While growing up in Ponoka I never had the unique opportunity of attending a Ponoka County rural school, but I have always really enjoyed reading and writing about the long and colourful early history of those tiny one room structures that served thousands of rambunctious students from the late 1890s until the late 1960s.
I still proudly possess a delightful booklet written by congenial longstanding Sylvan Height’s/ Ponoka resident Mrs. Laura (Doran) Wierzba, who taught in the rural Ponoka County districts among the rolling hills for many glorious years.
I will never forget this wonderful lady, who was also so very gracious and willing to assist me in putting together so many great history stories of our vibrant town and county districts to be featured in the Ponoka News and other publications. Upon her retirement and until her passing Laura worked tirelessly with members of the Ponoka Retired Teachers Association to research and honour those countless rural schools that are now just a memory, but have been marked with permanent plagues on their original land locations throughout Ponoka County.
The proud history of early Ponoka rural schools
Of the 70 plus schools currently in the Ponoka County, approximately 25 were built before and during 1905, all in the rapidly growing rural districts surrounding the new Town of Ponoka and to serve the vital educational needs of the hardy families who were establishing their homesteads and farming operations in this vast area. In all cases the residents and ongoing generations of each district would enthusiastically pool their resources and volunteer the labour to build these first tiny one roomed schools, mostly of which were first made of logs and mud, but would strive and continue on to create, maintain, and encourage a strong and proud tradition of learning that has carried on for 120 plus years. These quaint early school houses would cost several hundred dollars to complete, the taxes were raised by a few cents an acre to cover the costs, and the first teachers received a salary of $40 a month, and over all those exiting years so many dedicated teachers and support staff would keep the fires burning at these tiny but popular schools.
A list of those first and now historical Ponoka rural schools included: Anthony Hill District No. 1073 (1905-1958), Arbor Park (1900-1951), Asker (1898-1949), Bismark (1903-1953), Blindman River(1926-1956), Bluff Centre (1909-1941), Bobtail (1923-1954), Calumet(1906-1949), Chapel School (1905-1953), Climax (1902-1949), Concord (1902-1950), Crystal Springs (1907-1953), Dakota School (1902-1954), Dennis (1901-1945), Eastside (1902-1951), Elkhorn (1902-1952), Ellice District (1907-1950), Eureka (1903-1949), Ferrybank (1901-1951), Fertile Forest (1915-1953), Fuller School (1916-1951), Glenfalloch (1912-1956), Grand Meadow (1902-1948), Half-Way Grove (1918-1956), Harmonien School (1918-1949), Hazel Hill (1902-1950), Hobbema (1930-1951), Home Glen (1909-1956), Iola (1909-1959), Iowalta (1901-1956), Lavesta (1912-1959), Leedale (1907-1959), Lonesome Pine (1915-1956), Lundgren (1912-1953), Magic School (1903-1949), Manfred School (1903-1949), Manito School (1921-1953), Meadowbrook (1908-1953), Midland (1940-1955), Monte Vista (1905-1942), Montgreenan (1921-1942), Morningside (1915-1953), Park Springs (1909-1944), Pigeon Creek (1905-1956), Pineville (1931-1959), Pleasant Hill (1901-1950), Poplar Forest (1927-1950), Potter Creek (1908-1946), Reo (1929-1956), Riverview (1907-195?), Rose School (1910-1953), Rutherford (1902-1949), Schultz (1905-1950), Scott (1902-1945) Seafield (1902-1949), Sharphead (1902-1944), Sylvanside (1921-1943), Symonds (1908-1949), Water Glen (1899-1949), Western Sunset (1935-1957), Willesden Green (1940-1960), Wolfville ((1921-1953), Woodale School (1920-1950), Beaconsfield (1920), and Faraway School (1938). The larger new Sylvan Heights School was built in 1959, the Crestomere School in 1953-54, and Mecca Glen in 1948, and the last two are still proudly serving the young students in their School districts. Following are some of the cherished memories of those ‘good old days of learning and fun’ in those classic one room Ponoka rural schools.
• Those beloved little schools certainly embodied the ‘multi-purpose’ philosophy of country living, and in all cases were fully utilized to give students an education, as well as served as the local church, community hall, and gathering centre for many year-round district events. The annual Christmas concerts were always a favourite family event, and the heating and decorating of the room was done with kerosene Aladdin lamps.
• Taxes to pay for cost of running the schools were always ‘worked out’ by district residents, who took turns boarding the teacher, supplying wood for the most important pot-bellied school heater, building roads, all performing all sorts of labour tasks, and so much more as a closely knit community.
• Two very distinguishing features of each teacher’s desk in the rural school houses were the school bell to bring them in from recess, or the notorious ‘strap,’ which was tucked away in the top drawer. Of course many of the teachers were able to find ‘boyfriends’ out in the districts and it was really nice later if they could snare one with a car.
• The Hectograph was the very first original multi-school copier, on which teachers and students rolled off copies of exercises, exams, and parent newsletters, and were always left with very messy permanent ink marks on the hands.
• In the school rooms the books were always neatly placed on a long table before the children arrived. These included: play, drill and recitation books, as well as the words to Oh Canada and God Save the Queen.
• Everything always had to be very neat and tidy at the one-roomed schools in case there was a surprise visit from the School Inspector. The teachers were allowed to wear only skirts and dresses in class, but then would have to struggle into their warm underwear and no-stretch stockings for the long and cold trip home.
• Out at Lavesta many of the boys carried their guns to and from school with hopes of getting a rabbit or Prairie Chicken to add to the family menu. To get to the Harmonien School teacher Laura Oldford (Blue) would ride backwards in the Mailman’s democrat for 45 miles to get to classes at Springdale, while others either walked in all weather conditions to get to school or road their horses, often in twosomes and three-somes. In the heat of summer she and her pupils once had to move all the desks outside and build smudges in order to survive the constant invasion of mosquitos.
Our schools have changed a lot over the years, getting a whole lot bigger and more automated, but the great tradition and spirit of learning and keen camaraderie for our children has always remained the same through countless decades.