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Saturday, March 19, 2005

Two exceptional teachers in Solano history

Nancy Dingler

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March is women’s history month, and to that end, I sought stories on outstanding women in our county’s history.  The Solano Historian of May 1992, profiled two school teachers from Benicia: Mary E. Farmer and Ellen Foley.

Mary E. Farmer, born Feb. 6, 1857, taught school in Benicia from December 1889 to February 1922. Her first 30 years were spent at West End Primary School. She was known for her kindness to her pupils, many of whom, she helped with their personal problems.  She died Dec. 21, 1939. A memorial program honoring her and sponsored by her former pupils was held Sept. 15, 1940 in the Benicia City Park.

She was again honored when Benicia named a school built in 1959 at 901 Military West, the Mary Farmer Elementary School.  Miss Ellen Foley was born in 1877. She was raised on the ranch of her parents, Dennis and Catherine Foley. The ranch was located off the Benicia-Cordelia road northeast of Benicia.

When only 17, Foley became a public school teacher at the Siebe School near the Foley ranch. It was a one-room country school in which several Benicia city teachers began their careers.

After Siebe School, Foley took a teaching post in Benicia city and taught in both primary and grammar schools. She taught for 49 years. Foley was a gentle woman, much loved by her pupils and always interested in the welfare of children. Her first pupils were children of ranchers, vineyardists, dairymen and railroad employees. She died March 8, 1958.

Posted near school doors where Farmer and Foley taught, would have been notices of discipline - expectations of students attending the school. Perhaps some of the student rules posted in 1860 could use a re-posting today:

· Boys and girls shall file into classroom in separate lines and be seated quietly on opposite sides of the room.

· Boys shall remove their caps when entering.

· Children must sit up straight at all times.

· Children must not squirm, fidget or whine.

· Children must be clean and tidy in clothing.

· There will be an inspection of neck, ears and fingernails prior to class to ensure cleanliness of person.

· Young ladies must never show a bare ankle; girls’ and boys’ clothing should cover arms and legs completely.

· Five minutes tardy in the morning equals 1 hour after school.

· Double assignments if homework is not done.

· Nothing shall be dipped into ink wells except pens.

· Children who are caught writing with their left hand equals 1 ruler rap on the knuckles.

· Do not speak unless spoken to by the teacher. Talking in class equals 1 whack with rod.

· Nothing shall be thrown in class. Such behavior equals 5 whacks.

· Chewing of tobacco or spitting equals 7 whacks.

· Carving on desks or defacing school property equals expulsion.

· Fighting, lying or cheating equals expulsion. Only well-mannered children should attend school. Remember: Education is a privilege.

In the May 1993 issue of the Solano Historian, Lee Fountain introduced the readers to Millie (Mildred) Woods Burton of Vacaville. Millie was born into a local family that had lived in Solano County since 1898.  Ranching and cattle raising sustained the family for three generations. Inexplicably, the women were educated to be professional career people.

Millie was the youngest of five children of John and Bertie Camp Woods. She would follow her older sister, Doris to Chico State College, eventually becoming a second-grade teacher in Vacaville.  After seven years of teaching, she married Howard Burton, a local cattle rancher. She settled down to the life of a local matron, helping her husband in his career and finding enjoyment as a member of the Cowbelles.

She held offices in that organization, both locally and statewide. She traveled extensively throughout the state, making many friends in the cattle and agricultural circles.  Then in 1956, her friend, Marybelle Hawkins, asked her if she would help out at Cooper school because the teacher had been injured in an accident.

At first, she claimed she had been away from teaching too long, she had many other obligations, and she had never taught where all eight grades were in one room. Woods Burton didn’t think she would take over another teacher’s class. Her friend prevailed, and Woods Burton agreed to help out for a few days. The few days turned out to be three and one half years of a great classroom experience.

Woods Burton recalled with a great deal of enthusiasm, the events of those years of teaching. She discovered that she could schedule study and recitation periods for six classes at the same time. She found significant allies in the older students who took pride in helping the little ones learn their lessons.

Woods Burton fondly remembered that there was an old treadle Singer Sewing Machine in the school room and one of the children’s favorite activities was learning to sew. Especially touching, was seeing the older boys hold the little ones on their laps with their long legs running the treadle while the little ones worked with the needle.

Vacaville rancher Eugene Brazelton was a second-grade student of hers in the 1930s and commented, “What I remember about Mrs. Burton was, and I would have to say this, they were all strict. She had a sense of humor, but when she said get in line, she meant get in line.”

Millie Woods Burton died at age 93 in September of 2002.

These dedicated women helped to shape their students futures and are remembered for their unselfish and resolute attitudes. Truly they represent, historically, the best within us.

SPECIAL NOTE: The Museum Roundtable group is still seeking members and volunteers to help with planning events and fund-raising for the proposed Fairfield Museum.

The group recently has been approached by the son of William Gordon Huff, the internationally acclaimed artist and creator of the Chief Solano statue. The museum has been offered a huge collection of the artist’s work and documents.

Unfortunately, there is no current museum. The collection will have to be carefully housed under museum conditions until that time when there is a museum. So, if you are excited about this addition to the historical collections that are poised to be exhibited in the Fairfield museum, then please join this historic campaign to bring the museum to fruition.

There were so many people in Fairfield, Suisun and Vacaville that joined the fight to save the old library. Join the Roundtable group in their effort to create a museum in that building.

Also, if you would like to see a historical story, or if you have old photos that are in danger of being lost or discarded, contact me.