McKay School is a fairly typical historic one-room schoolhouse in Saskatchewan. It’s two hours by car east of Regina and over four hours west of Winnipeg. This is a rural area in Saskatchewan that has seen hard times. Basically all of southern Saskatchewan has experienced difficulties since the Dirty Thirties unless there was something special in the vicinity, such as a mine or a major tourist attraction, to give people a reason to stay. Today’s featured rural area doesn’t have a mine and the only tourists are people like me looking for the dusty bones of the early century, such as this school.
Rural Municipality of Willowdale Number 153
There’s no shortage of old and historic buildings in this rural area. Even the office building of the Rural Municipality of Willowdale Number 153 is a historic site. The images below are for the Rural Municipality of Willowdale as well as Silverwood which is only 35 km further south. If a traveler wants to see even more history they can continue south to Cannington Manor Provincial Historic Park. This is a park dedicated to preserving the historic remains of the community of Cannington Manor: a community of aristocrats. That’s right, aristocrats. Saskatchewan was a go to place for the children of the titled English upper class because they – excluding the firstborn male – had few prospects in the United Kingdom. I have mentioned these people in other blog posts as I continually come across places where a lesser aristocrats, sometimes called remittance men, once lived. I can’t say for certain that there were any of this group that attended McKay School, but the aristocrats were definitely nearby. According to Canada’s Historic Register for a nearby cemetery there were aristocrats from France and Belgium; not just the more common United Kingdom. The cemetery for St Hubert’s Catholic Church is one of the historic sites shown below. The description of its heritage value includes the following comment:
The area was settled by a group of French and Belgian aristocrats, collectively referred to as “the Counts”, who came to Saskatchewan to escape adverse conditions in their native countries.St. Hubert’s Cemetery – HistoricPlaces.ca – HistoricPlaces.ca
To see the cemetery, click on the quote citation for St. Hubert’s Cemetery as the text in red is a website link that leads to a description of the cemetery and lists a few places nearby. Note that the images of the various historic sites are not mine. They are from the Canadian Government website and the respective photographer is listed on each one if you click on it. All colour images of McKay School are mine.
To view a larger image with the name in the caption, click on any of the small images above. Click on the arrows to go to the next image. Click on the X in the upper right corner to return to this screen. If you would like to see the website that provides a full description of these historic sites click on this link. HistoricPlaces.ca – HistoricPlaces.ca. This is a very significant number of historic places for one or two rural municipalities. If it wasn’t so far away from me I would explore it every summer.
19th Century Beginnings
The brick McKay School that I photographed is old but not remarkably so. It was built in 1904 to replace the log schoolhouse that is still on the property. However the school was organized much earlier than 1904. The following quote is from a book of notable people from early Saskatchewan. It includes a page about Lauchlin Robertson, who was one of the organizers of the McKay School in 1889. With an organization date of 1889, I would estimate that the log school building was completed in 1990 although I’ve not found any confirmation of that.
In 1888 Mr. Robertson was married to Miss Jacovina Robertson. and to them eight children have been born, five of whom are living: Peter. Donald, Mabel, John and Irene. Mr. Robertson has always taken an active interest in civic affairs and is a staunch advocate of education. He is secretary and treasurer of the local school board and was one of the organizers of the McKay School in 1889. His political allegiance is given to the Liberal party and he is a firm believer in the principles of that party as factors in good government. For some time, Mr. Robertson served as justice of the peace. He is an active member of the United Grain Growers Association of Whitewood and has the distinction of being the first secretary treasurer of the organization. He is a man of genial and pleasing personality and his friends are legion. He is never too busy to be cordial, nor too cordial to be busy.The story of Saskatchewan and its people. Volume 2, page 1356
I’m going to quote from the Canada Historic Site Registry again as it provides a good brief overview of the McKay School.
This one room brick school house was constructed in 1904 to replace a smaller log schoolhouse the community had outgrown. For the next 46 years the area’s children were educated in this building. Although the school closed in 1951, the building continued to be used as a community centre by providing meeting space for local clubs and hosting dances. Constructed using locally manufactured brick, the building continues to be a landmark in the community.McKay School – HistoricPlaces.ca – HistoricPlaces.ca
I find it remarkable how so many buildings were constructed of local materials. That is why there are so many stone buildings in southern Saskatchewan. No reason is stated in the local history book for what compelled the school’s builders to choose bricks over field stones for this school. I doubt that bricks were used due to a lack of stones in farmers’ fields.
Our trip took place in late March 2021. Patches of snow could still be seen in shady areas following a big snow squall a couple a days earlier. Prior to that storm the southern prairies were completely dry; all of the winter’s snowfall had already melted. This last breath of winter might have given the farmers some optimism for the coming growing season. Sadly though, as we look back on 2021, this was to be a record breaking year for hot dry weather.
We had a long but productive day of driving and photography but the daylight was running out. Even our SUV was telling us it’s time to put the camera away as the automatic headlights turned on. There was one more stop to make before we would heed the instinct to drive straight to our final destination near the Saskatchewan and Manitoba border. The golden hour was approaching as we arrived at this school (golden hour is generally one hour before sunset or sunrise). The sun was already giving the yellow bricks a warm golden glow.
This brick school had fewer windows than most one room schools I’ve seen. Perhaps that was to keep the children warmer in the winter.
The door is open so lets head on in and see what there is to see before it gets too dark.
The three images above form a gallery so if you click on them you can see a larger image. This old coal furnace has a cover over it to prevent the children from burning themselves from the heat. It’s too bad that the surface doesn’t repel bird droppings.
Inside has a solid but dark appearance. It lacks the wall of windows we see on one side of most of these small schools but having windows on both sides would have been nice too.
Somehow birds managed to get into the school and they made a real mess. There’s a room full of desks and some had books on them – possibly donated from former students – but they were ruined by the birds.
The Union Jack hangs on the wall. On January 28, 1965 the Maple Leaf was made Canada’s official flag by proclamation of the Queen.
Here we have the student’s view of the classroom. If this looks familiar to you it means that you are officially a senior citizen.
The golden hour has passed but a long exposure still produces a fine image.
If you look closely you’ll see the coal chute near the front of the school.
The historic resource registry says that the brick school replaced a smaller log schoolhouse that the community had outgrown. I wonder if this was that first school? If this is the first McKay School it was built in 1889-1890. The log structure is in excellent shape given its age.
The door to the cabin was locked so I couldn’t go in. Surprisingly the windows on the cabin and the school are still intact.
The image below shows the corner of the log cabin that was likely the first school building. I’ve seen standard rounded joints (the way most modern log structures are built) and I’ve seen many dovetailed joints, but this is the first time I’ve seen these triangle joints.
I searched one local history book that I found on-line and was unable to find any mention of the McKay School. In an index of local history books I could see two more possibilities but unfortunately those local history books were not available on-line. I think that McKay has some interesting stories to tell but without the right local history book I have no way to learn what those stories are. It was still satisfying to photograph the school so I hope that you enjoy viewing them.
Below is a list of the local history books that I was unable to locate. I would greatly appreciate it if any history buffs reading this blog post could assist me. If you have access to these books please direct me to where they can be found on-line. Alternatively, email me copies of the 1 to 5 pages that likely pertain to McKay School. With that information I may be able to add some historic images of the school and confirm if the log building near the school was indeed the first McKay School.
- Canada’s Historic Places: https://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=9236
- The story of Saskatchewan and its people. Volume 2, 1924, Hawkes, John: Chicago.
If you visit the structures shown in this blog, or any other old and 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.