Imagine, if you will, driving along country roads and just following the instructions of the GPS as to where to go. You’re heading toward a country schoolhouse but that’s all that you know. It must have photographic potential because otherwise how could it have found its way into the GPS? Sometimes the source for these places is a mystery or more likely just forgotten. That’s just how it was on a leisurely Saturday in April, 2022 when we were driving home from a visit with the in-laws. This side trip began with the brief question I asked my wife, “don’t you think we have time to go slightly out of our way to photograph an old school?” She said “yes” and that’s how we found ourselves heading toward Ennerdale School.
In order to understand our expectations you need to know that most rural one-room schoolhouses in Alberta were closed in the 1950s. They closed because of dropping student populations and the fact that it was more efficient to bus students to the nearest town rather than build schools within walking distance of every farm in the province. The use of busing means that the schools have either been vacant for approximately 70 years, or they have been converted into community centres and therefore have lost much of the charm of an old school. In other words, my expectations were that I will find a former schoolhouse that is now a vinyl clad community centre or the weather beaten ruins of an old school that are barely suitable for the magpies that live there. But this side trip was to be different.
As we crossed the Queen Elizabeth II highway the countryside began to subtly change. The flat prairies gave way to undulating hills with pockets of verdant forests. The trees hadn’t started to sprout new leaves yet as April is much too early for that kind of growth. However, the tall pines and groves of spruce trees left no doubt that this is a different part of Alberta, although we were still in farm country. The pioneers in this area planted crops in between the forests, creeks and small lakes. It’s where nature and agriculture seem to exist in mutual harmony. This is pretty country so we began to think that our unspoken sense of optimism would be satisfied. Suddenly the magic of the moment was shattered by the anachronistic “beep beep” of the GPS sounding out our imminent arrival (this model of hand held GPS uses beeps rather than voice directions).
A photographer’s happy place
Now and then the destination exceeds the expectations and so it was with Ennerdale School. It’s a beautiful little school in a beautiful part of the province. The school was set back a bit from the road and could easily be missed if not for the newer black and white sign and of course the beeping of the GPS. Through the trees I could see that this was going to be a superb schoolhouse visit. The clapboard exterior had an appealing patina of fading yellow paint. This is what we look for when seeking a spectacular photo subject; it possessed neither harsh tones of modern vinyl siding nor the more typical grey of weathered unpainted lumber. I’ve photographed a lot of schools and each one is special in its own way but this school had the exterior that my mind’s eye is always hoping to find. Could this be my magnum opus of school photographs? No, not today because it was midday and the noon lighting is never ideal for photography. It takes more than just a fine schoolhouse to make a fine image. However that’s on me, not the school.
The Ennerdale School History
Upon returning home and digging into the history of this area I learned a little about this school. The local history book, The Eagle Calls: History of Eagle Hill, was very brief in its description of Ennerdale school. The book was clearly more focused on the Eagle Hill School which was named after the larger district. I also searched through the local history book called, Memories of Samis and Nearby Districts. It contained a lot of information about the Ennerdale reunion but very little other history. That’s fine, I’ll give my readers a break from the lengthy histories that occasionally can be found in my other blog posts. I can’t resist providing at least a brief history.
The school district formed in 1912 was called Ennerdale, honouring the original English home of the Gathercoles. Mr. John Gathercole was the Justice of the Peace in this district until his passing in 1910. Courts were held in the home of John and his wife, Mary Spencer Gathercole. The Gathercole name has deep roots in England. I found this information about John Gathercole.
John Gathercole married Mary Agnes Spencer in 1890. After they married, he worked on the railway at Lindal in Furness until 1901. He then joined the Westmorland and Cumberland Police Force, stationed at Whitehaven, and from there they moved to Ennderdale. He resigned a year later and in 1903, moved his family to Canada. landing at the Halifax harbour. They lived in Montreal for just over two years, and in 1905 they moved to Alberta. He bought a quarter (section) of land near Olds, Alberta which he later sold, and moved further west to prove up a homestead. He became a Justice of the Peace, and was a driving force behind petitioning government to build a school in this new district. The school was opened in 1912, and he was given the honor of naming the new school district, which he called Ennerdale, after the last place they lived before coming to Canada. John died of appendicitis on Jan. 24, 1910 at the age of 40 years. He was buried in Olds, Alberta. John and Mary had 6 children.https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Gathercole-63
Many of the immigrants who settled in this part of Alberta were originally Norwegian in addition to the usual English found in most districts. That is not surprising as the area of central Alberta between Edmonton and Calgary has a substantial number of Scandinavian communities. Camrose and area, for example, has a large number of people from Sweden. The area southwest of Red Deer is well known for its Danish settlements. Scattered in between the Danes and the Swedes are the Norwegian communities. Vikings didn’t disappear, they just moved to central Alberta.
What I didn’t previously understand is why most Scandinavians seemed to first go to Minnesota rather than straight to Canada. I think that I now have that answer. Based on the quote below, the Scandinavians were attracted to the forest industry in Minnesota. They could receive 40 acre plots of forested land that provided a means to a living for a period of time. I don’t know how long that they could live off the lumber from 40 acres but it was enough to get them to move to that state.
The Eagle Hill district apparently attracted an eclectic group of people. From the esteemed John Gathercole (the Justice of the Peace mentioned above) to rough lumbermen and even some sea captains. I wonder if the sea captains realized just how far away the ocean was from east central Alberta.
Minnesota, U.S.A., was a rough-tough country in the mid 1800s. Logging and lumbering were the industries. The government gave claims like our homesteads but of 40-acre plots. It was settled largely by Norwegians, who found this rough timbered country much like their home in Norway. Among those settling there was a sea-captain, Arneson, who sailed a route from Oslo to New York with his wife accompanying him. His two younger sons were Arne (1871) and Olaf (1874) born at Crookston, Minn. These two later immigrated to Eagle Hill.Joyce Arneson The Eagle Calls: History of Eagle Hill, page 44
Another Norwegian settler was Carl Stromsmoe (1855, Lofton, Norway). He was a captain of a fishing schooner. In 1883, he and his new bride, Berget, settled at Thief River Falls. Seven of their eight children were born in Minnesota. Ragna (1885), Josefine (Fina-1889), Helmer (1891), Melvin (1893), Martin (1895), Clara (1897) and Minnie (1900).
How hard was life for Ennerdale families?
Every local history book contains descriptions of how hard life was for the homesteader families. Some descriptions are more vivid than others and some focus on one of the many deprivations experienced by the pioneers, those being; the scarce food resources, excessive work, poor shelters, epidemics and insufficient clothing. For an example of what people in Ennerdale had to deal with, read the following quote about John and Gyda Stromsmoe:
Hardships were numerous for the first settlers as they witnessedThe Eagle Calls: History of Eagle Hill, pages 262 to 265
prairie fires, wind storms and loss of livestock due to sickness and accidents. Food staples were not always plentiful for them. For example, supper would consist mostly of potatoes and dried bread dipped in black coffee. At times they were fortunate enough to have a meal of rabbit. School lunches for the children would often be sandwiches made of lard or sour cream. Syrup between their bread would be a delicacy. A real treat for them would be peanuts and peppermints which Mr. Stromsmoe would bring home from a visit to town. Clothing for the family would be made from flour sacks, sewn by hand by Mrs. Stromsmoe, who sat up late at nights. She also did a lot of knitting and hooked rugs. Gyda Stromsmoe passed away in March of 1960. Frietjov was killed with his father in August, 1950
I’ve never heard of a lard sandwich but it sounds like something that would be given to prisoners of war.
I wanted to learn what happened to Frietjov (also spelled Freitjof) Stromsmoe and John Stromsmoe – father and son – in 1950, beyond that they were killed on the same day. They are mentioned at the the end of the above quote. I found this explanation on his Find-A-Grave memorial: “Frietjov Erling Stromsmore and his father, Johann, died from injuries received in a highway accident near Red Deer, on August 24, 1950.”
Now lets have a look at the school.
Images of the school
From the road there is little of the school that remains visible because of the trees. In the full of the summer it would be even more difficult to spot if not for the bright white sign out front. The original fence is still standing in front of the school and only a piece of yellow rope held the gate closed.
The shady back and side view of the above image is interesting because you can see how large the teacherage is. This is really quite a bit bigger and better than many on-site residences for the teachers. Also on the side of the school it looks like it had more windows but that they were covered up later with wood and siding. I wonder why they did that. Perhaps they moved the windows to the west side because it has a full bank of windows and most schools have windows only one one side.
Do you see anything unusual in one of the above two images? Perhaps a few trees where you don’t normally see trees? The image of the back of the school has trees on the small roof above the back window. It’s normal for trees to grow close to old schools and even eventually push their way through the windows to basically take over. However, I don’t think that I’ve ever seen trees take root on the roof. This is not a good sign for the longevity of the school. Either the roots will destroy the lean-to roof or the trees will get larger until their weight causes a catastrophic failure. Speaking of catastrophic events, the image above right is of course the outhouse. Hopefully there were two at one time as just this one would hardly be enough for larger classes. If somebody was in there too long the wait time may have resulted in some occasional unfortunate situations for the younger students.
I like this side the best. Here you can see the school wall with it’s bank of windows (almost hidden by the spruce tree), the teacherage attached at the back, the tiny front porch that contains the cloakroom and even a little of the picket fence. To the right there is a trace of snow left from last winter because the trees block the sun.
The bank of windows along one side of the school was a requirement of the Alberta School Board at that time.
That first stove is actually the furnace to heat up the classroom. The second image shows a stove at an odd angle. It is in the attached teacherage at the back of the school. It’s a heavy iron stove that seems to be breaking through the floor. On the front of the stove I can read the words, “Wrought Iron Range Co Toronto”. It’s a sure sign that something is old when you see it was made in Canada.
I don’t know why that this is called a cloakroom. Nobody has a cloak, at least not in the era that this school was in use. According to Wikipedia, a cloak is basically a cape. It says cloaks were worn as a costume by witches, wizards, vampires, and Dracula. Fortunately I didn’t see any of them here. It’s a coatroom so this is where the students would hang their coats. This cloakroom doesn’t have nearly enough hooks for all of the student’s coats. I can imagine that there would be lots of coats on the floor. Some coats might even have fallen to the floor on their own.
- The Eagle Calls: History of Eagle Hill; 1975; Dorcas Ladies’ Aid History Committee. Carstairs and District Community Press.
- Gathercole family history, https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Gathercole-63
- Pioneering With A Piece of Chalk – The One-Room Country Schools of Alberta; 2005; William Peter Baergen.
- Find-A-Grave: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/113815083/frietjov-erling-stromsmoe
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.