The one room school. At one time, long ago, there were thousands of these little learning institutions scattered across rural Alberta. There was so many of them in fact, I doubt an accurate count is even possible. Often located along some remote middle-of-nowhere backroad, every so-many clicks or so, depending on the local population density, they were in service of students living on nearby farms and ranches. Often no bigger than a good sized garage they would typically have an enrolment that could be counted on a couple hands (plus a toe or two). A single teacher took care of everything.
Most of these “one-roomers” are long gone. Things have changed. The rural population is a fraction of what it was and with good roads, unlike the old days, it’s just simpler to bus all the kids to some central location. For one reason or another, a few of these old structures have manged to survive into today. Only small number are used in any capacity, and most survive in an abandoned state. Included in the latter is today’s subject, Liberty School.
The school district, #1940 in official records, dates from 1909 and came on the scene shortly after the area was opened up for general settlement. It shared a name with the local post office (down the road a bit), even retaining it after the former changed to something else a few years later. It joined several other schools established in the area around that same time.
The building according to old papers is 24ft by 40ft (7.3m x 12.2m), so on the larger size when compared to other one room schools. It’s much taller than typical. It has a full basement, not all did, presumably used for storage, or perhaps once the living quarters for the teacher – most time they’d take up residence at a nearby farm but an in-school apartment was not unheard of. The tall steeply pitched roof makes the building seem much larger than its modest footprint would suggest.
The building was heated by coal. The chute’s still in place. Electricity was a later addition – before they relied on natural light (the reason for all those big windows) or oil lamps for illumination. Outdoor biffies were the “facilities”.
The school is on small plot of land surrounded by a field. Off in every directions is nothing but the wide open plains. This air of isolation must have been a bit overwhelming in the old days. We suspect there used to a swing set or some other play equipment on the grounds, a place for the kids to frolic come recess or lunch.
Originally grades one through eight were taught here, although later higher grades were included. However, it was rare for students to go the full distance since many had to drop out early to work on the farm. It would not be unusual for students to to have to travel some distance to get to classes. No doubt many rode in on horses.
Looking at old class pictures found while researching this post, enrolment at Liberty School seemed to average twelve or so students most years. They were often related. The teacher lists shows the majority were women, as was typical of the era. Most lasted a single season and moved on – it was hard, thankless work, with paltry pay so turn over was high. New school year, new teacher! Educators had to be proficient in all courses needed by all grades. Damn, a lot was expected of them. All they got in return, well, were perhaps some fond memories, if that counts for anything.
Since any one grade might have only a student or two, teaching was very hands on. While one “grade” was taught those in others did book work.
At times the school was used as a makeshift church.
Liberty School closed at the end of the 1938-1939 season. Roads in the area had improved enough that some of the rural schools could be consolidated into one, in a nearby town, the students all arriving by bus. For a time the building sat empty. Later, in the 1950s it was repurposed, becoming a community hall of sorts. For a couple decades, it was used for bingos (and “whists”), dances, get-togethers, weddings, election polling, what ever. A small grand stand was built where the teacher’s desk would have stood. Stuff found in the building, an old piano, TV, records player (both from RCA-Victor Canada), long tables with benches, reflect that later era. Still, it’s very much a school inside.
It’s not known when the building was last regularly used. Some old papers found scattered on the floor suggest the 1970s or perhaps a wee bit later. In the 1980s Liberty School appeared in a National Film Board of Canada production “Prairie Women”.
For the last couple decades, perhaps more, Liberty School has been empty. The cupola that once held the bell now sits beside the building in the grass, having been blow off I guess. Overall the structure seems pretty solid and sound. Birds have gotten in and you know what mess they make. The roof looks in fine shape (it’s suggested someone put new shingles on it sometime recent). Talk from a half dozen years ago makes mention of plans to move it to the museum in Milo. Not sure if that’s still in the cards. The question that comes to mind…where’s the money to come from? Securing funds for historical preservation is a near impossible task here in Canada, for some reason. The mindset, it seems, is why bother, let it rot, bulldoze it, forget about it, move on, quit living in the past.
So for now the building sits, alone on the prairie down some seldom driven road, and visited by few. Stand on the front landing where long the class posed for their yearly group photo and imagine yourself there. It’s 1928, it’s a youthful cocky you, a couple of your siblings, kids from neighbouring farms, one green behind the ears teacher and some guy with a camera to record it all. The memories, the small school building all by itself on the endless flat that is this part of Alberta, the wind, the blustery winter, the broad sky, community, good times, homework, an “A”, a “D-”, cursive writing, book reports, fields of grain all around, the overpowering sense of isolation. The mind races!
The first one room school in Alberta goes back to the 1880s (some say earlier). Most were from the period 1900-1930, a time of accelerated settlement in the province. We’ve heard there was anywhere from two to three to as many as five thousand of them. I doubt anyone knows for sure. Most were closed by the 1960s. A few, due to special circumstances, held on well into the modern era. Of those left standing, and there’s a number of them, most are in a derelict condition.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: October, 2016.
Location: Vulcan County, AB.
Article references and thanks: Book: Snake Valley – a history of Lake McGregor and area,
Archive Society of Alberta, Vulcan County History, Jason Sailer.
The ownership status of this building is unknown. Please show it complete respect if you visit.