Tribute to the School Signing Project

“Some school sites had been marked while others had not. If this generation did not mark the sites an important part of our history would disappear forever.” Margaret Wolters

Signs are Popping Up All Over

Interest in preserving one room school history and rural community spirit have both been in evidence in a project that recognizes former school sites in north eastern Alberta.

Alberta‘s centennial was the stimulus for the project to mark school sites by Park Plains ATA Local. Project coordinator, Margaret Wolters also brought the plan to CERTA and enlisted volunteers to seek out schools that needed to be marked. While the ATA (local and provincial) provided seed money the project’s scope required even more dollars. The County of Vermilion River agreed to be the umbrella organization for a Community Initiatives Grant application. Donations from the Community Closet in Vermilion, Akita Drilling, personal donations and community contributions along with volunteer work help match the eventual grant dollars.

“The enthusiasm at each of the sign installation events last summer proved to us that community spirit is not dead and reinforced the idea that our project is worthwhile,” she says.

The first signs were put up in 2006. “One in my husband’s home community, Ganton, south of Vermilion, and a second south of Kitscoty at Thomasville. These tested out the sign design as well as how much work—and cement–was involved in a sign installation. At the time, we didn’t have the grant, but thought showing what could be done might help the project take off,” notes Wolters.

The signs are made at Hughendon School. “Having today’s students make the signs marking yesterday’s school sites has a certain symmetry,” she notes.

Last summer was a busy one as 18 signs were placed in a number of areas within the County of Vermilion River. “We got to witness the community spirit in these places as well as share in the memories that followed putting the signs up. People have really responded to the project and we’ve seen many generations of a family be involved,” says Wolters.

In many cases, elderly former students, in their nineties and eighties either attended the event or encouraged their children to make sure a sign was erected where their school once stood. For example, near Paradise Valley, the Brassingtons spearheaded signs at Uneeda and Cheviot Hills. Dave and Eva (now Waterfield) attended Cheviot Hills, Ron and their father had attended Uneeda.

Two fifth generation residents descended from area homesteaders were part of putting up signs at the former Wildwood School south of Kitscoty. David Jack and his grandson, Brady, along with Bob Stone and his son, Rick, put up the sign there. Brady is the fifth generation of Jacks in the district and Rick’s children are the fifth generation of Stones.

Retired teacher Phil McKerihan organized the event at Lavada, also south of Kitscoty. Among the group of 30 people were Lottie Gilpin Bardoel, great granddaughter of Mr. J. W. Gilpin, trustee of the original board. Mr. Gilpin’s daughter was named Lavada and that name was submitted and chosen for the school. Darryl Watt, who now owns the property, is a great grandson of Thomas Watt, another original trustee. Two former teachers, Teddy Watt and Pearl Watt were also present.

Twice during the summer there were five-sign-installations-in a day. Maxine Holmen, another retired teacher, put together our tour north of Dewberry. “When we drove up to the Rye School just before 9 am there were about 30 people waiting for us. Even more amazing was that many of them came along to the rest of the installations.”

Among those people was Allen Ronaghan, who had been a teacher at Rye. Ronaghan also edited a 1973 history of the County of Vermilion River including histories of all the schools. His book has been an invaluable tool in researching the school sites.

That day’s itinerary included Greenlawn, where 90-year old Winnie Mathison-Waddell was present. She did all of her schooling there. The other stops were North Home, Riverton and Lea Park.

Marvin Johnson organized another five-sign-installations-in a day with stops at North Park, Tulliby Lake, Greenvale, Canyon View and St. Margaret. Groups of up to 40 were on hand to put up the signs and reminisce. As was the pattern, many people took part in installations for the whole day. “And there were always pictures, food and memories,” says Wolters.

The summer of 2008 will be even busier. “We have about 40 signs to go up this summer and have to finish up our work next year as our grant has to be used by March, 2009. That does give us time to have more signs made in the 2008-2009 school year. Our hope is that through the dedication and energy of people who care about local history, and particulary their own former school, we will have most of the school sites in the county covered,” she says.

School Signing Project Sponsors

  • Alberta Lottery Fund
  • Park Plains Teachers
  • Alberta Teachers’ Association
  • Vermilion Community Closet
  • Central East Retired Teachers’ Association
  • Akita Drilling
  • All individuals who helped erect the signs
  • The County of Vermilion River
  • Individual Donors
  • Preston Community
  • Thomasville Community