George and Sarah Godfrey and their infant daughter Geraldine are shown in this early 1900s photo. The family, also including daughters Deirdre and Francis, settled in the Bismarck district west of Ponoka in 1915, from where the tall Irishmen continued his illustrious 56 year teaching career in many of our small but friendly one-room country schools. Photo from the Crestomere/Sylvan Heights Heritage History book

George Godfrey taught school for 56 years in Ponoka districts

This week’s Ponoka Reflections looks at the Godfrey family who settled in the area in 1915

As her contribution to the Crestomere/Sylvan Heights Heritage History book, which was published in 1969, Geraldine Godfrey (Stewart) proudly told the long and colorful story of her tall Irish father George Godfrey.

He was a vibrant gentleman and school teacher who gave so much of himself to the country districts surrounding Ponoka, and was avidly supported in pursuing his lofty ambitions by the unending dedicated love and support of his wife Sarah and three daughters.

George Godfrey was born in Limerick, Ireland in 1872 and after completing his school at the age of 17 he would fall in love with the sea and the wonders of world after a voyage to South America in a sailing ship. His ever-adventurous nature and spirit would later summon him to England, where he studied engineering, but later returned to Ireland to train as a teacher and taught his first class at the posh Leamy’s Boy’s National School. In May of 1907 George was lured to the bright lights of New York City where he continued to teach, as well as later meeting and eventually marrying Sarah Johnston, a free-willed and ambitious lady, who had immigrated to the United States from Ireland. This kindly lady would rarely reveal her birth date, which in true feminine meaning she always felt was no one’s business but her own. Together they raised their little family in New York City and then later decided to move to Canada to seek out a new adventure in the new world of the west. Much later, a former friend of Sarah’s from NY who she had stayed in touch with would return a letter to the Ponoka Post office with some rather harsh comments about their new-found home in far away Alberta: ‘It seems to be a veritable wilderness, the way that you describe it. I don’t know how you can bear it, much less be content?’

The next adventure in Alberta, Canada

George and Sarah Godfrey and their three small daughters Deirdre, Frances, and Geraldine left Ponoka in October 1915 to travel by team and sleigh 20 gruelling miles west to the Bismarck settlement in a blizzard with the temperature reaching well below zero. Geraldine fondly remembered that when her father arrived in Alberta he had brought with him a large collection of books, mostly classics, and a boundless optimism in the future of the West, while her mother came into this rugged new country with three small children, a stern English conscience, much faith in God but very little faith in her husband’s new venture. She was also so impressed that her father would always make an instant sensation in the community when he appeared in his high laced boots and English tweed hat, and the whole family was thrilled when he came home from school on an extremely cold winter day and his handle bar moustache and hair was covered in frost.

Their first ‘teacherage’ at the Lundgren School consisted of a log cabin which was promised to be warm in the winters and cool in the summer, but often proved to be quite the opposite. The next school in which he taught was at Springdale, which was some 20 miles to the west, and as he had no means of transportation at that time, each Friday when classes were done he would walk back to the Lundgren district where we were living, and then retraced his steps on Sunday. Occasionally he was offered a ride from a friendly farmer with a wagon pulled by an oxen, but only stayed on for a mile or two to rest because that was slower than being on foot. Over the years George would faithfully teach at the district classic one roomed country schools at Crystal Springs, Monte Vista, Rose, Wilmot, and Montgrenan, all to which he and his children walked or their ponies, but despite a few setbacks along the way his illustrious and gratifying career would lasted for an amazing 56 years. Here are some of the highlights of the usually hectic but mostly happy and adventurous life of this dedicated and popular Godfrey family.

• Along the way Sarah would have to pack up the little family and move several times to the ‘next teacherage,’ but finally they would purchase the N ½ 18 43 1 W5 in the Crystal Springs district, which would become their permanent home for many years. Life was always a very anxious and challenging business for women in those days, especially for the wives and mothers, as there were no telephones or radios and no way to tell whether their husbands had made it safe to their far-away destinations, and so many nights were long and lonely, with only the sounds of the wind and the coyotes. Their only ways into town to trade, barter, and pick up supplies or to visit the neighbours was with their little team and wagon or sleigh and conditions were often extremely treacherous through all seasons.

• The story told about the dreaded flu epidemic of 1918, which came quickly and silently, with everyone wearing masks in hopes of prevention. Also vividly recalled was the ‘winter of the deep snow,’ with sad memories in the spring of finding bones of lost cattle on the hillsides and in the swamps. In spite of the countless hardships of those pioneer times, people always took a tremendous interest in the political life of the day, with the school house used as the polling centre, with most everyone, no matter what the weather, turning out to vote or for social events, which were always a real treat for those hard working but happy folks.

• As time passed into the war years in 1939 many faces were missing in the area and life began to change for everyone in the area. George retired from teaching at Crystal Springs and his daughter Geraldine moved in to take his place, but after a few restless years he returned to his most loved profession and remained behind his old teacher’s desk until the age of 78 years.

• Sarah Godfrey passed away in 1944, and will always be remembered for her gentleness, her faith, and her devotion to her family. Her husband George was the friendly and prominent Irishman who was always best known for his amazing scholastic ability, his keen intellect, his ongoing tremendous interest in the world around him, as well as a great passion for art, literature, and Irish culture. He would proudly carry on his active and busy lifestyle until his death on February 14, 1959 at the age of 86 years, and the outstanding efforts of the family would never be forgotten.

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