Odd Old News: School Ma’am Letters
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.
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
*Green gages: A “sublimely sweet” plum variety.
(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.
Earlier Odd and Old News:
There are many more, but here are the most recent:
- The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Humboldt County
- The Third Wave of the 1918 Pandemic in Humboldt County
- The Flu Season in Humboldt County in the Winter of 1919-20
- Mountain Lions Come Too Close
- It’s a Gas–A Look at ‘Oil Springs’ and Fuel ‘Escapes’ in Our Local Area
- Mrs Mills’ Bonnet
- Beware the Calathumpians
- Sea Lions Eating Cattle and Exploding Mules–The Stories Seem Mighty Tall Around These Parts
- From Cloverdale to Eureka by Stage