History of Bethel School District

By C.J. Knaggs

The Bethel School District of Pierce County, Washington, is a geographic “monster.” It sprawls over 80,000 acres of land and extends some twenty-two miles from border to border in the south-eastern part of Pierce County. Eight definite communities, one an incorporated town, comprise its population

Economically, the district residents are primarily middle class. A large block of the population are members of the armed forces or are employed as a civilian workers at nearby Fort Lewis, Madigan Hospital and McChord Air Force Base. A second segment earn their livelihood in the mills and industrial plants in the City of Tacoma and in the major Boeing Aircraft plants in neighboring communities. The remainder are farmers, loggers, shopkeepers, or engaged in miscellaneous fields of employment.

Bethel District schools, dating back to the late 1800s, have seen the expansion of schools from a hit-or-miss operation to the present well-organized district that serves the educational needs of 3,600 children in five modern elementary schools, a junior high school and a high school.

The present school district is the product of a consolidation of 34 school districts. Consolidation of the small schools that once dotted the area is not a new thing. Back in 1904, the citizens of the school districts in the Roy area voted to combine their districts in an attempt to provided a more stable education for their children. From time to time other consolidations of small districts were voted upon until the number of separate districts in the area had been reduced to seven. In 1949, the Spanaway, Roy, Kapowsin, Elk Plain, and Rocky Ridge districts were consolidated into forming the Bethel School District. Later on the Clover Creek District and the Lacamas District voted to join the Bethel Schools, giving he District its present size.

All kinds of problems faced the founders of the early schools in the area. In 1855, Captain Mallory of the U.S. Army led his troops in a small skirmish against the Indians. After scouting along the Puyallup River, the Army withdrew to set up camp two miles east of Spanaway Lake at Montgomery’s Farm. Later on, this post became a general supply center for the Army and was renamed Fort Hicks. A supply road was built to Olympia by way of the Roy and Yelm Prairies. During this period of Indian uprising, schools in the area were closed for a two-year period to protect the children from danger.

Other problems the schools could not cope with were floods that closed the school in the Clover Creek area and a fire in a one-room school in the Spanaway area. This fire is noteworthy as many residents claimed it had been set by citizens in the community in order to run the teacher “out.” The teacher actually owned the school building and was not popular with the local patrons.

Each school operated independently during the late 1800s with the one-room schools being built by local citizens and staffed by anyone that the residents could find to teach their children “readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘righmetik.”

Little is known of these schools. Records were not kept of their operation. Pioneer tales of the early schools are colorful, as may be noted by a trip to the library in the Washington State Historical Society Museum in Tacoma. One tale tells of the type of teachers that were hired to teach children. In one of this areas schools, a teacher was hired but loved his “chewing’ tobacco.” When a student gave the right answer to a question, “the teacher would show his approval by spitting a wad of tobacco into a metal spittoon so that it would ring loud and clear—like a bell.”

In 1953–54, the Territorial Legislature tried to improve the quality of education being offered the children by establishing the Office of County Superintendent of Schools and requiring a yearly inspection of the schools by this office. Even though the law required a written report on the Superintendent’s inspection each year, it was not rigidly followed by the appointed superintendents. In 1872, the Rev. Nelson Rounds was appointed as the first Territorial Superintendent of Schools, and he began the process of improving the system of education.

As far as Pierce County Schools were concerned, the first official school was founded in Steilacoom in 1854. Mrs. Sherwood Bonney was the first teacher and she instructed her students in the front room of her own home during the summer of 1854. It was the custom in the late 1800s to have a school term of 30 to 60 days during the summer months as transportation was nearly impossible during the winter months. Dusty summer roads became huge mud baths during the winter months of rain and snow.

The first school organized in this Bethel area, according to available records, was in 1855 when the Spanaway School District was organized. A small one-room school was built by the men in the area and staffed by a teacher. In 1864 the school mysteriously caught fire and burned to the ground. No school was held in this district until 1867, when a new building was erected. At that time, funds were raised by parents to finance the construction of the school house. The cost of erecting the building was $108.00.

About the same time, James P. Stewart moved “back to the prairie and got a school near Spanaway Lake where (he) taught for about 6 months.” Stewart later moved into Tacoma and founded a school.

In 1896, according to the Tacoma News Tribune file, another school was built in the Spanaway area. The school was financed by private subscription and was located on the southwest shore of Spanaway Lake.

In 1897, another school was built in Spanaway. This school was located about two blocks across Pacific Avenue away from the present school site. It was a two-story frame structure that operated until 1928. The present brick building at Spanaway replaced this structure, and the Spanaway Elementary School has had a number of additions since that time to house 610 students at the present time. The biggest growth of enrollment in the Spanaway school was during World War II when a wave of students entered the school due to the expansion of the military installations at McChord Air Base and Fort Lewis. This area never had a school that offered education to the students above the eighth grade until the present Bethel High School opened in 1952. An attempt by the citizens of Spanaway to set up a high school failed in the 1940s even though the School Board purchased some old prisoner of war barracks after World War II and attempted to form a Union High School District.

In 1866, James P. Stewart again opened a school in this area. According to original manuscripts, he built a school house and taught for Clover Creek District #4 in that year. In 1867 this school was closed as a flood destroyed his home on December 17, 1867, and he converted the school house into a home for his family.

The County Land Purchase records note that on January 3, 1893, the residents in the Clover Creek area purchased 1 acre of land from Frederick Meyer to erect a school. In 1908 the district purchased another acre for $1.00 from Meyer.

The original school in the Clover Creek area was a one-room log cabin, located on the Spanaway Prairie, just off the Old Military Road. The next school was a two-room school that housed 60 students, divided into upper and lower grades. The heat in the building was by means of a wood burning stove which the janitor and the older boy students kept filled with logs. In the lower grade room, the students enjoyed their old stove, as it gave them a place to make hot toasted sandwiches for lunch. The heater in the upper grade room had the outstanding feature of a curved piece of metal that helped circulate warm air around the room.

In 1935 the two-room school became overcrowded as the Clover Creek area was settled by a number of people from the mid-west who had been forced out of their homes by violent wind storms. Soon there were 125 students at the crowded school, and the students were housed in a third room made by converting parts of a play shed into a classroom. Following this, part of the students were moved into a deserted gas station.

The WPA, in 1938, began construction on the present colonial style frame building that still houses a number of the Clover Creek students. Two recent brick additions to the school have made the school the present size. The district provided students with education only to the eighth grade until it joined the Bethel School District.

According to Mrs. Ross Plumb, daughter of pioneer Martin Vosnek who was a member of the Kirby School Board, the grade school of Kirby was opened in 1895 at a site across the road from the McGee Guest Home. It was a one room school.

In 1901–1902 the school was moved across the road to the present site of the McGee Guest Home. A three-room addition was built in 1920 after plans for consolidating the Clover Creek, Elk Plain, Graham and Kirby schools was defeated. The location for the combined 1 through 10 grade school could not be determined causing the voter rejection. This proposed site was near the present site of Bethel Junior High School.

During World War II, the Kirby School was gradually closed and the building sold to the McGee Guest home. A fire destroyed the old building after the Kirby school was opened as a guest home, and the Kirby District was officially annexed to the Elk Plain District in 1947.

Mr. E. L. Bower recalled the early days of the Elk Plain School. Late in the 1800s a one-room school was erected on property purchased from the Northern Pacific Railroad at $2.50 per acre. A short time later another room was added to the original building.

In 1935, faced by an increasing population caused by people from the Midwest who migrated into the area as the violent wind storms had driven them west to get a better life, the Elk Plain School Distinct added two more rooms to the original school. WPA built the rooms for $800.00.

The present brick building was erected in 1937 by the combination of WPA funds and local taxes for a price of $19,000. Since that time portables were brought in to ease overcrowded conditions, and two additions erected by the Bethel School District recently have given the school its present size. No high school education was offered by the Elk Plain School Distinct until Bethel High School was opened.

One interesting consolidation occurred in the Elk Plain District as the Greendale school was closed (near the East Gate of Fort Lewis) by the U.S. Army in the period just before World War II. High School was opened. In 1942 the Greendale property was given to Elk Plain, but the school did not get any students, as the Greendale school had been closed and students transferred to other schools before the school district was closed.

According to the original writings by Bonney, available at the Washington State Historical Library, the Kapowsin township was founded in 1901, but not incorporated as a city. The town grew because of its lumber industry until it reached a population of 896 before World War II.

The school was first held for the youngsters in the baggage room of the depot until a school could be built. The children were later transported to an old building near Electron for their schooling.

In 1906–1907 the citizens of Kapowsin built a combination grade school, high school to serve the needs of their youngsters. It is interesting to note Kapowsin High School was one of the earliest high schools in Pierce County.

In 1923 Kapowsin High School added a gymnasium that was considered to be the most complete gym in Pierce County. It had showers, basketball courts and a swimming pool. In April of 1949 a severe earthquake hit Pierce County and made the high school building unsafe for schooling purposes. To quote a news story in the TNT printed on June 3, 1951, the sturdy two-story frame structure was so badly damaged by the quake that “today if anyone jumps up and down on the second floor, northwest room, it shakes the entire building, students report. The adjoining gymnasium, once the best in the county, was also badly damaged.” The building was used to house high school students until the Bethel High School opened in 1952. The old high school was sold by the district and was dismantled.

During its operation as a school district, the Kapowsin District went through a number of consolidations, attracting many neighboring districts, since it had a high school. All-in-all there were six separate districts consolidated to form the Kapowsin District.

In 1949 the Kapowsin District opened the present grade school building and closed small grade schools operating in the Thrift, Graham, Benston and Electron areas. The grade school students who had attended the Kapowsin High-Grade School building were transferred to the new building at the same time.

The schools consolidated by Kapowsin were old pioneer schools that dated back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. About the only records available on these schools are the land purchased records in the County Office. They show that land was purchased for a school at Thrift in 1916; at Benston in 1892, 1907, and 1912; and Graham in 1907 and 1911.

The Graham Grade School was originally opened in the early 1900s as a one-room school. In 1918 a two-room school was constructed, and later on a basement was dug to be used as a play room and a lunch room. The school was closed in 1949 when the students were transferred to the present Kapowsin Elementary School.

Recent additions to the Kapowsin Grade School have made it the present size school, housing over 450 students.

Roy Founded in 1884

The only incorporated town in the Bethel District was officially plotted in 1884 when Mr. and Mrs. James McNaught filed for the plot. In 1908 the town of Roy was officially incorporated as a 4th class town and Allmon W. West elected as Mayor. Early population count showed 315 residents. The town was located on the old military supply road from Olympia to Puyallup.

The founders of the town, the McNaught family, also gave the land for the first school in Roy A small building was constructed in 1885 that was one-room and 20×30 feet. In 1890 another room was added to the school.

In 1904 a school was built on the east side of town near the present site of the Roy Grade School.

Two elections were held in 1912 to establish a high school in Roy and, after a battle at the polls, the voters approved the construction. In 1913 Roy High School was built and opened. Students from the small schools around Roy enrolled to get their high school education. A number of school districts at that time joined the district, since it had a high school.

In 1924 the citizens in the Roy area voted for $12,000 in bonds to build a gym and auditorium that was completed a short time later.

In 1937 the present Roy Grade school building was completed on the high school site. Federal funds under the PWA law provided for the major expenses. Beginning in 1938, a number of meetings were held to determine if a new high schools should be built, but State opposition to the building and a start of World War II stopped these plans. Early on a morning in October 1942, the Roy High School caught on fire and burned to the ground. Temporary portables were brought to the site, and the high school students sued them for their high school until Bethel High School opened in 1952. To quote a June 3, 1951 article in the TNT, “at Roy the high school students today are put up in portables, the old garage and any building that is available in town.”

Transportation Creates Bethel

Transportation for students to school in early 1900s was a major problem. A contract in the files of the Bethel School District signed in 1914 provided for transportation for children by horse and buggy from Electron to Kapowsin.

World War I changed the idea of transporting children to school and helped vacate the widely scattered one or two-room schools located in this area. With the war came the development of trucks for the military and this, in turn, led to the use of school buses.

Through the 1920s it was common for children to walk one and one-half miles to meet a bus. It was usually a ton and a half Model T Ford truck with winged wooden sets along the side and a bench down the middle. Pupils rode facing each other. Sides of the bus were covered with oiled canvas and the year was open. In the winter it was cold!

The driver of the bus was often a local grocer or farmer. After the children were taken to school, the seats were swung out of the way and the bus was used to haul groceries or milk or cow feed.

In the late 1920s, the 1930s and the 1940s the superintendents of the Roy and Kapowsin districts made trips to the perimeter communities by their districts to enroll more students. Mr. Earl Platt, Principal of Bethel Senior High, recalls that as late as 1949 he drove a bus that started its run on the city limits of Tacoma, weaved in and out of the present Bethel District to take high school students to Kapowsin. Mr. Francis Olson, Assistant Superintendent of the Bethel schools, recalls he had the same experience when he drove a Roy High School bus. The long bus runs were made economically sound, as the State allowed additional funds for each student registered from outside the high school districts.

Since Franklin Pierce High School was a long way from being thought of, the two high schools’ board of directors in the southern part of Pierce County (Kapowsin and Roy) were eager to go into Parkland to get any high schools students they could. This was necessary, as in the 1930s the depression made the financial support from these outside students important. Bus runs of over 50 miles one-way were not unusual.

To show the wide area that the Roy buses covered in 1946, below are the figures showing the number of student attending Roy High School and where they lived:

Area Number Area Number
Spanaway 38 Woodland 1
Elk Plain 12 Parkland 11
Roy 40 Lacamas 7
Collins 24 Central Avenue 2
Rocky Ridge 1 Midland 1


Roy and Kapowsin Unite

As early as 1941, the Pierce County School Office began to conduct surveys to determine the possible consolidation of districts in the county. On April 15, 1941, a group was picked to study consolidation due to increased population caused by Fort Lewis and McChord Field activity.

On April 22, 1941, the TNT reported that a County Reorganization committee had been selected with three people named to serve South Central Pierce County. They were: Mable Crate, Rocky Ridge; Bert Witehead, Roy; and Bertha Johnston, Kapowsin.

A short time later, July 1941, the TNT reported that a survey taken by the committee may show that a high school of 400 students could be built at Loveland and serve the needs of this area. To show how close this estimate was, Bethel High School was built in 1952 for 400 students!!

With the coming of World War II, the plans for consolidating the districts and combining the Roy and Kapwsin High Schools were dropped. Following the war, plans began again and were speeded by the loss of the schools at Roy by fire an the damage in of the Kapowsin High School by an earthquake.

In 1949 the districts in this area voted to consolidate and set the building of a high school to be their major goal. On June 3, 1949, the School Board of District 403 voted to name the district after Mrs. Ruth Bethel, County Superintendent, who had been instrumental in consolidating the district. The name was suggested by Leonard Goodwin, a student at Roy.

On March 14, 1950, the Bethel District voters voted in favor of two financial issues to construct a high school in the Loveland area, but rejected the location suggested by the School Board. In June of 1950 the voters were given their choice of sites for the school and voted in favor of the Castle property (the present site of the Junior and Senior High Schools).

Plans were revealed in September of 1951 for the present Bethel High School to be built on the 60 acre site and house 400 students. On December 7, 1951, the ground-breaking ceremony was held with Senator Warren G. Magnuson as guest speaker.

Delayed slightly by building problems, the Bethel High School opened its doors for the first time in September 1952 and held its official dedication on November 9 with Dr. George D. Strayer as guest speaker.

The school opened in 1952 with 385 students enrolled in the four-year school. By 1958 over 540 students were receiving an education in the building. A two-room brick building was constructed to help ease the crowded conditions at the high school. In 1958 the Junior High opened and the High School’s enrollment dropped to below 400, as the ninth grade students were now being housed in the Junior High facility. The two-room addition to the high school was converted into an administration building for the District during the summer of 1958.

Addition to Senior High

Within five years as the Senior High’s enrollment again skyrocketed, and the District began a construction project to house over 600 tenth through twelfth grade students. The addition opened in the fall of 1963 and gave the high school students more complete shops, a band room and larger P.E. facilities.

By the fall of 1965 the senior high and its neighboring junior high had reached over-capacity enrollments. The Board of Directors decided, with the approval of the State Department, that the most logical step would be to place another addition on to the senior high building and transfer the ninth grade back into the high school, making it a four-year high school again.

This was accomplished last fall (1966) after a 16-room addition was completed. The new wing on the high school includes science lab, office space for teachers, conference rooms for students, a three-in-one team teaching area and nine more classrooms. Current enrollment at the high school is 940 students and predictions are being made that over 1,000 students will be in the four-year high school next fall.

Bethel Junior High School Opens

The Bethel School Board, in the fall of 1957, began to formulate plans for the solution of the crowded conditions in the high school and most of the Districts’s elementary schools. The solution, the Board felt, was to ease the load in all schools by constructing a junior high. The voters in November of 1957 approved the necessary funds, and work on the largest single building in the Bethel School District began in December of 1957.

In November of 1958, after double-shifting the senior high and junior high students since the start of school that fall, the Bethel Junior High opened its doors to over 500 students.

On March 23, 1959, the school was dedicated with Mr. Lloyd Andrews, State Superintendent of Instruction, as the keynote speaker.

By the fall of 1963, the junior high had reached its capacity of 724 students and within the next two years reached an enrollment of over 800 students. At the present time, only two grades are enrolled in the junior high, the 7th and 8th grades, and the school had over 600 students.

Lacamas Joins Bethel District

The newest annexation to the Bethel School District occurred on July 1, 1963, when the Pioneer School District, Lacamas District #324, was annexed to the Bethel School District.

The Lacamas area and its schools have one of the most colorful histories of any schools in the State of Washington. Actually two school districts were founded in its area, School District #5 and School District #324.

County school records show that funds were allocated to the Muck District #5 in 1860, the earliest records kept. Angie Bowden in her book, Early Schools of Washington Territory, notes that the Muck Creek School was considered “to be part of the Nisqually Station. This school, District #5, in 1863, had a school population of 43 and maintained a 90-day term. The teacher received $40 a month.”

Pioneer historian William Bonney wrote that in 1872 the Muck District was divided and part of its area was annexed to District #12.

District #85 was founded in 1897, according to records in the Pierce County School Office in Tacoma. Due to the rugged travel conditions on extremely poor roads in the late 1800s, the teachers in both Districts #5 and #85 were provided with housing as part of their pay. The teachers stayed with families near the schools and were expected to do the custodian work at the school building, along with teaching up to 40 students in the 1st through 8th grade school.

Following the consolidation of the Muck and Lacamas Districts into District #34 in June of 1920, the new school board took its first action by having the Clerk of the Board H. N. Svinth, draw up a resolution to bond the District for $5,500 to construct and furnish a new classroom and a teacher’s cottage. The architect, in submitting the final plans, changed the addition to include a domestic science room, a classroom and a teacher cottage to be built all under one roof. This new addition caused some concern for the school board, as the architect had failed to plan for doors in the partitions, but after being refused pay for the blue prints, the architect promptly drew doorways on his blue prints and was paid $195.60 for his plans. Construction began immediately on the building, and on November 26, 1920, the building was opened and the contractor was paid $4,890.00 for his work.

The first school year for District #324 was 1920–21 school year. Two teachers were hired at $145 each per month, including janitor work, and 43 students reported to school the first day to begin the nine-month term. One year later, the school’s enrollment took a dip with only 20 pupils showing up on the first day of school.

Transportation at Lacamas presented problems for the school board in the 1920s as the bus service was provided by local residents who bid on both providing a bus and driving it. At one time the district actually “bought” the bus and then sold it back to the owner-driver for a $1 charge the district paid for the bus.

Plans to build a new schoolhouse failed in the depression years, as the district could not get the necessary support from both the State and the Federal WPA funds.

It appears that full use of the school property was made by the Lacamas School Board as the Board minutes revealed that at one time the school property was leased at a small charge to a local resident to keep livestock during the summer months. Shortly before World War II the Board worked out an agreement with the U.S. Army to allow the Army to use the property for manoeuvres during the summer months.

After its annexation in 1963 to the Bethel District, the Lacamas School was changed from 1st to 8th grade school to a 1st to 6th grade organization. The kindergarten children were transported to Roy Elementary School and the 7th and 8th graders entered the Bethel Junior High.

In the fall of 1965, the 42 Lacamas students were transferred to the school at Roy and the Lacamas building was closed. According to former Bethel Superintendent John Milroy, this was done to “give both Roy and Lacamas school children a better education by eliminating combination classes. The joining of the two student bodies at one school has made it possible to provide a complete service program to these students, the same as those offered in all other Bethel schools. These programs include a library, remedial reading, speech, music and health services.”

What the Future Holds for Bethel Schools

Planning is now underway for additional construction of buildings on all grade levels to keep up with the increasing enrollment in the Bethel area. Population surveys taken in the Seattle-Tacoma areas indicate that the increase of manufacturing and industrial projects will double the school enrollment in this area within the next few years.

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