An article by Chris & Connie.
There were once thousands and thousands of these one room schools scattered all over Alberta. Most are long gone but a few can be found here and there. Located on a lonely back road in the southwestern part of the province, where the plains meet the foothills,we explore one of these interesting structures. This is Coalfields School.
For much of the earliest half of the twentieth century, these tiny learning institutions performed a very essential service. Located at regular intervals, each served an area up to about ten kilometres square, a bit variable of course, depending on population. They provided education to those who lived in rural areas, oftentimes far from any town or population centre (in this case however, the town, Beaver Mines, is actually close by). Youngsters in these often remote places, would simply not have been able to attend school otherwise.
There could be anywhere from a handful of students to perhaps a dozen or so at most attending at any one time. Many were siblings. Most of these one room schools covered grades 1-6 or 1-8. Higher classes were usually taught elsewhere, often in a nearby town.
Children frequently came to school on horseback and there was usually a stable on the school grounds. No mention is made of one in Coalfields School records, but they were pretty commonplace. An outdoor biffy was also typical. That must have been fun in the middle of winter.
Records make mention of a teacherage (living quarters) on the property. Some passages mention that part of the school building itself was set aside for this purpose while others seem to suggest it was a separate building altogether on the grounds (anyone in the know, please chime in). Regardless, it was far more common for a teacher to take up residence at a nearby farm than to live on-site.
These buildings often had a row of large windows, allowing the interior to be lit naturally – of course, in the middle of the school year, mid-winter, dark comes early and arrives late, so they’d have to rely on oil lamps or in later years, ones electrically powered. The small windows seen today must have been modifications done at some point.
Coalfields School is clad in that fake brick asphalt siding. That stuff was popular and we see a lot of old buildings covered in it. A sign above the door tells us it’s school district #1275. Each location was given a unique number.
As was common, the building was often used for other purposes like community events and social gatherings. While it’s not mentioned, it appears it was used for functions like that even after closing. It does seem somewhat maintained, even today. The grass could have used a good mowing on out visit.
The name of the school is in reference to coal that exists in the area. At one time, from the early 1900s till about World War One, a couple mines operated nearby. There is still a lot of coal underneath everything here.
Most Alberta one rooms schools were established in the period 1900-1930 and most closed by the 1950s and 1960s. Interesting facts: the first was established in the 1860s, the last shut down in the early 2000s and at peak there was about five thousand of them! It was the coming of good roads that killed them off. It just became easier to bus students to a large central facility in a nearby town. Coalfields School operated from 1909-1962.
Just how many of these buildings survive today is not known. They’re out there though. Some became community centres, some were repurposed as grain storage buildings (quite common in fact). A good number were moved to farms to be used as sheds, garages or something else, often utilitarian in nature. A few were made into residences, a number are just abandoned. For those torn down, a marker is often put in place where the building once stood. We see these all the time.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: July, 2015.
Location: Near the Crownsest Pass AB.
Article references: Alberta school records, Glenbow Museum archives.
A BIG thanks: Connie, for all your inspiration.
The school can be viewed from the road.