Leanne O’Neil, playing the teacher Miss Bennett, instructs Vaughn Elementary School fourth graders in the Gig Harbor Midway schoolhouse, built in 1893. Photo by Peter Ruble, KP News

On May 6, Vaughn Elementary School fourth graders got a chance to travel back in time to 1901 to take classes in an authentic schoolhouse built in 1893 at the Gig Harbor History Museum.

Vaughn school teacher Carolyn Russell helped prepare the students by making sure they were dressed in 1901 regalia. She said it was a great experience for the students to learn about history.

“Many of them have never been to a museum,” Russell said.

“It was awesome,” said student Josh Voight. “I wish this was my school all the time.”

Harbor History Museum volunteer Leanne O’Neil, who played the teacher Miss Bennett, said a great deal of attention was paid to authenticity. There were pictures of President Washington and President Lincoln and a 45-starred American flag. The students used chalk and slates to solve arithmetic and sang period themed songs such as “Skip to My Lou” and “Flies in the Buttermilk.” According to O’Neil, the singing aspect lent to the joy of learning during that period, which she believes is somewhat absent today.

“Education has changed so much because of testing,” O’Neil said. “We’ve lost a little bit of the creativity and fun of learning. What we do here is allow kids to imagine and have fun.”

O’Neil has an education and theater background, which helps her in her role. She created the persona of Miss Bennett after doing thorough research starting in 2009. She contacted fellow educators and actually spoke to people who had attended the school house. “It needs to be a pioneering school experience,” O’Neil said. “I think we need to realize that the past has value and learning from the past is how you create your future.”

According to the O’Neill, the dedication to authenticity has led to some misunderstood criticisms. O’Neil had the students recite the pledge of allegiance with the “Bellamy salute.” The “Bellamy salute,” which was named after American socialist, minister and author Francis Bellamy, involves extending your arm during the recitation. According to O’Neil, this has received some criticism since it resembles the salute used by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis during the Third Reich. This caused President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to replace the Bellamy salute with the hand over the heart gesture in 1942. The words “Under God” were missing from the pledge, which has caused some visitors to claim it was an attempt at political correctness. However, this was how the pledge was written at the time, according to O’Neil. The words “Under God” were not added until 1954.

O’Neil said the Vaughn students were wonderful in their first time coming to the museum.

“The teachers did a great job preparing them to make sure they were in authentic regalia,” said O’Neil.

After class the students got a chance to enjoy period lunches complete with mason glasses, jerky and root beer all wrapped in wax. They later got to have recess at Gig Harbor Bay and Donkey Creek that runs behind the museum. They learned about Captain Charles Wilkes and the history of Gig Harbor.

After recess, the students received lessons in penmanship, reading and botany, which were taught by the school master, “Mr. Jacob,” who was played by volunteer Dave Martin.

Martin, who is a retired school teacher, said that he appreciates the higher level of discipline that was evident in 1901. Misbehaving students would have to stand in the corner or place their nose on a dot on the chalkboard just like students did in 1901.

“School used to be kind of a break for students because of all the farm work they had to do,” said Martin. “Today there’s a lot more information and distractions. A teacher has to be a real performer.”

For information about the schoolhouse please visit harborhistorymuseum.org.

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