Montavilla School Part 2: The Progressive Era

By PATRICIA SANDERS

In the first decade of the 20th Century, schools became a lot more fun. It was an era of reform, when throughout the country ideas about all kinds of improvements were in the air.

In the realm of education, reformers wanted to move away from traditional academic norms towards something more effective and engaging. They advocated taking into account how children learn. And many thought there should be closer a connection between school and the “real world”. 

Montavilla School, c. 1918
Source: Portland Archives A2012-30 (photo by Mt Hood Studio)

A new way of learning could take place outside the classroom, with activities like gardening. And manual training programs could make learning more hands on and practical. Teachers could supplement book learning with projected slides and tangible objects children could actually handle.  

This was a heady— and exciting— agenda, but as Multnomah County Superintendent of Schools RF Robinson put it in 1902, this was “an age of invention and progress” requiring new methods in our schools. Capturing the new spirit of educational reform, The Times of Portland issued a plea in 1912 for the right of children “to shout, to play, to enjoy life— as Nature intended.”

The topic of how Montavilla School changed under the impact of the new thinking is so vast that I’ve decided to divide it into two parts. And since an important aspect of the “new learning” was training the body as well as the mind, in this article I’ll focus mainly on the increased emphasis on school sports.

But first, some practical concerns

As we will see, new methods and new curricula would gather momentum at Montavilla School, but in the opening years of the 20th Century the focus was mainly on dealing with the results of Montavilla’s burgeoning population. As more homes were built and more families moved into Montavilla, the school population grew accordingly. More classrooms and teachers were needed, which meant more assessments on taxpayers and more debt. 

Enough money was raised for new classrooms to be built in 1904, 1907, and 1912. There was even enough revenue to build an assembly hall in 1912. With these latest additions, Montavilla School became one of the largest schools in Portland. But parents and teachers wanted not just sufficient classrooms and a large meeting space, but also a better library. And they succeeded in creating what the Oregonian of January 3, 1902 described as the best school library in Multnomah County.

Montavilla children’s neighborhood clean-up

Along with practical concerns, in the early years of the new century we begin to see that learning sometimes taking place outside the classroom, in the real world. In May 1903, for example, Principal N.W. Bowland and his pupils decided to undertake a community service project— hoping to make Montavilla one of Portland’s cleanest suburbs. Such a project would offer lessons in responsibility and civic engagement, other ideals of the reformers.

Each day after school, some 200 – 250 pupils (more than half the student population) worked to collect  several tons of tin cans and other trash—most probably from vacant lots, where such things were often discarded in the days before organized trash collection. The debris was carted off and dumped in unused wells and cisterns. (Buried “treasures” beneath your gardens?)

As a reward, the participating children were treated to an electric trolley ride all the way to St. Johns and a picnic in Cedar Park. Reportedly the excited children were waking their parents in the wee hours of the morning to make sure they’d have their picnic lunches ready when it was time to board the trolley at 10 am.

Calisthenics and parades

Portland School Children Drilling on Multnomah Field for Annual Exhibition (Oregonian June 9, 1908)
Source: Historical Oregon Newspapers

Physical fitness was increasingly emphasized in schools, and a popular method in the early 20th Century was calisthenics, exercises practiced by both boys and girls. One intriguing example is routines with Indian clubs, which Principal Bowman led in the 1908 Annual Children’s Drill at Multnomah Field (now Providence Park).

(You can see a 1904 film of this exercise on YouTube here.)

Shattuck Public School Children Marching in the Rose Festival Parade, 1909
Source: Portland Archives, A2011-014.22 

Organized drills based on calisthenic exercises were the main component of the Children’s Parade (or the Rosebud Parade), perhaps the most popular feature of the Rose Festival from its beginning in 1907. 

Each school, including Montavilla, performed these synchronized drills as they marched in formation down Grand Avenue. Awards and prizes were offered for the best displays. As a reward for all their after school practice, Montavilla School children, in 1910, took second place for the prestigious Manley Cup.

An enthusiastic press heralded the stamina and discipline of all the children as demonstrations of the value of physical culture exercises in the schools.

Note: The last Rosebud Parade took place in 1917. A children’s parade as a feature of the Rose Festival was revived in 1936 and continues to this day.

Team sports

Momentum for physical education was also building in the area of team sports. In 1908, Portland public schools launched the Grammar School Athletic League and began its operation with a baseball league. The Montavilla School baseball team played its first game of the season against its old rival Mount Tabor School

In 1909 a football league was launched, with Montavilla among the 13 member schools. Football at that time was almost exclusively an eastside sport; only one of the 13 teams was from west of the Willamette.

For safety’s sake, the teams were divided into three sections: lightweights, averaging about 108 pounds, heavy-medium weights 112 pounds and heavyweights 125 -130 pounds. Montavilla’s Principal Bowland was one of four principals in charge of heavyweights.

Montavilla School football team (Oregonian December 5, 1909)
Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers

Some were concerned that football was too rough and soccer was introduced as an alternative in grammar school in 1911 by P. Chappelle Brown, “the father of soccer in Oregon”. Montavilla School was an early soccer adopter, with a successful season in the fall of 1912. 

When the Athletic League was launched in 1908, Robert Krohn, head of the physical culture department of the Portland public schools, started getting messages from school girls who wanted games of their own, such as basketball, tennis and baseball. He hoped to make this happen in the future, he said, but whether this ever occurred for Montavilla girls is uncertain, although other grammar schools did have at least girls’ basketball teams by 1914.

If you were into physical exercise and games, Montavilla School was a great place to be in the early 1900s. But even if you weren’t, there were lots of other new programs and clubs to engage a variety of interests… as we’ll see in the next installment of the Montavilla School story.

***

Historical story ideas? Questions about Montavilla’s past? Also share a love for neighborhood history? 

Comment on the article at the link in the heading. Or you can reach out to Pat Sanders at pat.montavilla.history@gmail.com.

Read all of the “Montavilla Memories” articles by Pat Sanders here


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