Gardner, Bel Marie (1872-1940)

  • By Starlyn Stout
  • Posted 12/06/2022
  • Essay 22584
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Bel Marie Williams Gardner was a teacher, police matron, and social worker who made child welfare her primary purpose and legacy. A woman of significance at a significant time in Everett's history, she left an observable legacy on the landscape of the city through the playgrounds she helped establish. From her arrival in 1920 to her death in 1940, she also shaped its history of social welfare activism through the welfare programs she built to support its young people. Like so many inspiring women in history, she did much of her work without acknowledgement; uncovering the story of her life using only fragments requires placing her in the greater context of her time. Gardner's character evolves out of each advancing attempt to build a better community for children, while overcoming a sequence of personal loss and sacrifice.

Bel's Beginnings

Born Maria Williams on September 19, 1872, Bel grew up in the small town of Lapeer, Michigan, 20 miles east of Flint. She was the middle child of Oscar Williams, a decorated Civil War captain. Part of the 7th Michigan Infantry, his regiment participated in some of the most infamous battles of the war, from First Bull Run to Gettysburg and the southern surrender at Appomattox. After the war, he became a farmer and started a family with his wife, Elmira. Bel had an older brother William (or Willie), and a younger sister, Ann.

Bel came of age at a time of renewed religious fervor and a recalibration of social ethics in the face of postwar industrialization. Her formative years were shaped by the beliefs that women had a unique calling in this new American society and that the need for advancement and advocacy for those most vulnerable was urgent. After her father died (ca. 1900), Bel, her mother, and her sister settled in Detroit, about 60 miles south of Lapeer, where she became a schoolteacher and Ann worked as a stenographer. Ann married in 1902 and died by accidental drowning three years later.

Turn-of-the-century Detroit schoolteachers had a herculean task – acting as a dam to catch and steady students whose circumstances threatened to drag them downstream. Industrialization and rapid population growth in the cities outstripped the institutions that were supposed to provide stability. "Children were so numerous that they traveled in swarms largely unsupervised [...] lacking playgrounds or supervision, they congealed into neighborhood gangs, in which older boys served as fathers to the younger" (Walcott, 112).

Teachers were expected to keep children off the streets, instill discipline, and provide the consistency that their lives outside of school were often lacking. School attendance went from encouraged to compulsory for children between 7 and 15. Delinquency was penalized, but without adequate juvenile justice programs to enforce attendance. Any who skipped school, disobeyed their teachers, or who were found outside in public places could be arrested for truancy. The city of Detroit, however, didn't establish a separate juvenile court system until 1907. Between 1890 and 1906, 66 percent of the arrests in Detroit were of juveniles who were considered habitual truants, caught stealing or destroying property, or were in possession of a firearm. Kids were issued fines of $100 or were placed up to two months in prison. Detroit's punitive and reactionary response to juvenile delinquency only exacerbated the problem. It was largely up teachers to establish a controlled and compassionate environment that kept children in school and out of harm's way.

Committing to Children's Welfare

In 1906, Gardner's name was listed among the group of teachers chosen to staff a new 15-room schoolhouse, built in acknowledgment of significant overcrowding in the schools. She resigned two years later, during community tumult over Prohibition that threatened the reputation and legitimacy of the school system. In October 1908, a Detroit school board meeting erupted into shouts amid allegations that a bartender and bookkeeper for a brewery were among several new hires previously employed by the liquor industry. At the same school board meeting, she was listed among the many teachers who had rendered their resignation. 

In 1909, Bel's brother Willie married a widow with two daughters from a previous marriage and moved to Everett, along with his and Bel's mother. He secured a position working for R. R. Telegraph and rented a home at 3425 Broadway. Alone in Michigan, Bel sought a family of her own. On February 3, 1911, she married Herbert Gardner in Dubuque, Iowa. A solicitor from Detroit, Herbert had been married once before, in 1891, and had one son who was 16. Little is known of their marriage or where they resided as a couple, but it is likely that they moved west when Bel's mother's health was in decline.

Relocating to Everett

Bel was in Everett when Myra Tripp Williams died in October 1920 and she remained in the household with her brother and his family. Herbert, however, moved to Seattle and took up residence in a boarding house. The two both claimed they were married but never lived together as husband and wife again. Bel's presence in her brother's home may have contributed to tensions in his marriage. In 1926, William's wife, Minnie, and her two daughters moved out and never returned. Meanwhile, Bel sought her own professional path to independence. She even spoke on the topic at the 10th annual Woman's Legislative Council of Washington in 1927. Her address was titled "Employment for Women; Its Relation to Self-Control" ("Clubs: Wide Range..."). The 1920s was a decade that allowed women a freedom of self-determination they had not experienced before. As described by American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead: "We belonged to a generation of women who felt extraordinarily free – free from the demand to marry unless we chose to do so, free to postpone marriage while we did other things, free from the need to bargain and hedge that burdened and restricted women of earlier generations" (Armitage, 201). There was a national surge of women entering the workforce, especially in the fields of medicine, academics, social work, and law. In some places "women's work" had even expanded to include the community respect and authority given to law enforcement.

Joining the Everett Police

Gardner had a gift for commanding the attention and respect of her audience. In addition to being an educator, she had theatrical aspirations that she had exercised in local theater productions in Detroit. One of her performances was credited with thinly veiled criticism for its suspicious authenticity: "Belle Williams is almost too realistic in her imitation of intoxication in the skit 'The Traveling Salesman and the Female Drummer'" ("Gayety"). A slight irony emerges when considering her future profession and the frequency she would encounter intoxicated women; "as a rule the women who are arrested by the police late at night are either intoxicated or in a mood when adjectives are not spared" ("For Police Matron").

For the greater part of the nineteenth century, women who were rounded up and placed in the care of police in the city jail were vulnerable to all manner of abuse. In 1889, an account emerged out of Spokane where jailors were accused of taking advantage of women, resulting in the local chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WTCU) petitioning the city council to install a jail matron to ensure the safety of women who found themselves in police custody. A statewide campaign ultimately resulted in a law passed by the legislature in 1893, mandating that "there shall be annexed to the police force of each city in this state having a population of not less than ten thousand inhabitants, one or more police matrons who, subject to the control of the chief of police or other proper officer, shall have immediate care of all females under arrest and while detained in the city prison until they are finally discharged therefrom" (Session Laws, 24-25).

But for nearly three decades, the implementation of the law was inconsistent. In 1925, Reah M. Whitehead (1883-1972), the first woman justice of the peace in King County, addressed the state League of Women Voters, relating her experiences and the "unique cases coming under her observation." She called it "'next door to criminal' ... to force young girls to tell their stories to men. Her arguments for a woman officer were endorsed with applause" ("Child Labor ..."). "Every town no matter how small should have one police woman at least," Whitehead declared.

By 1922, the Everett Police Department did have a matron who preceded Gardner, but the lack of evidence about her role implies she may have been more ornamental than instrumental. Helen Colburn was sent as a department representative to a police conference in Chicago. Upon her return, she related what she perceived were differences in departments and police work relative to the eastern U.S., as well as what she had observed in the way of fashion trends in New York and Chicago. In 1925, Colburn left her position as police matron to become vice-president of Herron-Sitton Company, a Snohomish dry goods store. Gardner was appointed with unanimous support from the members of the Everett City Council on January 4, 1926, though her obituary claims she held the position as early as October 1, 1925.

Originally, police matrons were expected to look after incarcerated women and children within their own homes. Once departments expanded and modernized at the onset of World War I, separate facilities were allocated to safeguard women and girls in the city jails. Women's roles in police work expanded to include patrolling and detective work in addition to their primary responsibility of overseeing the safety of female prisoners. In the Everett city jail logbooks, Gardner is named as the arresting officer of several women whose crimes ranged from abusing narcotics and possessing liquor to "running a disorderly house." In a murder case, Gardner (mentioned as head of the women's division in the Everett Police Department) was asked to bear witness to the character of a man who was killed in a triple homicide. Drawing from her experience with his wife, who also had repeated run-ins with the Everett Police, she did not provide a favorable description.

Preventing Juvenile Delinquency

Gardner took an active interest in crime prevention. Her theatrical gifts, combined with her experience observing the ravages of alcohol and narcotics, likely made her a compelling advocate. She spent much of her time outside police work speaking to various community audiences on the causes of crime and strategies that might stem the tide. "Speaking on young people who go wrong, she declared that the source of juvenile crime often lay in bad home training" ("Garfield P.T.A. ..."). She told audiences that the cause and cure for the budding delinquent happened to have the same origin in the home. Intervention was required to compensate for what was lacking in a child's life.

The Washington State Conference of Social Work held its first flagship meeting the same year that Gardner became police matron. Policewomen from throughout the state were invited to participate in the exploration of "the unmarried family and causes underlying sex delinquency" ("Notes on Early Happenings," 8). Gardner was seen in the community as an expert on the topic, addressing groups of parents and stakeholders on matters of delinquency, narcotics, and other contributing factors to trouble with young people. Her desire for order and her compassion for children began to converge in her professional life as her role as police matron introduced her to the regional organization and mission of social work. As if uniquely prepared to meet these two career paths at their crossroads, she forged a path forward combining them into her own purpose.

In 1930, Gardner was still living with her brother Willie, who was now working as the commissary clerk and "Overseer" at the State Reformatory (Prison) in Monroe – a post that she could very well have helped him secure given her position. In January 1931, Willie's petition for divorce from his wife was finalized, finding him "blameless'' and awarding him full possession of his personal property, including the home that they shared at 3523 Colby Avenue. Eighteen days later, Willie took his own life. Bel reported that he had been suicidal (and this may have been the reason she continued to live with her older brother when she was capable of living on her own). Now with both parents gone, no family of her own, and both of her siblings the victims of tragic circumstances, she devoted herself entirely to the betterment of her community. Specifically, she focused on preserving the safety and innocence of the children of Everett. Rather than appearing as a representative of law enforcement in front of clubs of concerned citizens, she embedded herself within organizations that sought tangibly improved outcomes for young people.

Social work in Washington, at the time of Gardner's involvement, was rapidly expanding. From its inception in Seattle in 1904, the Washington Association of Social Welfare grew from 25 members to 900 by the late 1930s. The organization's aim was to "afford an opportunity for free discussion of methods related to charitable and reform work; to diffuse reliable information concerning such work, to encourage cooperation in humanitarian efforts, with the aim of further improving the system of charities and corrections in the state of Washington" ("Notes on Early Happenings"). In 1931, Gardner was elected Second Vice President of the West District of Washington, which included Snohomish, King, Clallam, Jefferson, and Kitsap counties. Work within the organization was part-time and mostly voluntary, allowing her to continue to work with the Everett Police and other organizations.

Promoting Playgrounds

Jane Addams, pioneer in the field of social work and social psychology, outlined her theory of what caused juvenile delinquency in her book The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets: "She believed that juvenile delinquents were often promising young people whose natural, if primitive, pursuit of joy had been frustrated by an urban environment organized for commercial pursuits but not for creative recreation. Children broke laws 'in their blundering efforts to find adventure and in response to the age-old impulse of self expression'" (Mennel, 83). Theories likes these spurred the growth of the Playground Movement, part of a broader response to concerns over the impacts of industrialization.

As one of the charter members of the Snohomish County Social Service Club, Gardner was determined to bring playgrounds to Everett. Opportunities like climbing and exploring open spaces were once organic to the lives of children before urbanization robbed them of undeveloped landscape. Newspapers in Washington cities echoed the call, crediting the presence of playgrounds with decreases in traffic deaths and recruiting families to support the "playground method," which would safeguard children from the hazards of the streets.

George Braden, western representative of the National Recreation Association, did not mince words when he addressed local government officials at a luncheon in June 1931. "Everett," he asserted, "has the ugliest group of school grounds [I have] ever witnessed. During the tour made of the community in the morning not a child was seen playing on these available play areas" ("Everett One of Few Cities..."). He noted, however, that when they encountered a tree or a wild, green space, they were sure to encounter a child or two, doing what it was in their nature to do.

Garfield Park in the Riverside Neighborhood of Everett, for example, used to be known as Willow Swamp in the early twentieth century. Situated between Walnut and Chestnut streets, it was a vacant lot of muck and thick shrub that, rumor had it, provided cover to illicit bootleg operations during Prohibition. Such rumors are corroborated by a raid that was carried out two blocks west of the site in 1925, resulting in the arrest of a former Everett police officer and the seizure of "52 bottles of liquid, material for 40 gallons more, two large crocks and hundreds of empty bottles" ("Former Cop Nabbed ..."). Ironically, this drop spot for bootleggers was originally designated a family-friendly park by the "Lillian Stevens" Everett chapter of the WCTU.

Motorists often drove through the swamp as a shortcut between streets. Savvy neighborhood children kept wood and rope hidden in the bushes; when a car's tires would spin out in the mud, they would scurry to the rescue of the stuck motorist and offer assistance – for a small fee. While useful in more clandestine money-making enterprises, this lot across from Garfield Elementary School stood out to parents and city officials as a missed opportunity for Everett's children. "[Gardner] was largely instrumental in the inception [the Snohomish County Social Service Club] gave to the playground movement in the city," before it was taken on by the Chamber of Commerce ("Bel Marie Gardner Dies ..."). The WPA (Works Progress Administration), one of FDR's New Deal efforts, assumed the Garfield Playground project in 1932, filling in the swamp and removing the brush. Early development included a small playground and a "Hobby House" for children's crafts.

The Great Depression exacerbated the circumstances of the city's youth, raising the stakes from delinquency to desperation. As a result, the 1930s saw a burst of support for social welfare policy and growth of interdepartmental cooperation, culminating each year into an annual conference that was held in various locations along the West Coast. Everett hosted in 1936, and Gardner was the designated chair, in charge of all of the local arrangements. "Mrs. Bel Marie Gardner ... said the attendance would be the largest in the history of the meetings," wrote the The Seattle Times ("Social Workers Convene ..."). Her commitment and influence had grown to such a degree within the organization that she had to resign her post as matron for the Everett Police in 1935 to focus on social work.

A Selfless and Enduring Legacy

Gardner was, for many years, head of the Christmas Clearance Bureau. Its function was to ensure efficient distribution of gifts to needy families during the holidays. Although she died in November 1940, the Hobby House at Garfield Park continued her work, crafting and distributing 500 Christmas presents to local families in Everett in 1941.

The Hobby House is no longer standing in Garfield Park, but new playground equipment and courts for tennis and pickleball have given new life to the well-loved and maintained grounds. Home to the North Everett Little League, the baseball field harkens back to the park's original one. On sunny days, families congregate and children play. Community members invest in plaques for the covered picnic areas that are dotted throughout, with messages to the children who play there. "Play well," one such plaque reads, while another invites them to "live, love, learn [and] laugh." These very same desires defined and compelled Gardner's work. She was both a product of her time and uniquely committed to the care of her community and its most vulnerable residents. She gave everything she had to ensure that young people were afforded the essential opportunities that so many of us take for granted: an education, justice and protections inherent in the law, and the experience of a childhood full of play and absent of harmful influences. Forged from turbulent times and galvanized by personal hardship, she turned her talents and experiences into tools she used to benefit others. Hers is certainly a life to remember.


Margaret Gibbons Wilson, The American Woman in Transition: The Urban Influence, 1870-1920, Contributions in Women's Studies, Number 6. (Greenwood Press: Westport, Conn., 1979); David Walcott, "Juvenile Justice Before Juvenile Court: Cops, Courts and Kids in Turn-of-the-Century Detroit" Social Science History Vol. 27, No. 1, March 2003, p. 109-136; "Ask for New School" The Detroit Times, February 9, 1906, p. 12; "Two Rows at School Board" Ibid., October 9, 1908, p. 3; "Gayety" Ibid., February 15, 1909, image 8; "Everett Has Only Woman Delegate At Police Conference," Everett Daily Herald, October, 10, 1922, p. 4; "Former Cop Nabbed by Headlee in Raid," Everett Daily Herald, August 17, 1925; "Child Labor Issue Talked; Need Told For Police Woman" Ibid., September 3, 1925, p. 9; "Women Voters Elect Seattle Member To Head State League," Ibid., September 4, 1925; "Garfield PTA Head Resigns His Position," Ibid., January 18, 1928, p. 10; "Everett One of Few Cities with No Playgrounds," Ibid., June 9, 1931 (; "Bel Marie Gardner Dies After Extended Illness," Ibid., November 11, 1940, p. 10; "Session Laws," State of Washington, Session 1893 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Matrons of the Seattle Police, 1894-1930" (by Starlyn Stout), (accessed 10/18/22); Sue Armitage, Shaping the Public Good; Women Making History in the Pacific Northwest (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2015), 201-209; Everett City Council Meeting Minutes, January 4, 1926, (accessed 10/20/22); Robert M. Mennel, Thorns and Thistles; Juvenile Delinquents in the United States, 1825-1940 (University Press of New England: Hanover, NH, 1973); "Clubs: Wide Range of Topics to be Discussed" Seattle Daily Times, June 19, 1927, p. 59; "Child Welfare is Meeting Theme," Ibid., May 3, 1929, p. 18; "Social Workers Are Invited To Annual Sessions" Ibid., June 20, 1929, p. 26; "Snohomish P.T.A. Holds Conference," Ibid., September 16, 1929, p. 31; "Social Workers Meet Thursday" Ibid., October 4, 1936, p. 12; "Social Workers Convene Today," Ibid., October 8, 1936, p. 16; Northwest Regional Archives Snohomish Co. Sheriff (Jail) Mug Book - Photographs, 1921-1931 and #09592, 1928-1957; "Garfield Park: Origins and Early History," Everett Public Library Subject Files: Everett Parks; Allan May and Dale Proboski, "The History of Everett Parks: A Century of Service and Vision" (Donning Co.: Brookfield, Missouri, 1989), 87-88; "Play Saves Lives of City Children," The Seattle Star, May 2, 1925, p. 15; "Steiner Addresses Social Conclave," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 31, 1931, p. 13; "Notes on Early Happenings in the History of the Washington Association for Social Welfare and its Antecedents, Recorded by John F. Hall, Seattle, Washington," Washington Association for Social Welfare records, 1913-1986, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections (Accession No. 3882), Box 1, File 1.


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