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.