With the post-pandemic return to in-person classrooms, there will be a lot of attention on education. And so, it would be an appropriate time to look into our California schooling system, which took root in the mid 1850s. It was influenced by a progressive reformer who settled in Martinez… a man named John Swett.
Old-timers in Benicia know the name. Or, rather, the school – John Swett High School. Back in the ‘70s, when Benicia was still farmland and in the league of tiny communities, students of Benicia and John Swett were arch rivals and homecoming games were as much about post game brawls as they were about sports. While Benicia has grown and is now part of a larger sports league, John Swett HS is still small. In fact, it graduates about 125 students a year… the same it has been for decades.
John Swett was instrumental in the creation of our schooling system. Born in 1830 and educated in New England, he became a teacher at age 17, earning $10/month. At 22 years old, Swett sailed out of Boston Harbor, embarking on a 153 day voyage to San Francisco and on to the Feather River. Why? Gold! After five months of modest success, he returned to San Francisco to work on a farm in Hayes Valley… (where sixty years later a school would be named in his honor!)
Soon after, he secured a teaching position at Rincon Grammar School in San Francisco, where his students excelled in examinations and he became recognized as a leading educator in the city. Progressive – he promoted daily calisthenics and gymnastics – Swett was also controversial; he believed in secular public schools and opposed the support of parochial schools with public funds.
While serving at Rincon, he met Miss Mary Tracy, daughter of a local judge, and they married in 1862. That same year, Swett was persuaded to run for the Office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction. He won. From this post, he made his mark by drafting and lobbying the legislature to pass a law providing for the levying and collection of school taxes. He also created a program for testing and certification of teachers, established uniform textbooks and later lobbied for the creation of school libraries and established the State Board of Education. These were remarkable developments, laying the groundwork for the education system we have today.
John Swett, circa 1910
John Swett and John Muir
What is also noteworthy is his long friendship with environmentalist John Muir. Swett first met Muir in 1874 and they became fast friends. In fact, Muir was known as “Uncle John” to the Swett family and he lived with them for two years in the Swett home! One summer, with pack-horses and camping equipment, Swett, Muir, William Keith (great painter of American landscapes), and Oakland High School principal J.B. McChesney embarked on a four-week trip to the Sierras, which was later reported by Muir in articles in the San Francisco Bulletin.
On June 20, 1913, he presented diplomas to the high school graduates and made a brief address. This was the last time Swett spoke in public. He died on August 22, 1913 at the age of 83. We all, even past student rivals of John Swett High and Benicia High, owe our education to John Swett, the father of the California School System!
Part 2: John Swett, John Muir, & William Keith
In his memoir Public Education in California (1911), Swett described a deep friendship with John Muir as well as William Keith. Of Muir, he said, “We at once established a close friendship, which has continued unbroken for more than a third of a century.” In fact, Swett invited Muir to live with his family in San Francisco where Keith was a frequent visitor. An emerging landscape painter, Keith would visit and assist Muir in the selection of sketches to be used with Muir’s writings. Imagine all three of these contemporaries in one room: John Swett, John Muir and William Keith! On their own, each had a remarkable influence on early California history. “Those long evening meetings in Muir’s study room are among the pleasant recollection of my life,” Swett noted.
Of William Keith comes this story*: One day after experimenting with various methods of making seltzer – a popular drink at the time – Keith grabbed a bottle of root beer and ran over to Swett’s house that he could share the brew. Oblivious to the shaking he had caused when running, upon opening the bottle, the contents exploded across the ceiling and room causing a mess. Weeks later, by way of apology, Keith stopped by with gift in hand: a stunning mountain portrait (see picture – some think this is Mt. Shasta.)
John Swett visits Solano County
Swett’s responsibilities required statewide travel that included a visit to Vallejo: Swett writes, “While on a short visit to the schools in Solano County, I dropped into a small district schoolhouse not far from the city of Vallejo, where I discovered a teacher managing his pupils in a way that excited my admiration. I found that his name was Frederick M. Campbell…” Later meeting with Reverend I.H. Brayton, the managing head of the College of California (a small, new preparatory school in Oakland), Swett suggested Campbell for a position:
“Yes… I know the very man you need, and am will to stake my life on his success. His name is Fred Campbell. Write to him at once to come down to see you; you will engage him, the moment you set eye on him.”
Fred Campbell took over the College School and in 1868, after the State Legislature established the University of California, the College School became the College of Letters (now Letters and Science) for the University. Campbell, a former Vallejo teacher, went on to a distinguished career and later served as State Superintendent of Education, a position that Swett himself had served!
Discovering John Swett
Indeed, John Swett had a great influence on California education. However, my relationship with him is different, perhaps deeper. Let me explain. Shortly after graduating John Swett High and attending UC Berkeley, I returned home to take over the family’s hardware store. It was at this time I made great friend with a teacher there – Daniel Archuleta. Mr. Archuleta spent twenty-five years in the John Swett Unified School District, teaching every grade, finishing his career as principal of John Swett High School, my high school. More importantly, we became best mates and he served as my best man. Swett’s own words come to mind:
“We at once established a close friendship, which has continued unbroken for more than a third of a century.”
Daniel was a skilled and respected teacher and administrator. He was also deep into genealogy, pouring over microfiche records as he studied his family history. He encouraged my own curiosities, once even gifting a DNA blood test to me and my twin brother. And he was just as stunned when I shared the following revelation:
It began the year I proposed a state-wide Pedrotti reunion. Organizing the event required that I reach out to distant relatives, many of whom I had never met. It took months of work and late-night calls. One of these was with Dorothy “Dodie” Pedrotti. Chatting by phone one evening, she noted that she lived off Alhambra Valley Road, in Martinez. Wait a minute, I thought, I live on Alhambra Valley Road! I was driving by her house every day! Dodie described her marriage to that of a local heavy equipment operator, John Plummer. And then she shared a bombshell: John was the great-grandson to John Swett! Not only that, he operated the farm, as they lived on the Swett Ranch! A Pedrotti cousin had married into the John Swett family and was now a family member to Crockett’s most well-known historical figure, the father of California education!
I am grateful in the way my life has been intertwined and touched, directly and indirectly by John Swett. I continue to read and discover what an incredible man he was… honorable, determined, respectful of teachers and the institution of education, and of the value and importance of education for all. And I revel in the closeness that he indirectly enabled for me in that of a best friend and of a new cousin!
*William Keith story told by Dorothy Pedrotti Plummer