Story and photos by Chris & Connie.
Today we’ll be looking at a tiny and very picturesque Utopia one room school, built a just over century ago. Empty and open to the elements today, weather beaten and ravaged by time, it stands alone on the vast Alberta prairies, in the southwest corner of the province, along a dusty old back road.
At the peak, in the 1920s, there was somewhere close to five thousand one room schools in the province. Each served, varying of course with population density and even terrain to an extent, an area of about eight to ten kilometres square. This spacing made sure no student was more than a couple clicks away. These facilities may have been modest in stature, but all served a very large and important purpose. A great number of children were taught in these tiny buildings.
A one room school could house a handful of pupils to perhaps a couple dozen at most. Families were big back then so many students were often related. Grades taught here in Utopia were one through eight – it was common for these “one roomers” to cater to the lower grades only – classes for those heading higher, for those few who in the old days got that far, were taught elsewhere. Some grades might have a couple students, some just one and some none at all.
The first one room school in Alberta was founded in the 1860s. The last closed in the early 2000s. Most however, were built and operated in the first half of the twentieth century, a time when a great deal more people lived in rural areas than they do today. It was the coming of good roads that killed off most one room schools – it was easier to have a large more centralized learning facility in a town and have all the students come to it instead.
The Utopia School was in use from 1904-1950. It was managed as district #840 – each district was given a unique number and would oversee the operation of a single school or in some cases occasionally more than one.
Teachers employed at these facilities were usually female and often took up residence at a nearby farm. A few schools, but not this one, had on-site accommodation, either a separate dwelling or if the building had a basement, in a room down there. Teachers were not well paid I understand. It was often hard, challenging and thankless work. The sheer loneliness of it all must have been overwhelming at times.
Some one room schools also hosted church services.
After closing the Utopia School was for a time used as a community centre (this was common). Even that was fleeting and now it’s just empty and abandoned.
Many one room schools were torn down when closed. A good number however managed to survive. Some were turned into grain storage buildings (quite common). Some became community centres like this one. Many were moved away to farms to be used as sheds, storage buildings, living quarters, chicken coops, garages, or whatever. Farmers are always experts at repurposing things.
Old one room schools, as long as they retain their original look, are always easy to spot. Those large windows are a dead give away and allowed the interior to be well lit by nature. Of course in the middle of a cold Alberta winter, the sun rose late and set early, meaning artificial lighting, typically oil lamps in the early years and in later ones, those that were electrically powered, were needed at times. The distinctive rectangle shape of the buildings also makes them stand out – although many rural churches often took this same form.
Many old school sites across the province are marked with plaques, even those where the building is long gone. They’re iconic symbols of prairie life, much like grain elevators, and people seem to remember them fondly.
There would have been a set of biffies near the school – imagine the fun in having to go pee in the middle of a blasting snow storm. There would have been a grassed over play area at the site too. Today Utopia School sits amid a field of grain. Mention is made of an stable on the property in old records. These were common as many pupils arrived by horse.
The interior of the school is completely bare and empty, save for the tons and tons of bird poop. Hardly a photogenic subject there inside! And yes it has only one room, well it, plus an entrance and mud room. The building exterior sure is nice, all weathered and full of character, made all the more dramatic by the storm clouds boiling above.
What a special name given the area. I guess early settlers must have thought it a paradise. Welcome to the place of your dreams, Utopia!
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: July, 2015.
Location: Near Pincher Creek, AB.
Article references: Alberta and Pincher Creek school records, Alberta archives.
The building can be viewed from the road.