by Ed Bergh
“Our calling creeps low and hath pain for a companion, still thrust to the wall, though still confessed good. Our comfort perforce is that these things be good things, which want no praising, though they go a-cold for want of happing. [covering].”
Anonymous Teacher Quoted in Notestein, Wallace. The English People on the Eve of Colonization (1603-1630) New York, Harper & Row, 1954.
Teaching on the Prairie
Teachers have been working on the Yelm prairie nearly a century and a half.
The names of early teachers who worked at the school is another interesting historical puzzle. Local historians place J. C. Conine at the school in 1872. According to one, he taught for three terms. This meant that he worked possibly three months, per term, teaching, but census data shows he considered himself a “farmer.” Another account places him at the school in 1872.
More recently, evidence has surfaced that places Dillis B. Ward in the Yelm school house in 1863. There is ‘a short reference to Ward in Early School in the Washington Territory. The author states that after Dillis B. Ward left his recently closed school in Seattle he “taught at Yelm prairie.” David Longmire, writing in 1917, identified Ward as “one of the teachers at that [Yelm prairie school] school.” In 1957, the Seattle Times profiled Dillis Ward’s daughter, Maud Ward Dickey, who shared part of her family’s past with the reporter. Among the paper legacy she presented were letters written by Dillis to his fiance é living in Grand Mound. The letters, dated 1863, Yelm prairie, make him, for now, the earliest known teacher on the Yelm Prairie.
Lew Longmire, Mrs. F. N. Edwards, and Mrs. Jack Kettleman wrote the essay on education for Loutzenhizer’s The Story of Yelm. In their chapter they listed teachers that long time residents linked to the schools of the area. Their collective memories produced the following list of instructors. The year that follows each name represents a year that that their employment was documented on county teacher rolls.
Lou Jackson (Longmire)
Amelia Dittman (1891)
Miss Shelton (Van Trump)
Seymour Stone (1903)
Mrs. [Calla] Stoddard (1906)
Anna[ie] Hart[t] (1904)
Mrs. M. Alberta Johnson (1906)
Clara McKenzie (1904)
Lizzie Waddell (1896)
Fred Brown (1893)
The Teaching Profession
The fluctuations of the school year and salaries may have discouraged, but did not deter, teachers from pursuing their craft. Edith Corbett (the second woman to successfully climb Mt. Rainier) worked at the Morehead School in 1891 and 1892, taught the children of the Smith Prairie school in 1893, and was at her third school, in as many years, Mountain View, in 1894. May Collins, who had failed to be licensed in 1891 at the age of 17, eventually became a teacher, beginning her career at the Eureka school at the age of 19, but moved on to the Smith Prairie school in 1899. Belle Melvin had been certified to teach in 1895 at the age of 18. Two years later she was working at Willow Lawn, but moved to the Mountain View. If you believe the ages of the teachers sounds rather young. You are right. A sample taken from the county register of new teachers in 1895 shows that the average age of recently certified teachers was only 21 years of age. Those who failed to pass the test averaged only 20 years of age.
The career of a teacher was one of constant change. In the small rural schools of the Yelm area teachers seldom taught more than one or two terms. Some were teaching in the forests and prairies of the region hoping for jobs in more urban settings. Some were women helping their family make ends meet. Other women were entering the world of work as their right. Some teachers were relatively more educated citizens who found a haven between opportunities. This problem was scathingly critiqued in 1895 in a Northwest Journal of Education editorial. With economic hard times in the land the unemployed were flooding the teaching job market. The author wrote:
What a revelation to many teachers have been the hard time? We had talked of our profession, of professional work, etc., and what do we see today? Lawyers, real estate agents, insurance agents, book agents, farmers, doctors and barbers have become teachers—yes teachers.
There are one large class and two small classes of people today. The large class is made up of those that can get third grade certificates. Of the other two classes one is in the asylum for the feeble minded and the other has higher grade certificates to teach.
People are teaching for every conceivable object: to pay taxes; to tide over the hard times; to get a trousseau; to get money to go to school with; because they can’t find anything else to do. Yes, they are teaching for every possible reason under the sun, except the proper reason, which should alone induce a person to teach, viz.—‘Because he loves to teach.’
One would hope that schools in and around Yelm was free of such professional gold diggers, but that is unlikely. Certainly the schools drew from the surrounding community, particularly Olympia, but less than professional instructors must have been hired. When the section on education in The Story of Yelm was written in 1948 one wonders the authors commented that an early teacher at the Deschutes School was Harry Garfield, “a lothario country girls did not care for.”
Records from the schools of the area paint an interesting picture of the rhythms of the school year. Those of us used to school starting around the beginning of September might be surprised to find school starting in October, December, or even April. One of the reasons for these variable school terms was the result of a lack of financing. An example from the Olympia district in 1871 points to the problems faced by schools at this time. The Washington Standard, June 10, 1871, reported, “The district school of Olympia, taught by Mr. Brown and Misses O’Neal and Stevens, closed its term yesterday. There will be a vacation of two months, we understand, in consequence of the school fund being inadequate to pay the teachers’ salary for another quarter, even with the usual proportion collected from the scholars.”
In the French District, Abigal Eddy was hired in October 1891 to teach for two months. That term of school would have ended in December of that year. She was rehired in December 1892 to teach for four months. Leaving the school permanently in the spring of 1892, a replacement opened the school doors in the fall of that year. A shortage of teachers might have also contributed to delays in schools opening on a regular basis.
Equally flexible were teacher’s salaries. When Abigal Eddy signed her contract in the fall of 1891 she received $40 per month. This, however, was before the depression of 1893. as the depression deepened, revenues to the county declined. Counties tightened their belts. Counties and the districts lowered wages. When Bige Eddy signed his contract in 1893 the salary had been lowered a little over ten percent to 35 dollars per month. That, however, was just the beginning. By April 1894 teachers received $25 for the pedagogical efforts. The bottom was reached in 1897. By that year a teacher’s pay had been reduced by 50% from their 1891 peak. The contract signed that year also included “board” (a teacher would live with a local family). Some family was making an attempt to help lure teachers to help their children.
The turnover of teachers, even in good times, had been noted years earlier. Writing to the state superintendent the head of county education John R. Thompson summarized these issues in letter on September 1, 1881:
…There are thirty-four organized districts in this county, in all of which with two exceptions, at least three months school has been taught during the year just closed. A number have maintained two terms (six months) of school. Last year the average term of tuition though all the districts was frequently over four and one-half months.
The frequent changes in teachers made in many of our districts is an evil which ought to be ended as soon as possible. Not a few of our schools employ two or more different teachers during the year, each one of whom must spend half a term, more or less, studying the characters of the pupils in order to know how best to draw out their mental powers….The reason often given for the frequent changes of teachers is that they do not give satisfaction. I do not pretend to say that the teachers of Thurston County are all perfect…They are fully as good as we ought to expect, for the money we pay them…Some districts think they can pay for the time occupied in teaching, as well as time and cash spent in getting ready to teach, with a smaller salary than is paid to some Chinese cooks in this same county of Thurston . . . But it is not fair to expect a first-grade teacher for a less salary than is paid to a Chinaman…
Jno. R. Thompson,
Supt. Schools, Thurston County, W.T.
It would have been hard for a teacher to make a family supporting career working in one of these small schools. For one thing the pay was lower than in urban areas. This can be inferred from data collected by Alexander Pouw-Bray in Change in the Common School System of Washington State, 1889-1899. According to his estimates the average male teacher in the state received, at the bottom of the 1893 depression in 1895-96, between 44 and 47 dollars per month. His female counterpart received between 38 and 42 dollars. Records show that some teachers in the Yelm vicinity were being paid as little as 27 dollars or even as low as 20 dollars a month.
The fluctuations of the school year and salaries may have discouraged, but did not deter teachers from pursuing their craft. Edith Corbett worked at the Deschutes (Morehead) school in 1891 and 1892, taught the children of the Smith Prairie School in 1893, and was at her third school, in as many years, Mountain View, in 1894. May Collins, who had failed to be licensed in 1891 at the age of 17, eventually became a teacher. She began her career at the Eureka school at the age of 19, but moved on to the Smith Prairie School in 1899.
If you believe the ages of the teachers’ sounds rather young, you are right. A sample taken from the county register of new teachers in 1895 shows that the average age of recently certified teachers was only 21 years of age. Those who failed to pass the test averaged only 20 years of age.
The following list demonstrates the mobility of teachers in the late 19th century. The names and dates were gathered from school records available at the state archives in Olympia.
1898 – District #42 – Smith Prairie
1901 – District #14 – Rainier
1903 – District #42 – Mountain View
1892 – District #28 – Deschutes/Morehead
1893 – District #41 – Smith Prairie
1894 – District #42 – Mountain View
1897 – District #43 – Eureka
1899 – District #41 – Smith Prairie
1892 – District #43 – Eureka
1893 – District #34 – French
1896 – District #40 – Willow Lawn
1898 -District #42 – Mountain View
1899 – District #14 – Rainier
1891 – District #41 – Smith Prairie
1892 – District #43 – Eureka
1893 – District #43 – Eureka
1898 – District #40 – Willow Lawn
1895 – Teacher’s scores for Thurston County (Birdie Cooper is the one teacher from Yelm taking the test at that time)