First days of school in the first schoolhouse

School is back in for another year. However, as the students make their way to their respective schools for the 2012-2013 terms, it is interesting to reflect back 125 years to September 1887 when the first pupils commenced their education in Red Deer’s first schoolhouse.

Actually, the very first classes had been held in the spring of 1887 in a rundown squatter’s shack located next to the Red Deer River, not far from Fort Normandeau. The first teacher was a young Presbyterian student missionary, William Neilly. His mandate was to “found a mission school for the settlers’ children and expound the Gospel to the public in general.”

Funds for this school were non-existent. Neilly was not paid. However, he proved to be very popular in the community. His efforts also prompted the community to commence plans for a more formal school.

A petition was sent to the territorial government to create an official school district. While the community was waiting for the government’s response, work began on a log schoolhouse.

The site chosen was midway between the Red Deer Crossing settlement at Fort Normandeau and the Gaetz family homestead in the valley to the east. This meant that the prospective students would all have roughly the same distance to walk to school.

The work on the schoolhouse was done by volunteer labour.

Virtually all the men in the community pitched in. However, they literally spilled their blood for the project as a number of those cutting the logs suffered axe cuts to their knees.

Once the schoolhouse was finally up, work began on the furnishings. Six double desks were made by the volunteers as well as a few simple wooden benches. A large rusty box stove was acquired from a local settler. Someone either made or donated a small desk for the teacher to use. A kitchen chair was donated for a seat.

A small blackboard and some glass windowpanes were purchased in Calgary and shipped up to Red Deer in a wagon.

Some slates were acquired for the students to write on. Somewhere, two antiquated maps were secured. Virtually no books were purchased as there wasn’t enough money on hand for textbooks, or for the start of a library. Fortunately, a few settlers had some books that they could donate or lend.

A decision was made not to dig a well. Instead, a wooden bucket was used to haul water up from the nearby river. A small metal ladle was provided for those wishing a drink.

A pit was dug back of the schoolhouse and a simple outhouse was erected overtop to provide the sanitary facilities.

A small clearing in front of the schoolhouse served as a rudimentary playground. Play equipment was limited to homemade bats and some balls of rag or raveled yarn. A piece of old rope, hung on a tree limb, served as a swing.

The Red Deer Public School District #104 was formally declared on Sept. 12, 1887. With this official recognition, grants in the amount of $1.50 per student were now available to operate the school.

Classes started almost immediately with the local Methodist student missionary, William Vrooman, acting as the schoolteacher. Because Rev. Vrooman’s education was limited to “what the education system of Manitoba in the early days afforded,” as well as some theological training, the territorial department of education had to grant a provisional teaching certificate.

The first report of the new school district to the territorial government claimed that there were 21 pupils registered. However, the actual attendance was only nine students. All but two of these children came from the Leonard Gaetz family.

School closed for the year in early November with the onset of cold weather. The schoolhouse was too poorly heated, and the walk to school too long, to allow the continuation of classes throughout the winter.

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