Looking back on... Gallatin Elementary School

DOWNEY - Early in the morning, in a land filled with dairy farms and orange groves, a bronze bell could be heard ringing for miles. For children all across the newly settled community of Downey, the distinct sound meant that school was about to begin."We literally walked by and through orange groves and an avocado grove to get to school," said Kay Cofield. "Not something you would let your children do in today's world." Mariella Pope and her brother, Bill, also made the journey to the school house from their four-acre orchard on Easy Street, now known as Florence Avenue. "We walked barefoot to school," said Pope. "We didn't have to wear shoes unless we wanted to." Awaiting these eager students was Gallatin School, one of California's first schools that would serve as a catalyst of quality education in the region for decades. Years before Downey was founded in 1873, two colonies formed on the plains of the Rio Hondo River - College Settlement and Gallatin, a small village near the current intersection of Paramount Boulevard and Florence Avenue. In the late 1860s, pioneers, concerned about their children's education, built a small school in the Gallatin town with "tule reeds, brush and what-have-you." As the town began to grow, the structure, called the "Little Red Gallatin School House" by the settlers, became inadequate and in 1871, a two-story building was constructed where Vons Market now stands today. As the population increased, the need for schools increased also, thus both Alameda School and Downey School were established south and east of Gallatin. By 1883, College Settlement and Gallatin had been joined by a new town known as Downey, founded by former Governor John Gately Downey's Land Association. The new community, with Governor Downey's assistance, achieved what the other two settlements could not when the Southern Pacific Railroad brought its railroad through Downey. As a result, families and businesses from both Gallatin and College Settlement began moving closer to the railroad to open up stores and shops. This caused the unification of all three settlements, creating a larger community called Downey. To better meet the need of the growing population, the Gallatin School was moved in 1893 to the site it still occupies today on the corner of Brookshire Avenue and Gallatin Road. Surrounded by thick, green trees, a white, two-story school house was built to include a belfry, where a 600 pound bell was rung each morning. The bell itself was made in New York in the same factory that produced the nation's liberty bell. Sculpted entirely of bronze, the bell did not arrive by land, but by sea. During this time, the Panama Canal was not yet built; subsequently, the bell was put on a ship, taken around the tip of South America and brought up into the Port of Long Beach. In this school house, Mr. B.F. Simcoe was responsible for teaching five different grades and 23 students. Local historian Easter Morrison wrote about the challenges Simcoe faced. "Mr. Simcoe was a poor disciplinarian," she wrote. "The older boys realized his weakness and proceeded to take advantage of it…On one occasion, after being called into class, the older boys refused to sit down. To the question propounded by John Fleming 'who are we' the group responded in unison: 'We are, we are the Gallatin toughs." The school house went through several revisions, one in 1915, and another in 1935 after a 1933 earthquake severely damaged the building. In 1936, the current structure, built in Spanish colonial style, was opened and the bell mounted in front of the school, where it is rung only at the end of each school year by the graduating class. From 1937 to 1942, Maude Price and Edith Unsworth were the only teachers at Gallatin Elementary School. During this time, Mrs. Unsworth taught the lower grades while Mrs. Price taught the upper grades. Marge Lewis started the 1st grade at Gallatin in 1946 and remembers Principal Maude Price. "For such a tiny woman she had a very powerful personality," said Lewis. "Her classes were vivid and memorable - the other talent Mrs. Price had was convincing all of her students at Gallatin that they were exceptional. She, for example, would say, "I can take Gallatin students anywhere and they will always behave perfectly." Both Price and Unsworth have schools bearing their names as a testament to their influence on the Downey education system. Moreover, Gallatin Elementary School, founded by frontiers and established by innovative educators, continues to produce quality students, who once a year ring its bell as a tribute to its rich history.

********** Published: January 8, 2010 - Volume 8 - Issue 38

FeaturesEric Pierce