History: A Pioneer School Teacher

Reprinted from the September 1952 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

A Pioneer School Teacher
By Anne L. Gaetz

When Alberta was young, schools were few and far between. Even after a school house was built, rural districts found difficulty in procuring a teacher. Most of the teachers came from the eastern provinces, Ontario or Nova Scotia, and engaged a school through the Teacher’s Employment Agency.

This was a young man’s country, and settlers were, for the most part, bachelors, or young married couples, too young to have marriageable daughters. For that reason, there was a great scarcity of wives for the homesteading bachelors.

However, the Department of Education, the Teachers’ Employment Agency and the Rural School Boards together did a splendid service towards relieving the wife shortage.

When a School District was set up, a school house built and a teacher employed, it usually followed that, come June a teacher walked out from that school to make some bachelor happy. It was said that the teachers made very good wives for the homesteaders, too.

In 1903 when I, the writer of this sketch, arrived in an Alberta town from Nova Scotia, I expected the secretary of the school district where I was to teach to meet me at the station and drive me to the district, a distance of thirty-six miles. The Agency, through whom I had engaged my school, had notified the secretary of my expected arrival, but the post office was eighteen miles away and settlers got their mail when someone went to town for supplies, which was usually about once a month.

However, luck was with me, for the settlers needed lime to chink up the walls of their log houses and make ready for the winter. On the day of my arrival, the secretary came in for lime and other supplies and picked up the mail, including the letter from the Agency on the way in. He lost no time in looking me up, and made arrangements to take me out with him the next morning.

At eight o’clock the next morning, the secretary drew up before the hotel, his double wagon box pretty well loaded. These were the days when a woman’s skirts just cleared the ground and this method of travel was quite new to me. It looked a long way up to the top of that double wagon box, but I made it, and we were on our way.

This was during what were called the rainy years, and mud on the trails was hub deep. A settler usually took an extra team along to pull the wagon through the worst of the mudholes. The trail wound in and out, avoiding sloughs and mudholes as much as possible. When an animal died on the road, which quite often happened, the harness was removed and future traffic made a detour until the coyotes devoured the carcass.

Although it was early September, a wet, drizzly snow, melting as it fell, continued throughout the day. For some reason, wagons were called “spring seat wagons,” perhaps to differentiate them from the Red River cart, which was fitted with a box-like spring. At any rate, I’m sure that seat boasted no spring, for I had all day to test it.

This was Saturday, and before we reached our destination, the secretary assured me that his children would ride around that evening and tell the settlers that a teacher had arrived and that school would open on Monday. At six o’clock, when I climbed stiffly down from that double wagon box, I was quite skeptical as to whether I would be sufficiently rested to teach on Monday.

However, a night’s sleep does wonders for young people. The school house had been built for several months, and several times a teacher had been engaged through the Teacher’s Agency; but when she arrived at the nearest station and found how isolated she was destined to be she found something closer to civilization. In the meantime, a student minister preached at the school house every four weeks, and on Sunday morning when I attended church, I had my first introduction to my new school house.

I was agreeably surprised to see such a large turnout from such a scattered community and I thought, this surely speaks well for the people of this community. I was particularly surprised to see so many young men at church, and I thought the minister must be very popular with the young people.

I learned later that the parents all turned out to look the new teacher over so as to decide whether they could safely trust their offspring to her care. The bachelors came to give the teacher the “once over” to find out if she looked like a gal who could milk a cow, tend a garden and get a man a decent meal. The minister said that he wished the school board would make a practice of engaging a new teacher each month when was he was due to arrive so that he could be assured of a congregation.

Things were rather crude in that scattered community, thirty-six miles from a post office. All the houses were of logs, and the only means of getting around was by wagon, saddle horse or “shank’s horses.” We made our own fun, and a very good time was had, too.

Although settlers were few and far between, it was a very closely knit community. Everyone was starting from scratch, and every settler knew that his hardships and inconveniences were shared by his neighbour. There was a warmth and sincerity among the settlers which is sometimes lacking in our prosperous thickly settled communities of today. We were all pioneering, and we realized that we had to make the best of things as we found them. Life was hard, but happy. c

‘Our History’ is curated by former Canadian Cattlemen editor, Gren Winslow.

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