Oysterville's 150th Birthday: Oysterville's 'Institution of Higher Learning'


For more than 100 years, we residents of Oysterville have taken great pride in the fact that there was once a college here. Never mind that it only ran for two years. Never mind that it only had forty students. And, never mind that the subjects taught were the usual grammar school and high school subjects, not those that could lead to an advanced degree. That there was a college of any variety in Oysterville in the 1800s is definitely a circumstance to be proud of.

In answer to possible skeptics, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines college as "a building used for an educational or religious purpose" and as "a preparatory or high school." By either of these definitions, Oysterville did, indeed, have a college.

The County Courthouse building had been abandoned for a year and a half when A. B. L. Gellerman began his Peninsula College there in 1895. Whether he leased or bought the building from the county is not known. He advertised the school as "the first institution of higher learning in Southwest Washington" and soon enrolled some 40 students including several from Portland.

Tuition for a nine-month term was $30. In addition to serving as principal of the college's secondary school, Mr. Gellerman taught history. His wife taught German and music, Miss Harriet taught commercial subjects (bookkeeping, shorthand and stenography), Mr. Jack Hines taught mathematics, and Mr. Jack Hines, Jr. taught athletics. Miss May B. Lilly taught the grade school, and Mr. William Forrester served as the grade school principal.

Gellerman may well have hit upon two major selling points for Peninsula College - the nine-month term and the offer of traditional high school subjects. Although there was a fine public school in Oysterville covering grades one through eight, it generally operated for a three-month term each year as did the other tax- supported schools in the county. At that point, budgeted monies ran out and local families had the option of pitching in toward the teacher's salary for an additional period of time. School by subscription, it was called. As for a high school in Oysterville - there was none. Nor was there a way to get to one except by leaving home to board with a friend or relative elsewhere, perhaps as far away as Portland. Education was hard to come by in Oysterville of the 1890s.

There is not much of a factual nature known about Peninsula College. It closed in 1897 at the conclusion of its second year. It has always been assumed that financial difficulties caused the closure. Recently, as I was reading some of my great-grandmother's letters to absent family members, I found a number of comments about the college, which caused me to speculate further about its short existence.

Jan. 16, 1896 - "...Prof. Gellerman is reported to be growing more unpopular all of the time, but the other Prof. is well liked."

Jan. 26, 1896 - "...Friday Mrs. Gellerman's mother came to see them and rode down from Sealand with your father. She told him she did not know how she would be received, and your father told her to come down here if she did not get in. She saw Prof who... told her (so she says) that they could not accommodate her and brought her down to stay with the promise if his wife became more calm and consented to see her he would come for her. But he was here afterward and told your father his wife was unwilling to meet the mother.

"The poor woman sobbed all night... It is awful hard for her and I am sure will work against the school, for who can want to send their children where they will be taught by example to despise their parents. I feel as if I can never be hospitable again to them. The mother may have erred, but she is still a mother and they cannot have much pride if they are unwilling to show her respect but are willing to put her off on strangers.... Gracie was much exercised over it, as she could not help hearing the mother's ravings and sobs. She went in to try and comfort her, but that is more than any human can do. I would far rather bury a child than suffer their love to be lost."

Nov. 29, 1896 - "...All of the houses fit to live in are occupied now. About 35 students in the College at the dormitory, 4 at Crofts', 1 at Andrews', 1 at Dyer's, the rest bach..." (In later years, pioneer oysterman Andrew Wirt would comment, "The Peninsula College was established at Oysterville after most of the native grown children had gone away to other schools, so that there were more outsiders who attended, than those who lived here.")

Jan. 24, 1897 - "...The dormitory seems to have been a failure and the folks expect to leave soon. There are 6 students baching in the hotel - 2 Germonds, 2 Holms, and 2 Chehalis boys."

Jan. 30, 1897 - "...I heard the other day that Gellerman was going to fail ... He seems to be growing more unpopular all of the time, though I am told there are still 40 pupils."

Feb. 21, 1897 - "...Perhaps you will see Gellerman in Tacoma before you return as he leaves here baggage and all this week. Prof Forrester will run the school from now on. He is much more popular than Gellerman."

May 23, 1897 - "...School dwindled down by degrees."

Now and then I still meet people who tell me that a grandparent or great grandparent went to Peninsula College in Oysterville - a rare circumstance, indeed, and certainly one worthy of pride!

Editor's Note: Sydney Stevens is the great-granddaughter of R.H. Espy who, with his partner I.A. Clark, founded Oysterville in 1854. Members of the Espy family have lived continuously in Oysterville since that time and, through the years have amassed an interesting collection of anecdotes and memories. We offer them here as a salute to Oysterville's sesquicentennial year.

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