Times Past

Yosemite Field School offers a rugged, remarkable experience

Dr. Harold C. Bryant leads a class for the Yosemite Field School of Natural History in 1931.
Dr. Harold C. Bryant leads a class for the Yosemite Field School of Natural History in 1931.

“I was never an avid athlete,” recalled Frances Marston Hogin of Arroyo Grande.

Frances, a petite first-year biology teacher at Modesto Union High School, faced equal rigors during the summer of 1932. She was one of 14 men and six women who had the honor of being selected for the U.S. Deptartment of Interior’s prestigious Yosemite Field School.

America’s National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday next Thursday. Part of its assignment was and continues to be educational. Under NPS management, Yosemite quickly became a great open-air classroom.

The Field School was created during the early years of the National Park Service. It was intended to provide teachers and advanced students with an exposure to natural-resources management and interpretation. Some of the program’s successful graduates might go on to work as guide-interpreters and naturalists at Yosemite or other national and state parks.

Frances, whose sister Ena L. Marston was a professor of English at Cal Poly from 1946 to 1970, held degrees from both Mills College and Stanford University. She had studied marine biology at Stanford’s Hopkins’ Marine Laboratory at Pacific Grove.

Teaching high school in Modesto, so near Yosemite, was only part of the reason Frances was attracted to the Field School. Hundreds of college students and teachers went to work for The Yosemite Park & Curry Co., owner of the hotels, restaurants and stores at Yosemite National Park, during the summer.

The National Park Service offered an amazingly high quality program at its one and only field school. Frances’ teachers included Edward Oliver Essig, a world authority on insect,s and noted specialists on flora, fauna, geology and bird calls.

There was stiff competition for admission into the program. Frances felt that she might have committed a slight faux pas when she, a first-year teacher, was selected over several senior colleagues in the science department at Modesto Union High.

Perhaps the greatest breach of etiquette was in being a Stanford grad, passing over several UC Berkeley men. Students enrolled in the Yosemite Field School were expected to pay their own board. They rented camping supplies from “Ma Curry” and purchased and cooked their own food.

Despite the relative warmth on the valley floor, they were expected to wear semi-regulation Park Service-type woolen shirts, pants, stockings and high-topped lace-up boots. Frances said the woolens actually insulated you against excessive heat because unlike modern man-made fabrics, wool breathes.

Once at the encampment, the rugged life began. It was just like basic training in the Army or Marine Corps. The nature hikes increased in length and difficulty each day over the seven-week program. The hikes culminated in an almost forced march to above the timberline in sight of mounts Dana, Gibbs and Lyell.

The heavy boots did not prove burdensome except once.

The Field School class hiked the four miles, nearly straight up the precipice trail to Glacier Point. When they reached the lodge at the summit, they found a group of young people happily dancing to the music of a Victrola. The hiking boots were unwieldy for dancing.

One of the members of the Field School volunteered to hike back down the steep incline along Sentinel Rock to the valley floor. The volunteer went to the Field School encampment, where he picked up his fellow students’ lighter weight shoes. He then hiked back up Four Mile Trail and delivered them to the delighted dancers.

The Field School ran six and a half days a week. The park rangers always had a day off. They were encouraged to join in on some of the school’s hikes on their off time.

The rangers, unlike Frances, were in prime physical condition. The hike up the gorge to Vernal and Nevada Falls was particularly rigorous. Frances was well behind the first three members of her class.

She felt secure in the fact that a park ranger was just behind her. If she slipped on the wet rocks, he would be there to help. Frances looked almost straight up where she could see the lead team of classmates. Then she looked back.

There was no one to be seen.

She had greatly outdistanced the terribly fit ranger and her fellow classmates.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com