Valley Voices From The Past: Schooling in the North Thompson

By Lois Moss,

with help of a friend or two

The following is an excerpt from Upper North Thompson Reflections

The stereotypical “little red schoolhouse” did not applwwy to the Upper North Thompson. None of them were painted red, and some, as the Birch Island school and the second Vavenby school, were quite large, as settlers wanted to combine the functions of education and community social centre.

An early Inspector of Schools, A.F. Matthews, deplored the practice of building large schools, mainly because of the difficulty of heating them. However, Alfred Graffunder, who attended the school of Vavenby, recalls that all of the firewood was provided uncomplainingly by the settlers, and carried into the school by Alfred and other students.

Some of the schools were built of logs; for example, the McMurphy school, which is now standing on the property of Roy and Joan Unterschultz at Vavenby, and the Signal Butte schoolhouse on Candle Creek Road, which became part of the home of Bert and Edith Heywood.

Mrs. Reg Small recalls the original Clearwater (Raft) school this way, “The school that I remember, in 1933, when I first came to Clearwater, was a log building near the Lawrence Downey place. There was talk of building a new school at the bottom of Steeg’s hill.

“However, others wanted it built near where the Raft River school is now. The school that Reg and I had danced in at the Christmas community dance in December of 1933 burnt down on the afternoon of June 7, 1940. There was a lot of controversy about the fire and how it started.

“Mysteriously, desks and books were taken out of the school before it burned. Incidentally, the new one-room school was built close to where Raft River school is now. The new teacher to be employed there was a Miss Makepeace. I remember Lewis Crossley said she’d be pretty smart if she could be the peacemaker around here.”

Some schools were of very flimsy construction. On an autumn morning in 1922, Miss M. Sleighton, the teacher in Vavenby, and her students, were alarmed to see that a storm of the previous evening had literally turned their school around to an angle of about ninety degrees.

They all had an unexpected holiday pending completion of a new, more substantial building.

Until the ’30s, each school had only one room and enrolled students from Grades 1 to 8. The exception was Little Fort, which in 1921-22 had two divisions. In the the ’30s, Blue River was designated a superior school, enrolling students from Grade 1 to 10, with three divisions. All other schools in the area continued in the single room facility.

In those early years, each school was governed by a board of three trustees, elected at an annual school meeting of the local property owners. The annual school meeting had wide powers — in addition to electing trustees, it could overthrow any decision of the board.

Although the tenure of most trustees was short, there were some who gave many years of devoted service.

The typical teacher, from 1920-on for many years, was young (some still in their ‘teens), inexperienced, female and single. Of the seventeen teachers who worked in the region from 1926 to 1928, fifteen were female and only one was married.

Betty (Jeffers) Johnston, who came from Vancouver in 1939, to teach in the one-room school at Star Lake, remembers:

“I thought the North Thompson was beautiful, but lonely…My first opportunity to test my authority as a teacher came one morning in September. I arrived to find that one boy had a garter snake by the tail and was successfully holdng all new arrivals away from the school by swinging the hapless creature in a threatening way.

“Summoning all the courage I could muster, I commanded, ‘PUT THAT SNAKE DOWN!’ I was amazed to find that the boy obeyed immediately.

“It was a heady experience for an almost-19-year-old girl. Had he thrown the snake at me, I would have run all the way home to Vancouver.”

Betty stayed in the valley after marrying local boy, Stan Johnston, but in the early years, teachers rarely stayed for more than one year. Inspector Alexander Robinson gave us reasons for this phenomenon, “salaries, accommodation and jealousies among residents.”

He might as well have added the extreme loneliness of life in the rural areas for young, single teachers.

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