Over a pot of tea many years ago, Mom shared memories of Ballyhamage, the one-room school she attended from 1920 to 1925. The little white frame building had no electricity, indoor plumbing, telephone, water well or running water. Built on top of a ridge of hills with the Rocky Mountains as a dramatic backdrop,

Ballyhamage opened in the fall of 1919.

Even by standards of the day, that little white schoolhouse was considered remote, miles and miles from a town, general store or railroad station.

Instead of all-weather, improved roads, trails through the thick brush linked the families living in the sparsely populated, very rural Ballyhamage School District. Because of the difficulty of identifying land boundaries like the two-acre schoolyard, the schoolhouse was later found to be smack-dab in the middle of the road.

The early residents, many of whom were British subjects, prized education, and even a rudimentary school for their youngsters was better than no school. That’s what my grandfather likely thought.

My grandparents carved a farmstead out of the bush
when they moved to the Ballyhamage School District
in 1920.

Although Grandpa Fendall had bought the farm 17 miles west of Okotoks, Alberta, in 1918, he didn’t settle his family there until after the school had opened nearby.

The secretary-treasurer of the board of trustees
stamped the Ballyhamage School District
seal on official documents.

Creature Comforts

Mom recalled the feet of the desks were nailed to two-by-fours so they could be moved. Each seat was attached to the desk behind it. The blackboard, which covered one wall, was peppered with .22-shells made by an unknown trespasser who snuck into the school.

The Ballyhamage School library in 1922 was a small bookcase that included a few books including those listed above.

A small rectangular wood heater squatted at the back of the schoolroom. It was undersized compared to the total size of the interior and seemed even more inadequate when the temperature dipped to -30 degrees F. The students, numbering between seven and 20 over the early years, often kept their mitts, hats and coats on as they did their schoolwork, peering over scarves pulled up around their faces. One day, an older pupil who sat at the back of the classroom built an extra hot fire but left the drafts on the heater closed, either on purpose or by mistake. Pressure built up when no air could escape the fire.

Suddenly, the lid on the heater blew off, spinning in a mad flight across the classroom, barely missing the boy responsible. That was close!

Getting There

Shank’s pony (walking) and riding saddlehorses were the modes of transportation for the pupils and teacher. A fenced corral at the school was the equivalent of their parking lot. Mom recalled that bands of renegade horses unexpectedly galloped up to the enclosure and broke down the gate in the early years.

In no time, all the horses would be long gone and the youngsters who’d lost their mounts would be walking home carrying their saddles to share a tale of woe with their parents. Sometimes, the saddlehorses were recovered, but other times, they were not recaptured, which was a grievous loss to the families.

My mother eventually became an accomplished horsewoman by riding to school every day.

Nuisances Endured

According to Mom, Ballyhamage must have had Alberta’s biggest, most blood-thirsty mosquitoes in Alberta. After the first crocuses bloomed in the spring, the endless number of sloughs on the ridge overflowed with mosquitoes. Those from the mud hole closest to the school made their presence known in the classroom, especially when temperatures warmed up after lunch.

To combat the little beasts, the boys built a small fire heaped with green weeds outside the open window. Smoke, reeking with the smell of stinkweed, billowed into the classroom. Coughing and rubbing their eyes, the pupils raced out of the school. Hours later, the hungry horde of mosquitoes had lessened, but the stench lingered.

So which was worse – itchy mosquito bites or the foul-smelling smoke? Mom said it was a toss-up.

Boarding the Teacher

Rather than poorly behaved pupils, Ballyhamage’s remote location was the cause of the schoolboard’s difficulty in keeping a teacher, particularly in the early years. One season, a young woman from Okotoks who was acquainted with my grandparents and mother, accepted her first teaching job at Ballyhamage.

She boarded with them one fall and early winter.

The novice teacher was desperately homesick and likely found it difficult to live in a one-room house without electricity, indoor plumbing, telephone or running water already occupied by three other people. The young educator then faced a one-mile walk to and from her isolated school each day.  

Like many other fledgling Alberta teachers of the era, however, that teacher got her start in an education career by surviving a season of teaching in a one-room school.  

The year my grandparents boarded the teacher, their little home was crowded, especially during the winter. (That’s Granny in the foreground of their house.)

But All in All

Mom, who started school in a fine, two-story school in Okotoks, returned there for a short time after my grandfather’s death in 1925. However, she spent most of her schooldays at Ballyhamage. When asked which school she preferred, Mom didn’t hesitate.

Ballyhamage was her choice.

While Mom made many chums at the Okotoks School, the youngsters she grew up with at Ballyhamage remained her lifelong friends. Taking the place of the brothers and sisters she never had, Mom thought of them as family. They reciprocated her warmth and affection.

After all, they went through a lot together to get a basic education.  

ballyhamage school
Mom (front row, sixth from left) and her Ballyhamage
School classmates in the mid-1920s.
Ballyhamage was one of the thousands of Western Canada’s old-time, one-room rural
schools where pupils like Mom earned a grade eight ‘public school leaving’ diploma. 

*  *  *

Another old one-room school later replaced Ballyhamage’s original schoolhouse and that’s where three of my siblings later got part of their education. Neither Ballyhamage School was modernized, but that’s another story.

Thank you to artist Carol MacKay for sketching the first Ballyhamage School.

*  *  *

Although I rode a bus rather than a horse to school, now and then a little drama took place. Hope you’ll enjoy these memories:

Elaine Thomas
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