Almanac: Counting on learning — Early school enrollment reflects history

By Brent Johnson

For the Redoubt Reporter

Alaska was granted territorial status in 1912 and given the right to elect its own legislature. Her governor continued to be appointed by the president. And big business, which had already held sway in Alaska for 45 years, made sure Alaska didn’t suddenly get chummy with taxes. The Alaska Territorial Legislature, by terms of the Organic Act creating it, was prohibited from passing any laws affecting schools insofar as their establishment and maintenance was concerned, and from appropriating territorial money for support of schools.

This restriction ran into tough sledding after the people of Alaska passed a referendum in 1916 favoring Prohibition. Two years later Congress passed the Alaska “Bone Dry” law. The problem was, a license to brew beer cost $500, to sell liquor in a barroom the license cost $1,000, and a wholesale license to sell booze was $2,000.

So the ban on booze as intended might have been morally lucrative, but it also dried up the Alaska Fund, which paid for schools. In fact, the 25 percent of the Alaska Fund that had been allocated to schools by the 1905 Nelson Act was increased to 30 percent in 1909, and still was insufficient for schools.

In 1916, farmers of the Matanuska Valley asked the court clerk for a school. Through the clerk, Gov. Strong told them, “Inadvisable to establish any more school districts until further advised from this office as funds have been exhausted and 17 districts heretofore established are not provided for.”

A couple days later the governor told the McCarthy School Board that the school fund had been exhausted and he had been obliged to “Draw upon the Territorial funds to keep the schools going.” And finally, the Anchorage Daily Times tells of a 1916 incident where the Anchorage school ran out of money to pay its teachers. Luckily, Anchorage and Nenana were still “government towns,” because the federally owned railroad had created them. The Alaskan Engineering Commission stepped in and provided funding for that year.

Thus, the Bone Dry Law precipitated a March 1917 Congressional “Act to authorize the Legislature of Alaska to establish and maintain schools.” In 1919 the Legislature adopted an act to impose an annual tax of $5 for school purposes upon male persons within the territory or the waters thereof. This initially raised $200,000 per biennium. To show their enthusiasm, the Alaska Packers Association promptly sued, and lost. They appealed and in 1924 lost again. Thus, cannery workers, who were not residents of the territory, were forced to help pay for schools in Alaska.

The Alaska Legislature had always been eager for education. At its first meeting in March 1913, the Legislature passed a compulsory education law. It applied to children between the ages of 8 and 16 who lived within two miles of a school. While this law was pretty much ignored, at least one source claims attendance at Kenai, Ninilchik and Seldovia was generally very good.

The school at Seldovia in 1914 converted from a school for Natives to a territorial school funded by the Nelson Act. The school at Kenai apparently did the same thing, perhaps a year or two later. In both towns the students made no change and the whole designation regarding race was capricious. The 1920 biennial report of the Alaska commissioner of education addresses this issue:

“It has always been the policy of the U.S. Bureau of Education to admit to their schools mixed bloods as well as white children … .” So this tells us that the race restriction was a one-way deal — it only kept Natives out of white and mixed-race schools.

The 1920 report goes on to say, “In some of these localities, the question of the admission of Natives is sometimes raised. In others, the few Native children in the community are received into the school on the same basis as the other pupils. … Likewise, … community sentiment in the matter should be a strong determining force.”

In Kenai, community sentiment seems to have been to pay no attention to race. A table in the 1920 Report for Kenai lists 28 children as being of full Native lineage, 16 of half Native lineage, 28 of quarter and seven of less than a quarter. Ninilchik had 26 full Native children, and no other segments. Seldovia was similar to Kenai in its mix, and Seward didn’t have any full-blooded Natives. Perhaps the Seward school at that time didn’t allow full-blooded Natives to attend?

From the enrollment statistics, we can see that the enrollment in Kenai fell from 138 in 1916 to 80 in 1919-20.

Kenai Peninsula schools enrollment statistics

Enrollment in 1916 (according to Anchorage Daily Times of Nov. 16, 1916):

Kenai students —138.

1917-1918

For schools outside incorporated towns:

School, Teachers, Pupils in high school, Months, Teacher salary per month, Total expenses

Kenai, 3, 106, 0, 9, $4,275, $5,683

Ninilchik, 1, 22, 0, 9, $1,350, $1,881

Seldovia, 1, 39, 0, 9, $1,350, $1,659

For schools in incorporated towns:

Seward, 4, 93, 11, ?, $4,725, $7,141

The city paid $1,785 and the territory $5,356.

1918-1919

For schools outside incorporated towns:

Kenai, 3, 92, 0, 9, $3,916, $5,355

Ninilchik, 1, 27, 0, 9, $1,350, $1,715

Seldovia, 1, 54, 0, 9, $1,350, $1,971

For schools in incorporated towns:

Seward, 4, 96, 9, ?, $5,625, $9,070

The city paid $2,268 and the territory $6,803

1919-1920

For schools outside incorporated towns:

Kenai, 2, 80, 0, 9, $2,925, $4,053

Ninilchik, 1, 26, 0, 9, $1,350, $1,849

Seldovia, 2, 51, 0, 9, $2,850, $4,157

For schools in incorporated towns:

Seward, 4, 94, 6, ?, $5,850, $9,236

The city paid $2,534 and the territory $6,702

World War I had a negative impact on Alaska’s population, but we can see that Ninilchik and Seldovia gained students and Seward maintained its enrollment. The affects of the World War are ubiquitous to any reader of school history. An example can be seen in the Nov. 10, 1917, Seward Gateway newspaper. Under “School Notes” we find that the commissioner of education, L.D. Henderson, had just visited the Seward school and spoken to the students.

“Ask any of the pupils what he said and they will tell you at least one thing, which was: ‘Don’t eat so much candy, for the soldier boys need the sugar,’” wrote a freshman high school student.

Ninety percent of the Alaska schools enrolled as Junior Red Cross auxiliaries. Communication between the “connected” towns of Anchorage and Seward and the “unconnected” towns of Kenai and Ninilchik is obvious. Seward got a telegraph about 1905 via an undersea cable. A telephone between Seward and Anchorage existed as early as 1916. Both those towns had newspapers, while Kenai and Ninilchik had none. Because of these distinctions, history for Kenai and Ninilchik is much harder to find.

The statistics make no mention of a school in Homer. The date of 1919 for a Homer school appears in Janet Klein’s 2002 book, “Homer’s Buildings.” That could very well have been a school conducted by local effort, without a tie to the territory.

“Citizenship” night schools were popular in several of the larger schools of this era, but none were offered at any of the Kenai Peninsula schools. Kenai students had vocational classes in “manual training” and “sewing.” Most schools had traditional classes in what the report calls “commercial arithmetic, commercial geography, commercial law, business English, bookkeeping, penmanship, short-hand and typewriting.”

The 1913-16 superintendent of schools at Seward, Ethel Crocker Forgy, became something of an Alaska celebrity. In December 1916, the 29-year-old Forgy, who was also a licensed embalmer, married 48-year-old John W. Troy, editor and owner of the Alaska Daily Empire, a Juneau newspaper. The wedding took place in Seattle. Troy was later appointed governor of Alaska and served from 1933-39.

Both Troy and Forgy were divorced when they married and their marriage doesn’t seem to have been one of those inseparable things. John lived in Juneau, where the coupe was found in the 1930 census, but Ethel lived mostly in California, where she went in 1920 “for her health.” And California must have been healthy, as she lived there 54 years and died there in 1974 at the age of 87.

Troy bought his Juneau newspaper from Alaska’s first territorial governor, John Strong. Strong was governor until 1918, when someone noticed that he wasn’t a U.S. citizen. He was Canadian and was forced to resign.

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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