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Manitoba preserves one-room school

It wasn’t the cold, the isolation or even the snakes that sent shivers down the spine of Rlee Gilson, a teacher at the Willowview, Man., school from 1954-57.

It was sending her little students scurrying home across the frozen countryside, unsupervised and unprotected.

“They just disappeared in the bush like little rabbits,” said Gilson, who still lives within eight kilometres of the one-room schoolhouse.

“There were no phones. I used to worry myself sick about them in the winter.”

But other than that daily worry,

Gilson fondly remembers the years she spent teaching at the school “right in the middle of nowhere.”

The Willowview school is one of 17 whose registers are held at the restored Sandridge school in Chatfield, Man. The project was organized by local history preservationists Al and Gery Johnson, who live in the old village site in the museum.

Al, who attended nearby Narcisse school, didn’t want one-room school history in his area to slowly fall apart, burn down or get plowed under.

He, Gery and a committee of former students and teachers gathered money, materials and even dozens of authentic schoolhouse desks to fill the Sandridge school.

It recently held its 100 year anniversary with a celebration of all the local schools. The event drew more than 400 people from across Canada.

Looking back at his school years Al saw himself as a bit of a troublemaker.

Like other boys, he enjoyed tripping the girls as they walked past his desk. He excelled at firing big, wet spitballs at the teacher when she was writing on the blackboard.

“She wouldn’t even turn her head,” remembered Al. “She’d say, ‘Alfred, I’ll see you after four o’clock.’ She knew it had to be me.”

He also remembered getting into trouble with some of the other boys on a Monday after a weekend dance with the find of a bottle of homebrew hidden in the woodpile.

“We got into the stuff. By lunchtime we were pretty drunk.”

He recalled tamer times like the end-of-year picnics, the dances and the Christmas concerts. It was a time when the school was the centre of the local farming community and all the kids loved school.

Gilson’s career as a teacher got off to a quick start. She was a Winnipeg girl who married a farmer who found some cheap land in the Interlake. They moved there, shocking her parents, and discovered that the local children could not go to school because there was no teacher.

A local woman suggested she go to Winnipeg and ask the superintendent to appoint her as a “permit teacher” for Willowview.

“He said: ‘Can you start tomorrow?'” she remembered with a chuckle.

She returned to Willowview, spread the word to neighbours, and the next morning, “there were all these cute little kids, 13 or 14 of them, and I had such a ball.”

Permit teachers were the main staff at the one-room schools. They did not have teaching degrees, but were women who had completed Grade 12, which was a high level of education for much of the 20th century.

Gilson didn’t realize she had moved to the garter snake capital of Canada. It is home to the famous Narcisse snake pits, where she “spent the first two years hanging from my husband’s neck, wearing rubber boots.”

She also had to learn the basic rules of operating a one-room schoolhouse.

“I’d never remember to put wood in the stove. I was a real greenhorn.”

But she fell in love with country life, being a teacher and living on a farm. Most days she would ride her horse, Smoky, to the school, where it would spend the day in the barn with the children’s horses.

Two of her students brought their family’s dog. At the end of the day, they would put on skis and the dog would pull them home across the snow.

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