Back to school is an exciting event and tradition that has been looked forward to by thousands of young students and families in our urban and rural areas for well over 100 years. Ponoka’s first town school was in a tiny log church that was built in 1896 and featured eight to 10 students being taught the three Rs by Mr. Youmans, a missionary to the Indians.
Meanwhile, out in the rural areas, settler families were laying claim on their first homesteads in great numbers and soon the need to educate the children became a priority. By the turn of the century the quaint and busy multipurpose one-room schoolhouses were appearing in all districts of the County of Ponoka. Twenty five of these classic early learning centres had been put into motion by 1905, playing host to rambunctious students from all grades during the weekdays, then were transformed into churches and community halls on evenings and weekends.
Over the next hectic half century, 70 schools of various sizes had been constructed throughout the region, offering a vital education to young boys and girls, all under the direction of a hardy group of new young teachers, assisted by volunteer district boards. In 1952 the County of Ponoka No. 3 was formed, with changes including the busing of students to centralized schools, as well as the eventual closing of many of those not always so warm but wonderful county schools.
The early education of town and district children would face many extraordinary challenges, problems and accomplishments, but along the way would somehow succeed to instill the overwhelming skills, knowledge, and expectations that would lead those students into a bright and exciting future. Mrs. Laura (Doran) Wierzba would grow up and eventually teach for many years in the busy era of those tiny country schools and later enjoyed sharing many wonderful memories and tales in a booklet entitled, Rural Schools of Ponoka. The delightful publication, printed in 2002, was promoted by the Ponoka and District Retired Teachers’ Association and would achieve a longstanding and lofty goal of recognizing and permanently marking the original sights of those historical old country schoolhouses. Following are some great highlights of that colorful beginning adventure and dedication to our early education.
• Once the steady stream of new settler families that came into this district in the early part of the 20th century had erected a home for themselves and shelter for their livestock, their next priority was a school that would ensure the best education for their children. Through overwhelming perseverance and outstanding leadership, all those country schools would eventually be built and survive with donations of labour, while the small teacher’s salary and other expenses were covered by a minimal collection of taxes in each district. Money was scarce in those days and the taxes were often “worked out” by taking a turn to provide room and board for the teacher, by supplying wood for the school stove, and by the men working with pick and shovel or providing horses and equipment with the municipal road building crews. During the 1930s a man with a team of horses received $2.50 a day, while labourers toiled for long hours for a daily wage of up to $1.50, then rushed home to do the chores.
• There were also many fundraising events at those bustling buildings, including weekend dances and pie or box socials that helped to buy school supplies or treats for the Christmas concerts and class picnics. The young men from the districts often used devious methods to ascertain which box had been brought along by the teacher, so they might bid to be her supper companion.
• In the early days of settlement in what now is the County of Ponoka, many of the new settlers had ventured from far and wide and all ethnic backgrounds because they had heard about the wonderful opportunities provided by the opening of the friendly west. Early settlements included groups from Scandinavia to the predominately Norwegian Asker district, settlers from Wales to the Wood River district, while generations of pioneers from the United States invaded the Dakota and the Fertile Forest areas. The Usona district became the centre of a large group of Finnish settlers, Home Glen welcomed families of Russian nobility in 1917, the settlement of Dutch Flats was established in the Schultz district, which had earlier been settled by immigrants from Germany and Hungary. The initial effect of the arrival of these new settlers from other lands was overwhelming at first for both neighbours and teachers, but as everyone strived to work together their different cultures and celebrations would join and be shared with ours.
• One of the major problems facing a new teacher was finding a home near the school where they could board for the term. The dreaded thought of trudging through mud, snowdrifts and freezing weather on mostly horrible roads and rough trails just to get there early each morning made proximity an important factor. If that young teacher was lucky they would settle in an established boarding house with a motherly landlady and a neat and clean teacher’s room complete with a matching china pitcher, wash basin and chamber pot. Even though they quite often had to bunk in with younger members of the family or put up with hosts of pesky flies, mites, frosty nights and lots of noisy guests, they were most often accepted as a member of the family, with many lasting friendships being made.
• Many of the young lady teachers were quite overwhelmed by their sudden popularity with the young men in the districts, while the rivalry was even keener for the young gentleman tutors, especially if they owned a car. Lady teachers were required to wear skirts and dresses, and many still remember the humiliation and embarrassment, especially in the winter, of trying to tuck long underwear into cumbersome handknit stockings, with absolutely no hope of showing off their glamorous gams or trim ankles. During the Depression most clothes had to be fashioned out of 100-pound flower sacks and sugar bags.
• There were two distinguishing features that appeared on each teacher’s desk of those popular old country schoolhouses that have now long disappeared. The noisy school bell would beckon many a student to come inside or quiet down, while the ominous strap was feared by most students, made the point in some cases but made little effect on the work-hardened calloused hands of those teenaged farm boys. The original hectograph multi-copier in 1938 saved lots of time filling blackboard space but left purple marks on everything and everyone, while most students in the late 1920s had to get used to the annual school visits of the travelling doctor, dental and health clinics.
One could go on forever with these amazing tales of our early education but in most cases the students and their teachers survived, eventually being so thankful about achieving their grades one to 12 adventures and enjoying a lot of fun and friendship along the way. Of course the education process has changed and modernized a great deal over all these years but going back to school should always be looked upon as the best and most important years of our young lives.
Don’t forget to thank everyone for those great memories at your next class reunion.