Sunday, March 22, 2015

Swimming to British Columbia

We’d hold hands before falling asleep, twin beds pushed together, blankets mounded in the divide. Across that narrow separation, my grandmother told stories of when she was young, about times when she taught school in logging towns in British Columbia and lots of other things.

These tales from the turn of the century come to mind now for several reasons – I've been reading Alice Munro’s Selected Stories and find in these beautiful jewels reflections of stories my grandmother told-- turns of phrase, vocabulary choices -- evoking memories long put aside. And, since March is Women’s History Month, Facebook friends are focusing on women’s issues.

 For various reasons, I've been going through boxes of old family photos handed down to me, mostly without notes or orientation, leaving wide margin for my own invention. I find myself remembering and wondering, making up stories to go with the images from slender recollections. This story comes to mind, told in my grandmother’s dark, dusty bedroom on Elizabeth Street in San Francisco, the smell of face powder and cologne in crystal perfume bottles with fancy stoppers, providing aromatic atmosphere:

Dessalyn Matti King
Probably about 1910 to 1915
“It was a beautiful day. British Columbia was beautiful back then,” she said.


“Probably about 1915, but don’t interrupt or I won’t tell the story." She gently squeezed my fingers. "Anyway. It was Sunday and I had the day off from teaching school. I taught the children in one room, in a log cabin. Most of them weren’t very smart and the rules for teachers were strict back then. I had to clean the schoolroom on Saturdays. I didn’t like that, but I did it. And, they wanted you to dress and talk a certain way.”


“Oh, the town’s people. The men who hired me. But, let me go on."

“Where did you live?”

“In a house they provided, of course. It was one room with an old wood stove for heating and I drove a car my father bought me, which they didn’t like. Most people didn’t think women should drive. But, I did it anyway. Do you want to hear this story or not?”
Dolly driving 

“I want to hear,” I said, but pulled my hand free. The unnatural angle of our holding made my wrist ache.

“I went hiking by the river and then decided to swim. I was near the chute they used to send the logs down to the water where they’d gather them up in big rafts and float them downstream to the mill. I didn't expect the men would be working on Sunday. I thought I would be alone. But, I heard a rumbling and saw big logs coming down the chute, straight for me in the water.

“I knew I’d be killed so I ducked under water and swam beneath the surface as far and fast as I could go. The sound of the logs hitting the river carried under water and made me swim harder. When I came up, I was far out in the river and the current had caught me. I was carried into the log jam. I grabbed ahold of the logs and pulled myself around, ducking under, swimming with them until I got myself close to the bank. I was afraid the logs would hit the rapids and I'd be crushed in the jumble. I got out just in time and had a long walk back to my clothes, but I lived through it.”

“Were you cold?”

“Don’t be a simpleton. Of course I was cold, and scared to death and glad to be alive.”

“I’m glad, too.”

Dessalyn in the doorway of the one-room
log-cabin school where she taught
in British Columbia.
“You shouldn't ever swim by yourself and you need to be a strong swimmer. You never know what will happen. Now, give me your precious little hand.”

My Grandmother, Dessalyn Matti King Wilson, was born in 1890 and graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in physics in 1910. She was 20 and there were no jobs for women in the field of physics in those days. She went to teacher (normal) school and by 1915 was teaching in one-room school houses in logging towns in British Columbia.

She said she did it for fun, which I took to mean the adventure of being a pioneer. She was the second youngest of 10 children. Her father was a prosperous merchant in St. Louis. All of her siblings were college educated, unusual for that era.

They called her “Dolly,” partly because she stood about 4 feet, 9 inches. She was pretty and quick. She liked to sing and dance and played a half dozen musical instruments, including honky tonk piano, which she played for me and my brothers and sister as we were growing up.

Dessalyn, first row center, with her parents and siblings
Probably about 1900

She liked girls who “stood up for themselves, had gumption.” She didn't like bawl babies, called girls like that "little calves." She loved to walk and smoke and cheat at gin rummy. She was an accomplished seamstress and made all her own clothes and ours until I went to junior high school and rebelled, because no one wore cotton dresses with big collars and crinoline petticoats in the early 1960s.

She wasn’t hurt by my decision. Instead, she took me shopping in downtown San Francisco wearing white gloves, patent leather shoes and ankle socks. She shopped at Hales, The Emporium, City of Paris and the White House, called the sales ladies “Petty,” and insisted they go into the stock room and bring out the best “goods.” She picked at the merchandise and complained about the quality and price, made a big fuss. Sometimes she'd call for the manager.

Out on the sidewalk with our bags, she'd excuse her behavior by say something like: "I'm a business woman and know good goods. I'm not going to let them cheat me." We'd walk to catch the J Church street car back home to Noe Valley and hold hands as we crossed Market Street, her fingers slender and childlike, but gripping my hand as strong as a jumberjack.

Historical Note: Most of the earliest teachers in rural communities of the West were men. When the teaching profession developed and required that teachers have some formal training, more and more women entered the field. Communities were happy to have female teachers because they would work for less pay than a male teacher.

They were often young  --  sometimes as young as some of their students  --  and did not stay for very long in one school if they could find another teaching position in a better location or which paid a little more. 

As the country moved West in the United States, the need for teachers, male or female increased. By the 1870’s, 25% of all American-born white women had taught school at some time in their lives. The community had an advantage in hiring a woman teacher, though. Women were paid 40-60% less than their male counterparts, making $54.50 a year to a male teacher’s $71.40 on average in the 1880s.

Frontier Teachers: Stories of Heroic Women of the Old West

Information about the early days of logging in British Columbia and historical photos are archived online by the Campbell River Museum at