Ryerson School and our rural community
Of the many, healing now disappeared, pills rural “institutions” – wooden grain elevators, small town railroad stations complete with elevated wooden water tank to serve the steam locomotives, blacksmith shops, etc, etc, none seem to reflect change on the prairies as much as the demise of the one room schoolhouse. Perhaps it was because most of the half-section (320 acre) farms held a growing family that so many one-room schools had to be built. It was a pre-school bus era. In our area, there were six one-room schools within 10 miles of our home farm. The one I attended for 9 years (as did my older siblings Ina and Lyman) was called Ryerson, no doubt named after the famous Canadian educator Egerton Ryerson.
Built in 1887, Ryerson was given the number 360 and was located 7 miles north and 1 mile east of the Town of Oak Lake in Western Manitoba. Other schools in the area were Harvey (named after a pioneer family in the district), Hagyard, Johnston (again, after a local farm family), Verity and Education Point. There were an number of others as well. Save for a stone cairn or two, all but one of these buildings are long gone, victims of a dwindling rural population and larger school divisions. Education Point is still standing on that main road south of the hamlet of Harding but reports are that is has been subject to vandalism. All these schools taught grades 1 through 9.
Ryerson was my school. I always knew it as a white building with green trim. Local house painter Cliff Strong came every year to paint the inside; every few years to paint the outside. It was a small wooden building with a prominent bell tower – and bell – at the top. It was probably 24 ft (7.5 m.) square with one window on the west side and 4 on the east. Heat for the school was supplied by a big pot-bellied stove in the north-west corner. Pipes carrying the smoke from the stove were attached to the metal ceiling in a rectangular fashion before entering the chimney. When it was your turn (winter only) to bring milk from home (raw milk in a tin pail) to be heated and mixed with canned tomato soup, it was placed precariously in a saucepan on the sloping top of the big stove. At noon, the soup was taken down and shared equally among all the students – an early version of today’s school lunch program.
Caretaking duties always seemed to fall to the oldest boy in grade 9. Now remember, in the 9 years I attended Ryerson School, there were never more than 12 students in the whole school. Brother Lyman swept the floor after school and banged the brushes together to clear them of chalk dust. I succeeded him when he went to high school. In winter, the indoor toilets were in use. Caretaking duties in the winter months included emptying these toilet pails over the snow bank into Cecil Cairns’ field. For this work we received 25 cents a day; 35 cents when winter toilet duties were added.
Just about everyone came to Ryerson School on horseback – Marguerite and Gary Goodwin came by horse and buggy as they were the farthest (21⁄2 miles) from the school and could have gone to Hagyard but if they had, we would have had less than 7 kids in the school and by the rules of the day, the school would be closed. Hagyard had a few to spare. Horses that took us to school were stabled in the barn across the road from the school.
Ryerson United Church was built in 1883, south across from the school. It was closed in 1938 and then demolished years before Ryerson School was closed in 1967. My grandfather, “R.K.” Smith, though raised a staunch Anglican, helped raise money and helped build Ryerson Methodist (later United) Church.
All of us came to school on our own or with a brother or sister. No SUV-driving, cell-phone using mother dropping off a son or daughter. To feed those horses that provided the transportation we brought oat sheaves to the loft of the school barn in the fall and all winter long we fed our horses before we had our own noon lunch.
I experienced bullying at Ryerson, which proves it is not just a modern problem. In my class (I think it was grade 8) there were only 2 of us: Marguerite Goodwin and I. Trudy Cowing was alone in grade 9. Marguerite was a bully and made our (Trudy and mine) lives a living hell with threats, mean comments and generally scared us with her words and actions. Why we put up with it, I can’t imagine. But that spring Marguerite broke her leg and was away from school for a couple of weeks. Trudy and I, almost by accident, suddenly realized our shared plight – and this is hilarious – we wrote snide comments about Marguerite on pieces of paper and stuffed them into cracks in the stone foundation of Ryerson Church across the road from the school. Marguerite, on her return to school, could sense the mutiny and proceeded to break one of her crutches over my head! Later, Marguerite was in my same class at Oak Lake’s Oakwood High School – but bullying was over.
Ryerson was not only a school; it served as a community centre for other activities – Red Cross meetings, quilting bees, Women’s Missionary Society gatherings, croquinol and whist tournaments, dances and the all-important Christmas concert. As I mentioned earlier, no more than a dozen (maybe 14-15) students ever attended Ryerson School and always fewer than that when I went there. The year I was to go into grade 2 it was obvious there would be no one else in that grade (did my grade one classmate(s) move away?), so I was moved into grade 3. A standard family joke causing much eye-rolling by our family is when I complain about my inability “to do grade 2 work all these years!”
Teachers never seemed to last more than one year; some left at Christmas time. They were judged on their ability to put on an entertaining Christmas concert as much as their skill at teaching the basic 3 Rs. Maybe that’s not fair, but it seemed to be the way many students (now really old-timers) remember their teachers. Most teachers were Normal School graduates (funny name – Normal School). It offered a 10 month teacher training course that, as it turned out, both my mother and my sister took at the Brandon Normal School. That fine old building, built in 1912, is now the Agricultural Extension Centre where I worked from 1972 to 1988.
I could tell stories ad nauseam about my experiences from the first day I walked the half mile across the field to the school in August, 1937, until June of 1946 when I completed grade 9. Here are a few additional remembrances:
During World War II (1939-45) we were encouraged to collect and bring to the school all kinds of material to aid in the “war effort”. Old rubber tires, metal of all kinds, bones of dead farm animals, silver paper, etc. On a regular basis a truck would come to collect this stuff. War savings stamps (25 cts.) were available and we dutifully brought our quarters to school as often as we could. A stamp also got you a paper cut-out of a bomb which you could stick on a big poster depicting Adolph Hitler being “bombed”. Who said propaganda was only used by the enemy? One of our “best” teachers (fair at Christmas concerts; good at the 3 Rs) was Phyllis Cairns. Phyllis was married to Henry Cairns and they lived 2 miles from the school. Although Henry was not “in the war”, Phyllis’ 2 brothers were. So I guess she felt it was important for us school children to keep up with news about the war. We were assigned, in turn, to listen to the CBC radio news on Sunday nights. It was almost all news of the war, of course, and the student so assigned was required to come to school early on the Monday morning and write a summary on the blackboard. Then we reviewed this news.
Although I knew of many local men who had gone to war, I was only 8 when the war started. Hank Lawson from the Town of Oak Lake never fully recovered from being in a Hong Kong prison camp. He was a broken man, really. Charlie Slimmon, next door neighbour and with the Manitoba 12th Dragoons as a gunner in a Staghound reconnaissance vehicle in Holland, Belgium and France, returned but not until 1946. There was a limited number of ships and so many troops to return home. Charlie, destined to be my brother-in-law a few years later, spent several weeks in bed with the flu upon returning. He didn’t really need a 14 year old (me) sitting on his bed, pestering him with questions like “did you kill lots of enemy soldiers?” Charlie’s parents, the senior Slimmons, consumed a lot of syrup – in big cans – so during the war I hovered over their supply, stripping the labels (Crown Brand and Bee Hive were the brands) to mail in, so I could get pictures of warplanes, ships and tanks. I had the whole set.
Ryerson was virtually in the center of a group of air force bases that were part of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Souris with its Avro Anson medium bombers, was only 25 miles south. Brandon 30 miles east (Cessna Cranes – 2 engine trainers), Virden, 15 miles east with Tiger Moths and, later Cornells, for pilot training, and Rivers, 15 miles north east – again, Ansons. From 1941-1945 the sky was full of planes. One morning recess at Ryerson we were all playing in the front of the school with attractive, blonde Sue Fehr, our teacher, standing on the front step. A yellow DeHavilland Tiger Moth bi-plane basic trainer suddenly appeared to the east of the school and flew past us, not 20 ft from the ground, with pilot and co-pilot looking to the side, not ahead – at comely Miss Fehr, of course! I can only assume that there was some kind of network that informed these boys (and they were boys – 18 or 19 years old, most of them) as to where the good-looking teachers could be found. Certainly a God fearing Mennonite girl like Miss Fehr wouldn’t have been at the Friday night dance in Virden to tell them!
One of the worst jobs for any rural school teacher was to count the number of gopher tails we boys had collected. Gophers (Richardson’s ground squirrels as they are officially known today) were a scourge on prairie farms in the ‘30s and ‘40s. They could clear off acres of growing grain in the spring and the holes of their dens were dangerous to livestock. The municipality paid a bounty of 2 cents a tail. Most of us considered this an excellent money making opportunity. We shot (I had my own .22 caliber rifle at age 11), drowned or trapped the gophers, killed them and pulled off their tails. The tails went into a chalk box, those neat wooden boxes with the sliding lid. I often wonder why we didn’t think to “fib” a bit about how many tails were in the box, because the teacher never counted them and always took our word for it! Fifty gopher tails meant $1.00 in bounty. A quarter would buy a box of fifty .22 short cartridges. Do the math. Unless you were a really poor shot, you could turn a tidy profit.
No description of rural school days would be complete without some reference to the Christmas Concert. As I mentioned earlier, a teacher’s worth was enhanced by her ability to put on a good concert. Concerts were a mix of recitations, plays, singing, etc., that involved all the school children. In our tiny school the desks were set up for the audience (i.e. parents), allowing room for a small stage and curtains (sheets with safety pins strung on a wire). The youngest grade 1 students would venture forth and haltingly deliver a short recitation while the teacher and older kids arranged the chairs and other props for a play. The school was decorated for Christmas and there was a Christmas tree. The School Board bought bags with nuts, candies and a small toy for each child. Santa Claus came, of course, after several “sightings”. Santa was often a local bachelor who, especially if the teacher was young and pretty, tried clumsily to get a kiss, even though his beard (a really bad beard as I recall) got in the way. Ah, the Christmas Concert!…
Field days were something else again. They happened in May, as I recall, and always in the small town of Kenton, north of our district. Every school within a 20 mile radius or so came to the Kenton high school grounds for a day of competition – sports of all kinds, ball games and a parade. We practiced marching for days in our own school yard. An old scratchy 78 r.p.m. vinyl record of the Colonel Bogey March played on a wind-up gramophone supplied the music. So, there we were, all 7 of us – the two biggest students (girls, as I recall) at the front with the Ryerson S.D.#360 banner, then two younger kids, then two more and the 7th (me) bringing up the rear. Inevitably “Colonel Bogey” started to run down as we reached the far corner of the school yard. My job was to break rank and run back to the school step, wind up the gramophone and race back to my place in line. At Field Days we were laughed at by kids from the bigger schools when we went to Kenton with our little entourage, but we held our heads high and marched bravely on in the parade.
Across the road from Ryerson School was the farmyard of Tom and Jenny Sloan. Jenny’s mother, Mrs. Cowing, lived there too and was the Post Mistress for Maskawata, a rural post office located in the Sloan’s home. Old maps of Western Manitoba still show Maskawata. It closed in the late ‘40s, replaced by individual mail boxes. These too are now gone.
The Sloans also had the facilities – crude and basic – to slaughter beef cattle for the “Beef Ring”. This was a system where farm families in the community each agreed to supply one animal during the summer months to be butchered and shared equally among the contributors. There was always concern that someone would put in a small, thin animal but for the most part it worked pretty well. On Beef Ring “Day”, we brought burlap bags, as I recall, to bring home our share of roasts, ribs, etc. This was before refrigeration, remember, so it was a quick trip with the meat from the Sloan’s crude abattoir to the ice house in our back yard. By late fall it was cool enough to store the meat safely outside and, of course, in winter it was “frozen” beef.
So – what did we do for fun in those pre-computer game days? Well, at school we played a lot of tag, fox and goose, hide and seek and anti-I-over (look them up!). Saturday nights we usually went to town (Oak Lake), not always in the winter, and took in a movie or visited people or family we knew. Oak Lake was booming in those days – it was during the last few years of the war and just after the war prices for grain were good. As well, the town seemed to have a “presence” – something sadly missing in most small prairie towns today. Oak Lake had a CPR station and stationmaster, a law office, 3 grocery stores, a bank, doctor, regional supervisors for telephone and hydro (although there was no electricity on the farms until 1948). Population of the town was more than 500; today, probably less than 200. You had to get to town by 7:00 p.m. on a Saturday night in those days or you would have to park on a side street.
My mother’s oldest sister, Aunt Nora Doherty, widowed in the early few years of her marriage and who never re-married, worked in the Rexall Drugstore back then. At the end of the week (i.e. Saturday night when we were in town), she tore the covers off the unsold Superman and Captain Marvel comic books and sent them back to the supplier. I got the comic books! In later years, when Aunt Nora had bought out Wallace Brothers grocery store at the end of Oak Lake’s main street, I worked in the store on Saturday nights in the winter while at high school. Farm families would come to town by team and sleigh, leave us with a grocery list to fill and go to a show or visit friends or family. When they came back in a few hours (often as late as 11:00 p.m.), we would have packed their groceries in a big box for them and they took them home – on credit until the end of the month.
I’m sure our total farm income for the year in those days – after expenses – wouldn’t exceed $1,000, so we “made do” with patched overalls, hand-me-down shoes and as much food from the garden as we could grow and store.