Early education began in tiny one room schools

This week's Reflections looks at the early schools in Ponoka.

This 1910 class photo was taken in front of the Iowalta School west of Ponoka

This 1910 class photo was taken in front of the Iowalta School west of Ponoka

May is that glorious month when nature bursts forth in all its finest, and when our youngest school students look forward to final exams and summer holidays, while our Grade 12s prepare for the gala celebration of their once-in-a-lifetime Graduation Day. The proud and long-standing traditions of giving thousands of young town and rural students the opportunity of receiving a good education and having fun in the process has been going on in and around our community and districts for over 115 years.

After the first pioneer families began settling in this area in the late 18th century, they worked hard to establish their homes, farms and businesses, and then looked to the next most important task of building the schools and churches to serve a rapidly growing population. By 1905, there were over 25 mostly log and sod one room school houses hosting rambunctious new students from all nationalities and walks of life in our rural districts, and going into the 19th century, this would zoom to over 70 country sites. Much of the learning done in these early schools was not only by the boys and girls struggling with the basics of the three Rs, but by the poor young teachers ($300-a-year salary) who not only had to teach up to six grades in one small room, but also had to quickly learn to adjust to a new and overwhelming environment on the Alberta prairies. These friendly one room schools would also serve as the year-round ‘heart of the district’, often hosting church services, weddings, funerals, pie and box socials, concerts, picnics and all sorts of meetings. Their hardy and amazing stories of survival and successes in teaching thousands of students from several family generations for so many years will also relate their delightful daily adventures such as starting the old pot-bellied stove and boiling some water on a minus 35 degree morning, sitting in those very hard wooden desks all day, and huddled together eating lunch in one room before dashing outside where the world was their playground.  There were also many horrific days when just getting to school by horse and buggy or sleigh or walking was a real task, and some lived a few miles away from their school.

The first school class in the Village of Ponoka was held in a church in 1898, but the rapid growth of the community, which became a town in 1904, resulted in the addition of the White School, the Brick School, and countless other large and more modern facilities over the years.  Out in the County of Ponoka, the need for larger education facilities resulted in the addition of popular country schools such as Mecca Glen, Sylvan Heights, Usona and Crestomere to teach grades 1 to 9. In the early 1950s, when the County of Ponoka was formed and took over the direction of the school system, the high school students were bused into the town schools, and eventually many of those quaint but wonderful one room schools were closed, and while some are only marked by a sign, will always be remembered as very close and personal and friendly ‘hallowed halls of learning’ from great days gone by. Helen McLennan proudly shared and dedicated some of these colorful memories in this song:

The little old school house down the way.

I’ll sing you a song of the old one roomed school, a symbol of our pioneer days

It was when men worked together in all kinds of weather regardless of payment or praise

A community grows with the school at the centre, the hub of the wheel we will say

‘Twas used as a hall as many recall, and also a church come every Sunday

Inside of the building the tools of the trade, with desks seating one child or two

There was a pointer so long and a bell to ding-dong for that time when the classes were through

The blackboard was up front with brushes and chalk, and sometimes a world map on display which rolled up like a blind when not needed to find the name of an ocean or bay

Then down in the corner or quite near the door the pot-bellied stove stood its ground

and when the days were cold or when the thunder rolled each child in the school gathered round.

To get them to school was the worry of parents with a number of children to go, and many a mile was trudged with a smile through the mud holes or deep snow.

The pioneer teachers we must mention, too, who never a chance would they lose, to help a child’s mind develop and find the path in the future they choose.

And there are so many persons in the high walks of life who owe their successes they will say to the start that they got and the lessons they were taught in the ‘little old school down the way.’

Although our educational facilities and teaching skills and technologies may have changed just a little over all those many years when our grandparents, parents, ourselves and our children achieved and enjoyed this age-old ‘adventure in learning’, we must always remind and encourage our vibrant new generations from tots to teens that this keen and exciting opportunity to attend school with our buddies was and should always will be the most important and best 12 or so years of our busy and exciting young lives.