The University of Saskatchewan campus is arguably the most picturesque campus in the country. Its many stately limestone buildings harken back to the hallowed halls of Oxford and Cambridge, the oldest universities in the Commonwealth. Over the years, I have had the good fortune to attend the University of Saskatchewan, attaining my BA and MA in history and later returning to undertake my law degree.
Nonetheless, despite my familiarity with the campus, it wouldn’t be till this summer that I visited a tiny building east of St. Andrew’s College. Hidden amongst the many large edifices of education on the campus, this small, one-room stone structure is nestled beside an equally small pond. Known as the Little Stone Schoolhouse, it was the birthplace of modern education in Saskatoon.
The city of Saskatoon was founded as a temperance colony in 1883. Settlers were slow to arrive in the area, put off by the long trek from the end of the railroad at Moose Jaw and the unrest of the 1885 Riel Resistance. Nevertheless, by 1885, there were enough families that Saskatoon Public School Board No. 13 was established. Classes were held in various homes for the first two years. Then, in 1887 when the population reached nearly 100, the school board received authorization from the Saskatoon Board of Trustees to borrow $1,200 to build a school large enough to accommodate 40 students.
The school was built by Alexander (Sandy) Marr, a stonemason who had moved to the area from Ontario with his wife and five daughters in 1884. The school was made from granite fieldstones collected by local settlers and the windows and doors were brought in from Moose Jaw. It is the only stone building built by Marr that still survives (the wooden house he built for his growing family is another Saskatoon tourist attraction).
The school, known as Victoria School after the then-reigning monarch, was originally located at the corner of Broadway Avenue and 11th Street (site of the current and much bigger school of that name). Children from the settlements on both the east and west sides of the river attended the school, traveling by boat, horse and foot to get there.
Its opening was a cause for celebration and a great feeling of satisfaction. Its sturdy stone structure represented permanence and prosperity to the people of the tiny colony who only two years earlier had been shaken by the nearby Riel Resistance. It was a symbol of the settler’s success and a sign of their faith in a bright future. When construction was completed near the end of December, a ball was held in it to mark the occasion.
The building was not only Saskatoon’s first school and library, it was also its first public building. In the evenings, various community events were held here, such as dances, meetings and various religious events. For example, the community held a New Year’s celebration here in 1888.
The school was built in what is now known as the Prairie Vernacular style, characterized by its thick, sturdy walls and hip roof. The interior consists of one large room and a small cloakroom. The door to the building opens into the cloakroom where there is a cupboard to hang coats and jackets. Two doors – one for boys and another for girls as was the practice in the period – lead from the cloakroom into the classroom. An outhouse out back was the only bathroom.
The building was heated by a large pot-bellied iron stove that stands in the middle of the classroom. Sunlight lit the room, supplemented by kerosene lamps when necessary. The front of the classroom was covered by a large chalkboard. Wooden desks – some single and some double – stood in three rows with the teacher’s desk at the head of the room. Every desk had a small hole – in the upper right corner on single desks and in the centre of double desks – where an ink bottle was placed. In the winter, it was often necessary for the teacher, after first arriving early to start the fire, to thaw the ink by placing the bottle on or near the wooden stove. Boys would sometimes mischievously drip the braids of the girls sitting in front of them into the bottle of ink!
The students started out with slate boards and progressed to notebooks in which they would write with either a pencil or a nib pen, dipping the nib into the ink every three or four words. To prevent drips and to speed up the process, students sometimes moved the ink bottle closer to their notebook. However, a careless move could see the ink bottle tipped over and the assignment ruined. The unlucky student would not only have to redo the lesson but also scrub the ink out of their clothes, the desk and the floor.
The teachers who taught here (i.e. George Horn, Miss M.S. Ross, R.B. Irvine and Gertrude Girvin) needed to be creative, tenacious and patient. A room full of up to 40 students of different ages and abilities were under there care and instruction for much of the day five days a week. They had to keep everyone occupied and ensure each child was learning the appropriate material for their age and they had to do so with limited resources. They also did daily hygiene checks, enforced good morals, made decisions regarding whether to end class early due to inclement weather and kept the fire burning in the winter. Misbehaviour was dealt with strictly and promptly to prevent it from spreading. The notion of “spare the rod, spoil the child” was very much in force at this time.
Every day the students recited the Lord’s Prayer. They also sang the national anthem, which at the time was ‘God Save the Queen’, while the flag – the Union Jack – was hoisted.
Attendance was not always great. The students often had other responsibilities that kept them at home, such as helping on the farm or with younger children. For example, when the stonemason Alexander Marr’s wife Margaret died from complications due to childbirth, her eldest daughter had to step up and do the cooking, cleaning and help care for her six younger siblings; she was only 13.
In 1905, a new two-room school was built beside the one-room school as more space was needed to accommodate a steadily increasing population. By 1909, a third much bigger school was built, and the one-room schoolhouse was shut down.
Two years later, the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire raised $842 to preserve the original one-room school as a heritage project (one of the first in western Canada) in recognition of the coronation of King George V. Walter Murray, then President of the University of Saskatchewan, recommended that the school be relocated to the campus where it could serve as a museum and library for local history. So, the school was moved stone-by-numbered stone to the campus under the direction of Lorne Thompson, a stonemason.
Despite’s Murray’s intentions, the school appears to have been utilized for storage until 1965. In that year, the Saskatoon Council of Women decided to restore the school to its original condition so the public and school groups could tour the building. Funds were raised, and in 1967, the Little Stone Schoolhouse opened its door as a museum and was declared a Municipal Heritage Site.
The committee members from the Saskatoon Council of Women who were involved in the project formed a new group, The Little Stone School Society, to manage the building. In 1981, the university took over both ownership and management of the schoolhouse. It was declared a Provincial Heritage Property the following year. Today, the Diefenbaker Centre on campus is responsible for both the educational programming and for open house days held periodically during the summer.
Since 1967, thousands of Saskatoon school children, including my own daughters, have toured the building, re-enacting what school was like back before Saskatchewan was even a province. Boys dawn suspenders and girls, pinafores, before taking their seats to practice writing on a slate. It is an experience which is both interesting and informative. A visit to the Little Stone Schoolhouse is a wonderful family outing where grandparents can entertain their grandchildren with memories of what it was like to attend a one-room country school.