The San Rafael Roots of the Branson School

By Lori Deibel

Branson School students in the 1920s. Image source: The Branson School.

On June 8, 1922, The Marin Journal reported that during graduation ceremonies for The Katharine Branson School in San Rafael, Headmistress Katharine Branson announced that the school would reopen in the Fall at the former estate of John Martin in nearby Ross. The school’s move to the secluded and pastoral valley would mark its beginnings as one of the most respected and prestigious boarding and then preparatory schools in the nation. Few people, however, are aware that the school began in a barn one block from downtown San Rafael.

In the 1910s, the growing population of San Rafael put some pressure on already overcrowded schools. The San Francisco Examiner published an article on August 22, 1917 stating that “San Rafael’s public primary schools [are] so lax and antiquated” that “twenty odd families” had announced the opening of a new “community” school, quoting one founder: “Parents in San Rafael simply had to take matters into their own hands to see that their children receive proper education.” There were very few alternatives available for the children of the “leading householders of the town.” Although the Saint Raphael School had opened in 1889 as a parochial school near the Mission of San Rafael, the non-sectarian private schools at that time were male-only, including The Mount Tamalpais Military Academy. The time was ripe for establishing a private school for girls in San Rafael.

Marin Superior Court Judge George Zook and businessmen Eric Ord and George Hind all had young daughters and wanted a higher quality education for their children. Joining forces with other interested families, they acquired in early 1917 the former site of Miss Stewart’s School, which consisted of an old barn with two large rooms and an attic in downtown San Rafael near 5th and D Streets — next to the recently opened Carnegie Library and where today is located the San Rafael City Hall. The Little Grey School opened in the fall of 1917 with two teachers, and 25 boys and girls in grades 1 through 4.

A physical education class for Branson School students. In the background is the San Rafael Public Library. Image source: The Branson School
Cover of the 1918 catalog for the “San Rafael School for Girls.” Image source: The Branson School.

Registration increased during the year and the demand for higher grades made it necessary to secure another building and an additional teacher. The school added intermediate grades in 1918, and after the trustees leased a former Victorian boarding house on an adjoining property, they renamed the school again, as the San Rafael School for Girls. Boys would continue to be counted among its pupils in the primary grades, but a growing emphasis would be placed upon developing an environment and curriculum to attract older girls.

By 1920, the school’s Board of Trustees was looking for a headmistress to move the school in a more academically rigorous direction, and to prepare the upper school students for college. A founding Trustee of the school, Clara Hamilton Martin, contacted the Dean of Bryn Mawr, where her eldest daughter attended, for recommendations of candidates.

Building on the San Rafael school campus, pre-1922. Image source: The Branson School.

This was how they found Katharine Branson, a Latin teacher and administrator from private schools on the East Coast, and her sister Laura, a mathematics teacher. In her letters to the Branson sisters, Mrs. Martin spoke of the problems of attendance then plaguing the San Rafael school — owing in large part to school closures brought by the 1918 flu epidemic — and talked of the trustees’ future plans (and means) to expand the day school to one that included residents, with primary grades fueling the growth of the upper school. Although the sisters were reluctant at first to move to California and to teach primary students, the trustees persuaded them to take the helm as co-headmistresses in the summer of 1920.

Knowing that Miss Branson brought strength of character, along with expectations of high academic standards, the trustees renamed the school in her honor. At a time when most prestigious secondary schools for girls prepared them for marriage and motherhood, Katharine and Laura wanted more for the school they chose to lead. As the school brochure stated in the 1920s: “The purpose of The Katharine Branson School is to give girls a thorough foundation…which will fit them to enter any of the American colleges and universities…and will prepare them to take an active and intelligent part in the activities of any community in which they may live.”

School officially opened for the first time as The Katharine Branson School on September 6, 1920, with fifty-four students, three of whom were now in residence.

Early in the new school year, the school established its first Student Council, instituted weekly assemblies (a tradition continued over a century later), and began publication of The Blue Print, which would showcase student writing and chronicle the day-to-day events of the school for 40 years. Athletics also became a central part of the school day on the San Rafael campus, and in December the KBS basketball team would go on to play their first extramural game against Miss Randolph’s School in Berkeley, winning by a score of 48–23.

Basketball at the school in the 1920s. Image source: The Branson School.

By spring the Branson sisters had inaugurated the first college board exams, the school’s first community service organization, the first spring play, and, because the school had yet to graduate its first pupil, the sisters created Prize Day in June to celebrate the conclusion of the school year.

By the fall of 1921, the school had expanded to 64 day and 10 boarding students, and the trustees knew they had to find a larger and more suitable location for the school, far from the attractions and diversions of downtown San Rafael. In October, three cadets from the neighboring Mount Tamalpais Military Academy were caught climbing up to the windows of the girls’ residence, which must have given the Board more incentive to find a remote location for the growing school.

In early 1922, they secured the purchase of the secluded estate that locals called the John Martin Place in Ross. John Martin, the co-founder of Pacific Gas & Electric and president of the North Shore Railroad, had purchased the 11-acre property in 1906 that had once been part of the 75-acre estate of prominent businessman Albert Dibblee. Mr. Martin’s residence, as well as his carriage house and stables, soon housed classrooms and dormitories, and with its extensive wooded property became an ideal location for a girls’ boarding school. Nearly 100 years later, students and staff at The Branson School still enjoy the peaceful setting of the hidden valley in Ross, far removed from the old, grey barn in downtown San Rafael.

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