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One-room Schools

Heading home from school by horse and wagon, May 1951, near Rosefield, Saskatchewan.
Everett Baker (Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society)

The first one-room schools began when a community of Aboriginal people or early settlers had enough children to qualify for a grant for a school. After receiving the necessary government approvals, they selected a site. Regulations stipulated that such a school should be far from a slough; it should also be built on ground high enough that it would not flood, but low enough that the grass would grow. It was to be centrally located and readily accessible by the whole community. Church-operated schools were organized before government funding for buildings became available: in Cumberland House, for example, Rev. Henry Budd, an ordained Indian minister, started a school in the Anglican Church Chapel in 1842. Treaty 5 promised a school in 1876, but it was not completed until 1908.

Community members were generally responsible for building the school. Some schools were built of local stone, some of sod or mud, and others of logs or lumber; some were even assembled on site using prefabricated materials. Early plans were obtained from other provinces, the USA or Europe; but after 1912, volunteer workers used plans provided by the provincial government. These plans required about 15 square feet per student, an 11-foot ceiling, and windows to the left; there would also be a cloakroom with hooks for outdoor clothes, a stand for a washbasin, and shelves for the lunch buckets. The typical schoolroom consisted of a blackboard at the front, some shelves under the windows for textbooks, a teacher’s desk and chair at the front of the room, a pot-bellied stove near the centre or at the back, and single or double desks for the students. The outbuildings generally consisted of two privies, a stable, sometimes a coal and wood shed, and later a teacherage. Heating the non-insulated school was always a challenge: on average, a school used about twelve tons of coal and half a cord of kindling per year. The teacher or students were responsible for building the fire in the morning and cleaning stovepipes regularly; many a morning was spent huddled around a stubborn fire, or cleaning the soot out of each section of pipe. Unless the school had a reliable source of water, drinking water in the early schools was supplied in a galvanized pail and a dipper. Later, sanitation rules required a fountain or a crock with a tap; but the fountain wasted too much water, so the latter became more popular.

Schools were usually supplied with maps—either the roller type that had to be purchased, or the flat ones supplied by the Neilson Company, with pictures of chocolate bars in each corner. The arrival of a globe gave students a more realistic view of what the world looked like; unfortunately, the relatively soft surface sometimes gave way to prying fingers and, because mice seemed to like the taste of glue, students on occasion found a family of pink babies nestled inside the sphere. For many students, school was a welcome break from the hard work on the farm. In remembering their experiences in a one-room school, people recall the many pranks they played on one another and on the teacher—from hiding grasshoppers in a girl’s pencil box to plugging the chimney on the roof of the school. The teachers in these schools were usually women, some with a background of teacher training, others with only a Grade 8 standing. Some were very young; others came out of retirement to fill advertised positions. In the early years, teachers boarded with families in the community, travelling to school with some of their students. Many of these women found partners in the community and stayed on as wives and mothers. When teacherages became more common, they allowed single teachers some privacy and school boards a more reasonable option to hire married men, whose families quickly became contributing members of the community. In the early days teachers were scarce, and school boards were lucky to receive more than one response to their advertisements. During the 1930s, however, when jobs were hard to come by, some school boards received hundreds of applications. The teachers did not have security of tenure, and wages were sporadic, especially during the Depression. Teachers could be and sometimes were terminated at the slightest provocation. Turnover was high, the average being a new teacher every year.

A typical school had fifteen students in six grades; but enrolment could go as high as fifty, with eight or even ten grades. In the early years the government supplied readers but no other textbooks for Grades 1 to 6. Many parents could not afford to buy books, so the teacher spent countless hours writing notes and assignments on the blackboard. It was a common practise for the teacher to bring groups to the front of the room to hear them read or to teach a lesson; others often hurried with their assignments so that they could listen to what the children at the front were being taught. Drill and memory work were common in all subjects. Although the teacher followed the Provincial Programme of Studies for all subjects, the emphasis was on reading, writing and arithmetic. Spelling bees were often held on Friday afternoons; in some areas, these became community events or even competitions between school districts. One of the most traumatic events of the school year was the visit of the inspector. Although some inspectors were compassionate, others entered the school with an officious air, quizzing the children in various subjects and observing classroom proceedings with a critical eye. The teacher faced these visits with trepidation, and the children, who often thought he was inspecting them, caught that same sense of fear.

Games at recess and lunch hour, as well as physical education classes, were an important part of the one-room school. In summer, there were games like softball, pom-pom-pullaway, kick the can, ante-ante-I-over, hide-and-seek, red-light, and prisoner’s base. In the winter there was ice for sliding, skating or shinny, and hills for sleighing. On cold or stormy days there were indoor games such as checkers, snakes-and-ladders, and charades. Special occasions were observed in the one-room schools. On Hallowe’en night there was usually a party for children, involving costumes and contests. For weeks before Christmas the teacher and students practised plays, poems and songs in preparation for an elaborate concert that was performed for the whole community; at the end of the concert, Santa Claus appeared with bags of treats for all the school and pre-school children. On February 14 there was a St. Valentine’s box. Arbor Day was a day for clean-up and planting trees. The school was also used for anniversary celebrations, political meetings, Friday night dances, and various community functions.

Following World War II, the demise of the one-room school coincided with automation, improvements in transportation, changes in education philosophy, and the gradual disappearance of small farms. The fate of the school buildings was varied: some were bought by local farmers to be used as outbuildings, some were abandoned to the weather, and a very few became museums, immortalizing their central role in the communities they served. As centres of learning and of community development, one-room schools in Saskatchewan were as significant to the development of this province as the thousands of wooden Grain Elevators that have also been relegated to history.

Rosella Mitchell

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Further Reading

Archer, J. 1980. Saskatchewan: A History. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books; Charyk, J.C. 1973. The Little White Schoolhouse. Saskatoon: Western Producer Book Service.
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