FISHBURN SCHOOL No. 311

After 1894, the Fishburn School quickly became the centre of a rural agricultural community located some sixteen miles southeast of Pincher Creek–the first of the 39 rural schools to open, and the last to close.

FISHBURN SCHOOL No. 311

by Farley Wuth, Curator,
Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village
Copyright, Pincher Creek & District Historical Society

One of the most intriguing local examples of the history of rural education has been that of the Fishburn School (NE1/4, S21, T5, R28, W4). Established in 1894, it was the first rural school district to be formed in the Pincher Creek trading area. Only the educational system in the village of Pincher Creek itself was older, dating back another ten yearsm to 1884. Only three other local rural schools that were established prior to 1900: Beauvais Lake, (originally known as St. Agnes), Cowley in 1896 and the Lee School District in 1898.

Fishburn’s historic stature was further enhanced by the fact that when its second school closed its doors for the final time in 1963, the last one-room school from the Pincher Creek area to do so. The chronicles of rural education in this ranching and homesteading district spanned an impressive 69 years, making it our longest serving country school. Much of its tangible heritage is now preserved at the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village where that original school house is proudly exhibited as a reminder of those bygone school days.

But what were those frontier school days truly like? Let’s look back at a few of the stories. The 1908-09 school year, a decade and a half into the school’s history, in particular provided fascinating tales in terms of the teachers, students, school activities, and business operations of the school.

PIONEER TEACHERS AND STUDENTS

The teaching staff of the Fishburn School changed part way through the 1908-09 school year. Miss Charlotte Clarke had taught the entire 1907-08 and then continued through April 1909. Little is known of this teaching pioneer, as much of her history has been lost due to the ravages of time.

What we do know about Miss Clarke comes from the 1911 Dominion Census, at which point she was teaching and residing in Macleod. She then was boarding at the John and Hattie McLeod residence. One of her room mates was Miss Francis Ormond who in 1909 had taught at the neighboring Utopia School. Clarke had been born in Ontario in April 1887 and was raised in the Church of England faith. The Fishburn School board was particularly pleased with her adept record keeping: Clarke’s daily register notes were meticulously kept and her neat penmanship ensured that the register was easy to read.

The latter two months of Clarke’s 1909 teaching term was completed by a fellow named William McDougall Tait who perhaps is better remembered historically. Born in 1883, Tait had come to the Fishburn community in 1905 to serve as a student minister with the rural Presbyterian Church congregation. Services had been held in the country school but in 1904 the congregation chose to build a church building that remains standing today. Tait also befriended our famous frontiersman, John George “Kootenai” Brown, and helped to collect his stories in written form. This published manuscript now provides a wealth of history and copies of it are housed in the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village Archives.

Nineteen students were enrolled in Fishburn School during the 1908-09 school year. Although the School had the capacity to teach up to and including Grade Eight, most of the students were enrolled in the lower grades that term: there were three students in grade one, two in grade two, ten in grade three, and three in grade four. Many of the pioneer families from the Fishburn District including the Jenkins, Thomas, Wittkopf, and Sheepwash clans had students enrolled in their rural school that year. A full curriculum emphasizing the “Three Rs” was taught to these eager students.

THE PERILS OF THE WEATHER

One of the challenges facing Fishburn School that year was the weather. Frequent storms forced the school to close on several occasions. During the first week of January 1909, cold temperatures accompanied by high snowfall meant that the School did not open till Monday the 11th. According to the old weather reports supplied in The Pincher Creek Echo, the daytime temperature on New Year’s Day rose to twenty degrees Fahrenheit but three days later it had plummeted to below zero. There the temperature remained for a week. A foot of snow also accumulated that week.

Another raging winter storm on Thursday, February 11th again closed the school. A spring storm with rain and wind forced the cancellation of classes on May 10th, which was a Tuesday. Bad weather meant that it was not practical to send young students by foot or on horseback to a remotely located school house -- some of the youngsters had to travel up to three miles to attend classes.

SCHOOL BUSINESS OPERATIONS

The business operations of the Fishburn School District No. 311 too were meticulously kept in the accounts of the District’s Secretary-Treasurer, some of the old documents now carefully housed in the Archives of the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village. The School District’s banking was done at the Pincher Creek branch of the Union Bank, located in that massive two-story stone building at the corner of Main Street & East Avenue.

Most of the School’s recorded income in 1909 resulted from educational taxes raised from local ratepayers. Over $250 was received in three installments from the Department of Education as part of the provincial grant system. The school also was frequented as a community hall, and was used as the polling station during the 1909 Provincial Elections. $4 rent was received for that service.

Expenditures were carefully monitored. Miss Clarke received three paycheques totaling $630 for her teaching services during the 1908 – 09 school year. Tait’s salary for his two-month stint amounted to $100, for which he received payment in late July. An order for school library books in early 1909 amounted to $6.20 – the titles the school wanted were not recorded but it would have been nice to know which were ordered back then. The library was housed in an esteemed corner of the school’s frame structure and now forms an important historical exhibit here at the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village.

Caretaking services were offered by the local pioneer families and payments of just fewer than five dollars covered these expenses during 1909. Coal used to heat the school was purchased in early January (in the midst of that snowstorm); although the physical amount was not specified, its purchase price amounted to $7.50. Any number of Pincher Creek area coal mines could have supplied the contract for the school, but the often smaller operations located in the Fishburn District would have been favoured whenever they were in business.

The ledger also shows the financial transactions with several Pincher Creek businesses, including Scott Brothers, Hudson’s Bay Company, Taylor Lumber Company, and Cook McKerricher and Company. These were approached by the School District for local hardware, lumber and stationary supplies.

Memories of the old School Pump, such as the one for the Fishburn School as exhibited outdoors, are brought back to life by this poem:

THE OLD IRON PUMP
The Old Iron Pump in the school yard
Brings a rush of memories to me,
And I long to go back to my childhood,
Though I know it never can be.
I can see that old battered dipper
That we each drink from in turn,
Nor worried about germs or microbes,
Such things caused us little concern.
I can still hear the creak of the handle
As we primed it each frosty morn,
And still taste the clear bracing nectar
That puts city water to scorn,
With a start, I return to the present,
Turn the tap at my bright shining sink,
Take a cup from the Dixie dispenser
And have a chlorine favoured drink,
For those things we all should be grateful,
So perhaps, I am really a chump –
But tonight, I would gladly exchange them
For a drink from the Old Iron Pump.