Teacher: Dillis B. Ward by Ed Bergh
On April 24, 1863, Dillis B. Ward sat down and wrote a letter to his “Dearest One,” Belle Byles of Grand Mound. In that letter, filled with the affection and vows of a man in love for the first time, he noted that “I have just been out to the Yelm Prairie to teach a three month school there. I do not think I shall like the place very well.” Ward, had taken the job, however, because the sparsely populated Yelm Prairie would provide him with “the opportunity of seeing you, dear good Belle, oftener that I would if I had gone back down the Sound again.”
During the next months Ward wrote a number of letters to Belle from his lodgings on the Yelm Prairie. These letters establish Dillis B. Ward as the earliest known instructor in Yelm. His letters are also the earliest known contemporaneous written account of life on the Yelm Prairie. More than these tempting historical references, however, was the fact that Ward’s letters reflect the overpowering love that he held for the teenager who would become his wife for over fifty years.
There are two places where the school that Dillis Ward taught in could have been located. Historical accounts state that the first teacher in Yelm lived with the Longmires and, by implication taught out there too. Records show that a log school was built on the Yelm Prairie in 1861 and David Longmire remembers hauling logs for its construction. Longmire also remembers that Dillis Ward taught at the school on the Yelm prairie. Also, Ward’s letters refer to the Sheltons, a family which lived closer to the site of the prairie school.
The Story of Yelm includes a “Mr. Dolby” in its list of teachers from Yelm’s beginning of the 20th century past. This Mr. Dolby could be the teacher who first lived with the Longmires. Or, could “Dolby” be a faded memory’s Dillis B. Ward?
Ward makes no note of his teaching in his letters. There are no teaching anecdotes or discussions of the personalities under his pedagogical care. Sundays on the prairie were “quiet” and “lovely,” but “awfully lonesome.” He spent his Sundays alternately reading Belle’s letters and [William Cullen] “Bryant’s Poems.” The letters provided him with greater comfort than the poetry.
Ward wrote: “Everything so still, no preaching or anything of the kind going on.”
Like many early visitors to the prairie, Mt. Rainier dominated the landscape. Even this natural beauty carried his mind back “to the time we looked upon its splendor together.”
In spite of the small number of people living in the area in the 1860s, Ward wrote that “true there is plenty of young company here and the scenery is most beautiful . . . But what do I care for company and scenery.” One glimpse of life on the prairie is Ward’s reference to the mail carrier coming through the “neighborhood” to pick up out going letters. The “no preaching” comment made above was a reference to the fact that Yelm had no formal church at the time and that services were conducted on an sporadic basis with ministers visiting from Olympia or other parts of the territory. In his spare time, Ward helped drive cattle to Olympia, noting that Belle might find his tattered clothes and soiled features something to laugh at. Travel was on horseback, rivers were seasonal barriers to direct lines of communication. Hence, Ward’s complaint that due to the “Shuttes” [Deschutes] River being high that spring he would have to travel to Grand Mound by way of Olympia and then turn south to rendezvous with his “dear Belle.”
In his longest account of prairie life, Ward recounted attempting to get a doctor to return with him to the prairie. Ward wrote in May 1863:
“I arrived in Town [Olympia] about an hour ago – came ‘for’ [after] the doctor for David Shelton. I found the Dr. “drunk” or there about. I have concluded to wait till tomorrow morning, will start out at 2 or 3 in the morning. Maybe the Dr. will be sober by that time. I shall have a good time [sic] starting at that time and riding out to the Yelm in time for school don’t you think.”
Dillis Ward, when he was 15 years old, had traveled across the United States to the Oregon country in a covered wagon in 1853 with the John Denny party. Settling, initially, near Salem, Ward moved to Seattle in 1859 when his half sister married Thomas Mercer and moved north.
Sarah Isabella Byles was the daughter of Sarah and Charles W. Byles, members of the same party that crossed the Nachess Pass with James Longmire in 1853. (Those familiar with the account of traversing the pass may recall that Charles Byles was the man willing to kill some of his cattle in order to fashion a leather rope to lower wagons down the steep trail) Charles Byles was an early proponent of education and according to one author should be considered the father of education in Montesano. In the 1860s his family lived in Grand Mound, south of Olympia.
One account of Ward’s life suggests that he first met Belle while he was a teacher in Grand Mound. Margaret Pitcairn Strachan, writing in the Seattle Times, concluded, “falling in love with one of his pupils was too much for the young school teacher! He stated frankly that he couldn’t teach with her in the school. He quit the job.” Having fallen in love with his teenage student he sought employment elsewhere and courted her from the Yelm Prairie. To Ward this short distance to Grand Mound, seemed like a continent away from his beloved Belle. At the beginning of his stay on the Yelm Prairie he promised to travel south once every four weeks. The weeks between visits seemed like an eternity. Ward’s letters are filled with his love and his longing to be with someone “dearer to me than all else on earth.” Ward endured the trials of being a teacher for “I am happy now for I believe I am loved and the thought that you love me makes me happy.” Ward promised to love her “till death.” He recounted the “the pleasure of your company” and vowed that “I should almost die not hearing from you.”
Belle’s letters to Dillis Ward reflect strong affections for her absent suitor. In April 1863, she wrote: “How can I live here without you?” She worried about her new school teacher and made it a point to relate that while others in her circle might have gone to the local tavern for a dance, she did not. She hinted at her maturity, writing that most of the other girls (who were younger) were afraid to talk to teachers or boys, but “I am not afraid to speak to anybody.” She frequently named couples who were getting married. She reminded Dillis, “you are very dear to me and how happy your letter made me,” and their year of knowing one another was “the happiest year” of her life. More importantly, “I [Belle] was almost as miserable a year ago as I am happy now. No brother at home and no lover any where but now I have a brother at home and I believe a lover not very far off.”
“Heaven has smiled upon us,” wrote Ward in April. He continued, “I used to think I could go through the world alone that I could fight its battles.” Now, however, they could “fight life’s battles together.”
Dillis Ward kept his promise and visited Belle in Grand Mound. Their meetings, as recounted in their letters, were satisfying, but too brief. After meeting with Dillis in Tumwater in May 1863, Belle wrote to him, “so short a meeting is not worth shucks.”
The life of a single teacher on the prairie was of great interest to the locals. On one occasion Dillis wrote that once his letter was handed to the mail carrier he expected “he will tell the whole neighborhood who I write.” Following one of their times together Ward wrote her that “the folks here especially the young ones, of whom there are a good many here were very anxious to know where I had been. I kept them in the dark having my own fun out of it while some one came out to Mr. Shelton’s and told the whole story.” Ward concluded the story with “So I don’t have much peace, but let them talk.”
In June 1863 Ward wrote “schools out next Saturday.” Thus ended his teaching career in Yelm. With his school year done Ward headed back to Seattle. On September 24, 1863 Belle and Dillis were married. Their family eventually included five daughters and one son.
LIFE AFTER YELM
The year 1865 found them at the Skokomish Indian Reservation in Mason County. There they would spend a number of years, Bell would give birth to their first children and Ward would run the industrial school. After that they would return to Seattle where Ward continued his teaching career. While in Seattle he taught, was principal of the North School, and serve on the school board of the Seattle Public Schools.
A Seattle student’s memory gives the reader a glimpse of one of the qualities that made Dillis Ward a successful educator. Charles A. Kinnear was a student of Ward’s during the latter’s second stint in the Seattle. Mixed with childish memories of walking to school in deep snow, Kinnear fondly recalled:
“D. B. Ward was credited with being the best disciplinarian of all grade school teachers in the territory. While the discipline he maintained was well-nigh perfect, yet I ever saw him display any temper. He was always genial, yet his power of control over pupils was something extraordinary, and for years the annual presentation of the banner of the highest degree of order and discipline maintained in school was awarded to him.”
Not only was Ward an educator, but he also spent two years working on a newspaper and twenty-eight years working in real estate. In 1879, he spent a term in the territorial legislature.
When Seattle celebrated its 54th birthday on November 13, 1905, Dillis Ward was among the featured speakers. The gathered crowd moved from one historical site to another and listened as “their” city’s story was retold by those that had been there and those that followed. At the corner of lst and Madison the procession stopped to watch the unveiling of a plaque commemorating Seattle’s first school. The honor of unveiling the plaque was given to Catherine Paine Blaine, the city’s first teacher. A speech was given by one of her first students in 1859, Dillis B. Ward.
Earlier in the day the organizers of the event had unveiled a granite pylon on Alki Point memorializing the city’s first white settlers. Speaking on the shores of the sound was Edmond Meany, one of Seattle’s finest historians and the son-in-law of Belle and Dillis. As his speech touched on the events, people, and hardships of early Seattle, one may imagine that his account was in some small way inspired by the stories of Belle and Dillis Ward.
(Photos provided by a descendent of Dillis Ward, Carolyn Fix Blount)
Across the Plains in 1853
By: Dillis Ward