Mary Chase Walker. From the
Alpine Historical Society Collection.
by Albert Simonson
Looking at her photo in the Old Town schoolhouse, I am reminded of the silly old song that goes “She was a nice girl, a pretty girl, and her hair hung down in ring-a-lets.”
Well, pretty in a schoolmarmish way that could turn severe at any suggestion of a stray impure thought. She looks directly at me from between those tight, tubular ringlets, with a fine lace collar held chastely by a cameo. I avert my gaze.
Not satisfied with her $200 annual salary as a New England schoolmarm, Mary Walker paid almost two years’ wages for a four-week journey by sea to San Francisco. It was an unusual thing for a single woman to undertake. But there was no work for her there.
Backtracking to San Diego, she made a deep impression on E.W. Morse, president of the school board. So, in 1865, she became the first regular schoolteacher in American San Diego.
So impressed was Morse that, after her first year, they got married. Morse probably had few impure thoughts, and was acclaimed as the “ideal citizen.” A Yankee himself, he fancied that Yankee schoolmarm look. He was worthy.
It would have been scandalous for a married woman to teach innocent children, so she had to resign. They could afford it - Morse was a successful merchant who continued to be involved in virtually every major business or civic venture in the area, from banks to Balboa Park to subdividing El Cajon.
In 1898, a year before her death, Mary sat in quiet retirement by Tavern and South Grade Roads in Alpine and penned her first impressions of San Diego and her pupils.
“Of all the dilapidated, miserable looking places I had ever seen, this was the worst. The first night, a donkey came under my window and saluted me with an unearthly bray. The fleas were plentiful and hungry.”
About school, she lamented tardiness and absence caused by a lack of clocks and an abundance of fiestas. At recess, the girls smoked cigarettes while the boys lassoed vagrant pigs and hens. Boys could be expected to desert their scholastic endeavors for a whole week to take part in preparations for a bullfight.
Their lack of reading skills mattered little, on a practical level, since the girls’ privy was readily identifiable by a crescent cut into the door, while the boy’s had a simple round hole.
Things have improved since then, but teachers still complain. Next time you hear them complain, just tell them about what Mary was up against.
More information about Mary Chase Walker can be found on the San Diego Historical Society's Website.