Odd Old News: School Ma’am Letters

Stone Lagoon

Stone Lagoon 1947
[Photo from the Shuster collection of the Humboldt Room Photograph Collections at the HSU Library]

Nuggets of old news served up once a week by David Heller, one of our local historians.

Old News has previously described how women’s employment options were very limited in the early 1900’s in a patriarchal society. Teaching school was a popular choice. This week we take a look at diary entries of 23-year-old school teacher Ethel Tracy from when she taught in Stone Lagoon in 1903.

Eleanor Ethel Tracy was born into the prominent Joseph Tracy family in 1880, lived until 1964, and spent 45 of her nearly 84 years in the classrooms of Humboldt County. Like all elementary school teachers in her time, she had the requisite high school diploma, spent a few months of study at Dr. Kildale’s Preparatory School, and passed the teacher examination. She was a “boarding” teacher at schools in both Alderpoint and Stone Lagoon, and kept a diary that was saved and edited by the Tracy family at the urging of local historian Suzy Baker Fountain.

Ms. Fountain’s 100 plus volumes of Humboldt County history attest to the breadth and depth of her historical knowledge of Humboldt County. In 1964 Suzy Baker Fountain started publishing “A School Ma’am’s Letters” in the Blue Lake Advocate and added intra-linear Eureka history notes. Today, we will share some of Ethel Tracy’s earlier diary entries from 1903 that show her process of adjusting to rural living once she started boarding with the head of the local school board J.B. Foss and family at Stone Lagoon.

An online description of the Humboldt Lagoon trail sets the scene for Ms. Tracy’s herstory:

Tucked away along the isolated coast of Del Norte County between the villages of Trinidad and Orick lies the largest lagoon system in the continental United States. The lagoons are shallow, landlocked bodies of water along the coast which are separated from the sea by coastal spits of land. Seawater only flows in and out of the lagoons when it breaks through the spits, generally during winter storm seasons. In the early 1900’s, Dry Lagoon was drained by early farmers in an attempt to grow several types of crops, none of which proved economically viable. Today, Dry Lagoon supports a wetland environment that attracts migratory birds. Additionally, several dairy ranches were established along the shores of Stone Lagoon. At Stone Lagoon the park’s visitor center on HWY 101 was formerly a local motel-restaurant called the “Little Red Hen.” This business operated until 1979. Today the restaurant has been remodeled into a museum/bookstore and the park office.

The Little Red Hen cabins at Stone Lagoon.

The Little Red Hen cabins at Stone Lagoon. [Photo from the Humboldt Room Collection at HSU]

Eleanor Ethel Tracy’s diary entry as it appeared in the Blue Lake Advocate, June 11, 1964

Stone Lagoon, Monday night, August 5 (?), 1903 Dear Mama: I knew you would want to hear how I got here, so I borrowed this paper to write to you. I suppose Edith told you that I had to leave my trunk at Arcata, as the stage was already loaded down. It will come up some time this week. The stages are not so regular here as they were at Alder Point. I had a nice ride to Dows Prairie with Mrs. Watson. From there to Trinidad the roads were dusty so we went more slowly.

Trinidad and the Little River country is grand– great rocks and cliffs out in the ocean. The wind was blowing and the ocean was quite rough; we saw a little fishing boat under full sail seek shelter at Trinidad. Also there was a boat loading lumber.

It was about one when I got there. I had a hasty lunch, and then got into a nice carriage with a nice driver named Martin Flaherty He is young and has exceedingly buoyant spirits, and enlivened my drive with stories of every place on the road.

As we passed the Trinidad schoolhouse he told me about Wallace Feenaty, and of his own school days. At Patrick’s Point he told me how he drove Gertie Morton out, and she didn’t know what to do nor where to go. Also about Sadie Pierson; at Big Lagoon May Bell was discussed. Moreover he showed me a sea lion on the rocks.

Big Lagoon is very pretty. I haven’t seen the lagoon here yet.

Well I got here tired and dusty. It is a nice clean place, but the most dull I can imagine. In looks it is more like the cow pasture than anything I can think of– flat and surrounded by bracken covered hills.

The houses are quite close together. The people here complain and talk about nothing in an uninteresting drawl. As I had nothing to do and nothing to read there isn’t so much as a catalogue or almanac in the house– I found it very dull.

Tonight I brought some books from the schoolhouse. But this brings me to the last straw! With all my hopes for a nice school, only one pupil appeared– a boy, who is as colorless as the dust of the road– in intellect as well as in looks! To be sure a little part Indian boy (whom I think I shall love) came to tell me that he and his brothers and sister couldn’t come until next week! I came home feeling more homesick than ever I did at Alder Point. There I at least received impressions.

But here everything is so empty! If something interesting doesn’t come along I shall be bored to death before I have been here 5 months! For the people here want school well into the winter. That is why they started so late.

My schoolhouse has a bell which must be rung about 6 times a day; and a very good organ. They have had good teachers here. I wonder that they didn’t liven things up. But when people have plenty to live on and nothing to do, and don’t read or anything they get into queer ways.

The teachers before me were Grace McGeorge and another Normal girl, Mr. Davies and Miss Hanna and Miss Alberta Franks, I think.

There has been a large school, but now there are only 4 families who send children.

I think I will feel better when I get my truck and fix my room up.

Tell me all the news.

Dear Hattie: Sunday, just before noon. I worked hard all day yesterday. In the morning I cleaned my room. It wasn’t dirty, but hadn’t been cleaned up since Grace McGeorge left, and so had a month’s dust and cobwebs over everything. It seems funny to me that they didn’t have it all fixed, for they were expecting me the day before I came; but they hadn’t done a thing to it.

Some of the children’s clothes were hanging up here, and the drawers still have their things in them. But I don’t mind, as I have room for all my traps.

So I swept and dusted and then unpacked my things, and now my room is the prettiest in the house. It is furnished with a nice bureau and stand, a bed (good) and two tables and 1 chair. It has matting on the floor, a white curtain and bedspread, and a nice big closet. I am at present sitting on my trunk writing on the small table. I am clad in my buff dress, for there is company for dinner. (to be continued)

Blue Lake Advocate, June 18, 1964

(continued) Later in the day: We had a nice visit from Mr. and Mrs. Riley of Orick. They came just before dinner and stayed until about 3 o’clock. They are both fat, jolly, prosperous looking people. Mrs. Riley is especially nice. After they left, we walked over to a deserted farm, and ate plums. I gathered a bouquet of honeysuckle which now graces my stand. Tonight Edna Foss and I are going over to Mr. Putsch’s steal green-gages* (with his full permission).

Dear Morris: Wednesday evening August 14, 1903 I got your letter today. Joe was mistaken about my mail. The stage comes here on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but it only comes out from Trinidad on those days. Letters must be in the post office (in Eureka) before 8 o’clock train on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday.

After school I went to see Mrs. Huntley. She has a family of cute boys and one girl, who gave me a picture of herself. I have some very nice boys in my school. The smallest reminds me of Mansel Griffiths; his name is Luther White.

I would like to see your picture on the Antelope. Won’t she be fine when she is finished? (Note 1: The Antelope was an institution on Humboldt Bay for well over 50 years. It was a ferry first built in 1888 by Peter Matthews. Only July 23, 1903 ownership of the vessel was transferred to the Vance Redwood lumber Co. at Samoa. It crossed the bay between Samoa and Eureka to meet the Oregon and Eureka Railroad. At the time of this letter it was probably being refurbished by the Vance Company. In 1909 this boat was dismantled and a new one built, and the Antelope, continued to serve Humboldt Bay for many more years. Its final owner was the Coggeshall Launch Company.)

Mr. Baxter came home from Eureka today, and he told me that there would be street cars in Eureka when I got home. He said the track was laid from the ER&ERR (Note 2: Eel River and Eureka Railroad) depot to F St. on Second. It must look like business. (Note 3: In the September 12, 1903 edition of the Humboldt Times, the Humboldt Transit Co. announced that 3 trolley cars were on their way to Eureka. The cars were described as being open “fore and aft”, painted Lake Red with gold trim. They would seat between 40 to 50 persons, but would hold 140 to 150, “if pressed to the limit.”)

I think I better go downstairs now. Goodbye from your loving sister, Ethel.

Trolley in front of the Humboldt County Courthouse. [Photo from the Palmquist Collection in the Humboldt Room Photograph Collections at the HSU Library]

Trolley in front of the Humboldt County Courthouse. [Photo from the Palmquist Collection in the Humboldt Room Photograph Collections at the HSU Library]

*Green gages: A “sublimely sweet” plum variety.

Earlier Odd and Old News:

There are many more, but here are the most recent:

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Willie Bray
1 year ago

🕯🌳That was a nice bit of Humboldt history. Thank you Kym and David. It doesn’t really say were she was from unless I over looked it.🌍🕊🐸🖖

David Heller
David Heller
1 year ago
Reply to  Willie Bray

She was born in Hydesville Willie, but moved to Eureka when she was ten. I will have more biography of the Tracy family in next week’s second diary installment.

Obliviously
Obliviously
1 year ago
Reply to  David Heller

I believe the family published a book titled “School Ma’am” I would guess in the seventies some time. It has been so long ago I don’t remember it well but it was a good read. It should be at the library. Another good read is “In the Land of the Grasshopper Song”. It’s about two teachers that came into Eureka on a steamer and went to Somes Bar to teach.

David Heller
David Heller
1 year ago
Reply to  Obliviously

Thanks ‘obliviously’… I just got my copy of Schoolma’am, The Letters of Eleanor Ethel Tracy compiled and arranged by Harriet Tracy Delong, Harris California 1905-6 from the Humboldt Historical Society– I know that they had the Stone Lagoon volume as well. Published in 1993. And it is a good time to support your local Historical Society as they are facing the same dire challenges as many businesses are in these times.

Bart Ray
Bart Ray
1 year ago
Reply to  David Heller

I’m sitting at the school in Stone Lagoon . She was living with my great grandfather Walter Huntley and his wife Mary . We have a group of family with a site on fb . Grandma talked of her time here often

Mary Ann Machi
Mary Ann Machi
1 year ago

My knowledge of old schools is limited to Shelter Cove but found a photo of interest in the Overland Monthly Vol. XXVIII, July – Dec. 1896, a map of the Eel River & Eureka Railroad.

Kato
Kato
1 year ago

David, would she have taught at what we now call “The Little Red Schoolhouse” up by the Lagoons?

David Heller
David Heller
1 year ago
Reply to  Kato

Kato, I really don’t know that area, hopefully someone more local to Stone Lagoon can answer that.

Mary Ann Machi
Mary Ann Machi
1 year ago
Reply to  Kato

Kato, Stone Lagoon is north of the Little Red Schoolhouse by about a mile and a half.
The article doesn’t list other schools where she taught aside from Stone Lagoon and Alder Point.

Kato
Kato
1 year ago
Reply to  Mary Ann Machi

Thank you, Mary Ann and Leah: I knew the schoolhouse had been moved at some point. The antique “schoolhouse clock” in my own classroom once kept time in hers, so I’m grateful for this insight to her world.

I wonder if current conditions may lead to a resurgence of the small, mixed-grade, neighborhood schools that dotted the country 100 years ago…

David Heller
David Heller
1 year ago
Reply to  Mary Ann Machi

Thank you for your maps Mary Ann! Found this about the school:
“The Stone Lagoon Little Red School House”. sits along the Pacific Coast Highway in Northern California Stone Lagoon near Orick, CA. The Stone Lagoon School District was founded in 1893. This one room school house opened in 1899, surrounded by towering redwood. Records show that the land on which the school was originally built was donated by the Huntley family. In 1958, this humble house of learning closed its doors forever when the smaller schools were consolidated into the Big Lagoon School. The original location of Stone Lagoon School was on the west side of Highway 101, but the school was later moved across the highway to its present location. Today, Stone Lagoon School is owned by the Redwood Lake Resort which is part of the Elk Country RV Resort and Campground.” There is a great photo of the school with elk in the yard at the link. (in case my attachment fails again)

Mary Ann Machi
Mary Ann Machi
1 year ago
Reply to  David Heller

David, your photo didn’t come through but here’s one that shows elk & schoolhouse. Also, not getting your link to work. The wonders of the internet!!!

I like stars
I like stars
1 year ago

I stopped reading right after she prejudged the only student who showed up the first day as “colorless as the dust of the road – in intellect as well as in looks! ”

How sad.

lauracooskey
lauracooskey
1 year ago
Reply to  I like stars

The joy of reading Ethel Tracy is in finding that she shares her thoughts, which is rare in the journals and letters of the time. More often, such local records are brisk reports of practical matters– no time for reflection or opinion. I was delighted to find a writer who revealed her own human side, such as inevitable inner judgments of what her teaching year would look like, considering her pupils. As you get to know the lady through reading years of her thoughts, you realize that she would never allow her inner critic to manifest in actual cruelty or unfairness.
Stopping reading because of finding an admittedly private thought of which you disapproved is kind of like giving up hope in a pupil due to judging him dull as dishwater. Were you not curious as to whether this confession was a lead-up to later discovery that the dusty dullard was actually a real gem?

Guest
Guest
1 year ago
Reply to  I like stars

I can remember being shocked in my mid teens when I overheard two long time elementary teachers discussing their current crop of students. They were pretty harsh in general but the statement that really got to me was how revolted one was by a boy who had a constantly runny nose. All I could think was that he couldn’t help that. Until that point I never considered that there are teachers who simply don’t like their students much at all. At least I now understood the intense joy in teacher’s voices when they utter the word “summer vacation.”

Guest
Guest
1 year ago

Love this shit, I read the fuck outa history books!

Leah Foss
Leah Foss
1 year ago

She taught my Father and his brothers and their Father and their Grandfather. The little red school house use to be on the other side of the freeway on the Foss Homestead land.

Mary Ann Machi
Mary Ann Machi
1 year ago
Reply to  Leah Foss

Leah, you didn’t mention where she taught your ancestors. Would it have been at the Little Red Schoolhouse? Thank you!

Obliviously
Obliviously
1 year ago
Reply to  Leah Foss

Leah,, was Mel your uncle or dad? I grew up on the hill just above them. Really nice people. Walked past their house on the way to the school bus every day.

Debbie
Debbie
1 year ago

I loved this. I always feel connected to the school teachers back then.

David Heller
David Heller
1 year ago
Reply to  Debbie

You would love the whole series, they may archived in other places, but I imagine that the Historical Society has the whole series. I will do one more post of her diary next week. Later she taught at Harris where her encounters with some of the colorful locals are classic. We will get to those as well in the future.

commenter
commenter
1 year ago
Reply to  David Heller

please! just the snippy judgments next week!
the rest of it is as dull as that colorless boy!

commenter
commenter
1 year ago

damn, that’s a nice look at local history.
unlike I Like Stars i loved her snippy little judgements
and i believe them…that kid was dull ALL OVER…
I Like Stars, you remind me of this friend i have, she’s such a snowflake that
she gets upset and stalks off if there’s any hint of adversity in our conversation…she’s, sadly, a control freak with nothing to control…

Edie Butler
Edie Butler
1 year ago

Thanks David, for doing all this public history research and sharing on this site. I recently discovered your posts. Please keep it up!

David Heller
David Heller
1 year ago
Reply to  Edie Butler

Thank you Edie, coming from one who has done so very much for the cause of history, I’m honored.

TD
TD
1 year ago

It’s interesting that Alder Point (is that Alderpoint?) was so much more interesting than Trinidad in 1903.

Mary Ann Machi
Mary Ann Machi
1 year ago
Reply to  TD

Same place TD. Name evolved over the years. It was right on the train tracks coming from San Fran and going to Eureka. In its heyday, was a hoppin’ place.

Jeffersonian
Jeffersonian
1 year ago

Not much has changed at Stone Lagoon, except less fish. A pretty but boring place.

Mike D
Mike D
1 year ago

Is there any more information on the original school house location? I seen the map and the comment about the homestead. I keep seeing across the road. 1.6 miles seems more like up the road. Is it possible that the school house was originally in the fields across the street from its current location?

Bek
Bek
2 months ago

I’ve read The School Ma’am. I’m descended from the Huntley family that she talks about through my grandma and always thought this little book was so interesting.