Robert L. Sharp: Township education

04/11/2009 12:24 AM

04/11/2009 12:26 AM

Patricia Sitkin, of Bellota, where the foothills east of Linden begin to rise toward the Mother Lode on the shoulders of the Sierra Nevada, told me a wonderful story of Douglass Township, where she lives.

One doesn't hear much about townships any more, but they are on maps as part of the U.S. Public Land Survey System. They are usually rectangles about six miles on a side and are typically referenced in legal property deed descriptions to locate property boundaries, such as "Township 7 South, Range 10 East, Mount Diablo Base and Meridian."

In the 1880 Federal Census, there were shown geographic survey subdivisions in Merced County, such as Township 5 Range 10, Township 8 Range 13, but also Civil Townships such as Cressy, Hopeton, Plainsburg and Snelling.

My hometown of Linden in San Joaquin County was, or is, in Douglass Township. Local pharmacist Bill Patterson was the elected Justice of the Peace of the township for 20 years, with his courtroom at the end of his soda fountain. He presided over such misdemeanors as traffic tickets, Fish and Game Code violations, fights and marriages. Constable Lyle Gruell, a prototype of Fearless Fosdick with his fedora, old black car with a red light, badge, pistol and handcuffs, backed him up.

Douglass Township, created in 1859, was named after General David F. Douglass, born in Tennessee in 1821, who came to California in 1848 after a stint in the Mexican War (and 14 months in an Arkansas jail). For the last 16 years of his life he was engaged in agriculture. He died in 1872.

He was one of the first State Senators from this district, the first United States Marshal of California, Secretary of State 1855-57 under Gov. J. Neely Johnson, a member of the Assembly for several sessions and the fourth ex officio State Librarian. In 1850, the Legislature elected him a brigadier general in the State Militia, hence the title.

According to Ms. Sitkin, Gen. Douglass brought a slave with him to California, which he freed and gave 160 acres near him in the Bellota area. This man, whom we will call Mr. Douglass, since freed slaves often took the names of their former owners, married and had a child. There is no recorded history of this story, so we depend on Ms. Sitkin's memory of local lore.

Having had no schooling himself, Mr. Douglass was determined to see that child educated. He donated two acres to the state of California, and then he and a few willing neighbors built a sturdy one-room schoolhouse, a shed for horses and dug out a well and two privies.

For almost the next half-century, eight to 12 kids would come out of the hills to attend Douglass School. Then one year, probably in the early 1900s, attendance fell to seven, and the state threatened to close the school. Mr. Douglass' granddaughter, again an only child, was just ready to enter first grade, so he was appalled.

Then he had a brilliant idea; were he to enroll himself, attendance would increase to eight, making state funding mandatory. So Mr. Douglass saved the school and finally learned to read and write.

Robert L. Sharp grew up in Linden (population 1,000) and spent most of the following 30 years as an international banker in Asia including four years as a Naval officer in that part of the world.

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