Education on the Prairie, 1860-1900

James Lomgmire

Education on the Prairie, 1860-1900 by Ed Bergh
The beginning of formal education on the Yelm prairie is tied to the efforts of James Longmire.   According to the account in The Story of Yelm James Longmire had ridden into Olympia and met a stranger (his name remains  unknown) who mentioned that he was a teacher.   Longmire responded, “Then come and teach for me.”  He offered the itinerant teacher a roof to sleep under and said, “You can board at my house and all your pupils will be Longmires.”  The boarding of teachers with families would remain a part of public education until the turn of the century.   The next part of the story gives a clue as to when this happened.  Longmire detailed his concerns. “My children went to school in Fountain County, Indiana, and while we were forted up in Olympia but have had no schooling since.”  This means that the first school went into operation sometime after the “dark times” of conflict which struck the prairie between 1855 and 1857.   This, however, was not the beginning of a tax supported public school.

Writing in Pioneer Teachers of Washington, Joseph T. Hazart suggested that a Yelm school was in existence even before the turmoil in the years 1855-57.  He based his conclusion on the statement of George Himes, an early Thurston County student.  Himes attended the Ruddell schoolhouse.  He recalled that he was on the three mile walk home from school when he heard, “The Indian war has broken out” from a galloping horseman, John Chambers.   According to Himes’ account, David Longmire, who was attending school on the Yelm prairie, also heard the news of fighting on his way home from school.  If this was indeed the case this would place a “school” on the prairie in 1855, only three years after Olympia set up their first school.   David Longmire, in “First Immigrants to Cross the Cascades,” published in 1917, recounted “I cut down trees and dragged them to the place chosen and then helped to build a log school in which I became one of the first pupils.”   Longmire recalled that one of the teachers in that school was Dillis B. Ward.

Dillis. Ward

Elizabeth Lotz Treat Longmire also described a log school on the “McKenna Road.”  Elizabeth placed another teacher in that school, George Gallagher.

There is an interesting document which does place this school in existence as early as 1861. According to the poll book for the 1861 election the election had been moved from its traditional location, at Ft. Stevens (the actual fort, not the school), to the “school on Yelm Prairie.”

In 1869, James Longmire, in his capacity as Clerk of the Yelm School, was paid $95.75 by the county treasurer to run the school.  In 1870 that amount was raised to $108.75. No details as to the breakdown of expenses has been found.

According to James Mosman, a log school was built a quarter mile east of Yelm at the McLain Chambers place.  Across from the present site of the Seventh Day Adventist church. Herbert L. Conine (son of J. C. Conine, an early teacher in the area) recalled, in a 1936 interview, a school in Yelm in 1870 and that another school was built about 1885.

The log structure was replaced by a frame building.  This must have the building Herbert Conine was referring to in his 1936 interview.  James Mosman remembered the “outdated” building still being used in 1892.  “He [Mosman] confessed that he had prayed for such a conflagration but disclaimed any responsibility for starting it.”

Elizabeth Lotz recalled that it burned down in 1898 or 1899.  While a new school was being built (at the site of the current middle school) students made the Anna Coates home their temporary school

The frame school east of the town of Yelm had also served the community as a grange hall for disgruntled farmers and as a church for the religious.   Considering the fact that school might have been in session only three or four months out of the year it is easy to assume that all of these activities were going on at the same time.  Dow Hughes remembered services at the “small dingy” building in the 1890s.  His attention to the day’s sermon was sometimes punctuated by the sounds of a ball game being played in the school yard on Sunday mornings.

A School Scene 1871

An article in the Washington Standard of Olympia, April 8, 1871, provides insights into the operation of schools in the 1870s.  Entitled, “Items from Yelm,”  the author reported:

The following is the programme of exercises held at the Yelm Prairie School, on Friday, the 31st, at which the parents and friends of the school were present. After some general exercises in reading, geography and grammar, in which the pupils acquitted themselves tolerably well, the following compositions were read:   “A Hunting Excursion,” Robert Grainger; “Yelm Prairie, and Things in General,” Mary O’Neal; “Gardens,” Rosa Girlock; “Fruit,” Willie O’Neal; “Mount Rainier,” Martha Longmire [the future wife of J. C. Conine]; “Birds,” Lizzie Lotz, and “A Letter,” by Lizzie Longmire.   Then followed singing by the school, a dialogue by Lizzie and Martha Longmire, Mary O’Neal and Virinda Pollard, and the exhibition closed by declamations from Fred Girlock, Robert, Frank and George Longmire, Johnnie O’Neal, and others.

A lecture on “Education” was delivered here not long ago, for the benefit of the school, and the attendance indicated that nearly all the Yelmites appreciate efforts of an intellectual character.  The proceeds were invested in some school furniture, which now renders the house quite comfortable.”

Elizabeth Lotz and “The Birds”

Elizabeth Lotz recounted that the winter of 1861, the year after her birth, was the “hardest winter this country has never known.”  That was the year the Lotz family arrived in Yelm.    Ten years later, in April 1871 Lizzie stood before the assembled families of the young scholars and spoke on the subject of   “Birds.”   One wonders what the specifics of her speech were.  Did she talk about birds in the nation or continent?  Did she have pictures of certain birds and read about them in some 19th century equivalent of the encyclopedia or internet?   Possibly she spoke about the birds they knew or the birds that lived on the prairie.  Maybe she explained that a certain bird liked to live in the red oaks.  (The red oak being a tree that survived the period of “burns” conducted by the Nisqually people and now dotted the prairies)   She could have sat under one of those oaks and waited for her bird subject to glide in and then attempt to sketch its image for her school project.  Lizzie might also have made a list of the birds she and others had sited in the area.  As she rattled off names and descriptions many in the audience nodded that they too had witnessed such a creature.

The School Scene According to the 1880 Census

The 1880 census provides a snapshot of education in that year.  There were two people identifying themselves as teachers in the Yelm area. One was Robert Kandle who lived near the James Longmire farm.  Years later, when The Story of Yelm was published informants referred to the Kandle school.   Undoubtedly this is a reference to James Longmire’s neighbor.  Where “his” school was located is unknown at this time.  Another teacher living in Yelm in 1880 was 15 year Margaret O’Neal, the oldest daughter of Abijah O’Neal, a farmer and sometime postmaster of Yelm.  It is possible she was instructor at the log school on the McKenna Road (Or, possibly, she boarded during the school year in Olympia and taught there)  In what was developing into the town of Yelm, the school enrolled thirteen students, ranging in age from 7-14.   The number is small they can easily be listed here:  May Jane, William, & John O’Neal; Melissa, Martha, and William Longmire; Newton and Rina Pollard; Frederick and Rosanna Wagner; and Albert and Elizabeth Lotz.  (The latter were listed according to the census record which identified each as “attending school”)

A Final Word

James Longmire and others on the prairie wanted to bestow the benefits of formal education to their children.  The Superintendent of Public Instruction for the Washington Territory described the formal justification for that belief when he wrote in late 1861:

“Too much can hardly be said in favor of Popular Education.  It dissipates the evils of ignorance, which are the greatest hindrances to the progress of our free
institutions.  It increases the productiveness of labor in all the industrial pursuits of civilized life.  When its appliances are wisely arranged it always tends to diminish pauperism and crime, and to promote human happiness.”

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