Life back then wasn’t easy but growing up in Upper Clearwater in earlier times had its own rewards.
That was the message Clara Ritcey, Hazel Wadlegger and Ellen Ferguson brought to about 60 people who gathered at the former Upper Clearwater schoolhouse on Sunday, Oct. 21.
The gathering was the fourth in about 20 events planned for Wells Gray World Heritage Year.
The building didn’t exist when she started school, said Clara (Helset) Ritcey.
The first school in the valley opened in 1938 and was across the road from where Pat Hanson lives now. Ritcey started school in 1939.
“Our school was not so palatial as this,” she said. “Germs hadn’t been invented yet, so we were lucky.”
The students constantly hung their clothes by the stove to dry in winter.
“The smell of scorched wool reminds me of Grade 1,” Ritcey said.
Ivy Wisemueller was her first teacher. She was paid $4 per student per month, plus received room and board from the parents.
The parents also paid $2 per student per month, which could be quite a hardship for some families.
Despite only getting $32 per month for her eight pupils, Wisemueller did not receive a paycheque from the government for the entire year. She survived on the occasional $5 bill her mother enclosed with her letters. At the end of the school year her brother sent her $10 so she could take the train home.
Wisemueller’s marriage had broken up and her mother took care of her two small boys while she was away teaching.
Despite the difficulties, she went on to teach at other isolated schools. Wisemueller ended her career as vice-principal of a school in Vernon.
There weren’t enough students to continue a school program so Ritcey took Grades 2 to 7 by correspondence.
Then another school was constructed at Grouse Creek out of a house that belonged to Roy and Charlie Shook.
Clara and her brother boarded near the school, and walked the four or five miles back to their home at Hemp Creek on weekends.
They typically saw a dozen moose on the road while they were walking and they were a constant concern.
“They’d just stand there and watch us. What could you do, wait for spring? So we’d just walk right through and hope they didn’t take a dislike to us,” she said.
Hazel (Ludtke) Wadlegger started school when the Upper Clearwater schoolhouse opened in 1949.
She was only 4 1/2 at the time, but more students were needed to justify opening the facility.
That winter was one of the coldest on record, with temperatures of -40 and -50 Fahrenheit.
The big barrel stove was in the middle of the room and the students arranged their desks in a circle around it in an attempt to keep warm.
“We had to go to school,” she recalled. “The kids would leave in the morning and the parents wouldn’t know if they got there until they came back in the afternoon. Things have changed since then.”
Her first teacher was a Mrs. Johnson, who only stayed one year.
She took her second year by correspondence.
Her Grade 3 teacher was Alex Hazard. He stayed for a year or so, and then left for a year.
George Cone taught at Upper Clearwater for that year.
“It was very different,” said Wadlegger. “We had art for the first time. We had music. We went for hikes. Mr. Hazard was pretty well the three R’s only.”
Hazard returned and taught her pretty well until she was ready to go to high school in Clearwater.
Ellen (Helset) Ferguson, Clara’s younger sister, started school in 1960.
Their teachers were of variable quality, she reported.
One told them there were penguins at the North Pole, when they knew there weren’t. Another insisted that if they wore rubber boots indoors they would go blind.
Things changed when Edith Money took over and brought them up to standard.
“The teachers had to be really well organized,” Ferguson said. “We just took it for granted.”
A furnace was installed for the school while she was a student, but she recalled the boys pressing oranges on the letter on the woodstove to brand the name onto the peel.
Anther memory was of using a jelly-pad to make copies. There were no photocopiers at the time.
The Christmas concert was one of the high points of the year and rehearsals started in early fall.
“All in all, it was a good place to go to school,” Ferguson said.
The next Wells Gray World Heritage event will be Exploring Wells Gray the Way it Used to Be on Saturday, Nov. 10, with Frank Ritcey.