Reflections of Ponoka: Spirited Irishman dedicated 56 years of teaching to Ponoka districts

Another amazing story of extreme challenge and determination in the early settlement of Ponoka and districts is told in the Crestomere Sylvan Heights Heritage book, and begins in the fall of 1915 with the arrival in town of George and Sarah Godfrey and their three small daughters from the glitz of New York City. In October, the young family left Ponoka with all their worldly belongings and traveled some 20 miles by sleigh in a raging blizzard to reach the Bismark settlement located in the rugged countryside to the west.

George and Sarah Godfrey and their daughter Geraldine. From Ireland

Another amazing story of extreme challenge and determination in the early settlement of Ponoka and districts is told in the Crestomere Sylvan Heights Heritage book, and begins in the fall of 1915 with the arrival in town of George and Sarah Godfrey and their three small daughters from the glitz of New York City. In October, the young family left Ponoka with all their worldly belongings and traveled some 20 miles by sleigh in a raging blizzard to reach the Bismark settlement located in the rugged countryside to the west.

Their youngest daughter Geraldine relates this wonderful tale of the tall auburn haired Irish schoolteacher who would give so much of himself to the surrounding districts for over a half a century; and of his spirited young wife and family. It was their ongoing love and support would enable help him to carry out his avid ambitions of providing a vital education to the children of hundreds of new settler families.

Both George and Sarah Godfrey were born in Limerick, Ireland in the 1870s. George’s always-adventurous spirit placed him on a sailing ship to exotic destinations as a young lad, then to England, where he studied Civil Engineering. He then returned to Ireland to train as a teacher, and eventually began an illustrious career that started in the classrooms of his homeland, then on to New York City, and finally to the prairies of Canada. Sarah immigrated to New York sometime during the latter part of the century, where she later met and married George, and they would eventually head west with their infant family to begin an exciting new life, as related here by their daughter.

Among the precious items that my father brought with him to the wilderness was a large collection of books, mostly classic, and a boundless optimism in the future of the west. My mother, on the other hand, arrived in this new country with three small children, a stern New England conscience, much faith in God, but very little faith in my father’s new venture. For the first year father taught at the Lundgren School, and our very first ‘teacherage’ consisted of a tiny log cabin which was supposedly warm in the winter and cool in summer, but proved to be quite the reverse. Some of the early letters from our mother to a friend in New York explaining this new existence received a shocked reply stating:

“It seems to be a veritable wilderness, the way you describe it, and I don’t see how you can bear it, much less be content!”

As one looks back into the past, one recalls bits and pieces of events, some humorous, some tragic, and some happy, all of which stand out in memory. I recall my father smiling over the recollection of the sensation that his high-laced boots and soft English Tweed hat made on the community; as well as when he had to rely on his keen imagination but absolutely no experience to cut the hair of a young district bachelor who was about to be married.

The next school in which father taught was Springdale, some 20 miles to the west, and as he had no means of transportation, he would walk the long distance back to the Lundgren district where we were living on Fridays, then retraced his steps back to school on Sunday. Only on one occasion did someone offer him a ride, and in this case the farmer and his wagon pulled by a team of oxen proved to be much slower than the brisk walk. George Godfrey would later teach at Crystal Springs, Monte Vista, Rose, Wilmot, and Montgrenan, which eventually became the first school in Geraldine’s teaching career, as well as later her nieces. During these busy years her mother and family would move several times until father finally purchased the N ½, 18, 43, 1, W5 in the Crystal Springs district as their permanent home.

Life was an anxious business for women in those days, and particularly for my mother. There was no means of communication, no telephone or radio, and no way of knowing if my father had reached his weekly boarding place some ten miles away. Often there were blizzards to drive through with a little team and sleigh, below zero temperatures, and the possibility of the team playing out in the massive snow drifts. I vividly remember him driving in on Friday evening, his face covered with frost, and with icicles hanging from his classic handlebar moustache and eyebrows. Then too there was the danger of fires in a house lit by coal oil lamps, and heated by stoves vented with tin chimneys, often close to wood and paper. Outdoors there was the seasonal risk of grass fires, floods, wildlife, and unwelcome visitors.

Shopping was conducted in a very different way in those days. Most articles were ordered from the big catalogues of the T. Eaton Company in Winnipeg or Simpson’s in Regina. Whoever in the community happened to be going to town stopped at each neighbour’s house along the way and picked up the cream and eggs to go to the creamery, as well as our grocery lists and letters for the Post Office. We also sent a blank cheque to pay the bills and send the money orders, then the correct change and pay in/pay out stubs were returned when it was delivered in the evening. There was never any cheating, as all of us were good and trusting neighbours.

I can faintly recall the “flu of 1918”, which came quickly and silently, and the masks the people wore over their faces in hopes of preventing it. Some years later following the ‘winter of the deep snow’, my memory recalls the bones of cattle on the hillsides and in the swamps. I can still remember the wintertime, the stark loneliness and the bitter- bitter cold, and the stillness of the night, broken only by the eerie and lonely howling of the odd coyote. My mother did her best to amuse us during those long evenings, and while we had no recreation other than books, we crowded around a wood fire and she would tell us some wonderful stories, which she wove out of her imagination.

Our home life and the involvement of my father in teaching various schools were so closely interwoven that it was difficult to tell where one began and the other ended. As we grew older we walked the three miles to and from school at Crystal Springs, or rode ponies along the trails that wound through the magnificent rolling hills; while wild roses grew along the roadsides in the summer, and we would always argue over who would open and close the six gates that kept the cattle enclosed along the way. It would take hours to warm up the classroom, but once the chimney started to draw properly and the smoke cleared out of the room, we thawed out our ink bottles, and it was a wonderful feeling as we huddled and warmed up together. There were restless times, tears, and many missing faces during the war years throughout the area, but we made do and looked towards the future. It wasn’t long before the County of Ponoka had been formed, new school districts were consolidated, and most of those cherished country schools were eventually closed forever!

My father retired at the age of 78 after spending 56 years behind the teacher’s desk. Tall and erect, his intellect was as keen as ever, and he retained his tremendous interest in the world around him until his passing on Feb. 14, 1959 at the age of 86 years. He will be fondly remembered for his keen scholastic ability, his warm Irish temper, and his equally warm heart. My mother had predeceased him in 1944, and she will always be remembered for her gentleness, her faith, and her ongoing devotion to her family. At the end of her touching and colourful story Geraldine (Stewart) fondly recalls that chance and circumstances had carried her father to a number of countries and eventually to the Crystal Springs area; effecting not only his and mother’s life, but the lives of his children, his students, and his community. As she looks back in retrospect, the hardships fade into insignificance, the tragedies are tempered by time, the special memories and fond good times stand out in vivid relief; and Geraldine and her sisters Frances (Thomas) and Deirdre (Collis) wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

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