Benton County Pioneer Life

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Pioneer life in the Benton Co. WA area

Teacher Paid For Books/Had Zeal of Missionary

Tri-City Pioneer
Tri-City Herald, Sunday, 20 August 1961

Mr. Joseph Griffin Lawrence was not a large man physically. His red mustache bristled with energy and determination. His light blue eyes were searching but kindly. He arrived with his family at North Yakima in 1888. He was hired as principal of its school.

Lawrence was well educated. Teaching school was his only occupation. He could well be called a dedicated school teacher. Many of the early-day school teachers used school teaching as a fill in until they could find something that paid more. This cheapened the profession and caused it to be underpaid.

Lawrence was a man of high moral character. He was a great humanitarian. In his first school at North Yakima there were deserving pupils in his classes from poor parents who could not buy their children’s books, pencils and slates. Lawrence was in no financial condition to pay for them because his salary at this time was only $80 a month. Regardless of this fact, he paid for them out of his pocket.

When the school board heard of it they raised his salary to $100 per month. They increased his teaching term from 6 months to nine months and gave him an extra hundred dollars for incidentals.

Yakima County in 1888 contained all of its present territory plus all of Benton County and a small portion of Klickitat County. It embraced a large thinly settled area. Dry-wheat farming flourished in a few districts. The principle occupation of the population was stock raising--cattle, horses and sheep. The cattlemen were perhaps the most prosperous.

Shortly after Lawrence’s arrival in North Yakima, the hard winter of 1899 wiped out many of the stockman’s herds. Their financial losses were appalling. Lawrence realized what this meant to their children’s education. With the zeal of a missionary, he personally called on all the settlers he could contact. He told them that regardless of their financial losses, their children’s learning must not suffer. This tragedy would require all the knowledge available in its solution. He gave them pep talks and amused them with funny incidents from his long experience in teaching.

The following incident was one of his favorite stories: “I had stayed all night at the home of a clerk of a school board. The breakfast grace had been given. I was seated at one end of the table. At the farthest end of the table, seated in his homemade highchair was the baby of the family. He was a plump, well fed boy of about four years. His cheeks were red as ripe tomatos. To my left a youth say near 12 years. The mother’s chair was near the babies. The father sat at the side of the table. I noticed that the older youth was drinking coffee as was his sister. I pointed at the baby with the red cheeks who was enjoying the breakfast as said, ‘See what wonderful complexions you two would have if you drank milk like you baby brother.’ They looked at me but did not answer. I turned and gazed at the baby again and to my astonishment he was dunking a biscuit in his cup which was filled with coffee. He was me looking at him and stopped his eating. He held up his bib for me to inspect and said, ‘see my nice new bib that momma made out of papa’s old shirt tail.’”

Lawrence eventually became the county school superintendent of Yakima County. He also was a member of the State Board of Education.

Joseph Griffen Lawrence was one of the outstanding pedagogs of the Tri-City region and the Central Washington area. A man of great moral courage, outstanding intelligence and possessed with a keen sense of humor.

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