The children at Franklin School clutched their buffalo nickels with hungry anticipation — they were about to take advantage of a relatively new social program presented for the first time in Grays Harbor. Whether you loved ‘em or loathed ‘em, tomorrow marks 100 years of hot lunches being served in the Aberdeen School District.
But first some background.
At the turn of the last century, Aberdeen’s population was growing and a third schoolhouse became a necessity. Plans drawn up in 1902 by local contractor I.W. Mason called for a two-story boxy building 64 feet long by 72 feet wide fronting on Market at the corner of M Street. The entrance was through a large portico into a wide hallway that ran the full length of the structure with two classrooms on each floor, an ample garret, and full basement where the furnace supplied the steam radiators throughout the building. The newel posts and railings were white ash, the doors and trim of native fir, and the rough plastered walls were tinted a soft olive green. For lighting, the students relied on gas lamps and large windows — electric lights wouldn’t be installed in the structure until 1920. On Feb. 9, 1903, the opening of the Market Street School was marked with a flag raising.
From the start, the school was plagued by the forces of Mother Nature. During heavy rains the basement would flood, snuffing out the furnace and granting the children a vacation until the furnace could be used again. By 1906, the school was bursting at the seams. In response, a similar-sized addition was built just west of the existing school with a connecting corridor. It opened later that year, giving the students some much needed room.
About this same time, the school board decided to give actual names to the three principal school buildings in the city, which up until then were known only by their geographical locations. In a rather terse item, the Grays Harbor Post declared, “The three principal school buildings in this city were given names during the week. The Market Street School will henceforth be known as the ‘Franklin.’ The school in E. Aberdeen, the ‘Whitman’ and in South Aberdeen the ‘Stevens.’ Remember the names and locations.”
Franklin continued as a public school until 1930 when the students were transferred to the newly completed McDermoth School, and the old Franklin school became the first home of Grays Harbor Junior College. Five years later, the college moved out and the old schoolhouse was demolished.
Back to the story.
In November 1913, the Franklin Circle of the Parent/Teacher Association (PTA) made a presentation to the school board outlining their proposal to offer hot meals to students who lived too far from the school to go home for lunch. Hot meals would be prepared outside the school by the PTA mothers and delivered to the students at the noon hour. The board heartily endorsed the project. The Grays Harbor Gas Co. supplied the PTA with a gas range, and the school’s former manual training room was transformed into a cafeteria with long tables and benches wrapped in white oil cloth.
On Monday, Jan. 26, 1914, under the management of Matron Mrs. C. W. Birckley, 50 students sat down to the first hot school lunch comprised of tomato soup, crackers, apples and cocoa, at a cost of five cents. By Wednesday,, the number of meals had doubled before leveling out at about 75 students per day, but reaching as high as 110 when it was snowing or particularly stormy. The menu was soon extended to include buttered toast which proved very popular among the students.
The program was a success and even posted a small profit: 40 cents by the end of the first week, $1.92 by the end of the second. The program was later extended to Terrace Heights School, and then the high school where a more extensive menu was provided at 10 to 15 cents per student. Before long, every city school was offering warm eats.
As with all government-backed social programs, the idea of providing hot meals to students was not without its detractors. In an editorial that could have been written a century later, the Tacoma Ledger in February 1914 grumped, “Government is being looked to nowadays to do all sorts of things for the people. It is expected to make them good, to make them comfortable, to give them pensions, to furnish hot lunches for school children whose parents got along first rate on a cold ‘piece’, to provide pupils with free school books, and so on. This all costs money, and the money is raised by taxation.” It continued, “The assumption seems to be that pupils are much better off if they have a hot lunch, so the people turn to government to provide the lunches.” Not much has changed in 100 years.
Since the first hot lunch of tomato soup, crackers, apples and cocoa was served, the average school menu has grown to include a myriad tasty comestibles of all ethnicities and dietary requirements, and the National School Lunch Program is generally considered a successful use of surplus food to support children’s nutrition.
Roy Vataja is the son of Finnish immigrants, and fondly recalls McDermoth School and the big buttery rolls that accompanied the chili on Wednesdays in the 1970s.