed into endless balls which he spat through the hole until, at the end of the year I remember seeing the two ragged covers limp, one against the other, the contents wholly gone.
“Mr. Dodge had his ten commandments. Having some knowledge of law, he wrote a long list of ‘Thou shalt nots.’ This he pasted on the front wall… If someone fractured a law, the school was immediately dismissed and turned into a courtroom. The teacher became self-appointed judge. He selected his jury and other court officials. The culprit was seized and the court-martial began. Many afternoons we sat there listening to the wearisome routine. The judge always sentenced the criminal. Usually, it meant to stay a set time after school. Very often the guilty one did not reach home until nightfall.
“On one memorable occasion the judge sentenced three lawbreakers to solitary confinement in the schoolhouse. He dismissed the other pupils, then placed himself on guard and awaited the approach of night. The day wore well on toward evening. Mr. Dodge locked the door and started for his boarding place, the mill mess house, intending to eat his supper, then return after dark to liberate the prisoners before seeking his bed in the bunk house. But the boys had other plans,” according to Skidmore.
“He had gone only a short distance when they succeeded in raising a window through which they jumped to liberty. They were not long in getting into action. They were obliged to pass the judge en route to their several homes. He recognized his prisoners coming like the wind and made a frantic effort to catch them. Unfortunately for him, he had at some previous time been injured in an accident and was not very swift of foot. The prisoners won the race by a long distance and left the judge to his wrath.” Noted Skidmore: “The next day they were conspicuous by their absence.”
Parents, however, were not so very different 150 years ago than they might be now. “Not long after this, another offender of the law was to be tried and sentenced,” Skidmore remembered. “The trial was about to begin, when in rushed a mob of indignant mothers. They straightway scattered judge, jury, and court officials, and from that day on there were no more court-martials.”
In Oysterville, things were a bit milder. Charles Nelson (1883-1978) used to tell that one punishment for misbehaving at school was having to stare at a dictionary page about punishments of old. It showed the stocks, pillory, ducking stool, guillotine, and iron maiden. “It was a well-worn page,” according to Charlie.
Teachers and the community
In many of the smaller, more isolated school districts, teachers boarded with local families, sometimes changing families at the end of each term. Of that arrangement, Skidmore said: “I am convinced that this plan had its good features and results. The teacher was brought into direct personal contact with the home life of each child of the district. This gave her a better chance to understand the pupils. Many times, her personality and influence brightened the homes.
She was the social center and helped to pass away the long winter evenings with songs, games and other amusements. She was often called upon to act as nurse for a sick child or, parent of the district. Doctors were scarce and in some parts of the county two or three days were required for one to reach a patient’s bedside. The teacher at such times was expected to be an all-around person, ‘doing with nothing to do with’ and bringing assurance and comfort to relatives who were worried and concerned. The whole family thus derived much benefit from those teachers who labored in the homes as well as in the schools.
As time passed, county institutes for teachers were held under the direction of the County School Superintendent. The session covered as many as five days. Different teachers contributed their bit, and able instructors were brought in from the outside to drill us on how to teach. We were supposed to put these ideas into practice. They always seemed feasible and simple and splendid as we sat there listening, drinking it all in, but back on the job again, prodding our cumbersome load out of the old rut into strange new paths, it was a far different matter. It was one of these first institutes that sounded the knell for the old alphabet system in my teaching the little folks how to read. The word method came in, and this made life for the beginning reader far more interesting. It meant that he worked with ideas from the start rather than A B C abstractions thrown at him like so many rattling bones.
Skidmore said, “I never did have enough time for the little fellows, though. With as many as thirty classes a day, a bee couldn’t be any busier that I was. There were other things to do, too: stoke the stove with wood, open or lower a window, and perform other such minor duties as well as attend to the order of the room. I had nearly sixty at one time, in all the grades. It was too many, but I wallowed through….
“It was a red-letter day for the pupils and the teachers of the county when Myers Drugstore put in a stock of textbooks suggested by the County Board of Education. To replace the motley assortment of individual texts with uniform sets for all pupils was a boon. The, expense was the only drawback: the parents had to stand this. Families were big in those days, and many a man’s face had reflected woe when he brought his brood of four, six or what-have-you to school to be confronted with the expense of supplying them with texts. The luxury of more than one set of readers for a class was unheard of.”
Despite stringent rules about appropriate behavior for both male and female teachers, certain social activities among teachers were actually looked upon with favor. During fair weather, picnics, boating parties and other outings were popular among groups of teachers and often included other young, spinsters and bachelors of the community. An account given about attendees at the South Bend Opera House in 1907, for instance, might have come straight from a big city newspaper’s Society Section a half century later: Guests of John Myers, local druggist, bachelor and clerk of the school board, were teachers.
As settlement throughout the county increased, the schoolhouse assumed the nature of a community center. Said Skidmore: “It was common to hold Sunday School and divine services there,” Skidmore wrote. “A minister came about once a month and preached in the evening. On one occasion, I remember, the directors objected for the reason that too much wood, bought by the District’s limited funds, was required to warm up the building. The women interested got together for the purpose of deciding ways and means of supplying wood for use during services. It was agreed among them that each lady attending should contribute one stick for the evening fuel.
“Accordingly, at the next regular Sunday evening service, a few minutes before the opening hymn, a large number of women entered the room, marching single file, each carrying a solitary stick of wood which she laid by the stove before taking her place. From then on this became a regular performance,” Skidmore recalled. “The amount of wood brought in often lasted me well into the next day, most of Monday, so the district was really the gainer and not the loser.”
Too, the schoolhouse, itself, was often the center of the community’s social life. More than one pioneer teacher remembered with pleasure the times, spiced with friendly rivalry, when the spellers, sure of themselves or not so sure, challenged the spellers of neighboring districts for a “spell down.” Such events were attended by parents and other interested community member and, afterward, the desks were often pushed aside to make room for “merry dancing.” But it was the last day of school that was “a day of days” and was heralded throughout the district.
“The girls came all decked out in their new ‘Last Day’ dresses.” Skidmore remembered, “with fresh, crisp ribbons on their long hair which had been braided tight the night before in order to give it a holiday appearance. Classes ended at noon. Parents came bringing a picnic lunch. If the day proved to be fine, we had our recitations and dialogs and songs out of doors on a moss-covered platform improvised and decorated for the day. There was a general good feeling. The mistakes and differences of the year, had there been any such, were forgiven and forgotten. Compliments and gifts were in order.”
Among the treasured family keepsakes in my own household, is the “Remembrance Card” given to my aunt Muriel and uncles, Edwin and Willard Espy who were students of Miss Alice Holm during 1916-1917 at the Oysterville Primary School. Miss Holm and her family in Naselle became lifelong friends of our family in Oysterville — not an uncommon experience among the teachers and their one-room school students and families. Those pioneer teachers were, indeed, the heart of education in early Pacific County.