Recently we held an end-of-year pizza party at the museum for the Merced area high school students in our Museum Youth Volunteer Program. As we thanked them for their hard work and dedication to the upkeep of the museum, we also said farewell to the Class of 2013.
Among these bright graduates is Griselda Estrada who joined the program her freshmen year. Born in Modesto, Griselda is the first generation in her family to attend college and is one of Golden Valley High School's valedictorians.
In the fall, she will be attending the University of Rochester in New York with a full scholarship. She plans to become a neurosurgeon.
As we salute Griselda and the Class of 2013, let's take a moment to reflect on the history of Merced's first graduating Class of 1898.
A petition to organize a high school in Merced County was filed in 1892 and Merced High was established in 1895 -- the first such school in the county. Jefferson Elmore was the first principal, and the enrollment was 64.
For the first two years, classes were held in the Academy Building on the corner of 23rd and Canal Streets.
A three-story, 13,182-square-foot school building in the Richardsonian-Romanesque style was completed in the beginning of 1897. In the middle of January, the high school moved into the new building on M Street in Courthouse Park.
The first class of 22 students graduated in 1898: Henry N. Bagley, Tissayac Bernard, Florence Dixon, Julia Dixon, Kathryne Garibaldi, Pauline Grove, Warner W. Grove, Leah Harris, Robert J. Hughes, George W. K. Hartman, Gertrude A. James, Lida Law, Jessie Manchester, Frank J. McInerny, Margaret McInerny, Mollie McInerny, Teresa McDonald, Ella Mugler, Myrtle Reed, Kathryn Sheehy, Margaret Sheehy and May F.H. White.
A closer examination of these graduates provides a glimpse of educational opportunities, economic status and professional development in Merced around the turn of the 20th century.
First, many of these students were children of prominent Merced residents from business entrepreneurs to lawyers and educators.
For example, both Florence and Julia Dixon were children of druggist E.T. Dixon, who was also a former superintendent of Merced County Schools. Lida Law's father Thomas C. Law was a lawyer and her uncle, John K. Law, was a judge.
It is likely some of these parents were instrumental in establishing Merced's first high school, thereby improving their children's educational opportunities.
Preparing for college
Because most of these graduates were from affluent families, continuing their education at the university level was indicative of their social status in Merced.
The stated purpose of Merced High School's Academic Program was to prepare students for higher education at either Stanford University or the University of California. It is not surprising that most of the graduates went to one of these two institutions.
Henry N. Bagley, for example, who gave a speech on "Electricity an(d) Its Share in the Progress of the Century" at the commencement, went on to attend Stanford University. His fellow classmates who also went to Stanford included Ella Mugler and Myrtle Reed.
Out of 22 graduates, 17 graduates were female students. The trend of greater female graduation rate compared with male classmates would continue as educational opportunities became more accessible for women.
In contrast with the traditional view that educated women made better mothers and companions for men, a majority of these female graduates were determined to achieve economic independence and pursue a fulfilling professional life.
Even with the limited employment opportunities available to women in that time, these high school graduates went on to have careers outside the home. Some became teachers, one a library trustee and another an assistant tax collector.
Kathryne Garibaldi represented Merced County as a trustee of the Third District of the California Library Association in 1907 before the Merced County Free Library was created.
Assistant to husband
Teresa McDonald's husband James Joseph Garibaldi was a tax collector from 1915 to 1934. During this time, like many other wives of Merced County government officials, she became the assistant to her husband.
This practice in Merced County was one of the few employment opportunities for married women.
For those who chose a career over domestic life, they remained single.
Pioneer educators Margaret Sheehy and Margaret McInerny, for example, never married because early education laws prohibited married women from teaching.
Their sacrifice exemplifies their dedication to educating Merced County youth while also serving as a sad reminder of the unfair treatment of women who chose to work outside the home.
The Class of 1898 was the beginning of Merced County's high school graduation tradition; we hope the Class of 2013 will continue this tradition of education and service.
On a related note, congratulations to our Youth Volunteer of the Year Greg Gutierrez, who will be attending Merced College in the fall, and our 2008 Youth Volunteer winner Joel Guerra, who graduated this May from UC Berkeley.
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at email@example.com.