Teaching in Jessmond’s one-room schoolhouse

Ashcroft resident Joyce Freeman taught at the Big Bar School back in the early 1940s.

Joyce Freeman

Joyce Freeman

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

There couldn’t be many of them left. Teachers who taught in a one roomed school. A school made of logs, with a sod roof.

Joyce Freeman of Ashcroft started teaching at age 19, fresh out of high school. Picture a pretty girl from the town of Langley, taking the bus to a place called Clinton, a place she’d never heard of, finding a taxi at the local hotel, and traveling for what seemed miles in the dusk of a late summer evening through miles of woodland, and finally reaching her destination, Jesmond.

And where was Jesmond? A hamlet with a few families deep in the Marble Range mountains surrounded by meadowland and woodland stretched away into infinity. A few ranches scattered over the area had children in need of a school. At least the basics. So Mr. Coldwell senior, built the log building, putting windows on one side only, and installed a barrel stove.

The Coldwell family came out en masse to greet the young school teacher and ushered her into their home. Whatever apprehension Joyce had been feeling quickly disappeared, as the warm welcome became more than a place she would board in, they’d become family. As so often happened in the rural areas of the province, the young school teacher was courted by some young fellow from one of the ranching families. The young good looking Pete Coldwell immediately became smitten. And the rest was inevitable.

It was called the Big Bar School. Whatever administration there was came directly from Victoria.

“There wasn’t a school board then,” Joyce explains. “I was paid $78 a month, or $780 a year. Victoria paid $68 and the local people put up $10. I had to save for summer school, because I only had grade 12 at Langley high school. I took grade 13 by correspondence. Then I had one year of normal school. I graduated in 1940, but I added courses at summer school for two years, and finally got my certification from Victoria.”

Every grade had its own curriculum, so Joyce had to figure a way to combine part of the curriculum in the older grades with the younger. She had to modify the curriculum accordingly. She chose topics to suit the grades. Canada was one of the topics, the geography of the country.

“It was amazing how much the younger kids learned by hearing the material I was teaching the older kids,” she said.

Joyce showed me an old photo of the school. It was not very big, and the dozen or so kids who formed the classes pretty well filled the school. The school was lit with coal oil lamps. Water was brought in by pail from a nearby spring. And the outhouse was at the back of the lot.

Joyce used her imagination to get projects together that the children could relate to. For example, there were several girls who were, ‘horse crazy’, so Joyce got magazines dealing with horse and ranch life, and the Western Horseman. The girls cut pictures of horses out and wrote about the uses of the different types of horse. This helped develop reading, writing skills.

Another project was a correspondence with a school in Ontario. The children exchanged letters, describing their lives and activities. Joyce wanted her students to get as much experience beyond the ranch, logging life they lived. She was asked, “What is an elevator?” Joyce decided she would arrange a field trip to Vancouver for them.

It wasn’t that easy to do back in the 1940s. Field trips were probably considered ‘frills’, but Joyce was determined. And the metal that had shown itself early when she had gone ahead into the wilds of the interior to teach, despite apprehension about not knowing where and what she was going to, served itself well. Subsequent field trips included visits to Stanley Park and the big department stores where the kids were not only introduced to the joys of modern city life, like taking the elevator up and using the escalators, they discovered the joys of choosing what to eat from the cafeterias.

Joyce said there were only a few occasions when she had to threaten to use the strap. “And I only used it once” on a boy who had defied her too strenuously and she felt she had to make a stand to the rest of the class.

When the strap was abolished, one student boasted that she could not use it now. “I took him to my desk and opened the drawer and showed him the strap inside. ‘But I still have the strap’,” she told the lad. “I had no trouble after that.”

In those days, the authority of the teacher was respected. If a child or children became difficult, and word got back to the parents, the parents would discipline their child.

Joyce notes that times have changed substantially since the 1940s.

Joyce married Pete Coldwell in 1942 and settled down to raise a large family on the ranch and post office. They had eight children, five boys and three girls. Joyce didn’t teach again for 30 years.

“It wasn’t so bad,” said Joyce, teaching in a one roomed school. Mr. Coldwell senior always brought in the wood for the stove and kept the school warm. And a sod roof didn’t leak. There were no drafts that she could remember. “We didn’t suffer.”

Joyce’s scrapbooks with the horses project impressed the visiting Superintendent who asked to take the project back to Victoria. Joyce agreed, with the proviso that it be returned later.

All the kids rode horses to school, so gymkhanas were annual events. Christmas concerts were also popular. “But we didn’t have a piano or any other musical instrument. I used to start the singing and sing the carols with them.”

Teaching in a one roomed school may not have been “so bad”, but it took a good teacher’s ability to think of projects and learning mechanisms that enlightened and broadened their rural charges. Teachers came and went frequently in rural schools during the 40s, 50s and even up until the 1960s. They seldom stayed for more than a year.

Times have changed of course. Mostly for the good. But there’s always a downside to change. And teachers everywhere know what they are!