Articles from January 2015

The Cold War – 1990

The steel mill continued to dominate the neighborhood, but residents diversified, finding work in fishing, canneries, flour mills, Boeing, and other Seattle employers. Over the years, the tideflats were filled, and the port grew on the north side of Spokane Street, once considered a highway.

During World War II, the few Japanese-American families in Delridge went to internment camps, and temporary war-worker housing crowded the playfields and empty lots. An influx of workers from the Midwest and South changed the neighborhood’s demographics. By 1990, Filipinos, Koreans, Samoans, and African-Americans made up more than one-third of the population; the high incidence of home ownership during the 1950s declined and the number of renters increased.

South Seattle Community College opened on the top of Puget Ridge in 1969. Traffic increased; larger businesses and office buildings crowded out neighborhood businesses. But over the years, the greenness of Delridge—its potential for landslides, periodic flooding, its ravines and creeks saved it from rapid development.

A ten-year effort, led by Seattle Public Utilities and Parks and Recreation, restored Longfellow Creek to health and blazed a heritage trail from Yancey Street south of the steel mill to a bog at Roxhill. In recent years, Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association has converted the old Cooper School to the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, funded low-income housing, and envisioned a new Delridge Library integrated with housing and street-front space for small businesses and offices.

Throughout the years, Delridge has maintained its reputation as a boot strap community.



Thelma DeWitty

Thelma Dewitty’s class at a Seattle School
Thelma Dewitty’s class at a Seattle School

The war brought lasting racial changes to Seattle. A flourishing Japanese-American community, 8% of the neighborhood in 1920-30, had trouble finding housing in West Seattle after the war. Although Grace Suyematsu’s father lived long enough to see his son Arthur return from serving in the Armed Forces, the family did not resume its floristry business or return to live in West Seattle.

Defense industries offered jobs to African-American workers at Boeing, the shipyards, and the Bremerton naval yard. The city’s African-American population grew by 5,000 between 1945 and 1950. Most of the war workers did not stay in Delridge after the war, however, and the school remained predominantly white. The Hansens and their neighbors, the Williams, moved into the High Point housing project. One black family and one Filipino family lived on Pigeon Point, but it, too, remained largely white.

Delma Carpenter remembers the mixed reception Native American children received in the 1940’s. Her family had moved to Delridge from Alaska, and she generally found friendly neighbors, especially the time she was late to school: “I was running my little legs off to try to get there in time and I fell and I skinned myself on both knees. I was just standing there crying and feeling hurt and sorry for myself because I knew for sure I was going to be late then because I didn’t think I could run anymore, and some lady came out and hushed me and wiped off my knees and put bandages on and gave me a stick of gum…”

Her brother, however, had an opposite experience. He had a Caucasian friend, and they visited each other’s homes after school. “And the next day the kid comes in and says ‘I can’t play with you anymore.’ And my brother says ‘Why?’ and he says ‘Because you’re a dirty Mexican.’ And my brother said ‘I’m not dirty!’ So he came home and he told my mother that he was Mexican and this boy couldn’t play with him, and my mother said ‘You’re not Mexican, you’re Indian.’ So he went and told his friend and they were so happy and they played and got along great, and the next day the kid came back and said ‘You’re worse.’”

The Seattle School District responded to population pressures and changes. Because of a shortage of teachers, the district relaxed its rule requiring married women to give up their jobs.  The music teacher, Dorothy Hoff, “was carrying a baby…and we just thought that was so wonderful!,” recalls Iris Nichols. “This teacher carrying a baby. That was pretty neat…. None of our other teachers were ever pregnant.”
Also, in 1947 the board hired Thelma Fisher DeWitty and Marita Johnson as the first black teachers in the system. DeWitty had graduated from high school in Texas, gone to college, and been given an out-of-state grant to attend graduate school in Washington because blacks weren’t welcome at the University of Texas. When she was hired by the Seattle School Board, five principals requested her, including Lester M. Roblee at Cooper. She was assigned a second grade class there.

“The reception so far as I could see was cordial,” Dewitty said in an oral history interview in 1976. (10) “It was later told to me that some of the teachers were told, I mean, all of ‘em were told when I would arrive, and if any of them objected to working with a Black, they could leave.” The children would be assigned in the usual manner. One mother did object to the principal when she found out her daughter’s teacher was black. When Roblee refused to move the girl to another class, and when the daughter cried about moving, she remained. At the end of the year, the mother told Dewitty how much her daughter had learned “and that she was glad that I had been her teacher.”

Pat Schille has clear memories of sitting in the front row in DeWitty’s second grade class a couple of years later. “She was so calm and so organized and so thorough about everything that you just learned.”

There were some bumps in the road, however, including a PTA talent show in which Schille’s mother wore blackface and sang Eddie Cantor’s “Dear Old Mammie.” “Mrs. Dewitty kindly pulled my mother aside, at another PTA meeting, and explained to her why that would be offensive. My mother was horrified, she had no clue.” Dewitty taught at Cooper for six years before being moved to Laurelhurst

As integration of the teaching staff occurred and rules about marriage changed, gender separation was still common for students. Only boys could be on the projection crew for movies, but the safety patrol soon added girls. Rainy Day Girls, who were used to supervise lower grade students on rainy days, to give the teachers a break, were only girls—“We were future teachers!” Karin Freeman explained.

A blizzard and an earthquake both struck Seattle in 1949. Cliff Davidson was on the waterfront with his buddies when the earthquake struck. They were throwing caps with ball bearings wrapped in aluminum on the railroad tracks. One of his buddies said, “Watch this!” and when he threw his, the whole world started shaking. The tracks were bucking, and the boys could hear windows blowing out of the buildings on Spokane Street. They sat on a knoll and watched the top of the radio tower break off on Duwamish Head.

10. DeWitty, Thelma. Interview with Esther Mumford. Washington State Oral History Program, Office of the Secretary of State, Olympia, WA. 1976.

World War II

War worker housing 1946In the fall of 1941, Sakaeru Susumi and her sister Lillian were the only Japanese-American children at Cooper. Lillian was in sixth grade, and Sakaeru, called Grace, was in third grade. Their brother Arthur had already graduated and gone on to West Seattle High School.

The Susumis lived in the back of their floristry shop on Spokane Street in a building owned by Bethlehem Steel. Because the street was the major road from Seattle to West Seattle, their shop was called Highway Florists. Besides flowers, they sold cigarettes and tobacco, candy and ice cream. The streetcar line loomed above the street. On a boring day, Grace would count the cars of one color—the blue cars or the black cars–that would go by on Spokane Street.

The children’s friends were mainly Caucasian. Besides picking blackberries together, they would slide down empty coal chutes in cardboard boxes, unbeknownst to their parents, of course.

Grace’s father had suffered a heart attack and couldn’t work full bore. “He would take me out to the Sound, to go fishing off the railroad bridge. We would dig pile-worms when the tide was out,” to use them as bait. They caught shiners, which Grace hated, but along with eggs from neighborhood chickens, the fish were a source of protein.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December, the Susumi’s life changed rapidly. Grace’s best friend threw rocks at her on the playground at Cooper. Someone slashed her purple coat with a fur collar, a collar Grace’s mother had carefully crafted from her own old coat. The principal or a teacher began walking Grace and Lillian to and from school.

The family had just bought a new car, their pride and joy, and Arthur and his father had built a garage for it. When Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in February, 1942, the family prepared to leave the neighborhood and the car. A man from the FBI came to make sure they didn’t have Japanese knives or books, “to make sure we weren’t spies, I guess, or doing something for Japan.” Her father sat in a chair and broke all of his Japanese music records in half before they could be confiscated. The Susumis left other belongings with family friends and closed the floristry shop.

Some of Grace’s classmates were unaware of what was happening. A boy who often walked home with Grace left with his usual Friday greeting, “I’ll see you Monday.”

“No you won’t,” Grace replied; “because I’m going to a prison camp.” With others from King County, the family was sent first to live in stables at “Camp Harmony” on the Puyallup fairgrounds. Amid the mud around the animal-stall housing and the sight of a ferris wheel in the distance, Grace remembers a ball that went over the barbed wire fence. “If you go after that ball, I’ll shoot,” a guard told her. After the families boarded trains for Minidoka in Idaho, students remember a teacher at Cooper had them write letters to a Japanese-American girl at the internment camps.

As the Susumis left, Fred Hansen’s family moved to Seattle from South Dakota in 1942, attracted by work in the defense industries. Fred’s entire family came, including his mother’s fourteen brothers and sisters and their families. At first they lived at his grandmother’s house in North Seattle. They practiced something called “hot-bedding.” When the ones who were working the graveyard shifts returned home in the morning, they would trade beds with the guys, aunts and cousins who worked the day shifts.

A year later, “my father found a vacancy at the temporary housing projects that had been built for the wartime here …in Delridge.” Scrambling to meet the demand for housing created by the influx of workers, the Seattle Housing Authority and the federal government hastily constructed 442 units of housing in 70 buildings wherever there was vacant space in Delridge. The buildings included a child care center and a community building, many on the playfield and park across from the school.

Fred has vivid memories of the first day he walked into third grade at Cooper. “…when I came into the class, the teacher brought me in and I looked at the blackboard. They were doing cursive writing already and I started to cry! I thought ‘Oh, no!’ I was so nervous because I didn’t know how to write cursive!” The teacher assured him he would do fine, and Hansen quickly made friends, mainly from “the projects.”

Besides the large numbers of migrants from the Midwest, many African-Americans were drawn from the southern United States to the jobs in the Pacific Northwest. The family of guitarist Jimi Hendrix lived in the Delridge projects for a while when he was a baby. Fred Hansen’s next-door neighbors were black; and there were small numbers of Native Americans and African-American students in his grade at Cooper. Before that, “we really didn’t have any people of color to speak of,” Sharon Ackerlund recalls. Darla Fox remembers admiring the jump-rope abilities of the black girls on the playground.

The sudden influx of people and cheap housing disturbed the neighborhood. “As soon as they built those projects,” Patty Schille remembers, “my parents put up a picket fence and I was told to play inside the fence…. Anyone that moved in was perceived as not real welcome. They were new…. If you lived here and you had your own house, then you took care of the place. You cared. Those people that lived in temporary housing, they were not well liked by and large, regardless.”

The housing was substandard, made out of plasterboard and paper. The units were furnished, however, with a wood or coal burning stove in the living room and a wood-burning range. “And you would always have a cord of wood delivered, oh, probably once or twice every two months. I remember that was one of my chores,” said Fred Hansen. “I would always have to go out and stack it because they would dump it in a big pile. So you had to stack it so it would be neat and orderly.”

The icebox was literally an ice box, not a refrigerator. “So you had to order a block of ice and you would put that on top, and it would drain down. There was a pan at the bottom that you would take the water out [of] and dump it.”

Some remember the “war temporaries” positively as a place to start housekeeping. Darla Fox’s sister lived in a one-story building with several units. “Paper thin. They could hear everything through the walls.” Despite this, she was “an immaculate housekeeper…. She was twenty years old and she would have white starched curtains.”

Besides housing, the neighborhood had an influx of defense installations. A barrage balloon battalion was stationed on the playfield, with tethered balloons to protect Boeing airplanes; the balloon cadre practiced marching on Delridge Way. “We used to hear the dirigibles, the blimps, at night. You could hear that little whirring sound when they were going over,” said Fox. “The search lights went on all the time. You’d cover the windows so they would be black. I never quite understood the bucket of water and bucket of sand on the front porch, because one bucket would have done absolutely nothing. But they were always there.” Simon Skalabrin was the Civil Defense person for Youngstown, equipped with a helmet, gas mask, and fire extinguisher. He would go out and make sure each curtain was closed and there was no light showing at night.

Alaska Communications Systems occupied the top of Pigeon Hill. “It was a gorgeous place up there on many acres,” recalls Betty MacWatters. “We had a milkman back in those days, and he had seen Japanese men photographing the city. He went into the station up there and told the operator that worked the radios what happened…. The military was there within two weeks.” Fences went up, guards came. “Then the army came and they put in those big ears that would listen for planes. Anti-aircraft guns went into the woods.” Children walked alongside the fence to get to the school.

The war affected many aspects of daily life. Scarce foodstuffs were rationed. “[I]t was so exciting if Dad came home with sugar,” Sharon Ackerlund recalled. Clear’s Double Bubble was very scarce.  When there was bubble gum at the local stores, Skalabrin’s or Walker’s, “Word passed around and then everybody stood in line,” a big line of little kids. Adults rolled their own cigarettes; shoes and tin for canned goods were rare because of military needs. With the rationing of meat, families found a protein source in fish, pigeons, and rabbits. Oleo substituted for butter. It came in big white chunks with a packet of orange powder to mix in for color. Families grew vegetable gardens called Liberty Gardens. “They [vegetables] weren’t available and it was just something you were supposed to do. It was patriotic” (Ackerlund).
At school, the war “occupied all of our thoughts. Because…we didn’t know if anyone had gotten a message that their father or their uncle, somebody was killed.” Companies donated used paper to the schools, “and we’d use the backs of it…. And they were really frugal with it. I remember we were only allowed to use half a page. We had to fold it and tear it in half…. You just couldn’t waste anything” (Iacolucci). The children bought saving stamps, put on shows to raise money for the Red Cross, went on paper drives and collected metal.

When the war was over, Delma Carpenter said, “the steel mill blew their whistle, and I knew what it was instantly.” They also did it when Roosevelt died, “and I knew, both times, I had a sense of what was really happening…. Both times I was down by the steel mill.”

“Nothing Romantic”: A Steel Mill in our Midst

bethlehem steel

Over the years, the steel mill expanded over the tideflats, helping to fill them with steel byproducts. When the mill was Pacific Coast Steel, there was just a little building on the corner of 28th and Andover. Then there were a succession of names and owners: Seattle Steel; Bethlehem Steel; another Seattle Steel; Salmon Bay Steel, a subsidiary of Birmingham Steel (1991); Birmingham Steel (1992-93); and Nucor Steel (December, 2002 – present). Throughout hard times, the mill continued to be profitable–sometimes barely profitable–and continued to dominate the neighborhood with employment, land ownership, smoke, and noise.

The steel mill “was part of our lives. Everybody on that hill worked at the steel mill. Every morning at eight o’clock, the whistle blew. It blew loud and long. Then at three o’clock in the afternoon, same whistle blew…And once in awhile, nine o’clock at night” (Thornquist). Mill jobs provided good, regular pay.

At first, workers endured primitive conditions, so close to the tide-flats that salt clung to their clothing. “They’d step on their shoes and they would squish water,” Erma Schwartz recalled.

The work was exhausting. “My father used to come home and he’d lay across the bed and he was just all cramped,” Schwartz continued. She explained that the men held onto big tongs to move the molten iron in the furnace, make it into a ball, and then take the ball over to a pit where it would cool. Then it would be ironed out and put through the rolling mill part to make into plates. Her father cramped from trying to move the heavy ball with the tongs.

In response to these conditions, there was a strike before World War I. “[M]y father was very strong union man because of the fact of the poor conditions in which they were working. And so he and several other fellows got together and went on strike….” They got a union started and eventually went back to work, “but they had committees that would, if there was anything wrong, they’d go to management and say this has to be taken care of and so forth. So from that the union grew. It was 1208 Rainier Lodge.”

Because of the union, Schwartz said, conditions improved. “But it took these old men who really went through the mill to get behind it and see that things were done.” Today, the AFL-CIO local’s sign hangs on a private home that once housed the union and before that was the Congregational church.

Strikes occurred again during and after World War II. Delma Carpenter said she would be trudging through the snow to the Safeway on Spokane St. “Sometimes I’d be going by and the steel mill would be on strike, and the men would have big barrels, burn barrels…. They’d be at their burn barrels, and they’d stop and give me a cup of coffee…. And they’d have two of them because by the time I’d finally be warmed up I’d leave one, and I’d walk another three or four blocks and run into another one.”

Workers pulled together for the war effort, too. Gino Lucchesini’s father talked about the one day’s work they donated, the biggest production day ever. “Everybody worked hard, really produced.”

After the war, the mill switched from open hearth to an oxygen blasting mill, blowing oxygen into the pig iron and scrap to create heat. With the open hearth method, workers shoveled in calcium and magnesium and aluminum. “It was really quite a spectacular thing to see,” Nick Skalabrin recalled. “The rod would come down the full length of these rollers, the guy at the end would catch it and swing it around in a hot arc onto the rollers to go back in the other direction. And the thing did not collapse on him if he made that arc right. He’s standing in this hot arc. And the arc would go around him.” When the switch was made to oxygen blasting, many workers were laid off. Today the process is controlled by a person at computers in a booth far above the floor.

Outside the mill, great plumes of brown smoke filled the valley and obscured the hills on both sides, according to Clara Davison. Laundry hanging on clothes lines quickly turned brown. The mill eventually put in a conditioner to mitigate the smoke.

Production noise was nonstop. Davison remembers the sounds of the gondola cars at night. The “frogs” of steel being dumped into the cars “kept you awake.” “The steel mill was crushing cars and crushing every metal they could get ahold of,” in the 1940’s (Iacolucci). “It was banging and clanging all the time.” Gloria Coyle mentioned seeing the red hot steel and hearing the noon whistle and the steel dumped into railroad cars. “You know, when those ingots would traverse up this belt and drop into a railroad car, my brother, who was hard of hearing, could feel the vibration,” Iris Nichols recalled. “And at night, those things would go Clunk! I can still hear those things going Clunk! Clunk! Sometimes when they would drop a big [frog] it would kind of shake the house. Scare Neil [her brother] spitless because he thought there were monsters in the house, shaking the house.”
“There is nothing romantic about living next to a steel mill,” Janice Newell maintains.

On the east side of Pigeon Hill, Bethlehem Steel operated a fastener plant and a tie plant, making tieplates for railroads. Later SSI, a real estate company, tried to turn the Riverside mill into a mall. Where the Riverside Mill sign now hangs over an industrial plant, there was a roller-rink.

John Hendron’s father worked in one of three saw mills on Elliot Bay. “That’s what Seattle was built from,” he claims, “the efforts that went on in that valley.” Nick Skalabrin’s father came from Croatia in 1907 and first worked at Puget Sound Bridge and Dredge, building Harbor Island. Croatian women who lived in Riverside worked at the canneries

The Fisher Flouring Mills also provided employment and grain for Youngstown’s chickens. Neighborhood children could sweep up the wheat and corn that spilled over from railroad cars at the mills. When the children threw coal at the cars, the guys that worked on the railroad cars would throw dented cans of food back at them, from the canneries on Harbor Island.

Another employer was the brickyards on West Marginal Way. There were at least four brickyards operating in the first half of the century. Belgians and a lot of Swedes and Norwegians who lived on Pigeon Hill worked there. They used clay from the hillside for the bricks. When they closed, kiln dust remained on the sites. In the early years, many fathers were fishermen. Thelma Thornquist’s father had his own small commercial boat that he took to Alaska to fish halibut. Croatians introduced purse seining to Puget Sound, fishing for salmon in Elliott Bay or in Alaska in the Bering Sea. “There were barges full of salmon they were catching off the Duwamish” (Skalabrin). Iris Nichols recalled that her family moved to Youngstown because her father heard about work at the steel mill, but shortly after he started the mill went on strike, and he went to work at the shipyards. “After the strike, most of the men came back to the steel mill, but my father didn’t. He stayed at the shipyards.” Youngstown was a blue-collar neighborhood, with men working in the steel mill and shipyards and women not working unless their husbands died. “I don’t recall knowing anyone that was a ‘professional’” (Ackerlund).

Common Ground in Play

Throughout the 1930’s, eighth-grade graduation photos show that the school was still predominantly Euro-American. A few Japanese-American families sent children to Youngstown, the Ishida’s and Susumi’s, and at least one African-American family, the Hendersons. According to Betty MacWatters, the school was mainly Caucasian. “[Residents] were basically back then the immigrants of the 1900s, which were German, Polish, Italian, some English, Yugoslav, Austrian. We had a melting pot. And nobody was ever concerned with what they called you. They used to call us Wops, different slang names which are not permissible now. Of course, we had no other input. All the other races were not prevalent here. We didn’t have a lot of Hispanic. We didn’t have a lot of Afro-American. There were [a few] but they mingled and seemed to get along with people.”

Food exchanges at lunchtime and after school educated children in ethnic tastes: spaghetti traded for apple pie, Norwegian lefse passed around in the lunchroom. Skalabrin’s store sold pickled herring, lutefisk, sauerkraut, and bakalar (dried cod). Italians and Croatians competed in wine-making, sampling lugs of grapes shipped each fall to Georgetown from California. “And there’d always be an argument on Saturday night about the right way to make wine. They all had their wine,” Nick Skalabrin remembers.

Among the children, however, there was awareness of socio-economic differences that came with geography. There was freedom to ride bikes almost anywhere, comments Betty Dunn, except for the Gulch. “The only thing that we ever were warned about–you had to be careful of those kids that lived in The Gulch.”

“If you lived on the hill, you stayed on top of the hill,” Vivian McLean recalls, at least the children did. Families had so many children they had fun just among themselves. Debra Miles Yerg confirmed the experience of being tied to the hill except that she and her friends were free to roam up and down the hill and woods to Riverside.

Darla Fox viewed the difference from the valley: “There was a little bit of a separation of the kids that lived on the east side of Delridge Way—up on Pigeon Point, or south of the school—to all of us in our little neighborhood. We didn’t get together that much. There wasn’t any way of getting together unless we met at the park.”

The Duwamish River, Longfellow Creek, and the park were common gathering places for kids after school. “I can remember climbing up on one of the pilings,” says Mary Alice Willi; “the first time I jumped in the river, it was so cold it took my breath away! I thought I was going to drown and die right there.”

John Hendron describes an afternoon ritual in the summer: maybe up to two dozen kids building a fire on a section of Riverside beach and then swimming in the river. He learned to swim “by taking a piece of rope and putting five ring corks—fishnet corks—on the rope, and tying it around my waist. That caused me to float…. After awhile, I was able to take one ring off… and I could still swim. And then I’d take another ring, until I had only three rings on my life belt. I was still able to swim alright. I was going to take off another one, then I thought, ‘What the heck! I think I can swim without it.’ Then I threw it away.”

Once he was proficient, he joined the older boys: “Sometimes we’d get on a boat that was tied up at the dock and hide until it backed down into the river. Then we’d get up and thumb our noses at the captain, and jump off the bow as they backed out” and swim to shore. However, in the 1940’s, a third-grade student at Cooper drowned in the Duwamish.
Betty MacWatters played at the clay pits at the brick yards on the Riverside side of the hill. “Then on the river we would always borrow several of the men’s small rowboats… and we’d row out over the log booms to find the ducks on Kellogg Island.” Although they couldn’t swim a lick, “we’d walk them log booms. We must have been insane.” Children also swam when the tide came in to Spokane Street, but at least one boy drowned doing that.

Longfellow Creek runs through the Delridge valley, beginning at a bog near Roxbury Street, flowing north through what is now West Seattle Golf Course, and into the Sound. Salmon and beaver inhabited the creek, which was tamer than the river as long as it wasn’t flooding. Gino Lucchesini fished with worms and a stick with a piece of string. His brother gaffed salmon with a broomstick and a hook when they came up from the bay to spawn in the creek. Four-inch stickleback inhabited the swampy lower end of the creek in the early 1930’s (Hendron).

Cliff Davidson and his friend Richard Knight once caught a 13” rainbow trout in the culvert where the creek runs under the golf course. Davidson chased the fish from one end of the culvert, and Knight caught it with his bare hands, earning himself a picture in the newspaper.

Delma Carpenter described tying a big heavy rope to a tree. “We’d get up on the bank and would swing over the creek, and some of us would come back, and someone would grab us, and other times we’d just drop to the other side and wade back across and take turns doing that.” Newcomer kids might not know to make a good run on it and wind up in the creek. “So it was always a big deal when a greenhorn was going to do it because you knew he was going to have to drop into the creek” (Skalabrin).

Falling into the creek was not necessarily healthy. A lot of sewage and storm drain overflow flowed into it in the 1940’s and 50’s. When the steel mill diverted the creek’s water to a cooling pond, salmon could no longer spawn in the creek. Children swam in the cooling pond even though it was fenced; “you could climb over the fence” (Skalabrin). Today that polluted site is paved under a fitness center club parking lot.

“It wasn’t quite as clean back then [in the 1960’s] as it is now,” Bruce Schwald commented, but he and his friends still had great times, making little wooden replicas of hydroplanes and floating them on strings up and down the creek.

Periodically the creek overflowed its banks. The meadow across the street from the school was swampy because of the flooding. One of the PTA’s first actions was to have it drained.

Puget Mill Company was the original owner of much of the land in the area. They sold or donated sites near growing communities when there was a sharp increase in state taxes. In the 1920’s, the land south of Genesee Street was a dump. Kids went there to look for wheels, Gino Lucchesini recalls. “If you’d find some wheels, you’d make a little go-cart. We had to entertain ourselves, you know.” In 1938 the City of Seattle purchased that land, and WPA funds developed the West Seattle Golf Course and Recreation Area. In the early years, the golf course was not fenced, and children had easy access for bicycle riding, sledding, and picking up golf balls. “We used to go over to the golf course late at night and fly kites” (Fox).

The golf course, the playfield, and Camp Long served as large backyards. After the demise of the slingshot wars, Lucchesini remembers playing baseball and tennis in the park. Games of kick the can and hide and seek went on until dark on summer evenings. “We used to play up in Camp Long…up and down the paths for hours. During school, we’d go across the street and play at the playfield. And I don’t recall adults there. When they rang the bell, we’d go back across the street. And we’d play in hills, and running, just over that whole thing…. We had a great time. We had forts and camps and everything,” said Sharon Faler Ackerlund. Iris Nichols echoes that freedom: “One thing I remember from grade school that the kids can’t do now, and that is we could all meet up and just go someplace. Ride our bikes, play down by the creek, roller skate, go swimming at Colman pool. And our parents didn’t have to worry about us.” She tromped all over Youngstown, Pigeon Point and the valley selling Campfire mints by herself. Nick Skalabrin and his brother had a Schwinn Knee Action bike which they rode double. “We’d get on the top of Avalon Way… and we could coast all the way down Harbor Avenue to where we could fish for cod… We’d go there early enough that the tide would be down and we could get pile worms, and we’d use that for bait. So we’d catch cod, usually rock cod, and we’d bring it home and have it for dinner.”

Because the neighborhood was self-contained, “We had a run of the place. It was just everybody knew everybody, everybody went to Cooper that was in that area,” said Paula Tortorice. Along with that freedom came a certain amount of mischief. Grace Susumi Suyematsu recalls sliding down coal chutes on cardboard boxes Betty McKenzie used to slide down the cement rain gutters on the north side of the school to the sidewalk below with a friend. “Our mothers soon discovered this was the reason the soles of our shoes kept wearing thin.” Gino Lucchesini described five or six guys getting on the cow catcher of the small dinky (streetcar) that ran in the neighborhood to the main streetcar on Spokane Street. The boys would bounce the car up and down and rock it off the tracks. “Then they’d help [the conductor] put it back on.”

The neighborhood was not without rules for the children. In the early decades, most of the families had two parents at home, according to Georgia Baxter, and “there was always somebody there to tell them what to do or look out for them.”

“Most kids in those days…were very well disciplined. Whatever their dad said, that was it. No ands, ifs, or buts about it…. You always had to be home for dinner,” Lucchesini recalled. Although much of the play was unsupervised, parents supported community activities. Barbara Iacolucci described her fathering grooming the baseball field in the park: he would tie the old bedsprings to the back of the family Durant. “I’d stand on the bedsprings and he’d drive slow around and around. And that’s how we’d smooth out the Delridge ball fields!”

In the 1920’s Youngstown School hosted silent movies on Friday nights, featuring Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. “Friday night, that was a big deal, come up to the school and see the Charlie Chaplin movie” (Lucchesini). With a community center, the park became a more organized hub of activities with dances on Friday nights, tap dance lessons, and nickel movies. It was always neutral ground where any kid in the neighborhood could go. There were trips outside of the neighborhood, too, bicycling to Alki Beach and the Natatorium and to Colman Pool in Lincoln Park. In the 1930’s, “A group of us would gather enough money to have a five-cent hamburger and a ten-cent movie” at the theaters downtown, Georgia Baxter recounted. Then they would walk up the waterfront, through Hooverville, and into town. There were also summer trips to the zoo at Woodland Park and excursions to the skating rink in White Center.
Religious organizations held the community together, too. Bayview (or Mayflower) Church had started on Pigeon Hill in the early 1900’s, later becoming known as First Congregational Church. The church sponsored a basketball team for neighborhood boys. In the 1920’s, Swedish immigrants started the Youngstown Corps of the Salvation Army, which moved into a hall across the street from the church on Andover and 23rd, hosting Sunday School and youth work. Iacolucci recalls that people felt comfortable at the Salvation Army church because they didn’t have to dress up in suits, dresses, hats, gloves, and high heels they couldn’t afford. The Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, and the Salvation Army Girl Guards used the basement during the week. Many of the families in the communities were Catholic and went to Holy Rosary Church, and some children attended Catholic schools.

The first Boy Scout troop at Cooper School was organized by the Sea Scouts in 1936. Another troop was organized in 1943 and took boys on two-week hiking trips to the Olympic Peninsula. “This was still considered a rough neighborhood,” Fred Hansen recalled, “but our Scout leader [Lionel Skinner] had such an interest in the boys of the community, not to let them become juvenile delinquents. It was important to have this stability for the boys.” Besides having one of the only telephones in the community, Skalabrin’s store on Dakota had a branch of the public library and the polling place for a huge part of West Seattle. During one of Franklin Roosevelt’s later terms, people lining up for the one voting machine stretched five blocks long, all the way up Dakota Street to 30th Avenue and then across and up by the golf course.

Neighborhood Improvement

Pride began early in Youngstown. The Youngstown Improvement Club was organized in 1914, and Bill Schwartz was president. In the 1930’s the Schwartzes led a movement to change the image of Youngstown, to escape the negative stigma of a company town. Erma attributes the effort to her father’s pride: “…his pride and my mother’s pride. They didn’t want me coming from a neighborhood that we would be ashamed of…. “

The PTA, under Henrietta Schwartz’s leadership, petitioned the school board to change the school’s name. The board tried to find out if the whole neighborhood supported the name change and asked the PTA committee for suggestions of new names. After serious consideration of naming the school after Catherine Blaine, wife of the first Methodist minister in Seattle and its first schoolteacher, the committee decided to avoid the connotation of a girls’ school. They recommended the name Frank B. Cooper, after the progressive superintendent.

Students were assembled in the auditorium and told the name would change to better the community, according to Fred Tharp. Students would receive a C for Cooper instead of a Y for Youngstown for awards. “It sounded better,” he thought; “not so rugged and tough because we were really right next to the steel mill, and it was pretty husky in those days.”

Not all of the community thought the name needed to be changed. Willi recalls that she was pretty upset about the name change. “I didn’t know who Cooper was, quite frankly.”

After the school’s name change in 1939, Schwartz’s parents worked to persuade the city to widen and pave 24th, the main avenue at the base of Pigeon Hill. The city first paved one side of the dirt road and then the next. “They took off ten feet of everybody’s property and never paid you for it. But they took it to make it wider, and they first paved our side, and then people complained they were parking out in the middle. So Dad went down and argued with them and said, ‘On the other side, we need cement too.’ So they did finally pave the other side and left the middle in dirt. That progressed finally way out to White Center” (Schwartz). The street was renamed Delridge Way with its more positive connotations of a dell between ridges. The collection of neighborhoods, such as Youngstown and Pigeon Hill, eventually became Delridge, too. (9)

Community activism continued when local businessmen built a community club farther south on Delridge Way. The club hosted plays, dinners, and dancing. For a time, the Westside Italian Civic Club met there. Eventually the Youngstown Improvement Club became the Delridge Improvement Club, both a precursor to today’s Delridge Community Association.

9. Attempts to change the name of Pigeon Point have not been successful.

The Gulch

The lowland between Duwamish Head and Pigeon Point was known as the Gulch, sometimes Poverty Gulch or Garlic Gulch or Little Italy because of the large number of Italian families who lived there. Nichols remembers that the Seraphina’s, Bertoldi’s, Guntoli’s, Scatina’s, and Valentinetti’s were mostly congregated just south of the steel mill, “so I grew up learning to love Italian food.”

“We were called Gulch Rats,” according to Darla Fox. “We were always called Gulch Rats” while the kids living down on West Marginal Way on the river were called “River Rats.”

Besides being poor, the Gulch could be an especially rough neighborhood. In the 1920’s, a single policeman (O’Neill, a “big Irishman”) patrolled Youngstown. Every hour he would call into the precinct in West Seattle from the police call box on 26th and Andover. There were taverns toward Spokane Street and a whorehouse that children were warned away from. Bootleggers operated from Youngstown, and there was an occasional violent death. The druggist, George Holman, once shot a man who tried to rob him. At Mike’s Meats robbers blew the whole side of the building out and took the safe.

When Prohibition was repealed, Gino Lucchesini’s father, Guido, converted his pool hall into a tavern, across from the entrance to the steel mill on Andover Street. Lucchesini described the tavern as a form of entertainment, with shuffleboard, pool tables, and league play, serving steel workers, shipyard workers, and people in the neighborhood.

There was more than one gang: a “cross-the-creek” gang, the “east side of the creek” gang, and the gang south of the school field. Lucchesini described slingshot wars between the 26th Avenue Gang on the east side of the Longfellow Creek and the 28th Avenue Gang on the west side. “I was too young to have a slingshot—the older kids handled the slingshot—but I used to carry rocks. You used to use garbage can lids for protectors.” He remembers that dads intervened to stop these wars after one boy got hit in the head with a cross-the-creek shot.

In later decades, Davidson remembers a Gulch Gang of young toughs, some of them really crooks, some not. “They stole cars, things off of cars, had a theft ring going.” Because of this reputation for gangs, the cops would patrol Youngstown and would stop kids after 10 p.m., well into the 1950’s. “We’d get back from a football game, and they would ‘roust us out’—make kids get out of cars, spread-eagled, be searched. We were a sure target for the cops.”

The community’s reputation was described by Richard Hugo, one of the Northwest’s best-known poets. Hugo grew up in White Center at the southern end of Delridge and wrote about the communities of White Center, Youngstown, and Riverside in his autobiography, The Real West Marginal Way. Riverside, Hugo wrote, was “a cluster of drab frame houses,” with Slavic and Greek immigrants: “The homes huddle together and climb the east side of Pigeon Hill, up into alders and ivy.” Despite this drab appearance, he found Riverside attractive. “The names, Popick, Zuvela, Petrapolous, were exotic, and the community, more European in appearance than any other in Seattle, always seemed beautiful to me.”

His description of the entire neighborhood was less favorable: “the filthy, loud belching steel mill, the oily slow river, the immigrants hanging on to their odd ways, Indians getting drunk in the unswept taverns, the commercial fishermen, tugboat workers, and mill workers with their coarse manners.”

In contrast, the middle-class communities of West Seattle towered above the gulch. To the west “sat the castle, the hill, West Seattle where we would go to high school. What a middle class paradise. West Seattle…was an ideal. To be accepted there meant one had become a better person.“ (8)

“It was everybody’s dream, I think, to eventually get to West Seattle,” said Mary Alice Willi.

Barbara Iacolucci recalls that everyone was pretty much in the same boat. “We all lived in areas where…there really wasn’t any snobbery because nobody had a lot. The area wasn’t poor, but compared to West Seattle they probably thought it was poor.”

In his middle school and high school years, Fred Hansen became aware of the distinction between Delridge and West Seattle. “This was always considered a lower-class neighborhood. But then we began to take pride in the fact that this was our neighborhood, a tough neighborhood. And when we went to high school, a lot of our kids from here were good athletes and did very well at the high school. Even at the high school we hung around together at the radiator. They called us the Radiator Gang. We were the Youngstown or Cooper Radiator Gang. But it was fun because no one gave you any trouble….”

8. Richard Hugo. The Real West Marginal Way: A Poet’s Autobiography. (W.W. Norton, 1986).

The Great Depression

The Depression of the 1930’s was a hard time for a working class community like Youngstown. The steel mill was closed much of the time, putting up a small blackboard to notify employees when there was an order that would produce a few days work. Many Riverside residents worked in public projects under federal programs like the Works Progress Administration. Women went to work at the National Cannery Company, on call whenever products such as pork and beans, fruits and vegetables arrived or the local fishing fleet brought its catch.

People relied on their gardens, on fishing, on keeping chickens and goats, and on drinking goats’ milk when needed. They would get through the winters by canning fruit from trees in the neighborhood. Residents also gathered coal that fell off the railroad cars passing through. The customers at Skalabrin’s grocery store ran up large charge books; the store would carry families until payday and often beyond.

Dale Corliss and his family were invited to dinner by a family who had thirteen children. “We had corn flakes and canned milk and bread with lard on it. That was their dinner–that was a special dinner. We never forgot that.”

Many of the children at Youngstown came from large families. Harold Tuffs (whose family had 11) mentioned the Walcotts who lived up on Avalon and had 18 children. “That mother would bring this huge box out on the porch. Then the youngest would come out, and get a kiss and a sack. And a kiss and a sack. Kiss and a sack [he makes a motion like a stair-step]…. I used to love to run up there and watch that.”

At lunchtime, many students could not afford to buy the hot lunch. Those who did considered it a treat. “[I]n the late Depression, we could never afford to throw away food,” Clifford Harrington recalls. “My mother used to say, ‘If you can’t eat it, don’t take it.’ I think I remember peanut butter sandwiches and soup and that little bottle of milk…. we never would leave any food because it cost too much.” Others remembered oyster soup, surplus meat, and tapioca pudding. In addition, those students who qualified would receive a milk lunch, a morning snack of milk and crackers.

The school also hosted a program for pre-school children which included a daily lunch, and there was a commissary by the steel company where people could get milk, bread, flour, eggs, sugar, and salt. “I remember my brother had his little red wagon,” Baxter recalled. “He and I, it was our job to take that wagon down and get our stuff and bring it home.” Her father trolled for fish for the family and sold the extra fish for 25, 50, or 75 cents, depending on size.

Hard times showed up in sewing classes, too. Girls making dresses allowed a generous hem so it could be let down as they grew. Instead of buying new fabric, they brought scrap from home for their projects or fabric from old clothes that could be dyed and re-used. Georgia Baxter’s mother would rip up hand-me-down clothes people had given them, wash the material, then cut out patterns and make new clothes for her children.

Youngstown students who went on to West Seattle High School often walked to the top of Duwamish Head to save the streetcar fare. “We used to get streetcar tokens, two for a nickel, and if you couldn’t afford them we walked from there up to the high school…,” recalled Erma Schwartz. Once during a snow storm, “three of us went up there and Abbe Cash [the boys’ advisor] met us at the door and he said, ‘You crazy kids. Why did you come?’ Well, that was a letdown after we had struggled all that way to get up there in the snow storm.” The children warmed up in a room of the school and then trudged back down the hill.

An Expanding Curriculum

In the flourishing 1920’s, Seattle passed a bond issue for schools. A new eight-room building, designed by architect Floyd A. Naramore, joined the older brick school*. The classy new building wasn’t quite finished when school started in the fall of 1929. Teacher Jennie Jones described some of the confusion in verses from a song she titled “Owed [sic] to Youngstown.” It was sung to the tune of “Clementine”:

“Whistled tunes of merry workmen

Hymns intoned along the hall,

Flues are hammered, buzzers tested,

Still we teach above it all….

“We are waiting for our blackboards,

There to write assignments neat,

Till they come, we are expected

All directions to repeat.”

Once it was finished, the new school had a gym, a lunchroom, two libraries and additional rooms for classes in sewing, cooking, art, music, shop, and drama. Although supplies were limited at first, the arts and music curriculum became strong. There was an orchestra “that anybody could join if they could play,” Willi remembers.

Even “at the height of the Depression with no money… we had music every day,” Corliss recalls. He described the Standard Hour (named after the gas company). “For half an hour, we put our heads on the desk [and listened to the radio] and we were told to specify when we heard a certain instrument… For instance, if I had [been] assigned a tuba, I had to raise my hand when I heard it…. It taught us how instruments play together.”

He also recalled singing every day in class, songs like “Old Man River,” “Massuh’s in the Cold, Cold Ground,” “Home on the Range,” and “Finlandia,” which Jennie Jones wrote words to.  The teachers at Youngstown “encouraged music for everyone whether you were a football player or soccer player…. [W]hether they liked music or not, we all learned it.”

Clifford Davidson experienced music outside of class, too. On the third floor at the end of the stairway, up into the attic, “there was an old victrola…. We used to like to go in there and play this record over and over and over again on the victrola. It was ‘Aida.’”

Physical education classes designed to make students “stronger, straighter, and healthier” (Willi) could meet in the new gym or on the playfield. The curriculum of the 1920’s included lessons in sanitation and personal hygiene and a survey of the children’s health habits. The regular room teachers taught setting up exercises for 10 minutes each morning, with an emphasis on posture, sitting, standing, and walking.

For a posture contest for the girls, Willi’s mother made her a dress with pinstripes going up and down “because it would make me look straighter. I didn’t win but at least it did make me look straighter.”

The school had two play courts, one for boys and one for girls, both with covered areas when it rained. The drinking fountains were separate, too. Any boy found on the girls’ side had to wear a ribbon in his hair. “But there was an area where the girls could see the boys—between the courts—and often the kids would holler back and forth. It worked very well. The boys played their games and roughhoused around, and the girls played what they wanted to,” relates Betty Rinaldo MacWatters. Boys played mainly soccer, softball, and Soak-em. Other alumni remember playing drop the hankie, jacks, marbles, hop-scotch, streets and ladders, skinning the cat, jumping rope, dodgeball, tag, and sliding on the ice on the playfield.

One day of the week was library day “where we checked out books and learned to enjoy reading, said Betty Moe McKenzie. Every Tuesday was Bank Day, which taught the habit of saving. “You used to bring a bank book and your little dime or your nickel,” said Darlene Allen, “and somebody would be the banker.” McKenzie explained that the school was the way to convey deposits to Washington Mutual Bank, which had a School Savings Department with accounts in parents’ names. “I was always so proud to lay a dollar bill down on the desk,” she recalled. According to the school’s newsletter, the Youngstown Spotlight, 33% of students were banking in the 1930’s; the writer appealed to school spirit to bring the percentage higher. In math, children figured out the class banking percentages.

What they didn’t put in the bank, students spent in the neighborhood stores to which they walked, especially the ice cream and soda fountain, which lasted until the 1950’s. “The big thing was to walk down as far as the drug store, George’s, and go in there—they had the old wood counter—and have Green River Sundaes. Those were the fun things” (MacWatters). Besides Green Rivers (green and bubbly drinks made at the fountain), George Holman’s store had ice cream, penny chocolates, chocolate sodas, and cherry Cokes, remembers Betty Beavert Dunn.

A nickel bought a lot. Bruce Schwald’s father was a roofer for the Seattle School District, and he was working on the Cooper School roof one day when Bruce was walking home from school. “Hey, Dad, can I have a nickel?” he called up to his father on the roof. He wanted to buy an ice cream bar at the school. Bruce’s dad obliged, but a crowd of schoolkids had gathered, and they grabbed for the nickels. “He must have thrown down 50 cents worth of nickels, and I never did get one, but he made a lot of kids happy that day.”

Life wasn’t all sodas and ice cream. “I used to walk down to the meat market in Youngstown every Tuesday to buy a pound of hamburger,” wrote Linda Fouts McCullough, “and he would always give me a pickle from the big barrel there.”

* The old frame building was torn down in 1929. In 2005, construction of a parking lot north of the school revealed some of its foundations

Teachers of the Seattle Way

During the school’s first fifty years, most of the teachers were single women. Few professions were open to women, and teaching attracted the brightest and most ambitious. Although Frank Cooper resigned as superintendent during the less progressive decade of the 1920’s, he had hired many of the women who would bring the Seattle Way to the classroom. As long as they remained unmarried, teachers could stay for years, and most did. In the period between the two world wars, only 5% resigned to be married. (7)

Long-time teachers like Jennie Jones and Florine Bassett taught multiple members of the same families. Miss Jones, from Wales, started the Glee Club, and many students remember her encouragement and kindness. “She was a wonderful teacher when it came to singing” (Hendron).

Many alumni spoke of Miss Bassett with awe. “I don’t ever remember that woman smiling,” said Iris Nichols.

“Teachers…were thought much higher of than they are now…. They were the ones that you looked up to,” confirms Dale Corliss. When Nick Skalabrin’s kindergarten teacher claimed he was talking baby-talk, his parents began speaking English at home instead of Croatian.

Teachers traveled–to Mt. Rainier, to Europe, places most of their students didn’t visit. Jessie Williams brought back ivy from her trip to Mt. Vernon and planted it on the school grounds. The teachers commanded respect, well into the 1950’s. “We had good teachers,” Darlene Allen said. “You never challenged.”

“Your parents never talked about teachers not being good…. Kids behaved because if you didn’t behave, someone in the neighborhood would tell on you,” added Pat Schille.

Students were loyal to their teachers, and newcomers who didn’t know that could face a tough reception. A 16-year-old boy who came to the school in the 8th grade insulted Dorothy Hoff, who was a very popular teacher, known for singing “Ave Maria” in a beautiful voice. A 13-year-old confronted the older boy over his disrespect, and the two decided to settle their differences in the park. The whole eighth grade class, along with the teacher, showed up, with the students cheering on the younger student. “It was kind of an epic for the school,” recalls Clifford Davidson, a student there in the 1940’s.

Like the brazen newcomer, “All of the problem kids got dumped at Cooper,” Davidson claimed, “maybe because we were tough.” For years the school was the site of “adjustment” classes, later called special education. “The adjustment classes weren’t a problem at Cooper, but the tough kids were,” Davidson said.

Youngstown’s principals, too, made an impact. Worth McClure went from principal at Youngstown to become the Seattle superintendent in 1929. Stately, short and roundish, Principal Bella Perry was known for humming, for walking the halls, and for the razor strap she wore on her wrist. John Hendron remembers her as “a dignified lady from the South” who had a bit of an accent, was very cultured, and drove an impressive car. Georgia Baxter remembers her as a “gruff person” who shamed her because she did not read well.
“She turned me over her knee once and paddled me because I had spoken back to the teacher,” Dale Corliss remembers. “I was so shocked that she put me over her knee! But from then on, she was the most wonderful person that I could imagine.”

Hendron did not experience Miss Perry’s strap, but he does remember being swatted by Principal Aaron Newell when he tried to block the door to the boys’ restroom. “I came out of the boys’ room, pushed the door open—it was a swinging door—when I got outside, I was leaning against the door and holding it shut, so my friends on the inside couldn’t get out. They were banging on the door and hollering. I was on an angle, so I had it pretty well stopped up. Had my legs kind of apart, really pushing on that door. All of a sudden I went up that door three or four feet. I had been swatted on the bottom by Mr. Newell. He came up behind me and just lifted me right off the ground with that swat.” Click for audio

7. Pieroth, Doris Hinson. Seattle’s Women Teachers of the Interwar Years. (Seattle and London: U. of Wa. Pr., 2004) 16.

A Progressive Education

Steel production boomed during World War I, and as the United States entered the war in 1917, the school bell was moved to a new five-room brick building erected next to the frame building. The brick building had classrooms, a home economics department, and a cafeteria, combined with an auditorium. “We were so thrilled because we were going to get to go into the new building,” Thelma Thornquist remembered. When it opened, the school was already overcrowded, and portables were erected during the war. The teaching staff grew to eleven, including a kindergarten teacher.

Youngstown’s classrooms reflected the immigration of Europeans to the U.S. in the early 20th century and the movement of immigrant families from the Midwest. Croatians, Yugoslavians, Greek, Irish, Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians settled into Riverside. Scandinavians like the Thornquists settled on Pigeon Hill. Thornquist began school speaking better Swedish than English. John Hendron, who lived two blocks up the hill from the school, remembers nine different Olson families within three blocks.

Italians like the Lucchesini’s and Valentinetti’s settled in the valley. There were also Greek, French, Austrian, Sicilian, and Russian families. Ariadne Morris came to Youngstown with her family in 1923 after the Russian Revolution: “We lived near the steel mill in a very small home, part of which had been built from old wooden crates. There were other Russian families around, like the Dubecks. Because we didn’t have a car, we often socialized with them in our home… I guess you could say we maintained a Russian lifestyle, spoke only Russian and often ate Russian soups…” (1)

Assimilating children of immigrants to the American culture was a mission of the Seattle School District under the leadership of Superintendent Frank B. Cooper. Cooper adopted a progressive approach to education which became known as The Seattle Way. It emphasized character development and the values of democracy, patriotism, obedience, hard work, and civic responsibility as well as use of the English language. (2) Elementary schools were laboratories for democracy, and moral instruction was integral to teaching.

Youngstown School took those values to heart. Holiday programs and assemblies reflected the dominant American culture and the Christian religion. Christmas and Easter were both observed in school. For the Christmas pageant, the school kids would put on their clothing from different countries; “we would have a parade, everybody in their own country’s clothes with a gift for the child to take onto the stage” explained Georgia Baxter. The minister of University Christian Church gave the address during the Book Week assembly in the 1920’s, a celebration that featured Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Robinson Crusoe, Little Bo Peep, Little Black Sambo, and Little Boy Blue.

The school gave equal time to pagan holidays, too, like Halloween and May Day. Many alumni remember Maypole dances and the crowning of May Day kings and queens. Mary Alice Fort Willi and Gino Lucchesini were king and queen in the 1920’s; the dance was in the playfield across 24th from the school.

Patriotism was taught through holidays, like Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays and Memorial Day. In 1915, during World War I, the school board instituted flag saluting, and thereafter the school day always began with a flag salute. For more than 20 years after the war ended, Armistice Day was celebrated with a moment of silence. “Patriotism permeated life in Seattle schools during the first four decades of the twentieth century,” writes historian Doris Pieroth, “even more so in schools with large immigrant populations. Making good, loyal citizens of all children remained a primary goal.” (3)

The school educated the whole child with a learning-by-doing approach. Domestic science, manual training, and gardening were part of the curriculum. The wooden school had a 15-foot square vegetable garden protected by netting. Students worked in the garden “to teach us about home gardening” (Schwartz).

Many of the students already knew these practical arts. Baxter’s father kept a vegetable garden, had fruit trees in the backyard, and got fish from the Sound. “That’s how we survived.”

Mary Alice Fort Willi recalls that her widowed grandmother grew and sold raspberries to supplement her income running a boarding house for mill workers. “She had a big field of raspberries. And she would pick the raspberriesand take them down to the local grocery store…. They would allow her so much money for her berries toward her food. That was her way of making a living.” She also remembered an elderly couple who owned a cow, a daily source of milk. “Every once in awhile he [Grandpa Taif, she called him] would let me come in the barn and watch him milk the cow. He’d plant me there and tell me to open my mouth. And he’d squirt the milk right in my mouth.”

Parts of the hands-on curriculum were separated by gender. When they got to the sixth or seventh grades, the boys did manual training, and the girls took a half semester of cooking or sewing. As part of their schoolwork, girls made the dresses they wore for the eighth-grade graduation photos. But Aurora Valentinetti remembers that Cooper was quite innovative because the boys took cooking and sewing, too. “We cooked for each other. And they had to sew, too. They learned how to set the table… and the girls took shop.” Baxter says the school experimented with letting the girls take wood construction but dropped it after a year.

“We learned to work hard, to be responsible for our actions,” recalls Valentinetti. “I think a lot of it had to do because we were such a mixed ethnic group there. These were all people who had come from dire poverty. They came here to get a better life. They really were patriotic…. They wanted to succeed.”

1. Gail Dubrow and Alexa Berlow. Delridge Community History. (Seattle Dept. of Parks and Recreation, 1994) 13.
2. Pieroth, Doris Hinson. Seattle’s Women Teachers of the Interwar Years. (Seattle and London: U. of Wa. Pr., 2004) 5, 22.
3. Pieroth, 136, 139.

Youngstown School’s Beginnings

As families moved in, Youngstown needed a school for the workers’ children. Most could not afford the streetcar fare to Haller School at the top of Duwamish Head. A small school had been operating in Riverside since 1888, the walk over the ridge would be too long and hard. In 1906 the steel mill provided a room in a tiny office building. Seventy children showed up for school in September.

The first teacher, Martha Anderson, couldn’t teach 70 children, so the county superintendent quickly recruited a second teacher. She was Edna Audett, who had just earned her teacher’s certificate. She rode horseback to school every day from her family’s home in West Seattle. These two women divided the children into two grades and two rooms.

When West Seattle annexed Youngstown and then Seattle annexed West Seattle in 1907, the Seattle School District constructed a wood-frame building with classrooms for grades 1-8. Designed by Edgar Blair, the school perched south and east of the tide-flats, at 23rd and Genesee, on flat land up against the base of Pigeon Hill. At the beginning of school in 1908, students were greeted by four teachers, each teaching two grades. A hand-bell rang the start of the school day.

The Riverside school became an annex to Youngstown School. Boys were sent daily as messengers between the two, over the top of Pigeon Hill, up and down a staircase with more than 200 steps, and down West Marginal Way. (3)

There were Duwamish children, too, living on the river at the base of Pigeon Point, but they did not come to school. Early residents remember the Indian encampments on the water. In Riverside, there were “about 200 Indians from there and up the river,” according to Erma Schwartz, but she doesn’t remember any Indian children in her classes. They either stayed with their families or were sent to reservation schools such as the one at Tulalip.

3. The school remains on West Marginal Way with an original blackboard with names still on it.

A Steel Community Grows

tideflats steel millThe land development that crowded out the Duwamish rippled through the tideflats and cove at the northeastern end of the Duwamish Peninsula. In the late 1800’s, John Longfellow had farmed this cove and logged the hills and valley for a cash crop. The trout creek the Duwamish called to-AH-wee was renamed Longfellow Creek. Land developers started the small settlement of Humphry where trees had been cut.

Humphry grew up to a mill town when William Pigott bought land for the Northern Pacific Railroad and 55 acres for himself on the tidelands. The site, near the waterfront and the proposed rail line from downtown to West Seattle, would be an ideal spot for manufacturing and transporting iron and steel. Pigott had opened iron mills in New York and Colorado; Judge E.M. Wilson owned and ran a mill in Lakeview, Tacoma. Joining forces in 1903, they formed the Seattle Steel Company and began construction the next year on Pigott’s land. Seattle movers and shakers hyped the beginning of a new industrial epoch; a special train carried 500 of Seattle’s leading citizens out to the mill for an opening reception on May 5, 1905. Humphry faded into Youngstown, named for the steel town in Ohio.

Youngstown occupied the tideflats and low valley between two ridges, what is now Pigeon Hill to the east and the slope toward Duwamish Head on the west. Wilson, the company president, and Pigott, the vice president, built large homes on the hill to the west. Workers came to work and to live in homes or rooming houses in the lowlands, just a short walk across pilings to the mill.

The company offered jobs to 140 employees, including 70 skilled ironworkers. Some of the workers, like John Heinzinger, the company’s top roller, moved with the mill from Lakeview. Others heard about jobs from friends. Erma Schwartz’s father Bill came from Portland in 1912, found a job and a house to rent and sent for his wife and four-year-old daughter.

Word of employment spread much farther than Portland. Gino Lucchesini’s father, Guido, heard from friends that Italians had settled in Youngstown and that work was available on the railroads and then in the steel mill. He came in 1912 from the town of Ponti Buggona and returned to Italy to bring back his wife, Atilia, in 1913. Archie Smith, an African-American, had worked in a steel foundry in St. Louis before moving to Seattle in 1922. After six months of looking for work, he was hired on at the mill, too.

Erma Schwartz and her mother arrived on a streetcar which crossed the Duwamish River on a trestle. “There’s water,” Erma said. “I sat there with my eyes on that water; I couldn’t understand why we were on the water.” When the streetcar reached Pigeon Point, it turned and came south, and they got off and walked up to their house on 26th Avenue. (Courtesy Southwest Seattle Historical Society/Log House Museum)

The tide-flats of Elliott Bay ended at Andover Street where there was a collection of stores: Mitchell Sauriol’s grocery and post office; Loui Baldi’s meat market; and, farther west, two rooming houses for workers at the mill. Baldi owned a grocery store in Pioneer Square, and he would take bulk orders for groceries every Wednesday. On Dakota and 28th, Simon and Anthony Skalabrin opened a general store. About once a year, Gypsies came around to re-tin copper pots and do welding from a wagon. Click for audio(Thornquist) “[T]he fact that it was a complete town made it great for all of us,” Schwartz recalled. Click for audio (McLean)

As Youngstown grew, so did the community of Riverside, on the Duwamish River on the east side of Pigeon Hill. The river was dredged and straightened from 1909 to 1917, to control flooding and create an industrial waterway. Soon riverside industries offered jobs, and the demand for housing increased. Local grocery stores supplied residents and the fishing fleet; single-room occupancy hotels lodged laborers, and worker’s families could rent portable housing.

The Duwamish

duwamish tribeThe first people of the Duwamish Peninsula were the Duwamish. For almost two thousand years, they hunted, gathered, and fished along Elliott Bay and the Duwamish River. There were several winter villages and seasonal camps. Two of these villages were Tu?elal?tx, “where herrings live,” and Ha-AH-poos, about a mile apart on the lowest stretch of the river. The Duwamish built longhouses for the winter and wove mats attached to a pole frame for seasonal camps. They constructed sweat lodges, fish weirs and aerial duck nets and gathered a bounty of seafood from the river, bay, and tideflats. In the early 1850’s, when Euro-American settlers arrived, some 300 Duwamish were camped at the mouth of the river. Their numbers had already been reduced by diseases that had arrived even before the settlers. In 1853 and 1854, the territorial governor, Isaac Stevens, signed treaties with the native people, which consigned them to reservations. After signing the Treaty of Point Elliott, many of the Duwamish moved across the Sound to the Suquamish Reservation, and some went to the Tulalip or Yakima reservations. The Duwamish never received a reservation of their own. The newcomers signed a petition to their territorial delegate stating that a reservation along the Duwamish River would be “unnecessary” for the natives and “injurious” to the settlers. (1) Despite this hostility, some stayed near the waterfronts. Some married into the Euro-American population and moved inland and upland. During a land development boom in 1893, several Duwamish were burned out of their homes near the ancient villages. From then on, there were no permanent Duwamish sites. Some still made an annual trip to Alki Point, building small shelters and harvesting clams, mussels, geoduck, octopus, and salmon. (2) By the 1910 and 1920 censuses, Native Americans formed only 1% of the population of the northeastern Duwamish peninsula. “They were poor, they had nothing,” remembers Thelma Thornquist, an early Youngstown student. “My mother gathered clothes from the neighborhood that were cast off. My brother took a shopping bag and maybe once every two, three weeks, he would go down to the Indian village [on an island] and give them the clothes. They would give him baskets that they had knitted.”


“Coming of Age In Delridge”

On Delridge Way, where tide-flats once spread to Elliott Bay, sits a massive brick building. For 70 years, the Youngstown/Cooper School anchored a neighborhood of lowlands and ridges on the Duwamish Peninsula. For 15 years, the building was vacant. The concrete steps leading to the arched entrance were mossy and crumbling; plywood blocked light through the tall windows, and blackberry vines stretched onto the playfield. A once vibrant school was used for storage.

The school had been a crossroads for this working-class neighborhood. The children of southern and eastern European immigrants came over the hill from Riverside, a fishing community along the Duwamish River. The children of Scandinavian immigrants came down the hill from Pigeon Point. Italian, German, and Russian children and the children of steel mill workers came from the valley called Youngstown between Pigeon Hill and Duwamish Head.

During World War II, Japanese-American children left the school for internment camps; the children of defense workers streaming to Puget Sound jobs replaced them. After the war, a few more African-American children and the first African-American teacher in Seattle came to Cooper. In its last three decades, Native Americans, Filipinos, Southeast Asians and Samoans attended the school as well. Their experiences inside the brick building shaped the community they lived in and the adults they became. Besides reading, math, social studies, science, music, art, and physical education, Cooper taught civics, patriotism, the dominant culture, and upward mobility.

In 2006, the school re-opened as the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, housing artists and cultural groups. In the process of renovating the building, the neighborhood also rediscovered its history.