By Jean Ann Berkenpas
Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian Pacific Railway raced west across the country, initiating major changes to the area. The G.T.P. was completed through Yellowhead Pass in 1913. Railway crews made up the first small towns, to be followed later by European settlers. As families arrived, the need for schools grew. By the early 1920s there were schools in Lucerne, Red Pass, Mount Robson, Tete Jaune, Croydon Station, Dunster, McBride, Crescent Spur, Dome Creek, Swift Creek (Valemount), and Albreda.
Communities were small and isolated by the difficulty of travel. Railway was the main source of transportation between communities, with limited connection by road. Small one-room schools were the norm. These were often heated with a barrel wood stove and poorly insulated, making them cold in the winter and mosquito-ridden in the summer.
Mr. D. H. Tully describes his first experiences teaching at the Mountain View School near McBride between 1934-1936, in The Robson Valley Story by Marilyn Wheeler: “Once the children got in we used to pull all the desks up around the 45 gallon drum that was the stove to keep warm. The children quite often wrote with a pencil in the wintertime, and with mitts on, it was that cold.”
“In the springtime each child brought a tin lid and put it under the seat and put a little dribble of pyrethrum powder there, and so we all sat with the smoke coming up between our legs to keep the mosquitoes from eating us up.”
A pump out front would provide water, and two outhouses in the back served as boys and girls washrooms. The teacher would sometimes stay in a teacherage, which was a cabin beside the school. Otherwise they would board in the community. In those early days a teacher salary was around $800 for the year.
The school was also the meeting place for the community. Church services would take place there, as would Christmas concerts, dances, and other community activities.
Most of these early schools provided education up to Grade 8, at which point students would have to continue by correspondence or move to a larger centre to continue their education.
Many of these one room schools were destroyed by fire, or were abandoned for larger buildings as communities grew. Early schools in McBride, Dunster and Valemount all burned to the ground, prompting the construction of bigger and better ones.
Valemount’s one room log schoolhouse was built in 1916. It was centrally located, near the current arena. It was destroyed by a fire of unknown origin in 1935. A new school house was built on Main Street, near the current library. It was used until a new school was built in 1952.
In 1946 the new Education Act was introduced, and the small schools were amalgamated into larger schools. The new School District #58 covered the area from Dome Creek to the Alberta border and down to Valemount.
The Fraser School in McBride was built around the end of WW I and had two classrooms. This school was destroyed by fire in 1947, shortly after amalgamation of most small schools in the area to McBride. The new school was not complete until 1952, and the community made-do with the recently built high school until then.
According to Marlyn Wheeler’s The Robson Valley Story, “On May 17, 1963, the log school at Dunster burned down. No time was lost in converting the Community Hall into two classrooms and enclosing a school yard around it with a snow fence. By the spring the following year the new school was completed.”
In 1968 McBride had its first experimental kindergarten class, which was held in a portable.
In 1970 there was a further amalgamation of school districts. School District #58 was absorbed into Prince George School District #57. There were some concerns voiced from the community then, about the needs of rural students being met. This continues to be a topic of interest and sometimes contention today.
Next week we will explore the changes that happened in the Robson Valley Region schools from the 1970’s to present day.