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El Toro's Much-Loved 'Schoolmarm'

Whether teaching in a one-room schoolhouse or serving as principal at the new brick building, Miss Nichols won fans and took charge.

Recently, quite a few parents and grandparents have been attending October back-to-school nights. So how about having our own back-to-school event?

And by "back" I mean way back . . . 99 years, to be exact. To the autumn of 1913, when the newly hired Miss Edna Nichols of Santa Ana is beginning the final year of classroom instruction at El Toro’s beloved one-room schoolhouse. That structure will be replaced next year by a much roomier and far more modern two-classroom brick building.

But won't that mean another teacher? And who will be in charge of the new school?  

Looking at this week’s illustration, we can clearly see why El Toro’s children would've been delighted to greet their 1912-1913 teacher. Pretty and smiling, a few dark wisps of hair escaping her otherwise neatly pulled-back bun, she nonetheless projects an in-charge attitude that will quash even the most rambunctious bigger boys. (That is, if one even dares to go against the other children, who early on swear eternal fealty to their comely young teacher.)

More than 60 years later, Mrs. Lucien Wisser, née Edna Nichols, would be honored at an El Toro Pioneer Round-up, and not just by local history buffs, but by former students. Among the latter, Ed Salter would speak glowingly of her, then present the photo you see before you, accompanied by the following caption:

Edna Nichols (Wisser)

Last one to teach in original El Toro Schoolhouse, 1913-1914.

Daughter of J. B. Nichols, second Orange County superintendent

of schools, 1903-1907.

First principal of new school, 1914-1915.

But we’re getting a bit ahead of our story!

Since the caption gives Edna’s father some prominence, let’s start with him.

A PROACTIVE PAPA

According to Samuel Armor’s 1921 volume of Orange County biographies, John B. Nichols is "well known in Santa Ana as an attorney-at-law." Born in Fond du Lac County, Wis., his parents died when he was a small boy, causing him to go live with an uncle in Edward County, Ill.—"but ever since he was twelve years old he has made his own way in the world."

After working on a number of farms and eventually finishing high school in Albion, Ill., Nichols attended Southern Illinois State Normal University, then began teaching, which allowed him to concurrently attend the University of Illinois so he might advance himself further.  

During this time, he met and married a "Miss Jane Marriott of Albion," and in time they had five children. Edna, born while they lived in Albion, was the exact middle child of the group, arriving after an older brother and sister, and before a younger sister and brother.

By 1897, John decided to move his family to Santa Ana where he had been offered the position of school principal. He remained in Santa Ana three years, then moved on to serve as "principal of the schools at Orange."

Three years later Nichols and his children suffered a blow: Jane passed away. Edna was at the time 14 or 15 years of age.

At some point also in 1903, however, Nichols accepted the post of Orange County superintendent of schools. He served in this position until 1907, then moved once again, this time to Ventura County, where he became principal of all the schools in Oxnard. Briefly Nichols returned to Orange County in 1908 to marry a Miss Mary S. Schofield. They and presumably at least some (if not all) of the children (Edna by now was 19 or 20) settled in at Oxnard for a short time, then moved to Los Angeles County, where Nichols served as principal at Compton’s Union High School for two years.

"In the meantime," Armor continues, "Mr. Nichols had been improving his spare moments by reading law, having always cherished a desire to enter the legal profession."

Are we talkin' Type A personality or what?

It seems Nichols had taken a law course while still living in Illinois. Now, while serving as Union High’s principal, he also resumed his coursework, and in 1915 was admitted to the bar and set up practice. Four years later he and Mary returned to Orange County, whereupon he established new law offices in Santa Ana.  

CAREER . . . AND A ROMANCE

Obviously a high achiever such as John B. Nichols was setting an extraordinary example to his children. And Edna, although a vulnerable teenager at the time of her mother’s death, appears to have inherited some of the same indomitable spirit as her father.

Upon graduation from high school, for example, Edna chose not to marry but to continue her studies at the relatively new branch of the California State Normal School, this one being in downtown Los Angeles, on the site of what would eventually become the city's central library

Upon graduation, it appears Edna's first two years of teaching were based somewhere other than El Toro, according to biographical information from 1963's Historical Volume and Reference Works, Volume II: Orange County. According the information, Edna "taught for eight years in Orange County," and her marriage is listed as taking place on June 23, 1920.

But again, I'm getting ahead of myself!

So let's briefly shift gears and learn a bit about the Wisser (pronounced weeser) family of Anaheim. Roman and Emilie Wisser—according to the 1963 volume, natives of Alsace-Lorraine, France, but elsewhere noted as Germany—lived in Anaheim on South Lemon Street, ran an establishment called the Favorite Saloon on 169 West Center, and had four children: a firstborn son, Lucien, as well as three daughters. 

Lucien attended local schools, then went on to the Los Angeles Business College, obtaining his degree in 1909. He next went to work for his father at the Favorite Saloon, taking over management duties in 1911. His father died two years later. Then World War I broke out, and upon his enlistment into the United States Army, Lucien hired a new manager to look after things while he was gone. Ultimately he served in Germany, becoming a sergeant in the 18th Infantry, First Division. But "the coming of Prohibition in 1918 while Lucien was in the Service closed the Favorite Bar [sic], and when he arrived home in 1919 nothing was left in the building, souvenier collectors having stripped it bare."

Lucien regrouped his energies and, a year later, opened the Wisser Sporting Goods Store. He would continue to run this popular Anaheim store until his retirement in 1958; other family members would be in charge of operations until the late 1970s when urban redevelopment caused the store to permanently close. 

In addition to the opening of Wisser Sporting Goods, however, 1920 held another important date for Lucien. According to one website, upon his return from the war he'd "reunited with his sweetheart, Edna Nichols," and one year later they were married.  

How and where did Lucien and Edna meet? Perhaps a family member might offer more information. What I have learned is that the Wissers went on to have three children—Marion, Edwin, and Allan—as well as five grandchildren. And that they were well-respected citizens of Anaheim for the rest of their lives, both being involved in a number of civic-minded organizations.

A FINAL REUNION 

Much was celebrated about Miss Nichols at the May 1977 El Toro Pioneer Roundup. She'd overseen the one-room schoolhouse's final year. Then, upon the transition to the new school, she was again present, this time as the principal as well as the upper-grades teacher. (This would become typical, the teacher of grades 5-8 often serving as the school's administrator.)

The awarding of the framed photo certainly must have provoked both smiles and a few tears. Heritage Hill Historical Park—then spoken of as "Lake Forest's Historic Village"—was still in its development stages, and Edna Wisser indicated to many present that she looked forward to revisiting her old workplace, once restoration at the new park would be complete.

Sadly, that was not to be, for Edna Nicholls Wisser passed away on Christmas Day 1978. An article mentioning her death noted that the framed portrait presented to her 19 months earlier "will be hung in the schoolhouse when it is restored."

It was, and Edna's portrait continues to adorn the schoolhouse to this day. According to Ranger Sue McIntire, "Her portrait hangs proudly on the left (if you’re facing the blackboard) or south facing wall between the windows. The portrait can be seen from the half-door viewing area in the boys cloakroom as well."

So, dear Miss Nichols, almost a century later, we continue to salute you!

Joyce Russell January 06, 2013 at 05:24 PM
Keep your articles coming I always enjoy reading your work.

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