The image of the one-room schoolhouse is recognizable to many communities across Alberta. Fortunately, there are a few of these structures still existing that help to illustrate the origins of public education in Alberta. In this article, we will look at the development and decline of the one-room schoolhouse and the building features that make this structure such a unique example of built heritage. The schoolhouses that will be discussed here are the Shilo School, Verdun School and Chailey School. These particular buildings have been restored, indicating the public interest and historical significance of these structures to their community.
A typical one-room schoolhouse was where one teacher would instruct boys and girls of all ages and grades. Attendance to the school could range from just a few to almost one hundred. This type of early public education was common across Canada from the late nineteenth century into the early twentieth century. In Alberta, the first one-room schoolhouse was built in Edmonton in 1881. Many more schoolhouses were erected throughout the province in the years that followed, the majority of which consisted of one room. By 1910, Alberta had 1,501 school districts operating 1,195 schools, the majority of which were located in rural areas.
In 1884, Education was governed by the Council of Public Instruction of the Northwest Territories. This changed to the Department of Education in 1905 when Alberta became its own province. By the 1910s, the provincial Department of Education had developed standards that schools had to meet. School districts were required to build a dedicated schoolhouse on well-drained land. The schoolhouses were required to have 15 square feet per student, and have 11 foot ceilings with porches and cloakrooms. Natural light and ventilation were deemed to be extremely important and every schoolhouse or classroom was required to have a large bank of windows to the students’ left. Blackboards, sixty square feet in size, were required at the front of the school and, optionally, on the wall facing the bank of windows. Frequent inadequacies in schoolhouse design and construction led the Department of Education to develop and acquire a series of standardized schoolhouse plans for school districts to use. Some of these plans were custom drawn by the office of the Provincial Architect, but other plans were acquired, notably those created by the Waterman-Waterbury Manufacturing Company. The Department of Education design requirements and the use of standardized plans gave one room schools across Alberta a very common look and feel.
A completed schoolhouse still tended to vary by community, depending on the building materials and resources that were available. Schools were also usually constructed by members of the community, and a schoolhouse could be influenced by local preference. Design materials and features often reflected the time period or wealth of a community. For example, a primarily simple construction made of wood was more common in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Structures that included brick or stone, and had separate entrances for girls and boys, were indicative of more prosperous communities.
Named after a location in Scotland, Shilo School was built by members of the community in 1910 at a cost of $800.00. Early settlers to the area recognized the importance of education and established a school district to accommodate the local children. One acre of land was purchased for the school at a price of $2.00 from Mr. Davidson, a Scottish pioneer.
The distinguishing features of this school are its exterior wood siding, shingle-clad gable over the front entrance and decorative trim along the top exterior walls. These design features give the schoolhouse the impression of Classical architectural influence. Interior features include one large open room, wood strip floor, historic blackboard and a cast iron wood stove.
By the late 1930s, one-room schoolhouses were in decline and 75 school districts, including Shilo School, were consolidated into Rocky Mountain School Division No. 15. Shilo School continued to be used by elementary and junior high school students until 1952, when the school closed and all students were bussed to a larger school in Caroline. The building remains intact and has since been repurposed as a community centre.
In the 1890s, German immigrants from the eastern United States settled west of Duhamel, Alberta. The population grew, with more Norwegian, German, French and Metis settlers coming to the area, which required a schoolhouse to be built for the local children. In 1902, New Berlin School, now known as Verdun School, was constructed for approximately $700.00. The school offered classes for grades one to eight, with the occasional grade nine class. Classes at Verdun School continued up until 1952, when it was consolidated into the Camrose School Division.
By the end of the First World War, anti-German sentiment was strong in Canada. A local petition began to change the name of the school from New Berlin to Verdun and this prompted the School District to change its name in 1918. Although many settlers in the area were ethnic Germans, there was reportedly little opposition to the name change.
Verdun School is historically significant because it is one of the oldest surviving one-room schoolhouses in Alberta. The building’s notable features are the exterior wood siding, interior detailed millwork and two original wood-fired stoves. The schoolhouse layout is also of unique design, in that the classroom was enlarged to accommodate more students in 1915. It also contains teacher’s quarters that were added the same year.
The early 1900s saw the expansion of railways throughout Alberta. Settlers came to establish homesteads, and small communities quickly appeared along the rail line. One development was the district of Chailey, which was primarily settled by British immigrants. Chailey established a post office and an Anglican church and, soon after, the population warranted the addition of a school. By the fall of 1910, the construction of a one-room schoolhouse was complete and ready to accept students from grades one to eight. Chailey school’s first teacher was Mr. H.C. Jackson from Fort Saskatchewan, and was paid a monthly salary of $50.00.
The Chailey School is an excellent representation of the standardized Department of Education’s schoolhouse plans. It has a simple, yet functional design, with a number of character defining elements. The most notable exterior features are the bank of tall, multi-paned windows as well as the cedar shingles, wooden eaves and wooden siding. The interior features include a brick chimney, moldings and rosettes around the doors and windows and maple wood floor with fir border, but most notable is the very high ceilings and a black board at the front, showing that the bank of windows would have been to the student’s left side.
The prevalence of the one-room schoolhouse declined after 1936. Alberta Premier and Social Credit party leader, William Aberhart, initiated educational reforms that saw the phasing-out of one-room schoolhouses in favour of multi-room institutions with multiple teachers. The goal of the reforms was to cut costs and standardize the education system for all students. By the 1950s, one-room schoolhouses were no longer used for public education purposes.
A handful of one-room schoolhouses have been designated as registered historic places in Alberta, including Shilo School, Verdun School and Chailey School. These sites represent an important aspect of Alberta’s early public education system. Although the one-room schoolhouse fell out of favour in the mid-twentieth century, its structural and historical integrity continues to be preserved.
Did you or someone you know attend a one-room school house? Share your story with us in the comments!
Written by: Erin Hoar and Ron Kelland
Alberta Register of Historic Places. “Chailey School.” Accessed March 15, 2017.
Alberta Register of Historic Places. “Shilo School.” Accessed March 15, 2017.
Alberta Register of Historic Places. “Verdun School.” Accessed March 15, 2017.
Alberta Teachers’ Association. “History of Public Education.” Accessed March 16, 2017.
Buck, George H. “Alberta’s School Building Plans.” Archivaria 29 (Winter 1989-90): pp. 173-79.
Designation file #Des. 1334, in the custody of the Historic Resources Management Branch.
Designation file #Des. 1969, in the custody of the Historic Resources Management Branch.
Designation file #Des. 2044, in the custody of the Historic Resources Management Branch.
Prentice, Alison. Oxford Companion to Canadian History (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2006).