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MOUNT VERNON: Naming of School, Street Honored our First President

By

Nicholas R. Cataldo

As far as I know, George Washington never set foot in California. In fact, I doubt if he knew much about the future "Golden State", which was just being colonized by Spanish missionaries when the American Revolution broke out. So why was "Mount Vernon"--the name of Washington's home-- chosen as a street name in the city of San Bernardino, where something pertaining to Indian or Mexican heritage would have seemed far more appropriate?

When I read about the person responsible for that moniker, it seemed pretty appropriate after all.

The donor of the name "Mount Vernon" was early San Bernardino Valley pioneer Joseph Hancock. His grandfather, Henry Hancock, was brother of the immortal John Hancock, the first signer of the Declaration of Independence--and obviously--well acquainted with our first president.

Hancock was born on the banks of Euclid Creek, near Cleveland, Ohio on May 7, 1822. While a 13 year-old, his family moved to Missouri. When he was a bit older, Hancock moseyed on to Illinois and then Iowa.

While at Council Bluffs, Joseph Hancock married Nancy A. Bemison August 31, 1848, crossed the plains to Utah and headed for California. The Hancocks arrived in San Bernardino during the spring of 1854 and settled down in the western portion of town where Joseph became a successful farmer.

Hancock also showed that he was a chip off the old block with his famous ancestor as far as patriotism is concerned. During Independence Day celebrations, he was quite the musician as he played a fife in a band which performed sentimental classics like "Yankee Doodle Dandy", "Hail Columbia", "Star Spangled Banner" and "Red, White and Blue".

When San Bernardino County officials planned on building a school in close proximity to his farm, "Uncle Joe", as he was affectionately called, became one of the school trustees along with John Garner and Joseph Thorn.

The original school was a small one room adobe which he named "Mount Vernon" in honor of the home and burial place of Washington. It was built in 1854 near the corner of 7th Street and what would soon become---fittingly enough-- Mount Vernon Avenue.

According to an article by granddaughter Esther Hancock Littlefield presented to the San Bernardino Pioneer Society in 1965, the adobe bricks were made on the school grounds. The students sat on backless benches that had pegs driven in for legs and there were two drinking cups--one for the boys and one for the girls. All of the water was carried from a pump belonging to John Garner.

There have been several "Mount Vernon Schools" in San Bernardino. The original one - room adobe gave way to an "L" shaped two room building. And a third facility was built some time before 1886.

In some families, at least four generations of children went to the Mt. Vernon Schools. Among those who attended were the Hancock, Nish, Tompkins, Alexander, Metcalf, Knight, Stuchberry, Bemis, Cadd, Fabun, Henderson, Holcomb, Metcalf, Garner, Roberds clans. The first teachers were Edith Martin, H.C. Brooke, and Richard Curtis.

The man responsible for "bringing" Mount Vernon to the Inland Empire, Uncle Joe Hancock passed away on July 18, 1924 at the ripe old age of 102 and is buried in San Bernardino's Pioneer Cemetery.

The school and street that he named have boasted strong legacies. The 1924-25 Directory of San Bernardino City Schools mentioned that Mount Vernon School was standing on the corner of 9th and Mt. Vernon. The enrollment for that school year was 508 students and the levels went from kindergarten to sixth grade. The seven teachers included Dorothy Nelson as kindergarten "director" and Sylvia Waters pulling double duty as principal and third grade teacher. The present Mount Vernon School is located at 1271 W. 10th Street is still going strong.

As for Mount Vernon Avenue, that was part of U.S. Route 66 during the heyday of the "Mother Road" and continues to be a major thoroughfare in San Bernardino today.