by Leann O'Neill
Who is the fabled Miss Bennett and how did she come to teach at the Museum's Midway Schoolhouse? For answers, we turned to long-time Pioneer School volunteer, Leann O'Neill.
During my 11 years of volunteering at the Harbor History Museum, many people have asked me about Miss Bennett, one of the Midway Schoolhouse educators. I guess people figure that I might know something because I was an educator in the Peninsula School District for many years and am involved with the Pioneer School Experience (PSE) educational program at the museum. I consider it ironic and meant to be that I can participate.
For years, I lived right down the street from the original site of the Midway Schoolhouse. Every time I drove by, it would make me sad to see its dilapidated condition, and I wished for someone to restore it. I could not have envisioned a better solution than the donation and move to the museum, or the incredible job the Rotary Club of Gig Harbor did to restore the schoolhouse to make it usable. We try hard each year to honor that donation and be good stewards of the building all the while honoring Alice Murphy Doyle’s wish that “one day children’s voices would again be heard in the schoolhouse. Anyway, being retired and having plenty of time on my hands right now with the pandemic and the museum closure, I decided to do some research and try to answer the questions about Miss Bennett.
Strangely, nothing was known about Miss Abigail Bennett until the fall of 2010 when she mysteriously appeared in the Midway Schoolhouse on Sept. 17, 2010 for the Member-Only Grand Opening Preview of the Harbor History Museum. She seemed to be in a world all her own, looking and sounding like she was living just after the turn of the 20th Century with period-correct clothing, learning materials, and lessons. And just as mysteriously, she is never seen around town except during a few city parades and special speaking engagements. And yet, there are many school children in the Gig Harbor and Port Orchard areas that seem to know her and love her despite her rather stern demeanor and serious countenance. I have even heard that there are those that know her in Seattle, Port Angeles, and Portland, Oregon.
On February 28th, 2020, I found out that Miss Bennett was teaching students, so I stayed outside the schoolhouse until she had finished her school day and dismissed the class, and then approached her. She had just removed her glasses and said something about time travel, but then quickly replaced the glasses low on her nose and turned her piercing blue eyes on me. After reminding me that the year was 1915, she encouraged me to get on with my business post haste as she still had many chores in order to ready the schoolhouse for the next class. Here is my interview with her:
Leann: Miss Bennett, I am so glad I caught up with you. I have been wanting to get some information about you for quite some time. Even researching your name, I could not find anything, almost as if someone just made you up!
Miss Bennett: Oh, that is amusing but, as you can see, I am very real. Now, what would you like to know?
Leann: Would you please tell me a little bit about your early life?
Miss Bennett: Of course, my dear. I was born March 11, 1861. My father, Kenneth Bennett, was born in 1835 in eastern Canada, but left in his late teens as a deckhand on a sailing vessel. By the time he came to Puget Sound, he had been around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America and had spent time in San Francisco boatbuilding and fishing. He came to Seattle in 1855 to fish and work in the lumbering industry.
My mother, Mary Eliza Turner, was born in 1841 in what was then known as Alta California. She was the daughter of a sailor and boat builder whose family came north from California to the Puget Sound area in 1851 when she was 10 years old. She met my father at a community gathering in Seattle in 1859 when she was 18 and he was 24. They were married in January of 1860 and I was born a little over a year later.My brother, Nathaniel, was born in 1863 and my younger sister, Eliza Jane, was born in 1865. In 1870, our family moved to Gig Harbor as my father had heard that Gig Harbor was a good place to fish and raise a family.
Our home is just up the hill from where we are currently standing. Since there were no schools in the Gig Harbor area prior to 1878, I learned at home from my mother who also taught several of the neighbor children. As I got older, I helped her with the teaching and found that I loved working with children and desired to become a teacher.
When I was 20, I moved back to Seattle to live with an aunt and attended the Territorial University of Washington to get my teaching certification. This was a prudent decision because my aunt was able to help me with the $12 per term tuition. I felt truly fortunate to be one of the few women to obtain a degree and was proud to join the American Association of University Women founded in 1881.
The University building is on the hill near the center of the photograph of Seattle in 1866.
This is a closeup of the Territorial University of Washington building in 1870.
This is the faculty of the Territorial University of Washington during the 1882-3 school term.
This is my Grammar Class of 1883. I am in the front row, third from the left.
I began my career in the fall of 1884 at the Sixth Street School in Seattle which later became Central School.The elegant wooden building had 12 classrooms and a clocktower with a French mansard roof. I was one of ten teachers supervised by the principal, Edward S. Ingraham. Here is a photo of the Sixth Street School in Seattle in 1883.
In 1885, I returned to Gig Harbor to teach at the Rosedale School. Five years later, Mr. Crane took over at the Rosedale School and I was appointed to a post at the Midway District #79 School, starting that September.
Rosedale School class portrait.
Leann: Thank you, Miss Bennett. I was so intrigued by your story since I could not find any information about you. How have you managed to remain so mysterious?
Miss Bennett: Oh, my, I do not consider myself to be mysterious at all. I just appeared when there was a need and have tried my utmost to fulfill that need ever since.
Leann: You sound a bit like Mary Poppins! So, what are your plans now?
Miss Bennett: Well, I have not had the pleasure of meeting this Mary Poppins, but, as you know, I am still not permitted to marry, and with my paltry salary, I cannot afford to own a place of my own so I must prevail upon the hospitality of my students. When I am not teaching, I enjoy spending time with my nieces and nephews. My brother, Nathaniel, and his wife, Sarah, have two boys and a girl. My sister, Eliza Jane and her husband, Emmett, have twin girls. My parents are still living in our family home but are quite elderly now so, after this school term, I will move back home to help them and will no longer be boarding with students.
Leann: You are a dutiful daughter, indeed. What do you like about teaching at the Midway School?
Miss Bennett: I so appreciate the energy and enthusiasm when the scholars hear the school bell and line up outside to begin the day. Such dapper young men and comely young ladies who take great care to see that they have faces and especially clean hands. Cleanliness is next to godliness, you know, and necessary for good health. We have a stellar community that pays taxes so that the district superintendent can afford my salary and keep the schoolhouse in good condition. The parents offer their support and encouragement and are so gracious to me when I reside with them. I seldom find it necessary to punish any of the scholars but, when I do, I fear they are in even more trouble at home, such is the commitment to learning and respect in Gig Harbor. And recently, when I discovered the evidence of a mouse inside the schoolhouse, Timothy Young, a stalwart young community member, was most kind to come in and trap the pesky rodent for me.
Leann: Since you started work at the Midway Schoolhouse, about how many students have you taught?
Miss Bennett (removing her glasses): I suppose I should have kept track, but I have been told that over 12,300 have been taught since the schoolhouse was moved and restored.
Leann: Well, Miss Bennett. I am so glad I got to finally meet you and appreciate your time. I am relieved that I will now be able to answer questions about you when asked. I hope you remain a schoolmarm at the Midway School for a very long time.
Miss Bennett: Why, thank you, my dear. I have always hoped that I might teach as long as Lucy Goodman, but I am not sure that I will make it for 75 years as she did. However, I do not have any plans to retire at this time, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise! Now, I have a question for you.
Leann: That seems fair. Happy to oblige, Miss Bennett. What would you like to know?
Miss Bennett: How is it that this is the only time you and I have ever been together at the same time?
Leann: That, I am afraid, is another mystery!
Author note: This “interview” is a combination of period-correct fact and fiction, and my way of presenting the information different than a written article. Miss Bennett is my alter-ego and the character I invented for The Pioneer School Experience (PSE) offered at the Harbor History Museum. This is an educational field trip offered for schools in which students are led by trained museum volunteers as they tour the museum galleries with hands-on activities and experience a 1915 school day in the restored Gig Harbor Midway Schoolhouse.
During the schoolhouse session of PSE, students are led by an in-character, period-correct educator called a schoolmarm/master. All of our schoolmarms/master are retired educators who created a persona based on extensive research about teachers in the early 1900s in the United States combined with personal history/genealogy, and then developed a costume germane to the early 1900sin order to recreate a 1915 school day using authentic materials and activities. The museum volunteers who fill these roles must stay in character the entire time the students are with them. In essence, they are actors in the role of a different person. The educators take great care to ensure their personas are authentic, having practiced many hours to bring their characters to life so that they will seem real to the students.
During my ten+ years as Miss Bennett, I can truly say that she is very real to me and has seemingly taken on a life of her own. I have been asked by many people where Miss Bennett actually taught in Gig Harbor and have received countless letters addressed to Miss Bennett. During our busiest field trip times in the spring, I am sometimes Miss Bennett for several days in a row, causing me to literally wake up and think about who I am going to be that day! She is most definitely a blend of factual history and my imagination and personal style. I hope you can meet her someday. She’s quite the character.
Photo Credits (Top to Bottom)
Family Photo. Public Domain.
Territorial University of Washington. Frederick Dally, courtesy of the Metropolitan Toronto Library Board.Public Domain; UW Libraries Digital Collections: Public Domain;
Territorial University Faculty, Seattle. Theodore E. Peiser Photographs, University of Washington Special Collections, Public Domain (accessed via Wikimedia Commons).
Territorial University, Seattle. Theodore E. Peiser Photographs, University of Washington Special Collections, Public Domain (accessed via Wikimedia Commons).
Territorial University Grammar Class. Theodore E. Peiser Photographs, University of Washington Special Collections (accessed via Wikimedia Commons).
Seattle Central School, c. 1885. Photographer Unknown. University of Washington Special Collections, Public Domain (accessed via Wikimedia Commons).
Rosedale School, 1908. Harbor History Museum Collection, Sch-129-Rsd.jpg.
Miss Bennett Teaching. Used by permission of Leann O’Neill.