Almanac: Learning through teaching — Early Kenai Peninsula instructors tackled Alaska’s learning curve

By Brent Johnson, for the Redoubt Reporter

The early 1900s was a period of rapid growth in schools on the Kenai Peninsula. The first American school on the peninsula opened in Hope in January 1903, and was followed that fall by a school in Seward. The federal U.S. government, now in ownership of Alaska, opened schools at Kenai and Seldovia, apparently in identical buildings, in 1907. They were for Native children, funded and governed by the federal Bureau of Education.

Incorporated towns had been authorized by the 1900 Alaska Civil Code to use 50 percent of the business license tax dollars generated in their cities for local schools. These schools were governed by local, three-member school boards. Since railroad workers predominated the population in Seward, the school there was for white or mixed-ethnicity children. Hope’s population of miners was also predominantly white and mixed ethnicities.

In 1912, Seward became the first incorporated city on the Kenai Peninsula, a feat that would indicate its school was not a “city school” until that date. Hope has never incorporated. Seldovia incorporated in 1945, Kenai in 1960, Homer in 1964 and Soldotna in 1967.

The 1905 Nelson Act provided a mechanism for funding “white and mixed-race” schools in unincorporated towns. Business license taxes from across Alaska were pooled into an “Alaskan Fund,” 25 percent of which was available for schools. The Nelson Act required a minimum of 15 students to open a school. Someone had only to apply and then a vote would be held to decide if an unincorporated town wanted a school. Also by election, a three-member school board would be selected.

A school for white and mixed-ethnicity students opened in Ninilchik in 1911. In the 1840s, Russian retirees and their Native wives had settled there. The 1910 census records 27 Ninilchik children between 6 and 16 years old. Only four of those children were listed in the census as “Aleut.” The majority were listed as being of mixed ethnicity.

The teacher, 43-year-old Alyce Anderson, arrived in November. Her daughter, Juanita, wrote of that event:

“It seemed that the villagers had not been aware that a teacher was to land in their midst. In fact, few knew that a school district had been organized and that members of a school board were elected.”

Anderson had lots of experience. She had taught in Washington before moving to Alaska. She also taught at Unga Island from 1908 through spring 1911. That school was reportedly the first Nelson Act school in Alaska (which is a head scratcher when considering the Seward and Hope schools).

Due to illness, the teacher slated to work in Seldovia didn’t arrive as planned in 1914. Juanita Anderson was visiting her mom in Ninilchik at the time. A Seldovia resident, probably a school board member, traveled to Ninilchik and offered her the job, based on the fact that she was college educated. Juanita accepted at once.

She arrived in Seldovia just as a Bureau of Education agent was stripping the Seldovia school to outfit a school at Knik. The Seldovia school had become a Nelson Act school (supposedly the third one). Juanita opened her school with no textbooks. She gathered newspapers and magazines and used them to teach students through the fifth grade level.

A regular teacher replaced Juanita in January, but she returned to teach at Seldovia in 1915. Alyce Anderson taught at Ninilchik through 1919 and then returned to Unga Island. She is listed in the 1930 census in Kenai as a divorced fox farmer. Adjacent graves in Seldovia contain her and her husband, Oscar, who both died in 1940. Perhaps they had gotten back together?

Alice M. Dolan, 25, and her sister, Willietta Dolan, 22, arrived in August 1911 to teach in Kenai. In 1948 they published “The Clenched Fist,” about their experiences teaching there for three school years. (Some people think a map of Alaska resembles a fist). The Dolans describe 1911 Kenai as having two trading posts, one of which housed a Post Office, and a tennis court.

The schoolhouse, known as the Federal Building, was enclosed by a white-picket fence. From it, they could see the Russian Orthodox Church up the street. On the street behind the schoolhouse was the Interlocked Moose-horn Club. Almost every house in the village was made of logs, and their “slanting, flat roofs were covered by a phenomenal growth of grass.” Those were designed, Native style, to insulate the homes.

The May 1910 census doesn’t list a teacher for Kenai and it’s possible that the teacher left town ahead of the census. Upon describing the schoolhouse, the Dolan sisters say:

“The former occupants were evidently in a hurry to get away, as discarded clothing littered the floor. The kitchen and living room were downstairs, two bedrooms upstairs. We discovered the place had to be lighted with kerosene lamps, but that was a small inconvenience compared with the fact that there was no bathroom. When winter came, this was to become even more unbearable. Back of our living quarters was a large schoolroom, lighted only on the south side by windows.”

The place was heated by a large, wood-burning barrel stove, and a second wood stove provided baking and cooking facilities. The teachers described themselves as “two young girls who had never kept house before this time.”

In August 1912, Willietta married George “Judge” Kuppler, Seldovia’s first magistrate. The ceremony took place in Kenai and the new groom moved into the Federal Building. George was a 34-year-old widower. In the Dec. 20, 1909, census, George and a partner had been prospecting at Cold Bay. He must have put his Notre Dame education to good use in landing the magistrate job.

In Kenai, Father Shadura taught at the Russian school for 45 minutes every morning before the American school opened at 9 a.m. The American teachers’ task seemed to have a strong social worker flavor. Not only did they offer night classes to adults, but they said in their book, “At any hour of the day, we might be called out to administer to someone who was ill. We were both teachers and ‘doctors.’”

The book is full of first-aid episodes. In the fall of 1913 a measles epidemic struck. The young teachers dealt with 214 cases of measles and suffered the loss of five lives. In Seldovia, that disease killed over 30 people.

One of the horrors that happened while the sisters taught school was the coming of a saloon. According to their book, it opened about a year after the girls begin teaching and its effects soon spilled into the classroom, in the form of domestic violence, parental neglect and wasted resources.

In the words of the authors, “A saloon cannot be supported by the few whites in a Native village. We could not keep the Natives from the saloon when it was supported and abetted by the commissioner in charge.”

The Territory of Alaska formed in 1912, during the Dolans’ tenure. Discouraged by the arrival of the saloon and certain monetary lapses by the Bureau of Education, the sisters opted to return to Washington, where they both continued to teach. Upon their departure in spring 1914, they recommended that the Kenai school be taken over by the Territory of Alaska.

Brent Johnson, of Clam Gulch, is a former president of the Kenai Peninsula Historical Association.


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Filed under Almanac, history, schools

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