The history of Brooklyn told through the story of Brooklyn School
In 1891, the Brooklyn neighborhood was already a bustling community. Brooklyn was home to hundreds of Eastern Europeans who emigrated from Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Poland, and Italy in search of a job with fair wages, and freedom from religious persecution. As in other sections of Portland at this time, small cottages, dwellings, and bungalows were hastily constructed to shelter newcomers pouring into the rapidly-growing city. In the case of Brooklyn, these were built to house workers who hired on at the Southern Pacific Railroad Brooklyn Yard; or who took jobs with the Eastside Railway street car; or who worked in local factories; or who found positions as skilled workers at the Poulson and Inman sawmill north of today's Ross Island Bridge.
The community of Brooklyn became known as a melting pot of different nationalities, and a devoted working-class neighborhood. As families began to settle in the area, parents were concerned that their children needed the opportunity for a good education. Construction of an eight-room, three-story school followed, under the aegis of the East Portland School Board – and it turned out to be one of the largest buildings in the area at the time.
Previously, students were using classrooms in a run-down single-story church, near 18th and S.E. Powell, called the Lee Chapel – and once used by Father Kelly during the pioneer days of Brookland's beginnings. (Yes, the original name of the neighborhood was actually Brookland – named after the steams running through it when it was first discovered. Those who failed to understand what Brookland meant took to calling it Brooklyn, and that is the name that has stuck.)
On the opening day of Brooklyn School in 1891, carpenters and woodworkers were still busy finishing the second floor, installing windows, finishing hardwood floors, and completing classrooms, as students and teachers began classes on the ground floor. The first days in class were a challenge, as students and teachers tried to ignore the sounds from the floor above – pounding hammers, rhythmic sawing, and the boisterous shouting and laughter of busy construction workers.
J.F. Rhodes, the former postmaster of the town of Willsburg (it was near Tacoma Street and today's McLoughlin Boulevard, on the railroad line) was named the Principal of the new school, and he, along with four other teachers, made up the entire faculty on the first day of class. Miss Jean McDonald was in charge of the first graders, and D. Hurlburt and Minnie Call were responsible for the two classes composed of second graders. With half the classrooms still under construction, Brooklyn Primary School could only accommodate three grades, and Miss Mary Beharrall was assigned as the instructor for the third graders. By the start of the following year, a fourth grade class was added, and by the year after that, construction was finally complete, making room for a fifth grade. But, still, there were only four teachers on staff for the school, so each of them had to double up and teach two separate grades.
In each school year, Brooklyn School students were faced with the task of accommodating new teaching methods and remembering the names of new teachers, as the overworked faculty members were constantly being reassigned to other communities – or requesting transfers.
Moreover, immigrant students who had been raised in European countries often had to contend with a language barrier until they could master the English language; and since most families were in the blue-collar working class, it wasn't uncommon to see students move from one school to another as their fathers searched for a better-paying job and working conditions elsewhere in the community.
But, before long, more than 200 students were filling the hallways of Brooklyn School, and even more enrolled after the final closure of the decrepit old Lee Chapel classrooms down the street.
Few complained about the challenges that the children had to contend with, but they were significant. From the start, the school didn't have any playground or any central heating, and infrastructure problems continued, school year after school year. Once a furnace was installed, it was placed in the basement; and because of construction inadequacies, during the rainy winters water seeped down the walls of the building and flooded the basement, causing the furnace to fail. Students shivered in their classrooms, and dressed in heavy wool coats and hats to stay warm. At one point, school was dismissed by the Principal because the water was so high in the basement.
But what the school lacked in funds was made up for in the dedication and passion of the faculty, the mothers of the children, and each of its Principals. With the encouragement of a new Principal, Miss Aphia L. Dimick, leading businessmen in Brooklyn and the ladies who lived in the neighborhood raised additional money for the land around the building to be graded and leveled. That led to the students having a makeshift playground; they now had space for outdoor activities and recess, but landscaping for the school was not included when construction was declared complete.
Teachers and visiting parents were appalled at filthy hallways and classrooms, from the mud tracked into the building in the winter by the galoshes and rubber boots of the little students. The lone janitor at the school struggled to mop the walkways and entrance to the school each day, among his many other responsibilities.
To counter the rather grim landscape in which the school was built, on Arbor Day each year teachers such as Mrs. Margaret B. West led students in planting trees, as well as raking and cleaning up the entrance to the schoolyard.
City officials were embarrassed when the riders on the Sellwood street car, which passed by on Milwaukie Boulevard in front of the school, would complain publicly about the poor condition of the school grounds they saw in Brookly. As a result, a city-wide "beautification policy" was begun by the Mayor, and he called for all schools and city residents to install plants and shrubs in front of their houses and businesses to beautify the city. But, with little city money available for the purpose, the Principal at Brooklyn School and her staff were left on their own to find ways to spruce up the school entrance.
A special celebration was held for Margaret West when she retired on June 7th, 1930. She had taught at that same school for 35 years. Some 500 ex-students attended her reception, as did two former Principals, and the current Principal. Besides teaching her students how to read and write, she also shared her joy of gardening and singing with them, and each year the students in her class were required to sing a song for the annual Parents Appreciation Assembly. Members of the first class she taught, 35 years prior, gathered and paid tribute to her at the celebration by singing to their beloved instructor. But a major change in Brooklyn was right around the corner – a new school building was constructed the following year. Building a school was just half the battle in creating a good education for everyone – the other half was getting the children to stay in school. Men who were the head of the households in that era spent the majority of their days and hours consumed with their own jobs, and many didn't see any need to have their own children spend "worthless hours sitting behind a desk".
They felt boys were needed to help out on farm, or to do chores around the house; and some were even expected to drop out of school and get a job, to help contribute to the family finances. Girls could help their mother with sewing, washing, cleaning, cooking, and looking after their younger siblings, if they weren't in school.
If working-class men often didn't see a need for children to be educated, it was the mothers who stepped forward and insisted their children receive an education so they could have a better life than they themselves had experienced in their youth. They were not only the driving force behind the construction of a new school, they also helped support the many events and activities devised by the teaching staff to enrich the children's education.
On May 6th, 1903 the "Mothers Club of Brooklyn" was established by the ladies of the community as the first Parent and Teachers Association in the City of Portland. In the years that followed, the Mothers Club of Brooklyn helped organize debates, chaperoned at dances, and assisted in after-school events which were often fundraisers to bring in money for new books in the school library. Monthly meetings of this innovative club were held at the school, and some of the problems the ladies were dealing with were discussed – including students smoking cigarettes, and how to keep rambunctious boys from skipping school to go fishing in the Willamette, or hanging from the rear rail of streetcars for a free ride around town.
Other schools in Portland followed the example of Brooklyn's mothers, and soon every school in the Metro area had also formed its own "parents and teachers" group.
Principal Aphia Dimick became an inspiration for her charitable and educational assistance to Brooklyn students and parents. She strongly advocated for kindergarten to be offered in all Portland Public Schools – and Brooklyn hosted one of the first such in the state. She also continued to lobby the School Board for additional funds. Over the next ten years, as the student population continued to increase, Miss Dimick oversaw the construction of two wings to the school, and also supported a new assembly hall.
Teachers, students, and parents were shocked and grieving in 1914 when Miss Dimick came down with a life-threatening case of pneumonia, and shortly afterward passed away. In her 38 years of service in the Portland Public Schools, she taught some of Portland's leading business and public figures, and played an important role in encouraging self-esteem by both boys and girls.
Among her many professional accomplishments was being the first women elected President of the State Teachers' Association. She was also among the first group of teachers accepted as faculty members when Portland had only three public schools – and she remained Principal of Brooklyn Primary School for 16 years, even as other well-establishment neighborhoods pleaded for her come to teach at their schools.
Under her administration, the structure of the Brooklyn school had seen many changes. Once completed, over 400 students were enrolled at the new, second Brooklyn School, which had fifteen classrooms, a long-tiled corridor, an assembly hall, and a separate Manual Training building used for sewing classes.
The students of Brooklyn were faced with a major pandemic, much as we've had this past year. It was 1918, and the virulent Spanish Flu pandemic killed more than 20,000,000 people around the world, with Portland having one of the higher death rates in the United States. (Although it was called the Spanish Flu, because it was identified early on in Spain, it turned out it had actually started in the American Midwest.)
Churches, meeting halls, and schools were all shut down, and public safety regulations were enforced for over 168 days. Much as in our current coronavirus pandemic, children were not allowed to gather in groups outside, or visit neighbors; and they were even prohibited from playing in the local parks. The 1918 students didn't have the luxury that our generation has of watching television, talking on cell phones, or taking classes on the Internet during the quarantine.
Many of the male teachers had already left their jobs to volunteer for the armed forces at the start of the "Great War" (WWI) in 1917. Those who were students at Brooklyn Primary School later remembered noticing that all of the classes were now being taught by female teachers. Once the war had ended and classes had resumed after the deadly flu pandemic, the men returned to the jobs they had held when they left for war, and the times began to return to normal.
But that normal didn't last long, with the arrival of the "Roaring 1920's". A new generation of parents moved into the neighborhood, and with them came new views on raising a family. Parents were more protective of their children, and most mothers considered a two-story wooden school building to be a potential fire hazard – and perhaps also unsafe if another major earthquake were to hit the West Coast. (The enormously destructive 1906 San Francisco earthquake was still fresh in their minds.)As more funds became available in the Portland School District, the School Board announced the intention to replace all schools constructed of timber. In 1924, a new site was purchased in Brooklyn, and plans were set in motion for a new state-of-the-art school to be built between S.E. 14th and 16th Avenues, and between Bush and Center Streets. George H. Jones was hired as the architect, and the construction firm "Settergren Brothers" was chosen to build it.
Shortly afterward, the 1929 stock market crash led to the Great Depression, and many other plans were cancelled – but not those for the new Brooklyn School. Work was started at the beginning of 1930. The new third Brooklyn School had ten classrooms, an auditorium to be used for music concerts and theater performances, a gymnasium for indoor activities, a manual training and home economics room, and a playground that included a baseball diamond. The exterior of the building was finished in light-colored Wilhelmine brick and, above the entrance, the words "Brooklyn School" were set in block letters.
One cool Monday morning, Brooklyn School students assembled at the old school at Milwaukie Avene and Haig Street and, with textbooks in hand, marched two blocks into their new classrooms. The old Brooklyn Primary School – the second of the three to bear that name, and once the crown jewel of the neighborhood – was demolished, and the site was cleared for a city park. Brooklyn Park remains today a favorite destination for summer picnics, and cool winter walks; the hill on the west side of the park is still celebrated for water-sliding in the summer, and sledding in the winter whenever it snows. Kids play summer little league baseball there, too.
While school enrollment did drop a bit in the 1930's during the Great Depression, the 1940's brought shipbuilding in Portland to supply American's troops in World War II, and that restored the local economy. Rooming houses, apartments, and other dwellings were built, as more people arrived here to work in wartime manufacturing – and the new Brooklyn School was soon overwhelmed with new students.
Ron Nugent, a Brooklyn resident during the 1950's, remembers that in that decade Brooklyn was a "socially, racially, and economically diverse place" to live in. While second and third generation Italians and Germans still lived in the neighborhood, Asian, Hispanic, and African American families joined them. The young people bicycled around the neighborhood, and were welcomed in all of the stores along Milwaukie Avenue and Powell Boulevard.
But there came a scare for local residents when there was some talk at the Portland School District Board Meetings in the 1970s about potentially closing Brooklyn School. It was a time when demographers at Portland State University had decided that the population was getting older, and the number of schoolchildren would start a permanent decline. Other Inner Southeast schools were similarly threatened by the "phantom drop" in enrollment that never came (in fact, soon there began a sharp rise in enrollment, as new young families moved in).
But, in response to the forecast, the school disrtrict changed Inner Southeast school boundaries, and enrollment at Brooklyn School dropped from 400 students to barely 200. In the end, however, local parents and other community leaders saved their school from closing.
In 1997 the Portland School District began opening alternate "specialty" schools, and the Brooklyn School's name was changed to Winterhaven School – to focus on a science and art "magnet curriculum". Classrooms and teachers offered specialized classes geared toward math, science, technology, and the arts. This program proved so successful that over 320 students now attend classes in Winterhaven, from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Gone are the days of Brooklyn Elementary School when young people studied civics, geography, arithmetic, sewing, and cooking – the place is now schooling students who see the future in a different way.
This Brooklyn journey began when Miss Aphia Dimick became the Principal of the first Brooklyn School in 1898, and continued with Margaret West in the 1920s in its second school building. Early in the 1930's the structure was replaced again – with the building which still stands today.Although the name of the school is different now, it's easy to imagine both of these landmark teachers of long ago would still be very proud of the school and of its neighborhood, and also proud of the students who today study an advanced curriculum within the walls of Brooklyn's own school.
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