Speech by Frances Axtell, homecoming luncheon, November 13, 1948.
Posted online courtesy Western Washington University Special Collections.
When asked to give a ten minutes talk of happenings a half century ago or more, three things occurred to me. First, it was lucky that I have never been sensitive about my age, having adopted Barney Baruch's philosophy of old age. Old age is 15 years older than you are yourself. Second, I thought of the advice of an old friend whom I asked to tell me the kind of a speech a woman should make; he said a woman's speech should be like a woman's skirt, long enough to cover the subject and short enough to be of interest. Third, I thought of Couper's couplet, "We sometimes think we could a speech produce much to the point if our tongues were loosed, but being tried it dies upon the lip, faint as a chicken note that had the pip."
With most of the marvels of this day still undiscovered, what made the old world click 50 years ago, it was hope for the future, faith for the present, and a well grounded belief that thru education, Christian integrity and individual effort, each person could climb the ladder to success. The best chances for youth were summed up in the slogan of Horace Greeley, "Go west, young man, go West." The going was hard, as all pioneers could testify. From the Atlantic to the Pacific for four generations or more the rainbow of promise led youth on this Western march. Now, when the going is so easy, alas, there is no more frontier to conquer.
My theme this morning deals with this particular location in the year 1889. In September of that year, I made my first appearance, when I came Washington was a territory, when I left the following June it was a state. There was no railroad beyond Seattle, a village of about 10,000, and it was less than three months before that the entire business district had been destroyed by fire. My arrival on Bellingham Bay was an old side-wheeler which came through Deception Pass because it was unsafe for travel by the outside passage. My reason for coming, to teach in the Lynden Normal School, a position secured thru a teachers' agency in Chicago after my graduation from DePauw University.
1889 was the year of the first and last big land boom in the Northwest. The Fairhaven Land Co., had laid out the townsite of Fairhaven, and was selling lots even to the top of Chuckanut Mountain. The B. B. I. Co., incorporated the town of Sehome, starting at the viaduct and extending east and south. The only means of travel from the north to the south was by ferry or a footpath thru the woods. The ferry was kept very busy, with people from everywhere frantically buying lots. There was only one wharf on the Bay for passengers, known as the Old Colony Wharf. At the land's end stood a saloon. From there the stages left for Lynden. I secrued the last seat with the driver. The stage carried 15 passengers and was drawn by four horses. We plunged into the depths of forest at James Street and after winding around stumps and trees for four hours we arrived at my destination.
The townsite of Lynden was the original homestead of the Judson family. Mr. and Mrs. Judson were the first white people to homestead in the Nooksack Valley, and they had several narrow escapes from being murdered by the Indians. The stockade which they built for their protection stood by the road as you entered the town. That the Judsons determined to found a school with their money derived from the real estate boom is indicative of the value placed upon education 60 years ago. Mrs. Judson was one of the first women to enter Oberlin College, the first college in the U.S. to open its doors to women. She had two aspirations - a second Oberlin in Lynden and equal suffrage for women. Mrs. Judson was one of the great women of pioneer days. I understand that her great-great-grandson Russell Bolster is a present student here.
Calvin Coolidge, who never said much, once said: "It is not what men know but what they are disposed to do with what they know that will determine the rise or fall of civilization."
Mrs. Judson's hope for the betterment of the future has been justified. An expanding horizon lies around us. With greater opportunities come greater responsibilities, demanding greater resources, thus this school will realize the hopes of 50 years ago.
The Teachers' Agency in Chicago had sent me a picture of the buildings and the list of courses to be taught. Upon arrival I discovered it was only a prospectus; the existing buildings and grounds were mere shacks, located on logged off land and without sidewalks. In rainy weather we wore rubber boots to school. I was engaged to teach Latin and Geometry; I compromised by teaching whatever was needed most. In spite of all adjustments and handicaps my teaching endeavors were richly rewarded by the eagerness of my pupils to learn. On holidays and Saturdays they would beg for school to continue in order not to lose time. I understand that this is not always the case at the present day.
Most of the merchandise coming into Lynden was by river transportation, adn local travel was by foot or horseback. Many other towns in Washington owe their beginnings to this land boom in 1889, Spokane, Yakima, Anacortes, and many others. The town of Blaine had its birth this year, and I shall never outlive my first experience on horseback through the woods to that place (details omitted here). The great land boom which made possible the beginning of this school was followed by the panic of 1893.
Having changed my name back in Illinois from Cleveland to Axtell, I took up permanent residence in what is now Bellingham in 1894. All real estate and other values had sunk to their lowest level; all the boom banks were in the hands of receivers; there was no money in circulation and local script was used for exchange. The Lynden School was closed, and efforts were being made to have the State Legislature take it over for a State Normal School. Inaccessibility and politics defeated the location in Lynden, but the need of a school in this locality was accepted. The final decision for a location was based upon the generosity of the Fairhaven Land Company and the B. B. I. Co., each donating adjoining 5 acre tracts on Sehome Hill. The next legislature appropriated for the first building; two years later there was no appropriation for teachers and maintenance, and the townspeople were forced to gaze up on the site and building for the space of two years before there was any scholastic action on the campus. Since that time our legislatures have taken all necessary steps to convert this 10-acre tract into one of the most beautiful campuses of the entire Coast. This present set-up reminds me of a story you have all doubtless heard, of a farmer who converted a rough piece of logged off land into a beautiful garden spot; one day while working, his minister came along, admired the place, and said, "With God's help you have made this a Garden of Eden." The farmer said, "Yes, but you should have seen it when God had it by himself."
So much for the beginnings of a school of a great future. As I look back over 50 years I wish that we could have the feeling of security and some of the simplicity of ideals that prevailed at that time, and that world order had justified our beliefs. Personally I feel very humble when I see how very much we miscalculated. For instance, we believe for one thing that the peoples of the world were too intelligent to ever again settle their differences by war; that the age of reason had arrived. Since then, modern man has fought two globular wars, has split the atom, and we have - a world-shaking peaceless era as our heritage. We hear constantly of the two ideologies known as the East and the West, and that ne'er the Twain shall meet, and therefore another war is inevitable.
At a recent Amesterdam meeting it was urged that Christian churches reject the ideologies of both communism and laissez-faire capitalism, and further to reject the false assumption that these are the only alternatives. They concluded, "that it is the responsibility of Christians and educators to seek new creative solutions, which never allow either justice or freedom to destroy each other." If in this school you can get confused boys and girls with ears assaulted by the twisted ideologies of the world to think thru to the truth that the horizons of opportunity are as broad as their hearts and minds will make them; that prosperity, peasce and satisfaction come from honest cooperation and hard work; that any misunderstandings can be cured by honest effort and the Golden Rule; you will have accomplished what the pioneer founders of this school had in mind.