1914 – 1952
There are times when I regrettably won’t give out a school’s name or location, except to say it’s an Alberta school located southeast of Edmonton. I reluctantly withhold this information to protect the school from those who might do it harm. All old schools and churches are potential sites of theft, vandalism and even parties that lead to fires. In this particular case it’s not just the building that I want to protect but also the school’s guardian. This school is special because of the care and attention that it receives to maintain it in original condition. It’s very hard to find this place without a tip or the serendipity of a wrong turn down a backroad on which there’s no other reason to travel. Perhaps it’s more because of that person than the actual school that I am reticent to publish the information about where it is located. I can’t bear the thought of him walking over to this school to find it trashed by a troubled person. So please don’t take offense at the omission of those details, we can all be part of the secret. It’s not you, my typical readers, that I am concerned about, but others that scan the internet for potential targets.
“With a tree covered slope for a background, the site of the school is one of the most beautiful to be seen.”Prairie Echoes
We met the cowboy on a windy autumn day. He had the look of the stereotypical cowboy except that neither his hat (which had at least one hole in it) nor his boots were shiny. He was the real McCoy. A man who earned his boots and his scars. He loves this old school. He’s maintained it all these years even though he’s not old enough to have attended classes here; his father received all his education at this school though. He won’t change anything and the result is a school that looks like classes ended a year ago. The cowboy even said he turned down a request by someone to use a metal detector on the grounds. He said the grounds of any school will have rusty old pocket knives that every boy carried in those days. “There’ll be pennies and knives and other stuff too but it all belongs right where it is in the ground, it’s all part of the school now.” That’s serious dedication to preservation. I think the cowboy (who’s farm is within sight of the school allowing him to watch over it) would build a protective dome over the school if he could afford it. So join me now on this cold and cloudy autumn day as we discover what the cowboy has been protecting.
“The school was opened in 1914 – with Miss Florence Blackner as teacher at a salary of $75.00 per month”.Prairie Echoes
“The toilets were outdoors – a long cold jaunt in the winter time. To go one had to attract the teacher’s attention and say, “Please may I leave the room?” Sometimes this fixed ritual was too much for the little ones, and a puddle appeared by their desk”.Andy Halvorson, February 1, 1976
Originally all of the old schools had other out buildings besides the outhouses. Typically there was an old shack that the teacher lived in and it would be built very close to the school. Sometimes it was no more than an old boxcar with a door and window installed along with a wood or coal stove to heat the residence and to cook with. To date I have never seen an old school with the teacherage or residence still present unless it was in the school’s basement or the builders had the foresight to build a room at the back for him or her. I have seen schools with the built-in teacherage. This wasn’t one of those, although it did have a basement. The other outbuilding that I rarely see is the barn for horses. The kids couldn’t always walk to school. Sometimes it was too far and sometimes it was too cold. They used horses and typically a horse and cart for all the kids in the family and maybe the neighbour’s kids too. This is what it looked like.
The citation below says that they had a wood stove. They may have started that way but at some point it was upgraded to a coal gravity-feed furnace which is still there. Perhaps the furnace was added in the 30s or 40s because coal was cheap and one of the few things that were just as plentiful as poplar wood was coal. The woodstove style furnace would have used the brick chimney and the coal furnace used the steel or aluminium chimney. The ability to distribute the heat evenly in the classroom must have been a huge benefit for the students.
“We used to bring out sleds and slide down the little hill directly across the road from the schoolhouse. In the summertime, we picked berries at noon, or built sand castles, or forts in the south-west corner of the school yard.”Prairie Echoes
Let’s have a look at the inside.
“The school was heated with poplar wood, burned in quite a large stove installed in one corner of the school room. Some pupils roasted, while others froze. Water had to be carried from Victor Pedersen’s house, several hundred yards from the school. This chore was rotated among the bigger students. We all drank out of the same cup most of the time.”Andy Halvorson, February 1, 1976
The last thing the cowboy said to us was, “who’ll watch over it when I’m gone?“. It was a rhetorical question as he was revealing a sense of sadness of the possible future of the school. Fortunately he’s got a number of years to go before age catches up with him. Someday the sun will set on this school but not under the cowboy’s watch it won’t.
- Prairie Echoes, published in 1979 is the source for most of the quotes in this blog.
- Pioneering With A Piece Of Chalk, Willian Peter Baergen, is the starting point for most Alberta one-room school searches.
- All photos are by the blog author, Glen Bowe
- Andy Halvorson was an early school trustee and is likely the author of all quotes.
- All references to “the cowboy” are factual and occurred in October 2020