A BACKWARD GLANCE – 1898-1933
A speech given by Miss Ella Given, retired principal of the E. V. Brown School in Chevy Chase DC (approximate date March 1938)
HCCDC Editor’s Note: Mary Ella Given, a native Washingtonian, was 28 when she took a job as principal of Chevy Chase School (renamed in 1924 to the Elizabeth V. Brown School) at the site of the current Chevy Chase Community Center. By the time she retired 37 years later, in 1933, she had raised the enrollment from 25 to 800 students and was considered one of the most beloved educators in the region. Born July 8, 1870 into one of Washington’s oldest families, the Croggons, she was educated at DC public schools, earned a college degree at George Washington University, and studied at Harvard and Oxford universities. Remaining unmarried, she was affectionately widely known as “Miss Ella Given,” and died at age 68 in November 1938, five years after she retired. Her death was caused by injuries sustained in a traffic accident at the intersection of 46th and Chesapeake streets NW. A 47-year-old Arlington woman with five children was cited for negligent homicide in the accident that caused her car to turn on its side. At the time of her death she was living at 4700 Connecticut Ave. NW. She is buried at Rock Creek Cemetery. The exact date and location of this speech are unknown.
The picture I will sketch tonight may seem to many of you suggestive of colonial days, but it is our own Chevy Chase almost exactly 40 years ago. For it was in March 1898 that the school opened its doors.
Picture an expanse of mud with a plank walk leading to a 4-room building with a pump to the right and out-of-door toilets to the rear. Back of them were dense thickets in which many varieties of birds loved to make their homes. Such was the place where I had elected to teach, for I had asked for the assignment. I strongly suspect now that my request was granted because no one else wanted to teach in such a lonely spot. But with me it was a case of love at first sight, – a choice which I was never to regret.
When asked on Friday if I could open the school the following Monday I replied “All right, but I must have a flag and a Bible, whether or not there are books and supplies.”
But where were the pupils to come from, with no houses in sight and only Connecticut Avenue cut thru? Well, they came from outlying farms, a few from Glen Echo and Kensington and later from the sparsely settled community of Chevy Chase, Md. In all there were 25 pupils that spring, in 5 different grades, from the little tot who fell asleep in the 1st grade to the overgrown boy in the 5th Jr.
The problems were many. I had to order coal, but how could I tell how many tons the coal shed would hold? Savogram was on the list of supplies, but what was savogram and did it come by the small box or by the bushel? I compromised by ordering 1. It proved to be a small cake of soap for cleaning.
But what fun we did have! The robins and blue birds flew in and out of the windows, the chipmunks darted here and there in the halls, and the flying squirrels thoroughly enjoyed our unoccupied 2nd floor. A depressed place in the grounds made an ideal bathing pool for the bobolinks on their journey north. The <word whited out> nested on the hard porch and the wrens chose the out-door toilets for their home.
With the fall came Miss Hendry, so I handed over to her my 1st, 2nd and 3rd grades while with the courage born of ignorance, I undertook to teach the 4th,5th, 6th and 7th myself. What a winter that was! The two occupied rooms were heated by stoves, but the rest of the building was icy. Water spilt in the halls quickly froze, and when we returned from our Christmas holidays we found the pump frozen and our supply of ink solid ice.
When the great blizzard of that year stopped traffic, the cars did not run for a week. When I finally managed to reach the school I found that Miss Hendry had ridden on horseback across country from Alta Vista with a colored man, also on horseback, to beat the way through the drifts.
From the outset the school was in reality a community center. Our first big undertaking was the purchase of a second hand piano. To finance this a lawn fete was planned. Just before the time, a veritable cloud burst made it seem impossible to carry on. In spite of the protests of the family, I insisted on going out to see that the school was locked up, only to find to my amazement, vehicles of all kinds parked in front and a goodly crown gathered. ‘Tis true the ice cream which had been included in the price of the ticket, had journeyed to Glen Echo by mistake, but we had a grand time all the same, with oil lamps for illumination. This was the forerunner of our lawn fetes, or “Lawn Fakes” as my friends termed them, for something generally happened to threaten their success. But successful they were, both socially and financially. One of the most popular features was the flower parade, in which the children of the kindergarten and lower grades decorated their bicycles, tricycles, wagons and ponies with flowers and paraded around the grounds.
At this season of the year my mind reverts to the wild flowers which made the spring such a joy. On the site of the Chevy Chase Apartment at the circle, grew bloodroots almost as large as water lilies, a little farther east – the banks of Broad Branch were carpeted with the birdfoot violets; spring beauties and anemones grew in the woods east of Connecticut Avenue while west of the Avenue near Military Road the hepaticas were so plentiful that teachers and pupils could pluck all they wanted, making no perceptible difference in the supply.
The birds built their nests back of the school and in the ravine back of what is now the Avalon Theater. On one occasion when the executive committee of the Audubon Society was holding its spring meeting on the hard porch back of the school, Henry Oldys, the authority on bird notes, was sitting with his back to the undergrowth. At the close of the meeting he said that he had identified twenty-seven bird notes.
In the meantime, in spite of many handicaps, the school continued to grow, and when in 1909 the section known as Chevy Chase, D. C. was opened, we faced the problem so familiar in after years – an overcrowded school.
In this year the Home and School Association was organized in one of the new bungalows on Northampton St. occupied by the Malcolms. From the outset it was characterized by the active interest shown by the men of the community. As this was the first Association of its kind in the elementary schools, there were no precedents to follow. Night meetings were decided upon though they presented a problem with no lighting facilities in the school. Then came the first addition to the building with two new rooms at each end, with gas fixtures in those rooms.
The new organization was a success from the very first, bringing about a better understanding between parents and teachers, hence better and happier pupils. We not only worked but played together. One of the bright spots in my memory is the kindergarten in which Mr. and Mrs. Stevens took leading parts. Our kindergarten teacher, Miss Aiton was in charge, and never did 5 year old youngsters frolic through a kindergarten program with such glee as did these dignified oldsters.
In 1912, the school had an unexpected gift. While in London that summer I visited the Tennant Galleries in the home of Lord Glenconner. In response to a letter of thanks and appreciation Lord Glenconner wrote to me offering to send me copies of some of his paintings for the school. The five Medici prints which he sent hung in the front hall for many years. This was the nucleus of the collection of pictures which gave so much pleasure to pupils, teachers and visitors.
About a hundred of our graduates volunteered for service when war was declared in 1917. The first Christmas we remembered them with individual gifts, but Christmas of 1918 found them so scattered we could not reach them. The idea then suggested itself to send trimmed Christmas trees and gifts to the psychopathic and contagious disease wards at Walter Reed, in short to reach those who could not participate in the general celebration. This was the origin of the Walter Reed trees.
Through these busy years the school had been growing by leaps and bounds. Just before the War we had succeeded in obtaining an appropriation from Congress for 8 more rooms and an auditorium. This was the only school construction attempted during the War. The work was completed by the fall of 1918, and we celebrated the Armistice by marching into the unheated, unfurnished auditorium to sing patriotic songs. The class of June 1919 graduated with the use of chairs kindly loaned by the churches and the country clubs.
In 1923 we had a big party to celebrate our 25th anniversary. It seemed that we had arrived, but the years that followed were crowded with more problems and more pupils. When the time came when no more portables could be located on the school grounds we began to scatter them around the neighborhood. Three were erected at 36th and Davenport Sts, now the Murch School, and later on three more were placed on the grounds between Broad Branch Road and 33rd St. – now the Lafayette School. The enrolment had grown from the original twenty-five with one teacher to 1200 with 35 teachers – and still they came.
The opening of the Murch School gave little relief, and it was not until 1931 when the Lafayette and the Alice Deal Junior High opened simultaneously that we knew what it was to be able to spread out, with no part-time classes and no portables. But we missed the older boys and girls.
In this brief summary, I have omitted many of the achievements of the Home and School Association and of the Community Center. Suffice it to say that for years we conducted and financed our own
A café in the basement
A school matron
and cooperated heartily in the project of a playground, for this, however, Mrs. Wilcox deserves full credit.
The branch library was started in the south hall of the school, bookcases and even wardrobes being loaned or donated by the parents to house the books.
I have said nothing about the real school work. During the years, curriculums changed and methods swung from one extreme to the other. Sometimes we agreed and sometimes we did not, but we tried to keep our feet on the ground and yet be receptive to the best in the new ideas.
I have also omitted mentioning the names of those parents, teachers and janitors whose loyal cooperation made possible what success the school attained. It is not because my memory fails me, but because their names are legion and to mention some might be to slight others. Though there were hard days and difficult problems, I have never questioned the fact that I had the unwavering support of the finest body of men and women ever united for one purpose. It was a joy to work with them, and always have I felt grateful that my lines had fallen in such pleasant places.