Visit to old school sparks feelings of community

Residents in Valley Plain, Sask., maintain 
the building that now hosts concerts, 
meetings, parties and quilting bees

VALLEY PLAIN, Sask. — It was a time when cursive writing with anything other than the right hand and speaking in your mother tongue were punishable offences.

Robert Govan, now in his 90s, recalled getting the strap at the Valley Plain one-room schoolhouse.

“It was a piece of leather and it hurt,” he said of the corporal punishment tool neatly tucked into the teacher’s wooden desk drawer.

“I wrote left-handed and had to learn to right-handed.”

The school’s onetime male teacher commonly used the strap to teach students a lesson.

“If he didn’t put it in one way, he put it in with a ruler,” said Govan.

Jim Nicholls, who attended in the 1950s, said one boy who only spoke Ukrainian turned to his brother to ask a question and both ended up on the stinging end of the strap.

Running home to complain was not an option, he added.

“You didn’t tell your parents or you’d get another one. The teacher was never wrong,” said Govan, who counted 48 teachers who taught at the east-central Saskatchewan school.

Valley Plain was open from 1915-63, with one teacher overseeing as many as 46 students.

There was a different teacher most years. Most were single and left to get married, with only a couple lasting more than a year.

They lived in a teacherage in the schoolyard, which often had to be shovelled to allow the teacher to cross the yard in winter.

In the 1930s, they were paid $350 a year.

Govan attended Valley Plain until Grade 8, when he started farming. It was commonplace for boys to be pulled out of school to help on the farm.

Students attended from farms within the six sq. mile district, some by a horse pulling a cutter, stone boat or toboggan. Govan walked the mile or so to school.

“The horses had to work, so we had to walk,” he said.

Nicholls said his siblings initially came by horseback.

“Can you imagine sending your kids to school on a horse?” he said.

Nicholls said children were a lot tougher back then and rough play was common, such as stripping down to jump into a nearby dugout or slough, throwing ice balls in winter, climbing trees to get crow’s nests and racing horses.

Bullies were no match for big brothers or groups ganging up against the offenders.

Lunches would freeze in the unheated porch in winter so had to be placed near the heater, which was also a highly coveted location for shivering students. Ink in the desk wells, normally used only by older students, also froze on cold days.

Govan said a bucket of water and common dipper served as the students’ water source.

Coal oil lamps and lanterns were the source of light in the early years and were replaced by gas lanterns, which were considered a luxury in the 1930s.

Outhouses behind the school served the children’s basic needs.

“It was damn cold. You didn’t spend too much time there,” said Govan.

Added Nicholls: “You didn’t go till you had to and then you got it done.”

A metal sign bearing the school’s name now frames the white wooden structure from the grid road. Volunteers maintain the heritage site to allow for social activities hosted here.

Kathy Pruden said families want their kids to remember the old-time experiences that once included box socials, Christmas concerts, quilting bees, card parties, 4-H meetings, movie screenings, church services and vacation Bible school.

“Everyone wants their kids to have our experience,” she said.

Jamie Engele, who moved back to the area from Estevan, Sask., agreed.

“Every time I leave (the school), I have a better sense of community,” said the parent and school secretary-treasurer.

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