Cottonwood School

Saskatchewan

Today’s blog post contains a feature that I’ve never placed in a blog post until now. I’m certain that you’ll enjoy it.

However, first we need to cover some preliminaries such as to provide a general location of the old Cottonwood School. It’s actually quite close to Regina but the city name disappeared on the map below as a result of my placing the red marker at the location of the school. Now that we are oriented as to where in Western Canada the story begins, I’ll explain briefly how I go about starting a blog post and then move on to the people who make history interesting.

The Nevilles of The Cottonwood District

This blog post began like most of my previous posts. I started by selecting a group of photographs of an old structure in Western Canada; in this case it was an old one-room schoolhouse. After my images are uploaded I make a few comments about the structure itself, or the general area, and then fine tune the processing of the images so that they form a harmonious group. Once I’m finished with the photographs I begin to search through local history books for anything of interest, linked to that old school, so that I can coax those old walls to reveal a little bit about what life was like in the early century (or sometimes even the late 19th century). Occasionally I’m successful and can then finish off the post. If I’m not satisfied with the result I’ll continue to use key word searches in the history books as well as to look for other potential sources of information. I’m not a historian but I don’t want to bore people who read my blogs so I’ll continue to search until I find something worthy of your time. Often success is marked by the discovery of a particular family or individual that stands out from the rest. Sometimes that person is a rose among the thorns, and just as often that person represents the grandest of the thorns among other thorns. For this particular blog the family that I discovered is that of Anthony and Harriet Neville, with emphasis on their daughter May and also their youngest son, Shorey Johnson. Come with me now to the District of Cottonwood and let’s meet the Nevilles.

Anthony and Harriet Neville

Among the first homesteaders to the Cottonwood District was the family of Anthony and Harriet Neville. They were originally from England but had resided in Ontario before they answered the call to Saskatchewan. The Neville family arrived in Cottonwood District in 1885 to reunite with Mr. Anthony Neville, who travelled there the previous year to pick out a homestead and build a house. When all of the Nevilles arrived in Cottonwood there were already three daughters, May (1873), Elsie (1876) and Brenda (1881). On September 30, 1888 their fourth child, a son named Shorey Johnson was born. “Shorey” was his grandmother’s maiden name.

Harriet Neville, wife of Anthony Neville, had received a small legacy from her father’s estate in England and loaned part of it to the district to help build the school. The quote below is from the local history book. Harriet Neville sounds like an extraordinary woman.

Before there was a school, Harriet Neville conducted regular lessons with her family, placing the book where she could glance at it while doing her housework. With the father’s assistance, they read aloud during long winter evenings, discussing various topics, and thereby learning much. For several years Mrs. Neville wrote an item for the Farmers’ Advocate. She kept up a regular correspondence with her relatives and friends, writing interesting, cheerful letters. She was a friend to all who needed one; called upon to assist at a birth or to prepare the remains of a neighbour for his last rest. She taught her family to play the organ so that they were able to help in the Sunday School and Church, and to enjoy sing-songs with their neighbours and friends. Mrs. Neville started at least two Sunday Schools in the early days when church services were few. She became Post Mistress in 1893.

Pense Community, 1882 to 1982: page 212

Below is a quote from the local history book about Mr Anthony Neville. It speaks of a local person in the Cottonwood District being subjected to a tar-and-feathering assault and a case of mistaken identity. Those were certainly interesting times.

Mr. Neville was the most wonderful weaver of fancy tales. He was also the local Justice of the Peace and a player of pool. There were two very serious attempts at tar and feathering in the north district, one of which ended in tragedy spread almost like a fire. They started as a feud between Chas. Sherriff and one of his neighbors. Chas. had a homestead on Sec. 4 and was awfully good with animals, and was one of the first to make money. There were many farmers who would have had trouble getting through the winter except for Chas. Sherriff. One day Chas. was chasing horses out of his crop; police had been shooting geese in the neighborhood and the neighbor thought Chas. was shooting at the horses. Several men met in the livery barn at Pense and arranged to tar-and-feather Chas. Sherriff. In mistake they jumped a man by the name of Saxby. Sherriff got to Millers and after getting the police they found Saxby trussed in a stack. The men were later found and it ended by Sherriff paying their fine so they would not have to serve a jail sentence

Pense Community, 1882 to 1982: page 26

Lena May Neville (1873 – 1961)

Anthony and Harriet’s daughter May (also spelled as “Mae”) Neville had just completed her Normal School training so she was hired as Cottonwood’s first teacher. The caption below the image of May Neville says “1891” so it might be a photo of her from an earlier date since the school officially opened in 1893, alternatively perhaps they just recorded the year incorrectly. The local history book, Pense Community, 1882 to 1982, states on page 197 that May Neville was the first teacher at Cottonwood School. Was she really only 17 or even 20 years of age (she was 19 or 20 in 1893) when she took on the responsibility of being the school teacher, especially for such large classes of between 30 and 40 students? That’s extraordinary! Maybe her mother, Harriet Neville helped in the first month or so. Harriet was dedicated to education as evidenced by her financial assistance to the Cottonwood School and the fact that she homeschooled her children until there was an organized school system nearby.

Upon receiving Harriet Neville’s financial assistance, Cottonwood School was organized during the winter of 1892-1893 and the first school was built in 1893 on land owned by John McLaren.

The finishing carpentry work seemed to experience a few glitches. The carpenter was to make a blackboard, but it did not arrive until midsummer, and then it was too small and painted with glossy paint. Miss Neville lined the empty spaces on the walls with tarpaper and created blackboards of assorted heights so little folk, tired of sitting, could work at the boards all around the wall. There were between thirty and forty pupils the first few years. When you see the school building photos try to imagine forty children of various ages in there (this area was populated predominantly by English speaking homesteaders but there were likely a few children who didn’t speak any English). It’s incredible that such a young woman could handle such a challenge. Actually it’s amazing that any teacher could handle such a challenge.

We’ve talked about the father, Anthony Neville, the mother, Harriet, and one of the daughters, May, so lets move on to the youngest son, who was the only Neville to be born in the Cottonwood District of Saskatchewan.

Shorey Johnson Neville 1888-09-30 to 1973-01-26

I’m mentioning Shorey Johnson Neville here not because he was the youngest child of Anthony and Harriot Neville but rather because he was a veteran of the Great War.

Shorey Johnson Neville enlisted on May 13, 1916 with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 203 Battalion. I believe he served as a type of medic or at least he was responsible for carrying the medic’s equipment. Shorey suffered from pulmonary fibrosis following a poisonous gas attack. Due to his injuries he remained in England with the Khaki University until demobilization, at which time he returned to Canada. See citations below for a link to the Canadian Encyclopedia for an explanation of the Khaki University. Interestingly Khaki University was planned and organized by Dr Henry Marshall Tory of the University of Alberta, in Edmonton.

Shorey Johnson Neville – Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan S-B448a homemade windlass on the well at the Cottonwood farm.

The local history book didn’t have a clear photograph of Shorey Johnson Neville but I was able to purchase the one shown above from the Saskatchewan Provincial Archives.

In my research I discovered a very interesting site called The Canadian Letters and Images Project, that publishes actual letters written by WWI soldiers. They must have been donated by the respective soldiers’ children or grandchildren. I was delighted to find that the site has letters written by an alumni of Cottonwood School, Shorey Johnson Neville. I scanned through a number of Shorey Johnson Neville’s letters to Canada. Some are funny, other poignant and some were hard to understand because only Shorey’s letters are on-line, not the letters he was responding to. All of the letters are much longer than what I’ve reproduced here, in my blog post, as I’ve just extracted the parts that I found the most interesting. In his first letter to his niece Muriel, Shorely describes the fun of mastering how to use the rifle and then the realization of the grave consequences of using it against another man. I was also quite astounded at the humility of a man who would say, “Don’t you weep any weeps over me. I never was nor will be worth a tear, except perhaps from some louse, yet unborn, that may have to die with me.

Read through his letters and please don’t feel as if you are reading something private. His family must have wanted the public to see these letters or else they would not have made them public. There’s a link at the end where you can read all of the complete set of 10 letters. I don’t know why the letters stop when he is at the hospital. Perhaps they were lost, too personal, or he just stopped writing for a while. Enjoy.

Neville, Shorey Johnson Letter: September 28th, 1916 to his niece Muriel

Dear Muriel,
Gee! but I am tired tonight. It is rather exciting and nerve straining to be hard at it for two full days the very first time I have handled a service rifle. To realize that you have at your shoulder a force that can kill eight men at a blow, and then to find that you are almost master of that force, can direct it at will, and may be asked to use it against men that are worth as much as or more than yourself; - it brings fear and loathing sometimes. And yet, as a toy, - in careful hands - it is as pretty a plaything as man could wish for. When I forgot its real use, I thoroughly enjoyed the practice, and the faster the firing the better I did. At long range I had my weapon hot enough to scorch, and made four hits in five.

Neville, Shorey Johnson Letter: March 13th,1917 to his sister May.

Dear May, 
We just went to the door to see five aeroplanes pass overhead, full speed for somewhere. One day three dirigibles and a plane were patrolling the coast. Stirring times!

Neville, Shorey Johnson Letter: July 29th, 1917 to his sister May.

Dear May
There is nothing ever happens here, and yet, while we are out of the line resting, we are so blamed busy drilling and shining our buttons that we have little or no time to write letters. So I owe you two now, - there is one of May 20th, and one of June 23rd, to answer.

Now and then the cook puts charcoal in the tea instead of sugar, or, as happened this week, a shell hits somebody and we have to gather up the pieces for interment. One afternoon we were paraded some distance to a football match in which very few of us were interested, and the next night we walked up to change the position of thirty yards of front line trench, and were shelled out with a number of casualties. Tonight we had an extra good supper, consisting of mutton - kidney mulligan, and corned beef hashed up with pepper.

Why can't folks at home get over that feeling against alien enemies? I assure you that there is very little bitterness here against the poor fellows who have to stand and take our shells.

Neville, Shorey Johnson Letter: September 28th,1917 to his mother.

Dear Mother,
The equinox seems to have marked very closely in this country the end of summer and the beginning of a lovely autumn. I have been studying a good map, the first I have seen that gave the old political and the new military divisions together. I find we are not in Normandy after all nor in Picardy as some think, but sandwiched in between the two in Pas de Calais, a large triangular department based on the coast with its apex beyond Rouen. Last evening we watched a splendid display of modernized courage and chivalry, which live in at least one branch of the Enemy service. Standing on a wooded hillside, we were watching one of our observation balloons, when suddenly it began to descend. In the clouds above us we heard a rapidly growing hum and we saw a German plane nose-diving from some tremendous altitude at which he had approached unobserved. He dropped directed toward us until level with the balloon, then shot to and beyond it opening fire as he approached. Our observers jumped of course. Not a shot did he fire at them but opened at a range of a hundred yards on the gas-bag. It was twilight and we could plainly see his tracer bullets. It was a splendid piece of work. His fire continued as he passed and curved around his objective, and of course certain groups of infantry men were in line of fire and thought themselves attacked. Two holes in the side of the monster showed the flames within, and as the attacking hawk swooped in and soared through the barrage of our anti-aircraft guns, then veered to the left and low over the hills, a squadron of our light machines rose and thundered away in pursuit. They surrounded him above, below and on either side and so they disappeared over the hills rapidly descending the darting flame bullets flying between. Meanwhile the flames had burst through the envelope of our balloon and made a beautiful spectacle. Imagine a flame with no visible fuel save a few ropes and girders, the size of, say, the Toronto City Hall tower, slowly falling through space. The descending parachute nearby was like a big translucent pearly bubble. The whole incident from the swooping attack until the machines disappeared like swift-flying swallows over the hill two miles distant occupied perhaps three minutes, perhaps five at the outside. A spectacle it was worthy of the audience of a thousand who witnessed it.

Neville, Shorey Johnson Letter: September 28th,1917, to his mother

Dear Mother,
I remained behind to dress him and then made my way forward alone through trenches where I had never been before. I met no one for nearly a kilometer until in the front line, I found a sergt. making the rounds of his sentries. I was in the wrong part of the trench so accompanied him and his corporal to their company headquarters. On the way we encountered a cloud of shell gas that was drifting forward from where the enemy had been bombarding our supports. We put on our masks and went all down the open trench which was a badly wrecked German ---[?] merely a ten-foot trough in loose chalk. Before long shells came over and we were forced to shelter in a new communication trench which latter was, in turn, in a few minutes enfiladed by machine gun fire. It was almost a case of β€œwhen shall we three meet again.” We chose the least of three dangers – dropped our masks, whose dimmed eye-pieces inhibited rapid progress, and we ran helter-skelter, for the dug-out a hundred yards away. My stretcher made me the slow one, and the N.C.O.’s waited for my pace. That is a good deal for men to do, but it is a common thing here. The gas was so strong that when we got inside the other fellows smelt our clothes and immediately put on respirators. My throat was a little affected and I could not close my eyes for most of that night. It is a curious effect of this particular gas that a slight smarting becomes immediately intensified in geometrical progression as soon as the eyes are closed. We get plenty of chances to test our respirators, which are a perfect protection, but accidents will happen. Three or four nights ago I was strolling up a trench a couple of feet deep behind a hedge enjoying the moonlight with a chum when, plunk, a gas-shell came over my head and dropped kerplunk ten feet to my right. A fresh breeze angling from the front drove the gas across the trench. I ran for the necessary rod, then went on never dreaming but the other fellow was after me. I gave the alarm at the next post and then began to think of friend Lewis. Blamed if he haven't sot him down right in the gas to put on his helmet instead of beating it. Naturally he suffered the consequences.

Neville, Shorey Johnson Letter: Nov 1st, 1917, to his sister May

Dear May,
Don't you weep any weeps over me. I never was nor will be worth a tear, except perhaps from some louse, yet unborn, that may have to die with me.
Yes, we are fed fairly well. Today, for example, I ate:
Breakfast, - Oat-meal porridge, with sugar (stolen); Machonochie's ration, which is a mixture of boiled beef, slices potatoes, broad beans, rice, carrots, and this time came in the cans, hot; tea, this time not boiled, transmogrified into cocoa by the addition of condensed milk (Nestles), sugar, and part of the contents of Mrs. Annie Foster's last parcel.
Dinner, - thick vegetable soup, very good; bread, margarine, honey purchased in the Church Army canteen.
Supper, - tea, straight; a stolen can of pork and beans; bread, marg., cheese, jam honey.
Good-night - Shorey

I found Shorey’s letters extraordinary to read. They made me feel like I briefly established a connection to the actual man, not just raw data about this solder from the Great War. He had a sense of humour that must have served him well under such harsh conditions. Despite his injury he lived to a fine old age of 84. Shorey did marry and he is buried in Ottawa, Ontario. His son Rufus Vernon Neville, also joined the Canadian military and served in WWII as a Major in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps.

If you would like to learn more about the Canadian Letters and Images Project click the link here https://www.canadianletters.ca/about-us

Cottonwood School

  • School built and opened in 1893.
  • School replaced in 1916 with a more modern building.
  • School closed in 1937 (the Dirty Thirties) due to a lack of students.
  • School reopened in 1943.
  • The date of permanent closure is not given but in 1949 there were only 13 students left.

Images of Cottonwood School

Just as we were approaching Cottonwood School we saw this huge tree all by itself by the side of the road. There were very few trees in the area and fewer still that were as large as this one. I’m no botanist but this is the Cottonwood District and we are approaching the Cottonwood School so this must be a Cottonwood tree.

Just as we passed under the Cottonwood Tree the school of the same name came into view.

I don’t know if that is a bell tower or just a decorative feature at the school.

I like the image below because at this angle you can’t see the north side additions and you can’t really tell how deep the school building is. This makes it look very small indeed.

Can you imagine 30 to 40 students in that little building?

I can say with certainty that this school has a basement. I didn’t go down there. I’ll step on bird droppings if necessary but I draw the line at wet bird droppings.

The images above and below show the view that the students would have enjoyed.

The inside of the school

The image below left shows the interesting stepped-out architectural design. It’s that design plus the bell tower (real or faux I don’t know) that makes Cottonwood School stand out from the rest.

These plaques marking the locations of the two Cottonwood Church buildings were placed on a cairn just a short distance south of the school.

When I see these photos I marvel at what it must have been like for Shorey Johnson Neville to have grown up on the vast prairie as well as take all or most of his education in a one room schoolhouse prior to signing up for the Great War. How different the world must have seemed to him. I hope that his burial site in Ottawa has some sort of recognition of his service in WWI. He is one of Canada’s heroes. None of his letters to home had complaints about being in the military beyond jokes about the food. He even took the time to say he holds “no bitterness here against the poor fellows who have to stand and take our shells”. That’s the kind of fellow that came from the Cottonwood School in the Cottonwood District, just a short distance northwest of Regina. I think that Shorey Johnson Neville was the kind of fellow that Canada can be proud of.

Citations:

Cottonwood School First School built in 1893 and replaced in 1916

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.

13 thoughts on “Cottonwood School

  1. An impressive tale for sure Glen. Love the single cottonwood tree on the way to the school. Such a Southern prairie scene. The letters form the soldiers are indeed a snapshot of another time. I recall reading letters from Irish prisoners about the be executed at Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. Heartrending. Thanks for sharing. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Allan, it was only by chance that I came across the letters site. I couldn’t believe my luck when I found the connection to this school.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Such an interesting piece of history. I love the photos and the backstories. You brought the history of an old abandoned school to life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much Lori. Of course the credit always goes to the people who put in the time and effort to create the local history books.

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  3. Another fascinating post Glen – particularly the letters themselves. That young man was gifted with words despite probably not having a great deal of formal education. A little side note regarding his sister teaching so many students….if it was anything like the one-room school I attended a great deal of the teaching fell to the older students who would spend a lot of time doing lessons with the younger ones.
    Thank you for the hours you put into your posts. I wonder if you’ve ever considered publishing them in book form…if not, you certainly should!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Mary Anne for your generous comments. My blogs are often interesting because they have local connections. I don’t have any illustrations about a book. However the blogs have led to my photos in two books so who knows?

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  4. I grew up on a farm close to Cottonwood cemetery and school. This was an interesting read! Such a beautiful old building. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for stopping by and reading my blog Jess. I’m always happy to hear from local people.

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  5. My dad’s had a teacher who was 16, she had just finished Normal School. So it wasn’t terribly uncommon to have a super young teacher. My dad also had a male teacher which was uncommon back then. I love old schools and the stories they tell. Like how they got their names or who built them. There is the odd one still in good shape but most are like this one. It’s very interesting with the tower – can’t say I have seen before but I have seen many of them with a basement. What a superb find that website with the letters. As you said personal letters really do bring to life what Tim Cook writes about in his books. Bernie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s hard to imagine a girl at 16 having to go to the school and teach all of the different grades as well as keep discipline. I actually haven’t read any of Tim Cook’s books but I might just try one.

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      1. I think 16 back then was very different than 16 today. My maternal grandmother came to Canada at a young age alone and worked. I think, math not being my strong suit, that she was 14. As to Tim Cook’s books if you are interested in Canada and their role in the First World War they are certainly well done books and decently easy not dry reads. Bernie

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  6. The first time I visited that school (in the fall of 2014) there was an old farm just off the road near the big tree on the way to the school. The last time I stopped there in July 2020, the old farm was knocked over. It’s nice to see the old schoolhouse.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t see a farm anywhere near here but the school is holding on quite well. Thanks for commenting Jason.

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