This report we look at the Wanda one room school located in central Alberta. Despite its small stature, it was big enough to accommodate perhaps a dozen students give or take, it still served a very important purpose. Children in remote farming areas, much like their big city counterparts, needed to be educated and the fill that need buildings such as this were located anywhere there was demand.
The Wanda school district dates back to 1927. The first classes were held at a nearby farm. Later, in 1930, a new school was opened, but at a different location than this current one. Closing a decade later it was afterwards moved to a nearby town where it was used, variously, as a church and cafe. Later still it was purchased by a local farmer who moved it to his property to be used as a garage. Photos from the 1970s show it still standing. It’s now known what’s happened to it since.
Finally, in 1940, the current building, the one we’re documenting here, was constructed. The last year classes were held was 1951.
We’ve found little tidbits and write ups in various old books that mention the Wanda School. It seems that those who spoke of it did so fondly. We read about concerts and plays held there, fun had in the playground and mischievous pranks played on teachers. One passage found also make mention on how the school was laid out. There was a divider in the room separating the desks from the library/activity area (given how little space there is, each must have been quite tiny). There was a playroom downstairs. BTW, many of these schools did not have a basement.
We found some information on various teachers that worked at the school. No student lists were seen though – too bad I was really curious on how many students attended at any one time and what grades they belonged in.
At one time there were somewhere around three to five thousand one room schools in the province (reports vary a great deal), spaced out a somewhat regular intervals geographically. Generally one school served an area no greater then eight to ten square kilometres, varying of course with the population density. The first one room school in the province dates from the 1860s. It was not until the early 2000s before the last one closed.
The majority of these schools were built in the 1910s and 20s. They started disappearing in the 1940s and by the 1960s few remained. The main reason for this decline was school consolidations. Simply, improvements made to rural roads and their related infrastructure meant that children could be bused to one central facility located in a nearby town.
After closing, many one room schools were re-purposed. This one was. It was converted to a community hall and it served as such until at least the 1970s. Other schools were sold for use as sheds, storage buildings and garages. Many were moved to nearby farms – I wonder how many are hidden away even today back in behind some barn? I bet there are lots of them waiting to be rediscovered.
A few old school were relocated to museums. Some became community halls while some were converted to churches. A few were were remodelled into residences and some were abandoned in place. Many were torn down. Most extant ones, it seems, were moved from their original location, so this one is rather odd in respects to that. It’s still standing at the very location where it was built, at a rural crossroads.
In one cupboard (we’ll actually the only cupboard) Connie found some old Bingo cards. Community associations often hold these events either to raise money or just for fun.
You could always recognize an old school by its windows. There was typically many of them and they were quite large which allowed the interior to be well lit in the absence of electric lights. I believe oil lamps were used when natural light was lacking. Speaking of this, in the winter this far north, it can stay dark well into the morning and by mid-afternoon twilight is already descending. You could go to school in the dark and return home in the dark. I don’t believe the building was ever wired for electricity.
One photo found by this author shows the building in 1982 all boarded up. It looks in good shape at the time. Today of course, that’s not really the case. Being open to the air birds have moved in and made a mess and weather and vandals to an extent have taken their toll. In the basement, the concrete floor has buckled badly, which tells us the building is shifting. I wonder what the future has in store for the Wanda school?
This school still proudly displays its name on a plaque. Seen on the sign is the British flag on one side – reminding us just how closely tied we were were to “Mother England” – and on the other, the then current Canadian flag (aka the Dominion or Red Ensign). Many people don’t know that the Maple Leaf emblem we all know and love was a creation of the 1960s. Before, the design was as seen although oddly, it’s missing the coat of arms element. Note the “Union Jack” on the old Canuck flag, another nod to the empire.
A few old tables and school desks were found in the building otherwise it was pretty much empty (unless you count bird poop – there was a tons of it). At one time a coal furnace would have been located in the basement. The coal door can still be seen.
The only thing found in the schoolyard is an overgrown baseball backstop. I assume there used to be playground equipment and and a couple biffies nearby too. Mention is made of a small barn being located on the property. Many children rode horses to school so this makes sense. Some one room schools had living quarters for the teacher in the basement. More often however, they took up residence at a nearby farm.
Being a one room school teacher must have been difficult and often thankless work. I heard the pay was nothing great either.
Much like grain elevators, the one room school was as iconic symbol of the Canadian prairies. The former location of many schools in the province are marked with a plaque telling the name of the district and the years it operated. We pass these by all the time while out exploring.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: July, 2014.
Location: Between Donalda and Forestburg AB.