Life in 1865 at Old Town’s Mason Street School.

Gentleman in period attire tells visitors at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park about the history of the Mason Street School.
Gentleman in period attire tells visitors at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park about the history of the Mason Street School.

The Mason Street School was San Diego’s very first schoolhouse. It was built in 1865. In 2015, 150 years later, it’s one of the most interesting sights in Old Town San Diego Historic State Park.

The one room schoolhouse museum isn’t always open to the public. So whenever I walk through Old Town, I eagerly wander past to see if the front door is swung wide. If it is, I amble inside and look about, trying to absorb what life was like in the early days of San Diego.

I remember how the Mason Street School used to contain numerous desks. But they’ve been replaced by plain benches, to more accurately portray where a small number of students from Spanish, American and other diverse backgrounds, grade one to eight, sat together and learned how to read, write and do arithmetic.

Back in the early years of San Diego, school was held twelve months a year. Hours were 9 to 4, but many students would skip school to watch bull fights, fiestas and other exciting town doings. Many children were held out of school by their parents to help on a ranch or farm, or to work in a family store.

San Diego in 1865 was a small, isolated, somewhat ramshackle town. Mary Chase Walker, Mason Street School’s first teacher, wrote when she arrived in San Diego by steamship: “I arrived in the bay of San Diego on the morning of July 5, 1865. It was a most desolate looking landscape. The hills were brown and barren; not a tree or green thing was to be seen. Of all the dilapidated, miserable looking places I had ever seen, this was the worst. The buildings were nearly all of adobe, one story in height, with no chimneys. Some of the roofs were covered with tile and some with earth…”

Mary Chase Walker originally traveled from Massachusetts to California, in search of greater opportunity. While in San Francisco, she learned of a teaching opening in San Diego. After less than a year at the Mason Street School, however, she became embroiled in a local controversy. One day she made a kind gesture to a lady who was part African-American, but many early San Diegans had arrived from the Confederate South and voiced their disapproval. A number of students were removed from the small school in anger. To allow the scandal to pass over, Mary quit teaching and married the president of the school board, early San Diego settler and prominent merchant Ephraim Morse.

It’s hard in modern times to imagine the life and culture of San Diego long ago. But one can get a flavor of that fascinating history by stepping inside the old Mason Street School.

The Mason Street School was built in 1865, to provide education for the children of a sparsely populated San Diego.
The Mason Street School was built in 1865, to provide education for the children of a sparsely populated San Diego.
The first schoolhouse in San Diego County, the Mason Street School stands in historic Old Town.
The first schoolhouse in San Diego County, the Mason Street School stands in historic Old Town.

The nearby plaque reads:

MASON STREET SCHOOL

FIRST PUBLIC SCHOOLHOUSE IN THIS COUNTY.
ERECTED AT THIS SITE IN 1865 AND KNOWN AS
“MASON STREET SCHOOL – – DISTRICT NO. 1”
WHEN SAN DIEGO COUNTY COVERED AN AREA
LARGER THAN THREE NEW ENGLAND STATES.
RESTORED BY POPULAR SUBSCRIPTION IN 1955.

STATE REGISTERED LANDMARK NO. 538
MARKER PLACED BY SAN DIEGO COUNTY BOARD OF
SUPERVISORS AND THE HISTORICAL MARKERS COMMITTEE
ERECTED 1955

The Mason Street School museum is occasionally open to the public. If you're lucky and it is, make sure to step inside!
The Mason Street School museum is occasionally open to the public. If you’re lucky and it is, make sure to step inside!
Years ago, the museum contained individual student desks. But these benches are a faithful reproduction of actual history. Fancy desks were rare in this remote outpost of civilization!
Years ago, the museum contained individual student desks. But these benches are a more faithful representation of actual history. Fancy desks were rare in this remote outpost of civilization!
Children attending the Mason Street School used slates and chalk, as paper was also scarce and expensive. A wood stove provided heat.
Children attending the Mason Street School used slates and chalk, as paper was also scarce and expensive. A wood stove provided heat.
Some old Primers and Readers on a wooden table. A water bucket and dipper were used for drink.
Some old Primers and Readers on a wooden table. A water bucket and dipper were used for drink.
A ball, broom and doll.
A ball, broom and doll.
Public School Teacher's State Certificate from the mid 19th century. San Diego's first teacher was Mary Chase Walker.
Public School Teacher’s State Certificate from the mid 19th century. San Diego’s first teacher was Mary Chase Walker.
Old map of California from an era when many immigrants arrived by ship.
Old map of California from an era when many immigrants arrived by ship.
Rock used as ballast in a ship that sailed from San Diego to Boston. Stones gathered on Ballast Point in Point Loma paved Boston's cobblestone streets, 3000 miles away!
Rock used as ballast in a ship that sailed from San Diego to Boston. Stones gathered on Ballast Point in Point Loma paved many of Boston’s cobblestone streets, 3000 miles away!
Photographic portrait of President Abraham Lincoln on a primitive wall. Mason Street School was San Diego's first schoolhouse, built in 1865 at the end of the Civil War.
Photographic portrait of President Abraham Lincoln on a primitive wall. Mason Street School was San Diego’s first schoolhouse, built in 1865 at the end of the Civil War.
Water for washing and drinking was brought in from a well near the schoolhouse.
Water for washing and drinking was brought in from a well near the schoolhouse.
The old well in the schoolhouse yard, beside a clump of prickly pear.
The old well in the schoolhouse yard, beside a clump of prickly pear.
The Mason Street School provides visitors to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park a fascinating look at our city's unique past.
The Mason Street School provides visitors to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park a fascinating look at our city’s very unique past.

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Published by

Richard Schulte

Downtown San Diego has been my home for many years. My online activities reflect my love for writing, blogging, walking and photography.

6 thoughts on “Life in 1865 at Old Town’s Mason Street School.”

    1. Different times… While doing research I learned that the children would be punished–from one to ten lashes–for a whole variety of reasons, including gambling, climbing trees and mingling with the opposite sex. Imagine being “lashed” then having to sit on a hard bench. Ouch!

      Liked by 1 person

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