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The Olympia School District has a long history. Over the years many teachers have worked for the district. Mary A. O’Neil, an Irish immigrant, was one of the earliest.

Mary O’Neil: Coming to America, Coming West

She was born on April 25, 1844 to James (1805-1848) and Elizabeth Burke (1819-1885) O’Neil in Kilkee, Ireland. A small seaside fishing village at the time, Kilkee is now a popular resort. Then under British rule, Mary’s birth took place just before the start of the devastating Irish Potato Famine. Many people left Ireland at the time including her family, immigrating to the United States in 1846. They settled in Mineral Point, Wisconsin.

Why Mary chose to move West is unclear, but she wrote about her trip for a gathering of her former students in 1921 . According to this account, Anson G. Henry, surveyor general of Washington Territory was visiting a relative in Mineral Point in April 1863 and invited her to come West with his family. Mary said yes.

Mary O’Neil, Olympia school leather, with a book in her hand
Mary O’Neil was a beloved early Olympia teacher. Photo courtesy: Washington State Digital Archives, State Library Photograph Collection, 1851-1990

After a trip to the East Coast, the party set sail on the “Northern Light” from New York harbor. Battling seasickness, the ship sailed to Panama. Mary’s group took the railroad from Colon across the isthmus to Panama City but were unable to enter the city due to a revolution. Boarding a new ship, the party made their way north. After several stops in Mexico, San Francisco – where they transferred to the “Brother Johnathan” – Astoria and Portland, they caught the stage in Monticello – now Longview – for a long, rough ride to Olympia. “Such roads,” Mary complained later, “but we enjoyed the trip, although the roads were bad, badder, baddest.”

Olympia School Teacher

She was relieved to finally make it to Olympia. “We arrived June 15th [1863], about 6 p.m.,” she wrote. “At that time I thought it the most charming spot on the face of the globe. The month of roses and every house and cottage was a flower garden.”

Mary would make her mark as a teacher. “In 1868,” Mary remembered “my friend [businessman and civic leader] Isaac Lightner came home one evening and told me I had been appointed one of the teachers. I supposed, of course, that he was joking and nothing more, but he very soon told me it was no joke. ‘O my!’ I said, ‘I do not know how to teach.’ He said he knew I would soon take up the work.”

That October Mary began teaching with F. W. Brown. Despite her fears, the Washington Standard newspaper praised her shortly after the start of the school term as, “unexcelled in her department of instruction.” Mary continued teaching for over 20 years, including at a private school which opened in the Odd Fellows Hall in the 1880s. “I am well pleased with my results as a teacher,” she reflected later, “although I received the munificent sum of 33 1-3 dollars per month.” To supplement her income, she also worked as an enrolling clerk for the 1873 territorial legislature.

 Mary O’Neil, Olympia school teacher.
A rarely seen early image of Mary O’Neil, Olympia school teacher. Photo courtesy: Olympia Historical Society and Bigelow House Museum

Mary reflected fondly on her students even decades later. “We had A, B, C up to the Fifth reader. One youngster used to bring his pillow to school. He could not say Miss O’Neil, and always called me ‘Old Miss Neil.’”

She endeavored to be the best teacher she could be. “Never punish children before a room full of children,” she told her former students. “They are very sensitive and do not like to be humiliated. Take them out of the room, treat them firmly but kindly. Never show partiality; children are broken-hearted after such treatment. …. and above all things do not allow children to bring tales and be tattlers. Always be on the playground, and take pleasure in their games.”

Olympia’s Mary O’Neil: Later Years

In 1889 Mary became an American citizen in order to file for a land claim that she later sold. During much of her time in Olympia she lived with Francis and Eliza Henry and their children. In fact, Francis granted her copyright of his song “The Old Settler,” a humorous and self-deprecating reflection of the trials and tribulations of pioneer life. It later inspired the name of noted Seattle restaurant Ivar’s Acres of Clams.

Around the turn of the century, Mary moved to Seattle but returned to Olympia after a few years. She worked as a traveling saleswoman for Mottman’s Mercantile and was a charter member of both the Thurston County Pioneer and Historical Society and the State Pioneer Association. She served on the Thurston County group’s memorial committee and attended most meetings and reunions.

Homes along the east side of what is now Capitol Way in 1876.
Homes along the east side of what is now Capitol Way in 1876. Photo courtesy: Washington State Digital Archives, State Library Photograph Collection, 1851-1990

Mary became famous for serving coffee at annual reunion meetings. “Miss Mary O’Neil,” wrote the Daily Olympian on July 12 1928, “who came to Olympia more than 65 years ago, could be seen at 11:30 serving up the coffee bags, a task at she has performed at every reunion meeting held since the Thurston County Pioneer and Historical Society was created.” Serving coffee was a prestigious task at social gatherings at the time and her coffee was said to be particularly good. “And Miss O’Neil presided at this as in past times,” noted the Morning Olympian on March 3, 1923 of a meeting of the group held at the Woman’s Club of Olympia, “her coffee being famous among the pioneers.”

On June 30, 1933 Mary O’Neil died in Olympia and was buried in Tumwater’s Odd Fellows Memorial Park. Pallbearers were old pioneer friends. Mary left a great legacy as a beloved schoolteacher, touching the lives of ordinary people and community leaders alike.

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