The Bay Island school sits alone on the bare and open Saskatchewan prairie in the proverbial middle of nowhere. In operation from 1919-1950, it’s the archetypal one room schoolhouse – tiny in size and quaint in appearance, but with an important purpose. Located on a small knoll in area of rolling grasslands, fields and pastures, I doubt many people who pass by it pay it much mind. It’s so small and insignificant after all.
But it means something to us. It might not be big and impressive, but it has a history. It’s connected to the land and the people that worked it. It’s here the children of local farmers learned their ABCs and 123s. Where they were taught to take on the world. How could we not stop to take it all in? Its small stature makes it no less interesting. It’s not about the size.
The Bay Island School, officially Bay Island School District #4362, was one of thousands of such faculties that once dotted the Canadian Prairies. They were located where ever there was a population, no matter how small or remote. Children needed to be taught and since travel at the time was hard and slow – the roads were somewhere between bad and horrendous, or at times nonexistent altogether – the building had to be located close to the students.
With the coming of better roads, after World War Two, it was easier to consolidate many districts into one and with that most one room schoolhouses were then closed. Students could now be bussed longer distances.
These schools were also used as meeting halls and on Sunday’s, many doubled as a church. This one did, we saw a picture showing a service taking place at the building in the 1920s.
Keeping the building warm is a potbelly stove. I believe it burned coal since wood in the area, understandably, is pretty scarce. It’s surrounded by a outer air jacket, which I guess is a rudimentary safety feature, keeping the kids from getting too close to it. Given the (likely) drafty nature of the building, I doubt the stove did much good against a cold Saskatchewan winter. Kids closest to it must have cooked, whole those furthest away, likely had to bundle up.
We’ve found a few pictures showing the school while in operation and the student body numbered perhaps eight or ten children. Presumably grades one through twelve were taught, as needed.
Another photo found by this author, from the 1950s, shows the building well boarded up and looking in pretty good shape. Now that it’s open to the elements, it’s deteriorating faster. Overall it seems fairly solid though, even if the inside is crumbling. The intact chalk board has signatures and graffiti from the last couple decades scrawled across it.
A highway passes in front of the building. It’s a quiet stretch of road.
Over the door, we can see the following: Bay Island School District #4362, S.28-T.14-R.29-W.2nd. The first part is pretty self explanatory. The odd letter and number sequence might be confusing. It’s not though and simply, it tells us where exactly the building is located within a grid system (so, Section 25, Township 14, Range 29 and West of the 2nd Meridian). All school on the prairies were marked this way.
From the school, one can look in every direction and outside the road just mentioned, and the school itself, there is little evidence of humane habitation to be seen. All there is a rolling prairie, mostly native pasture, a few farmer’s fields here and there, Old Wives Lake to the south, and little else. It’s a lonely place. I bet it was back then too.
A few stunted shrubs and trees flank the east side of the property, the only things growing here beside the grass.
It’s not known where the teacher lived. Sometimes there was a basement suite, but this building did not appear to have one. Perhaps they lived with a nearby farmer, which was not an unusual arrangement. We saw some school records and all the teachers who taught at the school were exclusively female. Male teachers, at the time anyway, were rather rare.
The whole time we explored the little building, we were overcome by this odd feeling, a sort of melancholy mood that hung in the air. We wondered about the students and teachers and what became to them. It’s safe to assume that some of the former are still around somewhere and we’d love to hear their stories. But more likely most are longer with us. It’s sort of sad. I can say one thing, these people were tough son’s of bitches. True pioneers to the extreme.
Where the school is located was never highly populated, and today nothing much has changed. It was and still is a lonely and forgotten corner of the province. There are and were no towns even remotely close to the school. Well for a time there was Old Wives a couple km away, but it was never more than whistle stop on the old rail line.
Nearby Old Wives Lake (sometimes called Johnston Lake) has an feature called Bay Island (Isle of Bays on some maps), which no doubt is where the school got its name.
An historic plaque was placed near the building in 2005.
At the peak (1920s) there were thousands and thousands of one room schools across the prairie provinces. Most were closed down before the 1950s. A few survive today but most have long been demolished.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: May, 2014.
Location: Near Old Wives, SK (aka, the middle of nowhere).