For AHS, it all started with Bessie, Jessie and Elizabeth

Last night at Stewart’s Field, the graduating seniors of Weatherwax High School engaged in an institutional practice that has spanned three high school buildings and countless diplomas. As the graduates of the Class of 2013 look forward and embark on a new phase of their lives, let’s take a look back 120 years to 1893 and Aberdeen’s very first Commencement Exercises.

In the 1870s, when Aberdeen was a muddy clearing in the coastal forest, the only school-aged children were Phoebe, Alice and George Benn. Their first schooling took place within the four walls of their home as their town-founding father provided room and board for a live-in teacher, but as more families arrived the necessity for a public education system became evident. A series of makeshift structures were placed into use, including the town’s small Presbyterian Church, and Sam Benn’s salt house [located at the site of present-day Zelasko Park] where students shared space with floats, nets and barrels of salted fish.

By the 1890s, the town was firmly established and as the need for labor increased it became a magnet for young workers and their families. Subsequently, the swelling of the student population made it clear that a substantial school structure was needed, one large enough to house all of Aberdeen’s pupils and provide an education through the high school level. To this end, a public vote was placed on the ballot, it passed and $25,000 in bonds were purchased by the civic-minded community. A plot of land on Terrace Heights was purchased for the educational endeavor and construction began in early 1892 by the local contracting firm of Little, Creech & Co. on a design created by Aberdeen architect Clarence B. Douglas. The previous year, Douglas had overseen the erection of the Toklas & Kaufman block, Aberdeen’s first brick building. Construction was swift and by that fall the completed schoolhouse struck an imposing three-story Gothic outline, perched at the top of D Street hill with its 60-foot bell tower and a commanding view of the growing town.

On the evening of Friday, October 28, 1892, the building was dedicated and placed under the supervision of T.F. Davis. Following a prayer led by Rev. A.J. Joslyn and the usual speechifying that goes with public openings, the citizens of Aberdeen, bursting with pride, entered through the large circular main portico and roamed through the building. They admired the oak staircases, the wide halls and the twenty-eight rooms finished in Alaska pine that comprised the first two floors. On the third floor was an auditorium measuring 42- by 76-foot with a 14-foot ceiling, and the entire structure was heated by four large brick wood-fired hot-air furnaces located in the basement.

It was on the third floor hall that a large group of parents and pupils gathered on June 22, 1893 to witness Aberdeen’s very first Commencement Exercises. Three students comprised the Class of ‘93: Miss Elizabeth “Bessie” Crammatte, Miss Elizabeth Kelman and Miss Jessie Haynes. The program was presented in two parts. The first half was a series of recitations and musical presentations by the younger students, including a Calisthenics Exhibition by the 1st graders and a “Wand Drill” by the 2nd and 3rd grade kids. The second half was fully focused on the graduates with each reciting a self-penned essay, and Miss Kelman presenting the valedictorian address. Diplomas were distributed and the evening closed with the entire hall joining in to sing “America.”

As the 20th century dawned, additional elementary school houses were erected in the city. High school students continued attending classes at the landmark structure until 1910 when the classic brick Weatherwax High School opened at 3rd and I Streets. The old building was fully renovated, the floors and desks were revarnished, and the building was renamed the Terrace Heights School. It now housed grades one through seven, while eighth graders attended Franklin school on west Market Street.

The building continued as an elementary school until 1934 when it became the second home of the Grays Harbor Junior College. In 1945 the college moved to the abandoned Samuel Benn School building [located where Weatherwax High School stands today], and the Terrace Heights School was vacated for the last time. The landmark structure was razed the following year with much of the lumber and timbers reused in the construction of the Central Park school addition. The property was later sold and now homes stand on the site of Aberdeen’s first permanent educational edifice.

And what became of the first three graduates - Bessie, Jessie and Elizabeth?

Bessie Crammatte received her teaching credentials and returned to the school in the role of instructor. In 1899 she married Lovell Potter Dudley, a pioneer Aberdeen pharmacist who founded the Red Cross Pharmacy located in the Crowther-Wooding building at Heron and G Streets (present-day home of Billy’s Bar and Grill). Bessie passed away in Seattle in 1953.

Jessie Haynes married Roscoe Hardcastle of Woodburn, Ore., in 1899. They later moved to California where she resided until her death in 1968.

Elizabeth Kelman also pursued her teaching credentials and taught classes for a time in Summit in Pierce County. In 1896 she married McKinley Wilson, a well-known resident of the North River valley, and moved to his ranch near Vesta where they raised six children. She passed away in Aberdeen in 1931. Roy Vataja,the son of Finnish immigrants, was born and raised in Aberdeen and graduated from Weatherwax High School in 1983.