This magnificent photo features The Village of Ponoka’s first new four-room public school, which was built in 1901 across the street from the United Church. The school served our growing community for many decades, later became a rooming house, and then sadly burnt to the ground. Photo courtesy of the Fort Ostell Museum

REFLECTIONS: The early history of our Ponoka town and county school

By Mike Rainone for the News

As we happily bundle up our precious children and send them off to school each morning you may be interested in knowing that the welcome bell and buzzers have been faithfully ringing in our Ponoka town and county “halls of learning” since 1898. During that exciting span of 121 years there was been a strong, steady and overwhelming growth and progress in our most vital schooling system, with many thousands of young students from our urban and rural communities receiving the wonderful opportunity of earning a day-to-day education from within a friendly and active community atmosphere of hard work and fun.

The most humble beginnings of offering an education to those first rambunctious youngsters of the soon-to be tiny Village of Ponoka occurred in 1898 when classes were conducted in a small log building which had served as the first community church since 1896 in the area that is now 49th Ave. Mr. Youmans, a missionary to the nearby First Nations tribes would serve as the first teacher for eight to 10 students, with enrollment growing rapidly and resulting in the immediate need for the first official school house being erected on the east side of the community. While browsing through our great town and county history books I really enjoyed picking out some of the memorable milestones, stories, funny facts, and real character of the early challenges and exciting ongoing decades and progresses of our schools and I am pleased to pass them on to our readers this week.

With the constant arrival of excited settler families looking to establish their homesteads in the lush rural areas surrounding Ponoka the need for education facilities in those areas had also became a top priority for the forefathers of those new settlements. As a result, by 1905 there would be 25 of those historical tiny but popular country school houses hosting a growing list of hardy farm and ranch children. In those days in order to get to class five days a week many of the young students and their teachers had to walk or ride their horses several miles back and forth before settling into their quaint wooden desks, with the first ones there required to get the old pot bellied stove going. By the late 1950s there would be over 70 schools in the Ponoka County Educational system.

The first chapter of our early and sudden demand for schooling in the Town of Ponoka would feature an overwhelming population of new Grade 1 to 12 students having to attend make-shift classrooms in local churches and private homes, at the Empress Movie Theatre, or on dusty top floors of local businesses. That very hectic saga came to an end in 1929 when our now historical Red Brick School was built at a cost of $60,000 and would require a staff of 12, but at first this very energetic community project was looked upon as an expensive White Elephant but was soon busting at the seams. Over the following years as Ponoka grew quickly there would begin a new wild and exciting era of school expansions and added facilities and services on all fronts in the 1960s. This would result in the construction of a new junior high school, composite high school, elementary school, Riverside school, St. Augustine and Christian schools. Larger and more modern schools were also opened in the County of Ponoka, and the trend would carry on into our future of always striving to provide countless unique opportunities for our youth to get the best education.

Many of us will recall our early school adventures

The social and academic life of school students in the early days likely differed a lot over the years. Elaborate Christmas concerts were held with the profits used to buy school athletic equipment; sock hops and box socials were popular where the boys could buy the decorated box lunches of their favourite gal-pal; and there were always a few house or beach parties and sleigh rides on the weekends. As well as learning the 3Rs and becoming one of the in crowd, the biggest thrills and wishes of our days at school included getting our own locker, trading lunches at noon, receiving a good report card to take home, and summer holidays.

Truancy was most noticeable in the 1920s and 30s, where many students would skip class to go for a swim in the Battle River or stay longer at the local pool hall. The local truant officer was most feared in those days; with the dreaded strap lurking in the principal’s desk, and quiet detentions during recesses were not much fun.

In a longstanding and proud tradition that carries on to this day school sports were always very popular in the early days, including track and field, basketball for both girls and boys, baseball, curling, football, a boxing club, and more. Yours truly was not that good at sports, but as a sports reporter for the Ponoka Herald I got to ride on the bus with the Cheer Squad. There was also a school band, which marched in community parades and played for dances, as well as a glee club, who learned to sing the old tunes as well the new hippity-hop era music.

The war years saw many of Ponoka’s students joining the various branches of the armed forces, some making the ultimate sacrifice, while others returned with broken bodies and health. Our schools and community always supported the war efforts, purchasing War Savings Certificates and hosting events to raise money to support our soldiers at home and overseas.

Our education systems of yesterday and today are never any better than its teachers, support staff, and dedicated bus drivers, and throughout the decades our town and county schools have been blessed by attracting many highly competent people.

Ponoka High School Initiation

By Kay Burns 1946-47

We never knew the Grade 10 girls could look so cute without their curls,

With pigtails sticking out all around, it looked like Topsy had come to town.

No flashing legs, no nylons sheer, for mama’s dress came down to here!

Bow-ties on ankles were a craze, and reminded us all of grandma’s days!

With whiffs of brilliantine so high, a troop of boys went drifting by;

Wrapped in shawls of their younger years, with hair plastered down beside their ears!

Those many legs with garters neat, and holding them up was quite a feat!

The parade was cheered by young and old, but the poor grade 10s didn’t feel so bold!

And so, initiation for another year has ended in laughter and not one shed a tear!

For they’re all good sports with humour galore, the kind Ponoka High School needs, and we wish we had more!

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