By Brent Johnson
For the Redoubt Reporter
During a school board election at about 3:30 p.m. Monday, April 8, 1918, Cleve Magill, the Kenai school principal, pulled a pistol out from under his coat and shot 53-year-old Paddy Ryan dead in the Kenai schoolhouse. The election continued until polls closed at 5:15 p.m., with Ryan’s body in the doorway for much of that time, until it was finally pulled aside.
Even without this dramatic interruption the election would have ranked as a scandal, appearing, as witnesses reported, that the results were prearranged by Magill — yet another of his machinations for power in the community. Depending on his audience, Magill could extol the “generous” virtue of the community, or disparage the “immoral and inharmonious condition of the place.”
Pot calling the kettle black, it would seem, given his use of deadly force in a public venue. Or perhaps it was a prescient statement, since Magill would soon meet his end via the barrel of a gun wielded by a friend of Ryan’s.
But before the bullets, there were budgets disrupting the harmony of the Kenai school.
A report in the Dec. 28, 1917, Seward Gateway newspaper puts a rosy sheen on what was becoming a pressing problem for Kenai — lacking pay and copious teacher turnover.
“Two school teachers are needed at Kenai Lake for a term of five months at $150 per month,” the story notes. “Seward high school girls will be accepted for the position as long as they can fulfill the requirements. C.L. Magill arrived from Kenai Lake last night to secure the teachers and can be found at the Hotel Sexton.
“‘We want two teachers for the next five months. The salary of $150 does not include everything that the teachers will obtain, as we are a generous set of people at the lake, and to the two who do go to the lake to teach the young Americans there, well, they will never regret their engagement,’ said Mr. Magill.”
There are a lot of things that can be gleaned from this news article. First, it is axiomatic that workers who are happy don’t leave in pairs. Second is Magill’s charming reference to Kenai’s generous nature.
Third, is to note that Seward had a high school. It was the only one on the Kenai Peninsula in 1917, and for many years to come.
Finally is the mention that a school existed at Kenai Lake at that time. There was no such thing. The school needing teachers was in Kenai. But historic information is seldom perfect, even in as seemingly august a record as a newspaper. (Even my own articles sometimes startle me.) Factual errors can be missed or inadvertently added in editing and live on to haunt the public long after the writers.
Kenai’s departing teachers may have had ample reason to quit. Following is an excerpt from a Sept. 28, 1917, letter one of those teachers, Mrs. E.B. Knowles, wrote to Lester D. Henderson, the first commissioner of education for the territory of Alaska.
“Dear Sir, Miss Hollister and I have come here at quite an expense to teach. I even had to borrow some money, which will soon be due; and now at the end of our first month they tell us no money has been sent. I have already had to borrow a small amount from Mr. Magill, which is embarrassing. May we soon have a check? I wonder if you would be so kind as to call at the bank where Mr. Magill banks and ask them to send me a checkbook, as I expect to bank there this year. Hoping you may be able to call on us during the year, we remain, very truly, Mrs. E.B. Knowles, K. Hollister.”
Knowles was 42 at the time, and Katherine Hollister 21.
Magill followed with a letter dated Dec. 11, 1917, to John Franklin Alexander Strong, who served as the second governor of the territory of Alaska, from 1913 to 1918.
“Governor: On Sept. 4 the Treasurer, Mr. Singer, received a telegram from you dated Aug. 26 that the voucher covering the appropriation for Kenai had been ordered from Washington, D.C. Up to the present writing we have not received same. We should like to be advised why the appropriations are being held up. Awaiting your reply, I remain, yours very truly, C.L. Magill.”
A Dec. 22, 1917, letter from the Kenai School Board to Gov. Strong announces the teachers’ resignation.
“Dear Sir: At a meeting, today, of the Kenai School Board, two of our teachers, Mrs. E.B. Knowles and Miss Katherine Hollister resigned. Their resignations taking effect in 30 days. No satisfactory grounds have been given nor up to the present writing can the board see or find any grounds to justify them in this action. The board has accepted their resignation to take effect at once and have instructed our principal to employ two teachers to fill the vacancies. Very respectfully yours, Treasurer, H.G. Singer; Clerk, E. Boutwell;
Director, Edwin Edelman.”
The Kenai teachers preceding Knowles and Hollister, Bonnie Jean Hammer and Harriet E. Kralower, didn’t last long, either. They served for the 1916-17 school year but didn’t return to teach in 1917-18. That, too, seems to indicate that teaching in Kenai was bigger on adventure than it was on remuneration.
And so does Magill’s difficulty in finding teachers for the 1916-17 school year. In a letter from Magill to Gov. Strong sent in early July 1916, Magill noted that he had tentatively hired two Washington teachers. But he complained that though they were told their salary would be $150 per month, Magill then had been informed that the amount would be cut to $125 a month.
“… In as much as the board’s estimate has been reduced by you from $150 to $125 per month, this necessitates additional correspondence; as our mail is very irregular — hence the delay. Our enrollment for this school year will average over 100, this I am positive.
“… My reason for stating that $150 per month is not unreasonable for teachers salary in Kenai is owing to our isolation in the winter, the class of people here and the immoral and inharmonious condition of the place. Words cannot describe the situation here. I hope you will reconsider the salary of the teachers … .”
The letter names Nellie Jackson as one of the prospective hires. She was from Dayton, Wash., Magill’s hometown. The fact that she did not take the job might reflect on Magill’s reputation. One thing is certain — with “the class of people here and the immoral and inharmonious condition of the place,” Magill wasn’t painting a friendly picture of the “generous people in Kenai.”
A Jan. 1, 1918, letter to Gov. Strong gives more insight into Magill’s mind. This letter is written on Seward hotel stationary and fits with the Dec. 28, 1917, Seward Gateway report mentioned earlier.
“My dear Governor, It is most regrettable that I inform you herewith of the resignation of my two assistants, namely, Miss Hollister and Mrs. Knowles. These ladies have been shown every courtesy possible both by myself and the school board. They have had practically their own way in the management of their respective school affairs and their service as teachers has been satisfactory in nearly every particular.
“… The only satisfaction and reason given the school board for their resignation was that I had neglected to tell them anything regarding my personal character and that ‘I am no gentleman.’ Such assertion all point back to the scandal here of two years ago. And as the very party who perpetrated this scandal, W.N. Dawson, in order to secure control of the school, has been a frequent visitor to these ladies’ home. It is all very clear to the board and the people living here, and it is a general belief, that another effort to ruin our school is being made.
“Dawson is assisted by one A. P. Ryan. These men are not only enemies to the school, but to everything lawful and decent. They are shrewd men — both ex-convicts — and never do anything outright themselves, but always shoulder the responsibilities on innocent people. These ladies, whose intentions are, I believe, the best in the world, have not as yet learned this lesson in Alaska.
“They take everyone at their word. In way of protection and justification to these ladies, the members of the school board and myself, I ask that their statements be given under oath and a certified copy of the same be taken. Should this prove to be dirty work, which is only too prevalent in Kenai, it will be evidence in bringing to justice the guilty parties.
“The school board has authorized me to employ two teachers to fulfill the vacancies. I have employed Mrs. D. Pratt and Mr. Nelson Steele, both experienced teachers, and our school will continue as if nothing had happened. Trusting that should any questions of doubt arise a full investigation will be made, I remain, very sincerely yours, C.L. Magill.”
Since the school board had already notified the governor about the resignations, this letter seems to be written out of concern that the two women may make accusations against Magill.
Magill calls William Dawson, 72, and Ryan, 55, convicts, and indeed, Alexander P. Ryan was sentenced Nov. 24, 1908, for “willful and malicious destruction of personal property.” The crime took place in Alaska’s Third Judicial Division, an area including Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. Ryan began serving jail time Dec. 22, 1908, and got out five months early, on July 30, 1910.
Dawson was a storekeeper in Kenai in 1910. He and George Palmer (for whom the town of Palmer is named) became partners in a Kenai store in 1921. On March 4, 1918, the Seward Gateway reported that, “Wm. Dawson, merchant at Kenai … left today on the Victoria on a buying trip.” So it appears he was out of the area when the shootings of Ryan and Magill occurred.
The Jan. 19, 1918, Seward Gateway reports, “Missus E.N. Knowles and K.B. Hollister came in by dogteam last night from Kenai where they have been teaching school. They will leave on the first steamer for the south. The two are stopping at the Hotel Sexton. Knik Pete and G.E. Boutwell are at the Sexton, having come in from Kenai. The Steele family will leave Tuesday morning for Kenai, where Mr. Steele will be one of the teachers in the school there, being joined by Mrs. Pratt of Hope, who will be the other teacher.”
Mabel D. Pratt can be found in the 1915-16 R.L. Polk and Co. Alaska Directory, listed as a teacher in Hope. Her husband, Herbert, is listed as a postmaster-merchant in Hope. The book, “Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, The Road We’ve Traveled” has a picture on the front cover of a sign, Pratt & Ferrin, Merchandise, Hope Post Office. This is the same Pratt.
Knowles and Hollister finally departed Alaska on Jan. 24, 1918.
Knowles appears in the 1920 census in Sumerton, Ariz. She was 44, widowed and a schoolteacher, though she likely was already widowed before she came to Kenai, as she is referred to as Mrs., but without mention of a husband being in town.
Hollister appears in the 1920 census in Walla Walla, Wash., living with her mother and working as a restaurant assistant manager. Ten years later she was teaching school in California. She was then married to Rufus Keller, and the couple has an 8-year-old daughter named after Katherine’s mother, as well as a 6-year-old daughter named Katherine A Keller.
At least the teachers seem to have finally gotten paid. A Feb. 1, 1918, Bank of Seward check to Eloise B. Knowles is stamped, “Paid March 22, 1918.” It was signed by H.G. (Herman) Singer, who was also the postmaster in Kenai from 1913-24.
But troubles — money and otherwise — at the Kenai school were far from over.
Brent Johnson, of Clam Gulch, is a former president of the Kenai Peninsula Historical Association.