UTOPIA SCHOOL DISTRICT No. 840

As with other rural schools of a century ago, Utopia School District Number 840 offered excellent education to many pioneer students who attended classes in this rustic structure. Let’s have a look back at a few of those early historical highlights.

UTOPIA SCHOOL DISTRICT No. 840

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

A PIONEER SCHOOL AND ITS SUPPORTERS

The Utopia School (NE ¼, S 33, Tp 4, R 28, W4) was one of ten one-room country schools situated southeast of Pincher Creek. It sat adjacent to the Waterton River, better known to the locals of the 1880s and 1890s as the Kootenai River. To its north was Fishburn School, to the west, Robert Kerr School, and to the south the Yarrow School, each of which offered their students an education in the “3 ‘Rs”.

The school structure at Utopia was a frame one, a rectangular one-story building that housed students from grades one through eight. A peaked roof, adorned with wooden shakes, covered the building. On one side were two sets of three rectangular windows, a popular style from that era on the frontier. These were opened during the hot weather of the spring, in order to make the school less stuffy as the students prepared for their June exams. At the front end of the structure was an enclosed porch, used as a mud and cloak room for the students as they entered and exited the building. This room was an added bonus during inclement or winter weather. Off in the distance was a shed where the teacher and pupils could stable any horses that were ridden to and from classes.

For nearly half a century following its opening in 1904, Utopia School provided local students with their educational needs. The School District’s old ledgers, a few of which are now housed in the Archives of the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village, chronicle some of those earlier educational tales. Starting in 1908, the first year for which local property owners within the School District were listed, twenty-seven families were on the roster list.

Pioneer surnames such as Fitzpatrick, Age, Walper, Swinney, Ward, White, Thomas, Speth, Gilruth, Miller, Blackburn and Whittacker highlight the pages of these intriguing ledgers. There being no local Post Office at Utopia at that time, many school supporters picked up their mail in nearby Yarrow or Fishburn, depending on whether they resided to the south or further north. Seven of these early families ventured as far as Pincher Creek, some twenty miles away, for their mail.

REVENUES, EXPENDITURES AND TEACHERS REFLECTED THE PIONEER TIMES

The Utopia School District faced many of the same challenges as the other pioneer school districts in terms of its revenues and expenditures. During its first operational year, 1904, it collected $262.86 in school taxes from the property owners who resided there at the time. Each year, this revenue steadily increased so, that four years later it raked in nearly a thousand dollars.

One of the more intriguing tax revenues realized by the School District was from property owned by the Winnipeg-based Hudson’s Bay Company, which owned the west half of S26, Tp 4, R28, W4. As guaranteed by Dominion Legislation, this fur trading giant owned property in each township, which provided an extra source of property-based income for the rural School Districts.

For Utopia, HBC revenue provided anywhere from $9.36 to $14.40 annual in land tax levies. The School District also realized annual grants from the Province of Alberta following its 1905 incorporation, usually received in three instalments annually. Usually these amounted to between $135 and $255 each year.

Banking services of the Utopia School District were provided during those early years by the Pincher Creek branch of the Union Bank of Canada. W. A. Ross served as the District’s auditor for many years.

TEACHERS’ SALARIES AND PROFILES

One of the more important expenditures was the teacher’s salary. In 1906-07 and 1907-08 the teacher was Annie Campbell, who appears to have received a monthly wage of $50, although the amounts do vary in the ledger. Payments at times were irregular and it appears that extra wages were at times assigned when additional tutoring with the students was required. She was succeeded in 1909 by Miss Francis L. Ormond, who received a similar salary. Miss Dora McKerrill taught at Utopia the following year at much the same wages. In 1906, Lillie Thomas provided the caretaking services at the school, looking after the coal burning stove and assisting with the cleaning. A monthly wage of $5.50 was paid with the cheques often issued every second month.

A profile of the type of teachers employed during the early days of the Utopia School District was illustrated in part by the biographical sketches of two of the early teachers. Most were younger women from eastern Canada who sought teaching careers on the Prairies. Frances Ormond was twenty-five years of age the autumn she taught there, having been born in October 1884. Ormond claimed Manitoba as her birthplace and in religion she was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. According to the Dominion Census two years later she then was teaching in Macleod and boarded at the home of John and Hattie McLeod. There were a total of five boarders including Ormond in the McLeod house.

Dora McKerrill was born in Ontario in October 1885, and like her predecessor, she too turned twenty-five years of age the autumn she taught at Utopia. The 1911 Census listed her religious affiliation as Presbyterian. She boarded at the Jim Gilruth ranch established circa 1883. The ranch overlooked the Kootenai River (as the Waterton River was known locally during the pioneer era) and accommodation was provided in a log house that survived on the prairie landscape as late as 1952.

Pioneer schools such as Utopia certainly were reflections of their rural communities.