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Country School Cairns Remind Us Of Our History

When a one-room school was closed, and its pupils bused to larger schools in town, this often led to the demise of the smaller districts.

The little country school I attended for eight years (Crocus Hill, No. 1448) is long gone; it closed in 1964 and was later moved off the site. But in my mind, it sits there still, on a small patch of grassy land with fields to the east and west and north. To the south and southwest lay a deep ravine, what the pupils of Crocus Hill called “the valley.” Any new teacher soon learned that it was school custom for pupils to spend numerous noon hours playing there.

In my day, the pupil count was low, less than 15, but in early years, up to 30 or sometimes more multi-grade students crowded into the little white schoolhouse. It was the social centre of the district, the place where card parties and dances were held, as well as school celebrations such as the Christmas concert and the annual end-of-year school picnic. When a one-room school was closed, and its pupils bused to larger schools in town, this often led to the demise of the smaller districts.

These early school districts may be gone, but they are not forgotten by those who attended them. Numerous districts have erected a monument on the site of their former school. Crocus Hill, north of Minnedosa, is one of those, and once in awhile, when I am visiting in the area, I’ll take a few minutes to drive up the hill to look at the rock cairn that commemorates my school.

There are many memorial cairns, for at one time these schools dotted the rural countryside, set only a few miles apart so that nobody had to travel too far to attend classes. If you’re interested in rural history, spend an afternoon driving country roads and you’ll likely come across some.

One interesting monument I found is that of the Orange Ridge School District No. 576, on Highway No. 265, just east of the village of Birnie at the Five Roads Corner (northeast of Neepawa). According to the cairn, this school district was in operation from 1889 to 1968. The old school still stands, as well as a memorial cairn with a model of the school. A little farther east and north is the East Tupper School cairn (where my husband once taught).

Farther north is a memorial model at the site of the former Pennarun School District No. 1799 (cole Pennarun), located about a kilometre west of Highway No. 5, northeast of Laurier. Named after a French settler, this district was formed in 1915, but the first school actually burned before it was opened. A second school operated from 1918 to 1946, when it was replaced by a larger school. The third school closed in 1963 due to a shortage of pupils.

In the southwestern part of the province I visited a cairn for the Strathallan School District No. 635, situated west of Boissevain. Although it closed in 1966, the old school (the second of two on that spot) still stands there, too.

Other monuments I have visited are closer to where I now live (MacGregor) in the Municipality of North Norfolk. The cairn for Macaulay School is to the south, while Emmeline School’s cairn, topped by an old bell, is a few miles to the southwest. Several years ago efforts were made to establish monuments for over 30 former schools of the municipality. Individual districts raised funds to establish cairns, and a committee was formed to publish a book. Entitled Schoolhouse Memories, this book contains information on each school of North Norfolk, and articles from former students and teachers attending them. (Copies are still available at the North Norfolk-MacGregor Library in MacGregor.)

History books published by many rural towns and municipalities also contain information and pictures of the old country schools. Reflections, A History of Ste. Amelie, Laurier and Ste. Rose du Lac has 18 pages on area schools, while the Minnedosa

history book, Valley Views contains a similar amount. From North Norfolk and MacGregor, a two-volumed history, Through Fields and Dreams, has a very large section devoted to the various school districts.

If you’d like to locate some of the school cairns in your own district, read your local history book or check with your library or archives for information on the sites of former schools. Your municipal office might also be able to help you locate memorials. Why not spend a day or two searching for some of them? They’re an interesting part of our rural history.

– Donna Gamache writes from MacGregor, Manitoba

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