Home > Donald H. Harrison, historic places > San Diego’s Historic Places: Mason Street School

San Diego’s Historic Places: Mason Street School

Mason Street School, Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO – When this city was a frontier town, punishments for transgressing the rules were meted out to pupils and, in one notable instance, to Mary Chase Walker, the first teacher.

A visit to the Mason Street School, built in 1865 and now sitting within the confines of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, offers a glimpse into the social standards of San Diego in the late 19th Century.

Students who misbehaved felt the lash of the whip. The number of times that the rawhide bit into their flesh depended on the severity of the offense.   The most serious offenses on the list—causing the whip to come down on the student 10 times—were playing cards in school or for boys misbehaving toward girls.

In descending order, by punishment, were these other offenses:

8 Lashes—“Telling tales out of school,” which meant gossiping about your classmates or teacher; “swearing at school” and “drinking spirituous liquors at school.”

7 Lashes – “Telling lies,” “Making swings and swinging on them,” or “Going around the barn or doing any mischief around the place.”

6 Lashes –“Going or playing around the mill or the creek.”  (Perhaps this referred to the San Diego River.)

5 Lashes – “Fighting at school,” ”Quarreling at school.”

4 Lashes – “Boys and girls playing together;” “Gambling or betting at school;” “Calling each other liars;” “Wrestling at school,” or  “Scuffling at school.”

3 Lashes – “Giving each other ill names;” “Boys going to girls’ places;” “Girls going to boys’ places.”

2 Lashes – “For wetting (splashing) each other at wash time”; “Coming to school with dirty faces and hands” or “wearing long fingernails.”

1 Lash – For every foot over three up a tree.

The one-room school served grades one through eight, and given that some children did not go to school regularly, an eighth grader might be as old as 17 years old.  So the 35 students had a great age range and a major concern at recess was that boys and girls remain apart.  Thus “boys misbehaving toward girls” drew a maximum penalty of 10 lashes, while for “playing together,” boys and girls could receive four lashes.  Simply going by the area reserved for the other gender could result in 3 lashes.

Of course, separation by gender did not necessarily guarantee good behavior; there still was the problem of boys fighting or insulting other boys, and likewise bad relations among the girls. This is reflected by the penalties established against fighting, quarreling, scuffling, wetting, calling each other liars, and telling tales out of school.

Others penalties evidently were intended to promote safety – particularly those against tree climbing, visiting the stream or mill, going around the barn, and drinking spirituous liquors.

Gambling was common in a frontier society, as evidenced by the 10-lash penalty for playing cards in school, and the 4-lash penalty for other types of gambling.  One wonders why betting on poker was 2 ½ times worse than betting on, say, who could race to the end of the school grounds first.  The answer may be that everyone else could see poker cards, while bets on races were comparatively quiet.

Inside the classroom, the boys and girls did their lessons on slates because, according to a taped narration by the San Diego County Historical Days Association, “paper was very scarce and much too expensive in those days.”  School hours were 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays and a half day on Saturday, 12 months a year.   Absenteeism and tardiness were major problems; sometimes parents kept their children away from school to help out on the ranch or the farm, or in the store.

The first public school teacher in San Diego, Mary Chase Walker, had been a teacher in Massachusetts. However, when salaries were reduced in the general economic upheaval caused by the Civil War, she decided to move west, going by ship to Central America, where a railroad took her to another ship waiting on the Pacific side.  

On Walker continued to San Francisco, hoping to find a job there.  However, there was no employment to be found, but school officials had heard a qualified teacher was needed in San  Diego.  Walker took the steamship back down the coast, along the way aided in her seasickness by a stewardess who was of mixed racial origin.

Upon arrival in San Diego, Walker concentrated on teaching “reading , spelling, arithmetic and how to write better,” according to the narration.

One day at the general store owned by J.S. Mannasse and Company, Walker saw the stewardess who had been kind to her on the trip down from San Francisco,  The stewardess was standing at the counter making a lunch of crackers and cheese. Hailing her as an old friend, Walker invited her to join her for a sit-down lunch at the Franklin Hotel, which at three stories was San Diego’s skyscraper.

Coming from abolitionist Massachusetts, Walker perhaps took social interaction among people of different races as unremarkable, but such was not the attitude among most San Diegans of American birth, who generally had migrated to the frontier town from Southern States.   Although California remained part of the Union—and was too far from the field of battle to be affected by the Civil War militarily—the sentiments of the state’s southernmost city clearly had favored the Confederate cause, which only very recently had been defeated.

So quite a stir was caused in the Franklin Hotel dining room by the arrival together of Walker and the unnamed woman—who has been described as a “quadroon” in some historical accounts, meaning one of her grandparents was African-American.   According to an account by historian Henry Schwartz in The Journal of San Diego History, a number of diners rose from their tables and left the premises in protest of this social interaction between the races.  Other diners stayed but complained later.

Receiving the complaints was the San Diego School Board, which was divided about what to do about Mary Chase Walker.  One side thought she should be fired – given that parents were withdrawing their children from the school in protest.   Robert Israel—who later would become San Diego’s lightkeeper at the end of Point Loma—angrily disagreed, saying he saw no reason to give into the prejudices of the Southerners.

In the middle of the battle was Ephraim Morse, a merchant who served as president of the school board.  He was torn: on the one hand, he worried about the school’s dipping enrollment and on the other hand, he was enamored of the school marm.  

So, he proposed marriage to her, and she accepted, giving her a face-saving reason for stepping down from the teaching job at the end of the term in June 1866.   The controversy wasn’t met head on; it was allowed to blow over.  The following term, Augusta Jane Barrett came down from San Francisco to be the city’s second public school teacher.  Mary Chase Walker and Ephraim Morse were married December 20, 1866.

Harrison is the editor of San Diego Jewish World.

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