It was a Saturday afternoon, July 24th, 2021, in southern Saskatchewan, when we were winding up another successful day of photography. My wife, Evelyn, was navigating while I drove our vehicle. Once again we faced the inevitable question of whether we drive until we drop and photograph everything on our list or do we turn around and head back? An early end to the day would allow us to return back to our trailer and enjoy our evening by the campfire. We opted to end the day and this meant that we would pick one route, without backtracking, and could still stop at one more site. It was hot in the truck and hot outside while photographing the various sites on our list. The 2021 Western Canadian heat wave was still pushing our high temperature tolerances to the limit so I looked forward to relaxing. Our small trailer has a huge air conditioning unit on the roof that I thought we would never use when we bought the trailer (what? Who needs air conditioning in Canada?). On this hot and dry day (and several other days) that air conditioning unit would get a workout until the sun went down.
Before we reached the trailer we had one more photo site to visit and it was a school. Could our visit to this school result in a discovery that will solve one of the great questions of the 20th century? That was my hope as we slowed down the car to stop at Avon School. Before I go on, here’s a brief history of a cosmetics company that became AVON.
Ding Dong, Avon Calling
Avon’s founder, David H. McConnell, initially sold books as a door-to-door salesman to New York homes. In September 1886, he decided to sell perfumes rather than books. He started the new business in a small office at 126 Chambers Street, Manhattan, New York. It expanding to Canada in 1914. The name changed to Avon in 1928, named after Stratford-on-Avon, the birthplace of McConnell’s favourite playwright, (Shakespeare).
Avon is synonymous with housewives and stay-at-home mothers selling cosmetics and perfumes directly to their friends and neighbours. It started life in the US but it is now shifting its HQ to Britain. The multi-level marketing company has long used door-to-door sellers, colloquially dubbed “Avon ladies”.Avon Cosmetics
I grew up in an Avon house. Even before I became a teenager I showered with Avon soap-on-a-rope with a scent that made me feel very grown up at the time. My mother was a big fan of Avon products. She was a stay at home mom until I started school and therefore the ideal customer for door to door sales. In addition to my mother fitting the customer profile, her sister, (my aunt) sold Avon in a different city. My aunt didn’t retire from door-to-door sales until she reached 90 and that’s after over 40 years of selling. Yes, we were an Avon family. The company, at least in the form it was then, no longer exists. Changing consumer habits in addition to charges of management corruption resulted in the company being sold to a Brazilian firm that relocated it to Britain.
Fun fact: What do David McConnel who founded Avon and Jeff Bezos who founded Amazon have in common? Both Avon and Amazon started out as shop-at-home book sellers. Both companies then branched out to other products and made their owners very wealthy.
So what does this have to do with a school? Well, I spotted the school and it very clearly says “AVON School”. Could this be where all those Avon ladies received their training that enabled them to go door to door all over North America? The name is clear and the school was built just as Avon entered the Canadian marketplace. Is this remote southwest Saskatchewan location a long kept AVON company secret? Could it be? Or is this anecdote about Avon just a play on words? You decide (however the story of my aunt and 40 of selling Avon is absolutely true, as is the fact that she didn’t retire until she turned 90).
Avon School 1913-1941, 1941-1962
On May 11,1914 the trustees of the new Avon School District had their first meeting at the home of Howard Husband. Curiously the trustees make no mention of how or why the name Avon was chosen.
They decided to call for tenders for the construction of the school and to include a basement or cellar. Gordon Ingram dug this basement in 1914 with a pick and shovel. It took him a week and he received $10 for his hard work. Godfrey Ingram hauled the lumber from Gull Lake with three oxen and a wagon. Early school history reports that children walked, rode horseback or used buggies and carts or a stoneboat to come to school. Before I started my research for this blog post I thought a stoneboat was a type of raft or boat used for hauling stones. It’s actually a flat sled pulled by horses or oxen to haul heavy objects such as stones from a field. I should have known that because I did spend a day as a pre-teen helping to load rocks onto a stoneboat somewhere east of Edmonton for a family friend. The only reason that I can think of for children to go to school on a stoneboat is if a family had several children but no wagon for all of them to ride on. Maybe in the winter a stoneboat functioned like a sled so it was better on the snow than a wheeled cart. I don’t really know. Let’s move on with a quote from the local history book, Range Riders and Sodbusters.
“We engaged someone to do the necessary water hauling, firelighting, caretaking, sweeping and keeping coal supply carried up from basement, the latter at 10 cents per day wages ( 1930). We engaged someone to clean out boys and girls toilets and redig boys toilet to a good condition. That the teacher be instructed to come to Claydon Station and that secretary meet her and if necessary convey her to (her) boarding place” (1930). She received for a year’s salary $1,030.00. Through the years, some teachers lived in cloakrooms, sleeping on a cot. The pupils’ or parents’ duties sometimes included; hauling water, 15 cents a week; for sweeping floors, 15 cents a day and to a trustee for lighting fires, 10 cents a day. By 1932, teacher’s wages were cut to $700 per year and caretaking cut back by a third.
The school was the hub of community activities; concerts, meetings and dances. To keep abreast of costs, the trustees decided: “a charge of 50 cents be made for coal used at any future dances” The school was the hub of community activities; concerts, meetings and dances. To keep abreast of costs, the trustees decided: “a charge of 50 cents be made for coal used at any future dances” (1935). The big Waterbury coal heater was an institution in itself. Many tell how bitterly cold the school would be in the mornings as children tried to write with cold fingers and wearing winter coatsThe Board of Trustee’s for Avon School
Shown below are some historic images of the school and students from the local history book, Range Riders and Sodbusters, full citation at end of this blog post.
My 2021 Photos of the School
In 1941, Avon School was moved north to be closer to the children attending. To move it, men were paid 35 cents per hour, a team 25 cents. Mr. Bengtson was hired to move it and local farmers, with three tractors, made the move, and the school settled on a new foundation. This move explains why the school shows two sets of dates on the sign above the door. They show the dates that the school operated at the original location and the dates it operated at the new location. It closed in 1962 because it was then more efficient to bus the children to the Eastend School.
The sign on the door shown on the above image says:
“This worn door still tells the tale of many feet as they trudged to school each day. Whether sadly or gaily, large and small, they all had to pass this way”
“This door sill is 86 years old (2000).”
It’s nice to see a sign that says we are welcome to come in. We did go in and were very pleased with how well the locals have taken care of this school. There wasn’t much for furniture inside but one desk remained. The desk however, looks too modern to have any connection to this school.
The trap door was so well fitted to the floor that I almost didn’t see it. I opened the trap door to see what lay beneath. The steps looked steep and there was no way to see how solid the steps were. At this point a smart photographer would close the trap door and continue looking at the main floor. I, however, went part of the way down. The steps, which looked to be made of hand hewn lumber, were very strong and solid. The image above and to the right shows what I saw and that is as far as I went down into the basement. There is an old gravity furnace in the basement. It’s the kind of furnace with no fan but has huge ducts so that hot air would rise to the rooms above. That furnace had an extensive collection of cobwebs and that’s all that I noticed down there. I decided that there was nothing more to see and returned to the world above.
This brings me to the end of Avon School. The local history book was certainly helpful but it didn’t say anything about why they named it Avon. There was no hint of perfume or other cosmetics inside the school, nor did I find any manuals or text books on how to sell products door to door. I’m left with the conclusion that this was not a secret training depot for AVON. Avon School is just another schoolhouse not unlike many others that dot the prairies from Winnipeg to the Rocky Mountains, and that’s just fine with me. Every one of them is full of stories and memories of the people who attended or taught at the schools.
- Eastend History Society, 1984. Range Riders and Sodbusters; sourced digitally from the University of Calgary’s Local History Collection. Printed in 1984 by Turner Warwick Printers Inc. North Battleford, Saskatchewan. Canada. This was the source of the historical information and the old images.
- Avon’s History: https://www.reps-r-us.co.uk/avons-history/ This is the online source for the history of the Avon Company. Some facts were also obtained from Wikipedia.
If you visit the structures shown in this blog, or any other old potentially abandoned structure, please respect the landowners” rights and obtain their permission to access and photograph their structures. Always exercise caution when visiting abandoned buildings as there are potential dangers such as crumbling structures, deep wells hidden by grass, and even spores of mould in the air.