The One-Room Prairie School

Basic Rural Education in the 1920s and 1930s

 This post’s title describes a topic dear to my heart, but I have struggled with how to enable readers to enter that long-ago world.  Just describing the buildings, the facilities, the curriculum and the students will not convey the reality of my childhood times, so foreign now to any but the very old.  This story, therefore, starts a few years before my birth.

1918 ushered in the end of World War One.  That terrible conflict with its tragic loss of lives, barbaric cruelties on all sides, social upheavals, and heroic actions beyond description finally came to an end.  Then followed the demobilization of war-weary soldiers eager to return to their old familiar world, only to find that their home world had changed as much as they had!    

Peace brought a period of euphoria and the belief flourished that the road ahead was strewn with roses.  Men who had gone to war as young fellows from the farm were now encouraged by government help and the prevailing mood to buy farm land.  They banked on hope and crops and easy debt to get them started.  Their rosy expectations did not materialize.  Others, both from the urban and farming sections, got caught up in the euphoria and debt levels soared.  Meanwhile, the reality was that the world was heading into what came to be known as “The Great Depression”.  The years between 1918 and 1922 were marked by social unrest, the beginnings of economic problems, and a vicious flu epidemic that killed millions of people as it swept over one continent after another.  Then, in 1929, came the crash of the stock market and chaos followed.  Alberta in particular, and the West in general, suffered a long and severe drought, a plague of dust storms, and a plunge in the prices received for all that farmers had to sell.  By 1929 the Great Depression was well launched and the Dirty Thirties were beginning.

I was born in 1922.  With all the harsh realities just described one would think that my childhood was marred by hardships.  Not so!  Strange isn’t it – but children live very much in the present.  Given faith in their inner circle, if honesty and love and reasonable guidance exist in the home, children can thrive and be happy and able to accept what they encounter.  So it was with Doris and me.  Sure – we hated and feared the dust storms, and rejoiced in the infrequent rains.  Yes – we knew not to eat too much butter so Mom would have more to sell.  Of course store-bought cookies could not be in every grocery order, they were too expensive!  However, unlike a lot of urban people, we were never hungry.  With the good fortune to have mature parents who were financially cautious, we did not get caught in the debt crunch or the uprooting which followed when farmers lost their farms.  As for schools – the only schools we knew were just like ours – were there any other?  Well, of course there were.  Sheldon was always proud of the fact that his elementary school had four rooms!  It was in a small Alberta town.  In the larger urban areas there were, of course, large school for all levels, but Alberta was still mainly a rural province.

In the early 1930s there were over 3000 rural school districts, belonging to 50 larger school divisions.  Times were tough.  “Normal Schools” turned out teachers after only one year of training.  Jobs were scarce and competition for jobs fierce.  A minimum salary of $840 per year was required, but often the school trustees could not raise that much.  Less was offered – and accepted.  The teachers often had free board and room with a farming family near the school.  The farmer got a tax credit in return.  Imagine these young teachers, some not yet out of their teens, and the hardships they endured and the challenges they met.  An Alberta Teachers’ Association article stated  “Despite such challenges, heroism and persistence were the fabric of everyday life for rural teachers, who made unique contributions to the quality of rural education.”  My personal observations support this statement!

Doris and I started school in 1927.  She was 6 and I was 5.  It was a very big day in our lives, the first venture outside our home to an environment where we must manage on our own.  The actual South Valley School building was familiar to us.  It served as a community center for pot-luck suppers, dances, card parties, bridal showers and other community occasions.  Many a time I had slept on a pile of quilts in a corner with other little kids, while the fiddler and the accordion player made music well into the night.  Our parents danced and socialized, and finally dressed their sleepy children and went home.  But today was different.  The children playing around the front door of the school greeted us, calling us by name.  Our parents took us in to meet the new teacher, who looked so tall and imposing to us (not like the 19 year old she actually was).  Then, after admonishing us to “Be good and do as you are told”, my parents left and our school life began.

At this point I will close and pick up the tale in my next blog.  The one-room schools scattered around our district were almost identical, but I have yet to find a proper exterior picture or interior floor plan of any of them!  I will try to produce a rough sketch, guessing at the dimensions, unless somewhere one of my readers can come to the rescue.  How rewarding participation like that would be!  For now, a short pause in the tale of rural education in the 1920s and 1930s in the “One-Room Prairie School”.  The saga will soon continue!

Footnote – I wish to acknowledge the help I received while gathering information for this blog.  Jessie Bach, working in Halifax, stumbled across an earlier blog of mine in which I mentioned Standard, Alberta.  Jessie was from Standard, and she took the initiative of posting that blog on the Standard Library’s Facebook page.  Traci Rasmussen, who lives in Standard and is a friend of Jessie, read the posting and was interested.  She registered for email notification of my postings and in so doing gave enough personal information to catch my attention!  I contacted her and found I knew both her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, and those of her husband as well.  So relationships are developed and help received.  In response to my questions regarding the early school system, it was Traci who found an excellent article published on the Alberta Teacher’s Association (ATA) website: “The History of Public Education”.  This article is a gold mine for those interested in this subject.  I commend the ATA for preserving and publishing this material for the public to access.  It was very useful for me as it could be for others.

Now – if by chance some reader can produce pictures and/or floor plans of any of those early schools my excitement will ride high.  Such additions would be included in some of my following “school” blogs.  I certainly encourage and am grateful for any such participation.  You can use the Comments Page to send me an email with a link to an online source, or with an attachment if you happen to already have such a file.


Filed under Prairie Childhood

11 Responses to The One-Room Prairie School

  1. steven

    The book From Danaview to Standard is scanned and online. The section on the South Valley School starts on page 143. I thought this might be a helpful find, but now I see that you wrote one section of this book, so I guess you’re slightly ahead of me here.

    The photographic archives of the Glenbow Museum are also online. I can’t find any photos labelled as the South Valley School, but there are several photos of schools in the area from the 1910s and 1920s, some unnamed: NA-3271-8, NA-3969-21, NA-3969-22, NA-3969-24, NA-3969-62, NA-3969-63, NA-3969-23.

    The Provincial Archives of Alberta are somewhat online; they’ve got a photo of Standard School from the 1910s. (You might also be interested in this composite panoramic view of Standard in the 1930s, grain elevators and all, and this 1924 photo of a farm in the area, and this 1926 photo of a street in Standard.) The Provincial Archives apparently do have a collection of school plans, but not online.

    • Marjorie

      Steven – Many thanks for the work you did looking for pictures or floor plans. It will take me some time to sort through these options. I certainly appreciate both the interest and the research. Will let you know if anything surfaces.

  2. Ralph

    Very cool, Mom ! Nicely done. I think this is a wonderful topic for you to explore to your heart’s content.

    • Marjorie

      Ralph – Glad you liked it. Being an educator yourself encourages me. I had some concern about the amount of background, but kept feeling that it was necessary. Hope I was right.

  3. Glenna Gorrill

    I can identify with what you wrote about schools (mine had 3 rooms), the fact that we didn’t know how poor we were, the dust storms, and the fact that we were never hungry. Thanks for the memories. Glenna

    • Marjorie

      Glenna – Yes, memories are priceless, are they not? Remember that saying “God gave us memories so that we could have roses in December”. It comes to my mind so often as I am delving back over eighty years! Glad the blog stirred up some for you. Marjorie

  4. Eveline

    Marjorie, Bruce’s mother was a normal school graduate and taught in at least two rural schools. One was in Berwyn, and she lived with several families over the time she was there. She was born in 1904 so exactly fits the demographic you write about. Also we have a friend who transformed a one room school to a very nice country home. We are trying to locate her to see if she has pictures. She is an excellent photographer so it is likely she does. Lovely story.Thanks so much. Eveline

    • Marjorie

      Eveline – I keep running into information in unexpected places! Did Bruce’s mother talk much about her experience teaching in those schools? Do you remember if she mentioned how many students she taught in each school, and how many grades? The preparation they had to do was wicked! I am hoping your photographer friend is the sort who does “before and after” photography! The only school pictures I have found are from different schools, but the same idea. The students are lined up for a school picture, either outside underneath the long windows on the east side, or in the front on the steps. We know where they are taken, but no view of the whole building at all. Almost any picture with some general detail would be a find. Thanks for your interest – I live in hope. MMG

  5. Alison Uhrbach

    Marjorie – I’m a little too young to have gone to a “one room school”, but I thought I’d mention/ remind you that Isabel Pounder was a teacher at a one room school in Southern Saskatchewan before she was married. She often talked about her teaching when she visited us. I know they were happy times for her, and she spoke very fondly of the family who let her live with them etc. I don’t know if Margie receives your blog or not? but I’m sure she would find your recollections remind her of stories her mom told. Corvin taught in a 4 room school in Empress Alberta! and that was in 1978! ( 11 grades in those 4 rooms)

    • Marjorie

      Alison – Quite a bit too young for you to have personal recollection, and it is news to me about Isabel Pounder’s experience. Many of the teachers did love their work, and the people they lived and worked with. In fact, quite a few ended up marrying young farmers and staying in the district! One never knows where life will take one. Regarding Margie (formerly Pounder), I have no idea of whether she knows of my blog, but would doubt it. If you think this prairie school series would interest her, could you make the contact? I no longer know how to reach her. Many thanks, MMG

  6. Marjorie

    This email came to me from Traci, who lives in Standard. I include an extract here, with her permission…
    “I was talking to my mom this afternoon and told her about your last blog. She said she remembers going to the one-room schoolhouse and suggests you find these books by John Charyk: The Little White Schoolhouse (has lots of teacher and schoolboard info) and Those Bittersweet School Days. This man was my brother-in -law’s school principal in Hanna. I also think I found a school house for you – believe it or not! I have sent Jessie, who has moved back to Alberta, to see if she can get a picture of it — just down the road from Jessie’s parents farm. Will let you know if I come up with anything.”
    Traci – Great information! I will copy the names of the books and see if I can find them, and by printing them in the comments of the blog, others may find them interesting too! Thank you so much for your help. We will see what Jessie comes up with too. You will note that Eveline, one of our readers, is on the search for pictures also. If we get enough we may have a “picture blog edition”. MMG