One of the most beloved landmarks of early Red Deer was the old Central Elementary School, affectionately nicknamed The Castle.
When the Red Deer Museum designed its popular new permanent historical exhibit, Remarkable Red Deer, it recreated the façade of The Castle as the entrance to the special children’s display area.
The Castle was built during a great boom time for Red Deer.
The population of the Town leapt from a mere 323 in 1901 to more than 1,500 five years later. Many of those moving to the community were young families, with children needing an education.
A two-storey brick schoolhouse had been built on the Central School grounds in 1894. While major additions had been constructed onto it, it was not large enough to handle the flood of new students.
Consequently, the nearby Orange Hall was rented for additional classroom space.
This, however, was only an interim measure. The Public School Board investigated and then rejected the idea of making another addition to the main schoolhouse. Plans were then made to build a large new eight-room school on a site to the southeast of the existing school building.
The new school was to be modeled on one built in Wetaskiwin and another which had been constructed in Winnipeg.
R.G. Gordon was retained as the architect. When the tenders were opened in Aug. 15, 1906, the contract was awarded to Gordon Armstrong in the amount of $36,300. The heating and ventilating contract was awarded to Pease, Waldon Co. for an additional $5,600.
The new building was to contain eight classrooms with a large assembly hall on the third floor. The walls were to be constructed with solid brick with one course of select brick on the outside and two courses of filler brick on the inside. The interior walls were to be finished with lathe and plaster.
The foundation was constructed of sandstone with the windowsills and lintels above the entrances also made of sandstone. One entrance was to be labeled as being for the girls while the other was to be labeled for the boys.
A louvered bell tower was constructed on the top of the building with a large bell in it to summon the students to class.
There was heavy rope leading from the bell down through the ceiling into the principal’s classroom.
One important addition to the building was the construction of bathrooms in the basement.
Students at the old school house had to go to a set of outdoor wooden privies, often a daunting trip during the very cold winter months.
The Castle was officially opened on Oct. 10, 1907.
Among the invited dignitaries were the premier of the province, the minister of education, several other cabinet ministers, the local MLAs, other government officials and trustees from other local school districts.
Expressly not invited were Red Deer’s mayor and the town councilors.
The public school trustees had not been invited to the grand banquet held in April 1906 when the Town made a bid to become the capital city of Alberta.
Hence, the Public School Board saw no need to invite the Town council to its grand event.
The Castle quickly became a landmark in the community.
While the building initially had a steel fire escape on the west side, this was later replaced with a tubular fire escape which provided fears and thrills to students when it was used during fire drills. It was considered a real badge of honour to be the student chosen to be the first one down the slide, riding on a piece of carpet to clean out some of the accumulated dust.
Tragically, on April 28, 1970, a serial arsonist, who had been setting fires throughout the City, targeted the Castle.
Once the fire got well established, there was nothing the fire department could do to stop the blaze. Consequently, the entire structure was destroyed and an historic Red Deer landmark was lost forever.
Fortunately, a few features of the building such as the boys and girls entrance signs and the school bell were salvaged and they are included in the Museum’s displays.