Frontiers Preview: The Anchorage Pioneer School House
It’s an annual ritual for second graders in Anchorage – a field trip to the Pioneer School House -- to travel back in time to 1915, the year the school was built.
More than a thousand children passed through the school’s doors this week.
As they clambered up the steps, volunteers from the Anchorage Woman’s Club greeted them, dressed in severe, long black skirts and sweaters, with old fashioned, white blouses -- the kind teachers wore a hundred years ago.
Elizabeth Metz, who played the role of Orah Dee Clark, the school’s first principal and teacher, asks the children to close their eyes and imagine they live in a cabin in the woods -- to think about what it would be like to walk to school in the darkness.
“You can hear the crunch, crunch, crunch of your boots on the snow and ice. The only light you have is a lantern you are carrying,” Metz said.
Gradually, with the help of old black-and-white photos, the school’s story unfolds. It was built in the same year that a tent city sprang up on the muddy shores of Ship Creek, to house 2,000 railroad workers.
The federal government, which oversaw the project, did not expect workers to bring their families -- so there was no school for their children.
When the man in charge of the project, Lt. Col. Frederick Mears, said his job was to build a railroad, not a school -- his wife, Jane, objected and started the Anchorage Woman’s Club.
The group salvaged scraps from the railroad project and brought workers together to build a two-story schoolhouse, which they finished in less than two months.
Originally, the schoolhouse was located on West 6th Avenue, near Humpy’s Restaurant. After the 1964 earthquake, it was moved to Crawford Park, on the corner of Eagle and East 3rd Street. Today, the school is used mostly for conferences and special events -- to raise money for the upkeep of the school and for programs like the 1915 school re-enactment.
Upstairs in a classroom, which was restored to look like the one the very first students attended, children walk across the original wooden floors and sit behind old wooden desks – surrounded by a collection of things donated over the years, to help make the experience more authentic. From antique stereoscopes to hand-cranked laundry wringers, the children feel a palpable connection to the past.
Their lesson starts with the lights off, to give the students a sense of what it would be like to go to school with no electricity. Their teacher, played by Jerine Tuttle, explains how school didn’t start until 10 a.m., to insure there would be enough light to see. Otherwise, lanterns were used.
Each desk has a small slate board with chalk.
“The reason you have that, was, paper was very precious,” Tuttle told them.
She also drew a collective gasp from the children, when she pulled out a worn wooden paddle that was used for discipline.
Some of the second graders like Ezra Engeberg said he would miss having books to read -- and would not like having to erase everything he wrote. But Mary Frick thought it would be more fun to use chalk instead of paper.
Avery Sundberg thought students in 1915 were better off.
“We have iPads and stuff to distract us from books and playing outdoors,” she said.
All in all, the students who came to immerse themselves in the past were remarkably well-behaved.
“Children are always good for us,” said Sue Brownfield, a retired teacher who now lives in Tennessee. “We demand that they act like children in 1915.”
Since Brownfield moved away from Alaska, she’s flown to Anchorage every year for the re-enactment -- to give the children a lesson in early Anchorage history.
Brownsfield is now 82 and says this is the last year she’ll volunteer. She hopes a new generation of women will take over to help students connect not just with the past, but themselves.
Brownsfield says in this day of computers and cell phones, it’s important to remind children that they come equipped with eyes to see and ears to listen, as well as hearts and minds to record their memories.
And many memories were made during this year’s historical re-enactment.
The journey back in time, 103 years, also took the children to two log cabins behind the schoolhouse.
One belonged to a trapper -- and the other, to the postmistress, played by Patrice Gitter, who emphasized the many hardships families endured.
When Gitter pointed to an old trunk in her cabin, children were in disbelief when she told them this was all families were allowed to carry on their steamship trip to Alaska. Everyone usually wore two sets of clothing, she said, to make room for tools and other goods they would need upon arrival. Usually, a child would have just one toy, which they had to carry with them.
“It’s important that youngsters develop an appreciation of the past, so we have a good appreciation of our future,” said Gitter.
“Look at what these people did,” she tells the children. “What are you going to do with all you’ve been given?”
For more about the Pioneer School House, as well as the future of Alaska education, watch Frontiers on Sunday at 4:30 and 10:30 p.m. on KTVA-Channel 11. You can also watch Frontiers at 8:30 a.m. on GCI Cable Channel 907.
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