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The schools of Wawona provide interesting insight into the early education of the people of the area. There are several opinions as to where the first school was located. At this time, all that can be said is that it was either run in the home of the Bruces, an early homesteading family, in the 1880’s, in the parlor of the Wawona Hotel, or in each of these places. It does seem clear that Azelia Bruce, who went to State Normal School, was Wawona’s first teacher. Her sizable family, five boys and two girls, could have made-up an entire school enrollment.
At any rate, the school moved to more comfortable quarters in a building which was located near the present Sequoia building at the Wawona Hotel, but apparently the site was poorly chosen since, being close to where the stage drivers lived, the children were learning more than their basic 3 Rs.
It wasn’t until 1891 when Frances M. Hall, who had also taught at the Yosemite Valley School, became Wawona’s first teacher at the third schoolhouse, which was located on a flat below the Wawona Hotel and next to the South Fork of the Merced River. It is interesting to note that included among this school’s first teachers was a man, Mr. George Congdon, who taught in the latter part of 1893 and in 1894, and a married teacher, Mrs. J. E. Hall, who taught in the earlier part of 1893. Anyway, about all that remains of the handsome shake building that was the schoolhouse are small ditches where the girls and boys outhouses stood, some rocks piled in such a way as to indicate they may have been part of the foundation, and the stump that Miss Jones tripped over in the 1930’s, breaking her collarbone while playing darebase with the children, as well as the natural rock backdrop where the children held plays in the ’30s. Now there is nothing to indicate the struggle of many students to learn their ABC’s, nor is there anything which could make it possible to know that it was here that a troublesome deer named Jiggs, raised by the Civilian Conservtion Corp., died when he ran into the schoolyard fence and broke his neck as he fled from the teacher trying to shoo him away.
For her teaching efforts at this third school in 1896, Nettie Craighan, at the age of 23, could boast $306.70 in state and county payments. Nettie had acquired considerable experience by this time, having taken a teaching examination in 1892 to qualify for her Primary Grade Certificate (grades 1-5) with an average score of 87 3/4% and having qualified with a score of 90+ % on her Grammar Grade Certificate (grades 6-9) test in 1893. In the 1890’s, the only way an applicant without experience could be exempted from examination was to have graduated from State Normal School, and have an Educational or Life Diploma, or a diploma from the California State University when recognized by the faculty of the university. The Mariposa County School Board met every year, apparently to revise the questions for and administer examinations to prospective teachers, and students who wanted an eighth grade diploma, as well as to revise the curricula. In the ‘90s the teachers’, examination consisted of 19 subjects, including mental as well as written arithmetic, oral grammar, penmanship, bookkeeping, vocal music, physiology and natural philosophy. By comparison, eighth grade diploma seekers weren’t tested in as many subjects as the teacher and did not have to receive as high a score. The board, of course, had to be satisfied as to a teacher’s “good moral character.”1 A far more interesting rule is the one which stated in 1889 that “if a board member has an interest in an applicant’s success he shall not participate in preparing questions or marking papers.”2
A revised Mariposa County curricula of 1895 reveals some interesting entries. For one thing, it included a lengthy and specific list of the books and apparatus which could be purchased by the trustees. The most notable book on the list is Hutching’s Heart of the Sierras, for it was Hutching’s California Magazine that alerted many to the wonders of the Yosemite in the late 1800’s. The curricula itself is a very precise rendition of the course of study for each grade level, including the authorization of McGuffey’s reading books as the primary text. Subject matter kept to the basic 3 R’s, music and drawing until the fourth grade, when local geography was added along with U.S. history, physiology and philosophy being added in later years. If a student were lucky enough to be able to get to a high school, he or she could begin learning the history of England in the ninth grade. The most notable part of the curricula, however, seems to be that starting from the first grade on “pupils must be taught to read in a connected, natural manner, to stand erect, open their mouths, hold book in left hand, read without pointing, etc., etc. Distinct articulation, good conversational tones and expression must be secured” and students were to be taught “manners and morals, and physiology and hygiene, with special reference to alcoholic drinks and narcotics.”3
In 1917 at the age of three, young Wawona Washburn, the granddaughter of early artist Thomas Hill’s daughter Estella, and John Washburn, who helped start the Wawona Hotel, probably became the school’s youngest scholar. Three students were needed to keep the school open at this time, so Wawona was enrolled along with her older brother Thomas, age seven, as well as the teacher’s son, Paul Gilson, who was about seven years of age also. The only residents of Wawona who did not get their education from Wawona’s teacher were the wealthy guests of the hotel who brought governesses along with them to teach their children. Anyway, Mrs. Gilson, who taught at the Wawona school for many years in the 1900’s, came to Yosemite for her son’s health. During her teaching sessions, Mrs. Gilson played hymns on the organ. Water had to be hauled from a spring several yards down the road from the school, and a woodburning stove on one side of the classroom provided heat. The school was mainly a summer school, but as Wawona Washburn Hartwig pointed out, and as the irregular pay periods of the teachers suggest, the school was open in both the winter and summer as long as there were enough students and weather permitted. For students such as Wawona, this meant that they went to school the whole year around.
Finally, the fourth and last Wawona school to date, which is the first building on the left that one sees upon entering North Wawona, was dedicated September 9, 1937. It was really quite a dedication with an invocation led by Reverend James Asa White, songs by the students and speeches by John B. Wosky, the Assistant Superintendent of Yosemite National Park, and teacher, Mrs. Stockton. By one account, this school got its start when the National Park Service, saying that it could not authorize the building of the school at this site could authorize the building of a boarding house ‘by gosh.’ However, it managed to get authorized, the construction was done by the Civilian Conservation Corp. At one point, this school closed after World War II since there was only one student and one teacher, but it reopened again, finally closing its doors for the last time in 1971.
Now, with students being bussed to Oakhurst, an era in the history of Yosemite’s educational institutions has closed.
1Minutes of the School Board Meetings at the Mariposa County School Superintendent’s Office.
3Register of Warrants, School Fund “A”, Auditor’s Report at the Mariposa Hall of Records.
4 Sargent, Shirley, Wawona’s Yesterdays, Yosemite Natural History Association, 1961.
5Program on “Dedication of the Wawona Schoolhouse,” Sept. 9, 1937.
6’Many thanks are also due to Norman May, Wawona Washburn Hartwig, and Hester Stephans for their personal accounts of the Wawona schools. Special thanks are extended to Norman May for taking me to the site of the third schoolhouse.
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