Pity any ancestor who went to Santa Rosa grade schools around the turn of the century. Besides readin’ writin’ and ‘rithmetic, there was also plenty of squintin’ and crowdin’ and freezin’ by the kids. Classrooms were heated by a single potbelly stove; there often weren’t enough desks and lighting was poor (no electricity). One school didn’t even have indoor plumbing.
Those were some of the shocking details found in a 1904 expose of conditions in Santa Rosa’s three elementary schools. Or perhaps we should say there were six, because each was so overcrowded some students were taught in outbuildings not intended for human occupancy.
The flagship of the town’s public school system was the Fourth street school, currently the location known as Fremont Park. (It was renamed Fremont school in early 1906, following a popular trend to rename schools after people rather than a location.)
Built in 1874 and meant to hold 600 students, it was soon packed to the brim; in 1878 – when it was first used as a combined grammar and high school – there were over a thousand. That number dropped by about half after the high school was built on Humboldt street (1895), but the Board of Education was still regularly told the place was overcrowded. Classrooms were intended to hold about forty desks, and a particular class could be smaller or far larger. One year they had to split seventh and eighth grades into morning and afternoon sessions to accommodate all the students.
The 1904 expose found school children still enduring mid-Victorian era conditions. Lighting in the rooms was described as “very dark,” “very bad,” “little short of criminal,” and “vile.” Half of the second graders – fifty kids – were being taught in a “temporary one story building with a low thin roof.” (The reporter probably meant “tin roof,” as the article also says there was no ceiling.)
All classrooms were cramped, but the worst was the one for sixth grade, where there were 62 students squeezed together so tightly the aisles were “almost impassable.” Some had to share a desk and a few had no desks at all, sitting on chairs and stools. The Republican reporter took a photo of this room but as seen to the right, it appears nearly black on the microfilm copy of the image.
It doesn’t appear the reporter visited the Davis street school (later renamed Lincoln school and at the corner of Davis and Eighth) which was the other main elementary school in Santa Rosa and built about a decade after Fourth street/Fremont.* The two schoolhouses were roughly the same size but Davis st. rarely was overcrowded, its student population usually no more than two-thirds as large. It had an outbuilding classroom as well.
There was also a “small one room cottage” on Third street in the early 1900s used for the overflow of first graders from all schools. From the description in the 1904 article it was in a backyard or behind commercial buildings (it’s not identified on the Sanborn fire map of the same year). References in the papers show it always exceeded its capacity of forty, which was already around twice the average size of a 1st grade classroom today.
But the crème de la crap of the Santa Rosa school system was South Park. Built cheaply in 1887 at the corner of Ware and South Main (today it’s the intersection of Petaluma Hill Road and Ware Ave) it was just outside of city limits, which meant there was no fire protection or sewer hookup. It had no plumbing except for a sink that drained into a culvert in front of the school; 90+ pupils and their teachers shared an outhouse.
South Park initially taught grades 1-8, but by 1904 kids went to Davis or Fourth street schools after third grade. Still, classrooms were overcrowded as badly as those found at Fourth street, having the additional problem of the place being poorly maintained with evidence of heavy water damage.
That lengthy article on school conditions served two purposes: It announced there was new blood publishing the Santa Rosa Republican, and they weren’t afraid to poke around some of the city’s problems (more about that below). It also helped promote a school bond proposition, which was coming up for a vote in a couple of weeks.
The school bond was to pay for various building improvements and construction of two new grade schools, at 10th and B streets, and at Ellis and South A st. The bond was for $75,000 which was a stretch for 1904 Santa Rosa (it’s the equivalent of nearly $2.3M today).
While the Republican editorialized that it would be money well spent the Press Democrat railed against the bond, saying it was just too expensive. Letters appeared in the PD arguing the overcrowding could be solved cheaply (“let us build a couple of small school houses in the suburban districts”) or didn’t exist at all – why, if you take the maximum capacity for all schools and compare it to the total number of students in the district, we were merely eleven seats short.
Despite the vote happening just a few days before Christmas, voter turnout was high. “The friends of the movement were out in force, six or seven rigs being employed, from most of which the High School colors fluttered in the breeze,” the PD reported. That article continued:
|Considerable comment was occasioned by reason of the manner in which the election was conducted. There was little if any secrecy preserved, the “yes” and “no” ballots being arranged on a table in front of the City Hall, where the polls were located, and as voters came up and picked up the ticket they desired to vote, the bystanders had no difficulty in determining their leanings.|
The bond lost by 81 votes, 544:381 (a two-thirds majority was required). As a result, the Board of Education met a couple of days later and decreed there would be no new students enrolled unless a seat was available in the classroom.
At a later meeting the Board decided to float the school bond again, this time slashing it to $35,000 – more than half. In March 1905 this version passed easily, 1036 to 108. But it was only enough for additional outbuilding classrooms and the construction of the Luther Burbank elementary school.
Editors of the town’s two newspapers disagreed over the first bond proposal but they kept the tone civil, even respectful. That would soon end; over the following months hostilities escalated and the Press Democrat and Republican were clawing at each other almost daily (see “THE NEWSPAPER FEUD OF 1905“). The progressive Republican paper continued muckraking and exposed serious corruption, while PD editor Ernest Finley denounced his rivals as city-slickers who didn’t understand “country ways” and shouldn’t criticize how Santa Rosa was run.
As for the old school buildings, they would stay in use for many years to come, although even the PD came to agree the Fremont and Lincoln schools were unsafe firetraps. In 1921 one of the old stoves at Fremont simply fell apart dumping coals on the floorboards; fortunately the embers were almost cold so the old wooden heap didn’t burn down.
Former county schools superintendent Frances McG. Martin said “The Fremont school house has been the lurking place of contagious diseases for more than 20 years, and should fire break out on the lower floor, the faulty construction of this relic of the dark ages would surely cause the loss of many precious lives.”
The original Lincoln school was demolished in 1923, followed by a larger version being built at the same location of Davis and Eighth. There was talk of moving the South Park school “to a point convenient for the pupils of the Roseland tract” but that didn’t happen; the building was sold in 1930 after a new South Park was built at the corner of Bennett Valley and Main.
As for Fourth street/Fremont, the new Fremont school – now Santa Rosa Middle School – opened on September 23, 1924. There was a bit of debate in the following months about what to do with the old building and grounds. It was proposed to sell the building and let a buyer move it elsewhere and the Boy Scouts wanted to take it over as their HQ (it’s unclear whether they were offering to buy it). The Santa Rosa Republican editorialized the city should build a 3,000 seat auditorium there and the PD argued it should remain an open lot to be used for carnivals, religious tent revivals, Rose Festival doings and such.
After the little kids moved into their new digs the district stuffed high school students in there for one last semester as the SRHS building was being finished. The old school was dismantled May-June 1925 and the lumber was sold by the city.
|* The Davis street/Lincoln school was built in 1885, but was preceded at that location by a primary school in an existing building. Although “primary school” usually meant just grades 1-3, an article in an 1883 Democrat revealed there were students up to grade 8. There was also a College Avenue primary (location unknown) in the 1880s which similarly went to eighth grade.|
The seventh and eighth grades of the Fourth-street school and the eighth grade of the Davis-street school, are so crowded that it has been decided that in order to do justice to the teachers and pupils it is necessary to divide the session and have a morning and afternoon session. For instance, if there are sixty scholars in a grade, thirty will attend morning session and the balance the afternoon session. It is thought that this is better than to hire extra teachers to commence now in the middle of the term.
– Sonoma Democrat, February 27 1886
The Exact Condition of Some of Santa Rosa’s Schools Today
One of the Republican reporters spent a little time yesterday in visiting the various schools of Santa Rosa for the purpose of gathering first-hand data concerning actual conditions. In one or two places matters were not so bad but they could be worse, but in others things could hardly be more unendurable. Following are some of the reporter’s observations:
There is no sewerage at the South Park School building. The water and waste from the sink drain into an open ditch which runs in front of the building. It is through this ditch which passes by the school that the drain from Bennett Valley comes. There is absolutely no plumbing and the old fashioned outside closet is still in use here. There is also no fire protection as it is outside the City limits. A boneyard where the bones of dead animals are ground for fertilizing is less than a block distant. In the summer time especially the place wreaks [sic] with nauseating odors. The walls show signs of leakage where plastering has fallen and been patched. There are 47 children in the first grade and 44 in the second and third grades, making 91 in all.
All children in this part of the city who have passed the third grade are compelled to attend the Fourth and Davis street schools as only the first, second and third grades are taught here. The country is sparsely settled as compared with the city that lies between the school house and the business district. The children have to go from inside the city limits outside to attend school when the reverse should be the case. The building now standing is old and delapidated [sic] and quite unfit for use. Conditions point very plainly for the need of a large building on that side of the creek.
A small one room cottage on Third street has been pressed into service for the overflow of the first grades from all the schools and children living in all parts of the city attend here. The house is located on the rear of a lot with other buildings heavy foliage on all sides. There are 41 children here and the teacher experiences endless difficulty in placing the lessons on the black boards so that they can be read as the lighting is very inefficient. Most of the light comes through two west windows and the children face east. In the afternoon the strong light shines on the blackboard and reflects into the children’s eyes so they can read the blackboard lessons with great difficulty. Their own shadows fall across their desks and render it almost impossible to study.
At the Fourth street school will be found half of the second grade occupying a temporary one story building with a low thin roof. There is no ceiling to keep out the heat and in hot weather the children suffer greatly from the weather. There are fifty children crowded into this temporary structure which is unfit for school purposes. It is very difficult for the teachers to place the blackboard lessons so they can be read in this room. In the high first grade there are 48 children occupying a room whose natural seating capacity is 43. Extra desks and tables have been improvised here to accommodate the surplus. The room is very dark and reading from the blackboards is very difficult. It is very hard to write a lesson on any particular board so all can read. There are three east windows and one north window which admits the light. In another room the other half of the second grade is located in the main building. There are fifty-one children in this room whose natural seating capacity is but 46. Improvised tables and chairs serve as desks and seats for the surplus pupils. The lighting in this room is poor also.
Half of the third grade occupies a room whose natural seating capacity is 42 and there are 47 children crowded in here. There are three west windows. Reflections here are so bad it requires three blackboards used interchangeably to supply a proper light for the lessons.
The other half of the third grade occupy a room whose lighting is very bad the children’s own shadows being cast so heavily on the desk in front of them and it is with great difficulty they study. Reading blackboard lessons is very difficult here also.
In the room occupied by half of the fourth grade there is a natural seating capacity of forty-eight and there are fifty pupils here. The seats are the the old fashioned double ones and there are only three small east windows. The lighting here is vile.
The other half of the fourth grade occupies a small room with very poor lighting.
The fifth grade is located in a small room on the top floor whose seating capacity is forty-eight and there are fifty pupils crowded into this room. Most of the light comes from two north windows and the room is very dark.
Very bad conditions obtain in the small room on the top floor occupied by the sixth and seventh grades. There is a natural seating capacity here of but forty-six and fifty-four pupils are crowded into it and they are very much cramped. An extra row of desks has been placed in front. Four extra double seats have been placed in a space heretofore occupied by a single desk. The aisles in this room are almost impassable and the lighting is very bad.
The worst conditions in the Fourth street school obtain in the little room on the top floor where the sixth grade is located. This room has a natural seating capacity of but forty-six and there are sixty-two pupils crowded into it. The light is extremely poor. There are seven pupils occupying improvised desks and seats on and around the teacher’s desk. Extra chairs and tables have been placed along in front to accommodate the pupils.
– Santa Rosa Republican, December 7 1904
The Actual Condition in One of Santa Rosa’s School Rooms
The accompanying picture is of the sixth grade at the Fourth street school in this city and was taken as a sample of the congested conditions which now obtain in the Santa Rosa school department. This room is on the top floor of the building and is so crowded that were another pupil admitted he would have to take the teacher’s seat at her desk.
The photograph speaks for itself. The room, which by the way, is a miserably small one for the number of seats in it, has a natural capacity for forty-six pupils. There are sixty-two enrolled.
In the foreground can be seen the unfortunate students who have chairs on the platform grouped around the outside of the teacher’s desk. There are seven of these students — seven to write or study on one side of a desk about six feet in length. They are so situated that their shadows fall across their books or papers and cause them eye-trouble. Moreover, some of them have to double up when studying for they have no desks to lay books and papers on.
Two or three others in the room are seated on stools They are not dunces. They are some of the brightest youngsters in the land, but must perforce because of the failure to provide them with other accommodations, sit on stools and kick and squirm all day long in uncomfortable attitudes.
In the rear of the room, as can be seen by the photograph, are a number of so-called double desks occupied by two pupils. Discipline and order, to say nothing of progress in study, is next to impossible with double desks.
The rows of seats are so closely put together that one has to squeeze in order to get from one end of the room to the other. Were a fire to occur and the children in this room to be taken with a panic, there would surely be many hurt or perhaps killed in the mad rush to get to the door shown at the right side of the picture.
The lighting arrangements in this room are little short of criminal, for the children, as well as the teacher, have to endure all kinds of cross lights and shadows, which have a tendency to strain the optic nerve and bring on serious eye complaints.
We submit the picture and the facts as found by a Republican reporter for the sober thoughtful consideration of the voters of Court House school district. If bonds are defeated on December 20th these conditions will be maintained.
– Santa Rosa Republican, December 9 1904
THE CAMERA SPEAKS TRUTH
On another page is published a photograph taken several days since of one of Santa Rosa’s school rooms showing the crowded conditions which the school trustees are seeking to relieve by being authorized to issue bonds to the amount of $75000 for new buildings and equipment.
Facts stated in cold print may not always appeal to everybody as strongly as they should. But there is no escape from a photograph. The camera tells the truth. Its testimony is unassailable. He who sees must believe whether he wants to or not.
On December 20th the voters of Court House school district will have a chance to wipe that picture out. Is there a voter who can conscientiously say that he thinks it right to continue for another day such conditions as are presented in the photograph? Remember, unless a two-thirds majority be registered in favor of the proposition nearly every room in the department will within a few months present a spectacle as bad or perhaps worse.
A VERY DEAR SCHOOL
Some unknown correspondent, who hides under the convenient nom de plume of “Citizen,” writes a brief communication to our esteemed contemporary on the school bond question in answer to an editorial which recently appeared in the Republican. This correspondent argues as follows: “Let the trustees ask for one-half the amount and build two schools — frame buildings — which will answer all purposes until such time that we can afford to build of stone or brick.”
There is but one reply to that kind of an argument. No city of any size which has any pride or any business foresight puts up frame structures now-a-days, least of all for schools. Of course frame buildings would do, so far as the actual room is concerned. We have a fair sample now of such a building right here in Santa Rosa — the Fourth street school, which something like thirty years old and is rotten enough to be torn down and used for kindling wood. Had Santa Rosa put up a brick or stone building thirty years ago instead of a flimsy wooden structure, the present generation of tax payers, some of whom appear to be more solicitous about their fat pocketbooks than about the education of their children, would not be confronted with the early necessity of bending the city for a structure with which to replace it.
We repeat that it is poor business foresight, left-handed economy to sink the taxpayer’s coin into wooden school buildings here a very little more money will provide a durable, permanent structure of brick or stone that will stand for generations.
However, there is another side to this question. A frame building always stands in danger of being destroyed by fire. Santa Rosa is fortunate in not having had any fires. But other cities have not fared so well. The city of Oakland some years ago had a magnificent wooden high school building. Fire razed it almost to the ground. It was rebuilt in a substantial manner of wood and architecturally was a nice appearing structure. Scarcely a year afterward another fire occurred and again the building was nearly destroyed. A second time was the high school rebuilt, but the second building involved an outlay which would more than have paid for a permanent substantial brick structure. Oakland, however, profited by the lesson of the fires and now her high school students are housed in one of the largest brick school houses in the west.
San Francisco, the largest city on the coast, possessed of some of the finest fire proof buildings in the country, hides her head for very shame when visitors point at her grammar schools — disgraceful tumbled-down rattle-trap wooden buildings where the children are menaced every hour of the day by the dread perils of fire and panic. And San Francisco is paying today for her unwise policy of thirty years ago. She has a collection of decaying buildings on her hands which must all be replaced at the same time and the burden laid upon her shoulders by the past generation falls heavily upon the tax payers of today.
Mr. Citizen’s argument is a specious one, but it is absolutely disproved by experience, and as everybody knows experience is a dear school. In the long run the city will waste money by erecting wooden school houses. It will really be cheaper to build of brick or stone.
– Santa Rosa Republican, December 10 1904
THE SCHOOL BOND ISSUE
Editor Press Democrat: In discussing the $75,000 school bond question, why is it that the friends of the bond issue seem so disposed to exaggerate the condition and magnify the needs of our public schools? Exaggeration has the tendency to weaken a cause advocated. A writer in the Republican speaks of “the several hundred pupils now without adequate facilities,” and again “in fact they need enough more room to fill eleven rooms.” Is not this gross exaggeration? I take from Principal Cox’s report for this month the following, giving the number of pupils enrolled and the number of seats of the different schools: “High School, pupils enrolled 355, seats 350; Fourth street, pupils 627, seats 599; Davis street, pupils 476 seats 495; South Park, pupils 90, seats 91; Third street, pupils 43, seats 40,” making a total of pupils 1,592, and seats 1,581, or a lack of seats of only 11 for all the schools. I am in sympathy with our public schools and am in favor of voting all the means necessary to put the schools in first class condition, but I do think, taking into consideration the condition of our streets, our sewers and inadequate water supply that $75,000 at this time is drawing the thing pretty strong. I believe that public business should be conducted just as we would conduct our private affairs. Seventy-five thousand dollars would be equal to over $4O for every school child in the district. As a business proposition do we need school room that will cost $75,000? Some of my readers will accuse me of opposing our public schools. It we had been called upon to vote a bond of $20,000 or $30,000 to improve our school facilities none would be more willing to vote the bonds than Wesley Mock.
– Press Democrat, December 17 1904