When Judge McBride became the St. Helens schoolmaster in 1866, the school was a low-slung log cabin located alongside a swamp which, according to the pupils, “was prolific of green slime, mosquitoes and ague”.
At the time, St.Helens had only about seven families which meant that many of the children walked in from the surrounding wilderness. The Knox family sent over their contingent of pupils from Sauvie island by skiff. Both the Perry kids and the Watts’ children hiked from their homesteads – always accompanied by a large dog designed to discourage cougar encounters. Given the small amount of land that had been “tamed” by that time, it was not uncommon to encounter Oregon’s big cats and the early settlers relied on big dogs to protect their homesteads and their wandering offspring.
But once arrived at school, the dogs were kept in the schoolyard where they spend their time engaged in ferocious contests of growling, brawling and otherwise making such a ruckus that it was all but impossible to keep the children engaged with learning their “three R’s: reading, riting and reckoning.” Judge McBride had never allowed such uncouth behavior in his court, nor was he about to tolerate it in his school. So he finally responded to the mayhem with a decree that he conveyed homewards with the children. From that day forth all the dogs were to stay at home and not accompany the children to their school!
But that did not sit well with the families whose residences lay beyond the fringe of the forests, and whose youngest now had to brave the journey without their trusted canine minders. The outcry was immediate and unconditional; they would not abide by the prohibition since it put the lives of their children at considerable risk. While the immediate environs of St. Helens might occasionally see stray bears and other varmits, cougars were no longer a danger to the townsfolk. But for the homesteaders, cougars were a constant threat to their livestock, pets and their children. This uneasy coexistence of mountain lions and people was not ameliorated by the cats’ uncanny tendency to stealthily track humans – a phenomenon that endures into the present day.
For a week, the battle raged. McBride thundered outrage and demanded a suitably contemplative and uninterrupted atmosphere in which to conduct his instruction, and the dogs continued to attend school with undiminished pugilistic fervor. But just when McBride thought things couldn’t get worse, the yowls and growls escalated into a crescendo “troppo fortissimo!” All hell had broken loose outside! Everyone rushed out the door only to find the dogs ranged all around a giant cedar that grew from the center of the school yard towering over the rustic cabin. McBride and his students came to a sudden stop as they followed the dogs’ rapt attention to the drama unfolding overhead. There directly over the roof of the little school hung a huge black bear.
There was no getting around the situation, so Judge McBride marched down the hill to the nearest farmhouse, borrowed a rifle and promptly dispatched the bear in front of his adoring pupils. The issue of dogs attending school was never mentioned again.
Postscript: In 2013 an animal handler was killed by a captive cougar while cleaning their cage in Oregon’s WildCat Haven Sanctuary. Despite the numerous encounters since the days of the pioneers there never has been, a case of human mortality caused by a wild cougar in Oregon.