Our history books tell us many delightful stories about the over 70 Ponoka County rural schools which offered a unique and friendly education for countless generations of farm families from the late 1800’s until the 1970’s. During the rapid influx of hardy settler families into this area so many decades ago their first priority was to establish a home, land, and livestock, and then to seek out a school for their children.
The proud and ongoing history of Fertile Forest
The tiny Fertile Forest School was built in 1915 on a piece of picturesque rolling pasture land (S.W. 7-43-26-W4th) located eight miles west and one mile north of the progressive Town of Ponoka. Enthusiastic district rate-payers hauled the material for the new school, which was built by a man from Edmonton for $900.00 and opened in the latter part of 1915 under the direction of teacher Faye Lloyd and a three member Board led by George Hoar.
The initial class at the school featured six to eight students, the teacher’s salary was $60.00 a month and the janitor was paid $2.50 to do the chores and keep everything in good order. As the Fertile Forest District grew the student enrollment increased rapidly, with as many as 25 grade 1-9 students packed into the wall-to-wall wooden tables and chairs. Over the years the young students worked very hard learning the three R’s, but always look forward to recess and after lunch, when they would race outside into the big yard and enjoy all sorts of games and chatter. Following are some of the early memories and milestones of all the colorful students and teachers who had fun getting a great education at that bustling Fertile Forest School from 1915-1953.
● In those first years the school house was very cold, especially in the winter, but the children would huddle by the old pot-bellied stove or perch up on the petitions to keep warm, but just kept on studying. After travelling long distances to school in the morning by horse, or even on foot, some of the children had to fetch wood for the stove, which once caught the room on fire and was put out by the Jimmy Krofta , the janitor. On the coldest days the students sometimes had to eat frozen lunches, but would put a jar of soup on the stove to heat, which occasionally exploded and showered everyone. As there were very few fences in the area in the early days, students had to watch out for roaming cattle, ravaging partridges and prairie chickens, and the danger of grass fires in the summer. There was no loitering on the way home from school, as the coyotes were always howling, skunk families were wandering everywhere, and the weather could change quickly from good to bad.
● Outside play was a real treat, occasionally getting to play a game of soccer or softball against other schools. The boys loved to chase the girls with the many garter snakes that lived in the area, but if it got too far out of hand, the dreaded strap may have to come out of the teacher’s desk. Gum chewing in class was absolutely forbidden, but one student insisted that his little brother had put the gum into his mouth.
● The honour roll of teachers at Fertile Forest from 1915-1953 included: Faye Hinkley, Miss Hawkins, Miss Draper, Alice Stinson, Lillian Townsend, James McPherson, Elizabeth Rutherford, Catherine Scorgie, Minnie Henderson Long, Florence Fleming, Evelyn Thompson, Agnes Konen, Ida Mattern, Velma McDowell, DeForest Nelson, Margaret Woolley, Elsie Andrew, Edith Massing, Martha Strohschein, Betty Matejka, Joyce Hagemann, Gerald Dahms, and Rita Stickney Smith. In 1939 a basement and a new heating system were added to the school, and then when Ponoka County Schools centralized and it was closed in 1953 the building was purchased by the district for $350.00 and used as a community centre.
Unfortunately through the lack of use this once very popular historical sight quickly began to deteriorate, but with the formation of a very dedicated local committee, the 20-member Fertile Forest Historical Society was formed, with memberships available for just $5.00. With the help of a $5000.00 Provincial Government grant in 1980, the hall received extensive renovations and clean-up in all areas, and then with the amazing help of community volunteers and fundraising the transformation to a permanent historical sight and school museum began.
Today, with the ongoing dedication and efforts of district families and former teachers and students the outside of the building has been repainted, new roof added, the grounds are immaculately kept, and the interior has been refurbished to include the original desks and chairs, blackboards, pictures, and other historical ‘school room’ mementos of days gone by. The Ponoka and Districts Retired Teachers Association have also recognized the Fertile Forest School District 3177 as an historical Ponoka Rural County School sight. The grounds are also ideal for camping and special family events, and a covered cookhouse has been added.
The first official Fertile Forest School Reunion was held in 1977 and another in 1995 with a lot of interest shown, while a regular summer event at the sight is a Farmer’s Day Picnic, starting at 1:00 p.m., to which everyone is invited and features potluck lunch, camp fire, and lots of quality visiting and memories. There is no doubt that everyone is certainly looking forward to the gala 100th anniversary celebration in 2015.