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Fort Bragg Advocare News
October 2005

Auditorium's Namesake Was a Beloved Visionary

by Marcie Schorg

"This community was saddened by news of the death of Joel S. Cotton who passed away at the Redwood Coast hospital Tuesday morning, October 38th, 1952, following a lengthy illness. 'Perhaps there is no other person in this community that is more widely known than Prof. Joel S. Cotton was. He has a history that is tied in with the pioneer days of the taming of the West."
Advocate-News Oct. 30, 1952

Orphaned at 3, Joel S. Cotton graduated from Stanford University, inspired generations of coastal children

Not only is Cotton Auditorium a historical landmark in Fort Bragg, its namesake, Joel Sheldon Cotton, is a historical treasure who left a legacy of achievements within the Fort Bragg educational system. He served as a teacher and principal in the Fort Bragg schools for 49 years. His commitment to a well-rounded education for his students that included art, music and dance resulted in students writing him years later thanking him for his positive influence on their lives. The education they received under his care both academically and personally, enabled them to "flourish" and "succeed in their undertakings." It was appropriate that the auditorium was dedicated to and named for Professor Cotton.

Professor Cotton's early years
Joel Cotton was born near Slough house in Sacramento County on March 23, 1875. His mother, Catherine, died very young, about three weeks after he was born, and Joel was orphaned by the death of his father at three years old. By school age he was living in Placerville and being cared for by the Sheriff Reynolds Family, who treated him as one of their own.

He attended Napa College until the school was moved to San Jose as a university. Students were given the choice of going to San Jose or transferring to Stanford University at Palo Alto. Joel chose Stanford and graduated in 1897 with an A.B. in education.

After graduation, he decided to teach for a few years before continuing his education with a desire to study medicine. His first teaching job was at Virgin Creek, near Cleone, in 1897 where he met his future wife, Evelyn MacKerricher, whom he married in 1899. In 1900 Evelyn and Joel moved to Fort Bragg where he built a small home on Harold Street. It was enlarged for the arrival of two sons and a daughter.

He taught in elementary schools in Cleone for more than six years before convincing the trustees and parents that their children needed a high school. Up until that time, high school classes were taught in unused rooms at Park Grammar School from 1901 to 1904. Joel taught there from 1902 to 1905, and was appointed its principal. The high school was moved to a rented building on Redwood Avenue, a former shoe store.

When the new high school was completed, on Bush Street, in 1907 he was chosen as the principal. He was principal for 32 years then retired in 1938. Around the time of his retirement, plans were moving forward to build a new high school on Harold Street. Joel and Evelyn donated the land their house stood on for the new auditorium and relocated their home north of where Cotton Auditorium stands today.

His achievements
Known as Professor Cotton and ahead of his time, Joel taught himself to play violin, mandolin and banjo then he hired teachers who could teach these instruments to the students. He paid for music lessons for those who were unable to afford them.

He wrote to the State of California requesting that a mandatory music curriculum be taught in elementary and high schools throughout the state. The State of California reviewed the proposal and agreed to mandate such a program. The board members responded favorably, it is written, "due to the fact that Prof. Cotton submitted the proposal."

Other innovations of his included mandatory swimming lessons with the caveat that students needed to know how to swim before graduating. As a testament to his determination, during World War 11, Joel received a letter of commendation from Admiral Nimitz, Chief of Operations for the Pacific, stating that he noticed all men from Fort Bragg in the Navy were good swimmers.

He liked the Chautauqua type of play that was popular in the early 1900s and often had adults as well as students participate in the entertainment. Although he never learned to dance, he urged all his students to learn by having a gym teacher give them the basic steps. They held impromptu dances at noon. The band or orchestra, using only a few instruments, would play for the dance or they used records on a phonograph.

Joel never stopped his own education and took many courses over the years. His strongest interest was science, especially botany, and he was made county inspector of all plants along the coast. Joel and Luther Burbank wrote often, exchanging thoughts, sharing theories and techniques related to things botanical. The proliferation and hybridization of the fuchsia and pansy are attributed to Professor Cotton. He taught night school for many years to help those wishing to become U.S. citizens.

Joel and Evelyn Cotton Together
Professor Cotton married Evelyn Annie MacKerricher in 1899. Evelyn's parents, Duncan and Jessie MacKenicher, were pioneers on the Mendocino Coast in 1864. Their Rancho Laguna farm, on which Joel and Evelyn were married, became MacKerricher Beach State Park in the spring of 1950. More land was donated in the 1960s, which provided additional beach and land for camping.

Joel was 6'2" and weighed about 190 pounds. Evelyn (Eva) was of short stature, with dark hair and Scot-blue eyes. Their hobby was collecting Native American baskets. Some of their collection came from Mexico, British Columbia, New Mexico and Arizona. They purchased baskets wherever they traveled however, being in close proximity to the Pomo tribe, their collection consisted of many handmade Pomo baskets. Many other collectors of baskets found the value of their accumulation had increased and they broke up their collections to sell to buyers who were willing to pay good sums of money. Upon Joel and Evelyn's deaths, their basket collection was given to the Anthropology Department at Sacramento Sate University. Thus, the Cotton collection of baskets is the largest, in one place, in the entire United States.

Joel was offered excellent opportunities at other institutes of learning such as biology teacher at Stanford University and the presidency of Arcata State College. He turned down each offer. Eva preferred to stay near her family and she believed he was just as valuable in Fort Bragg as in larger schools.

In 1942, he was asked to return as principal, due to the shortage of educators during World War 11 and he accepted. He remained in that capacity until 1948. He had the record of being the principal at one school for the longest time in history to date.

Professor Cotton and Evelyn celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on June 12, 1949. They lived to enjoy three more years together before Joel died of heart problems. Eva was 92 when she died. Both are buried in the MacKericher family

plot in Rose Memorial Park. Marie Cotton, the wife of Joel's grandson, John Cotton, wrote in a letter to me of facts she discov ered as a member of the Cotton family.

She writes, "He was known for his fairness and understanding yet it is said he was also firm and disciplined. He was likeable and approachable by all and his honorable reputation was known throughout California. He was a tall, large-framed man, though never overweight, who smiled often and looked directly at the person with whom he conversed. All of Joel Cotton's children attended high school in Fort Bragg and used Cotton Auditorium, as did succeeding offspring."


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