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Bedtime Story: The Case of the Vanishing Schoolhouse

Updated: Apr 19, 2020

by Leann O'Neill

Based on the true story of the Midway Schoolhouse, one of the earliest schools in Gig Harbor. This story is excerpted from the book, Midway in History, written by Leann O’Neill and illustrated by Marion Ekberg © 2013. Available in the Harbor History Museum Mercantile.

We Need a School

In 1892, some townsfolk in a little community near Gig Harbor, Washington, decided they needed a school in their part of town so that their children wouldn’t have to walk so far to the other schools in the area. They petitioned the county superintendent and were permitted to form School District #79. The Dow Family donated an acre of land with the stipulation that the school district could use it as long as there was an active school on the property. If the school ever closed, ownership of the land would revert back to the family.

A builder named J.J. Moore began construction of the schoolhouse in June of 1893 and finished it in August of the same year for a total cost of $135. Built of wood with a brick chimney and large windows on the south wall, the little one-room schoolhouse was clean, polished, and ready for its first students.

But many years later, the schoolhouse disappeared! All that was left was a pile of dirt and remnants of the chimney. What happened to it? Let’s ask the schoolhouse.

Where did the schoolhouse go? Was it stolen in the night? Was it whirled away by a tornado? Or was it given a new home?

The Schoolhouse Tells Its Story

I'd been alone since I was finished in August, so I was nervous about my first day of school. I wondered what it would feel like to have people walking on my floors. Would I miss the peace and quiet? Would the children love and take care of me?

On that rainy fall morning in 1893, my front door creaked open. Rows of wooden desks greeted the young schoolmarm. When she rang the school bell, I straightened my walls, and held my breath as 15 students entered the building, ladies first. Walking slowly to the front of my little room, the schoolmarm rang the tardy bell, and the school day commenced. After Opening Exercises, the children started their lessons of English, Penmanship, Arithmetic, History, and Music. That first day of school went so fast.

Time passed quickly. For the next 21 years, I welcomed many students and schoolmarms. Everyone called me “District #79.” I longed to have a name that told everyone I was a real school. One day in 1914, I overheard the schoolmarm and the students talking about a naming contest for me. I was thrilled! The students submitted many ideas, and then voted on the one they liked the best. The winning name was “Midway” because of my location mid-way between Gig Harbor and Wollochet Bay. From then on, I was known as the “Midway Schoolhouse.” Now, that was a proper name for a school.

That same year, all my windows were moved from the south wall to the north wall to let in more light during the gray, rainy days. A cloakroom was added to my front entrance where students could store their caps, bonnets, wraps, lunches, and the occasional rifle brought along for hunting on the long walk to and from school.

As time passed, the community around me grew and grew. I was bursting at the seams with so many students and knew that more schools were needed. By now, I was 48 years old and getting a little worn out.

One day in 1941, I heard that all the schools in the area would join and become “Peninsula School District #401.” New schools would be built, and I would no longer be needed. The children and schoolmarm left, and I was closed for good. When my front door was locked for the last time, I cried and felt so utterly alone.

As stipulated by the original agreement, ownership of the property where I lived reverted back to the Dow Family, and they soon sold the property to the Murphy/Doyle Family.

I sat there, alone, for a long time until one spring day in 2009. Suddenly, there were lots of people walking around me, and they started to take me apart! My chimney was dismantled, brick by brick, and my roof was removed. Workers covered my open roof with a big, blue tarp. I was hoisted up and placed on a trailer attached to a large truck. On April 17, 2009, I was transported to the Harbor History Museum, which was under construction. There was a special spot for me behind the museum. I had the best view of beautiful Gig Harbor Bay and many colorful boats.

1. Preparing for the move. 2. Arrival at the Museum. 3. A new cloakroom.

Soon restoration work began, done predominantly by the Rotary Club of Gig Harbor. Such hardworking people! They were restoring me the best they could to my original condition. With a fresh coat of paint and all spiffed up, I beamed with pride and began to feel like my old self.

But being restored was not enough.

What was the point of being all dressed up and in good working order if there were no children to use and enjoy me? Feeling frustrated and worthless, I fell into a deep sleep for many days and did not notice that the museum had been finished and was ready to open.

On September 18, 2010, I was startled awake by a schoolmarm ringing a bell from my porch. I realized that while I had been asleep, in addition to my old Waterbury wood stove, more of my former possessions had been placed back inside my room. There was the teacher’s desk, the piano, the Victrola, a student desk, an agricultural chart, and the window opener. And there were enough student desks to fill the whole classroom! I found out that this was the “Grand Opening” of the Harbor History Museum. People of all ages came inside with the schoolmarm. She looked just like my first schoolmarm on that long-ago day in 1893!

From then on, people came to the museum and visited me almost every day. A few weeks later, as the cool days of November arrived, another surprising thing happened. The schoolmarm appeared again and rang the bell. This time, school children came and stowed their lunches, caps, and bonnets in the cloakroom. They entered single file, ladies first, and the lessons began.

After that, many more students came to visit me, and additional schoolmarms and a schoolmaster came to teach.

Finally, it all made sense to me: A museum was a place to learn. The children who came were pretending to go back in time and experience what it was like to study in a one-room schoolhouse in 1915. Since reopening in 2010, I have had 12,335 students visit me. That's a lot of students for a little one-room schoolhouse, but it's a great job. I have a past and a present. Now, I will be Midway in History forever!

Although the Midway Schoolhouse is currently closed (as is the Museum) due to the Coronoavirus outbreak, you can still see it on the museum grounds. Imagine what it would be like to walk from your house to the school just like kids did in 1893.


Photo Credits Top to Bottom:

Book Cover, Midway in History, used with permission from Leann O’Neill

Schoolhouse site, Murphy/Doyle Family

Midway School Children, Harbor History Museum Collection, Sch-102-Mdwy Midway School Closed, Harbor History Museum Collection, Sch-096-Mdwy

Midway Schoolhouse Reopening, Harbor History Museum Collection

Students Return to Midway, Harbor History Museum Collection

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