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Born at Fort Walla Walla, Washington on St. Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1880, Mears was the second of three children, the second eldest daughter of a family with a strong military tradition. Her father, Major Robert Page Wainwright (1852-1902), was a U.S. Army officer and West Point graduate, class of 1875. He fought Indians on the western frontier and commanded a cavalry squadron in the Battle of Santiago in the Spanish-American War. He died in 1902 while on active duty in the Philippine Insurrection. Her brother, Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright IV, the commanding general of Filipino and U.S. Army forces in the Philippines (1941-1942), led delaying tactics on Bataan and Corregidor during World War II against superior Japanese forces. The military base at Fairbanks, Alaska was named in his honor.
Little is known about Mears’ early life. She studied music and voice at the Chicago Conservatory of Music and planned an operatic career.
Mears met her future husband, Frederick Mears, while he was stationed as an Army Lieutenant at the Army Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1907, she married Mears at Fort Clark, Texas. She accompanied her husband to Panama, where he spent the next eight years building the Panama Railroad and coping with a multitude of problems involving the building of the Panama Canal. They lived in Cristobal, Panama, near Colon. In Panama, their daughters were born, Josephine “Jo,” in 1908 and Elizabeth “Betty” in 1910. In April 1914, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Frederick Mears to the Alaskan Engineering Commission.
Mears Wainwright Mears arrived in Ship Creek in May 1915 with her two daughters, Jo and Betty. While they awaited completion of a cottage, the family occupied a plank-floor tent of their own, cooked over a wood stove, and burned kerosene for light. Their home, AEC Cottage No. 6, was built on Government Hill atop a bluff to the north of the terminal yards. In January 1917, the Mears family moved to AEC Cottage No. 29, a two-story residence overlooking Cook Inlet, across the flats of Ship Creek and up C Street toward West Second Avenue.
Mears took wholeheartedly to the Alaskan lifestyle. She accompanied her husband, who was at ease in the out-of-doors, on wilderness outings and held her own in marksmanship. Her family enjoyed sharing the wilderness with visitors and official dignitaries, often taking them hunting, fishing, and camping. For those who had never been to Alaska, it was the experience of a lifetime.
Through her husband, Mears helped convince the federal government a school should be built with federal funds. Since Anchorage was a federal government boomtown, the AEC had to accept the responsibility for public education. In 1915, the AEC designed and built the school, now known as the Pioneer School House. Federal funds were allocated under the Alaska Railroad Act for construction of a two-story building, located at Fifth Avenue between F and G Streets, on the School Reserve, a full square block platted by the AEC. After the second school was completed (1917), the school was moved across the street (southwest corner of Sixth Avenue and E Street).
Mears was the principal organizer of the Anchorage Woman’s Club (AWC), and served twice as president. The public subscription money raised by the Anchorage Woman’s Club, with a small grant from the territorial government, was a temporary solution to the dilemma in providing for public education in Anchorage, which was not solved until the following year. The members of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce volunteered to fund construction of a school building. Classes in the first public school opened on November 15, 1915, with one hundred students and four teachers, with Orah Dee Clark as principal. The four-room structure was built in less than a month by the AEC, in the late summer of 1915. The school lacked paint, running water, restrooms, a satisfactory heating system, and a solid foundation.
The AWC had an interest in education, home economics, art, and literature, and represented those directions taken in club work. They also formed the first Parent Teacher Association. By the summer of 1917, Anchorage’s population had grown to over five thousand and school enrollment stood at over two hundred. By the fall of 1917, the AEC built a new, larger school (Anchorage Public School), a $45,000, two-story frame building located on Fifth Avenue between F and G Streets. This second school was used for elementary and secondary classes until it was torn down and replaced by Central Grade School, which later became the Old City Hall Annex. As a result, public bonding was not required to finance school construction until 1928.
Educated in the fine arts and music, Mears devoted herself to the Anchorage community. She inspired community participation in musical and theatrical performances and often held rehearsals for local musicians and theatrical groups in her living room, accompanying them on her Steinway piano. These amateur performances were the beginnings of cultural activity in Anchorage.
During World War I, Frederick Mears resigned from the AEC and left the Alaska Railroad project to enter active duty in France. The people of Anchorage held a gala farewell banquet and reception for Frederick and Mears on January 3, 1918 in the Anchorage Labor Temple. After the Armistice, Frederick Mears resumed his work on the Alaska Railroad, taking over as chairman of the AEC and chief engineer to complete the railroad. In July 1923, Mears, with his family, left Alaska for Seattle to start work for the Great Northern Railroad. He became chief engineer in 1925, remaining in this capacity until his death in 1939 at the age of sixty.
Mears died on December 17, 1953, in Los Angeles, California.
The first school, known today as the Pioneer School House, was later used as the Pioneer Hall by the Pioneers of Alaska. The AWC, on its fiftieth anniversary in 1965, spearheaded a drive to save the original building and to relocate it to its present site in Ben Crawford Memorial Park at Third Avenue and Eagle Street. Owned by the Municipality of Anchorage, the building is managed by the AWC. The building is a community gathering place and is used for meetings of various groups, school tours, and for special occasions. The Pioneer School House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Mears Junior High School (now Mears Middle School) in Anchorage was named in honor of Mears in 1965 in recognition of her work to establish public education in Anchorage and in the development of the Anchorage public schools.
Anchorage Woman’s Club Records. Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage; https://archives.consortiumlibrary.org/collections/specialcollections/hmc-1200/.
Crittenden, Katherine Carson. Get Mears!: Frederick Mears: Builder of the Alaska Railroad. Portland, OR: Binford & Mort, Publishing, in cooperation with the Cook Inlet Historical Society, Anchorage, Alaska, 2002.
File: Mears, Jane Wainwright. Cook Inlet Historical Society. Legends and Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940, Project Research Files, Box 8 (2017.004). Atwood Resource Center, Anchorage Museum.
Frederick Mears Family Papers. Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage; https://archives.consortiumlibrary.org/collections/specialcollections/hmc-1063/.
Parham, R. Bruce. “Mears, Jane Wainwright.” Cook Inlet Historical Society. Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940; https://www.alaskahistory.org.
Pioneer School House,” (AHRS ANC-244), Anchorage, AK. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service; https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalregister/index.htm.
Jennifer “Jane” Wainwright Mears (also known as “Jennie” or “Johnnie”), better known as Jane Mears, was a dynamic, energetic pioneer woman. She was prominent in Anchorage’s early history because of her activities on behalf of the original development of Anchorage’s public school system from 1915 to 1923. In 1965, the Anchorage School Board recognized her contribution to public education by naming Mears Junior High School (now Mears Middle School) in her honor.
Mears and her husband Frederick Mears were significant figures in early Anchorage due to her prominence in early civic and community affairs and her husband’s role with the Alaskan Engineering Commission (AEC) and builder of the Alaska Railroad. During the time the Mears family lived in Anchorage, 1915-1923, the AEC built its first two schools in 1915 and 1917. The first school was the Pioneer School House, located originally on Fifth Avenue between F and G Streets.
Mears was the “prime factor” leading to the organization of the Anchorage Woman’s Club, and served as its first president from 1915-1917 and, later, 1921-1922. Meeting in her home, the AWC was organized on September 16, 1915, by a group of thirty-four women who recognized the need to establish a public school. She directed a committee of the Woman’s Club which solicited donations from local businesses to pay for the salaries of the first teachers and other operating costs for the school. With school age children of her own, Mears understood the plight of the Anchorage School Board, which had no funds to educate the children who continued to arrive with the spouses of the workers.
Mears devoted herself to the community and inspired community participation in music and theater, fostering the beginnings of cultural activity in Anchorage.