I was hired to teach French and Latin and possibly some girl’s Physical Education. That was the only information I had about the school or the job. It was quite a jolt on arrival to find that the school was a combined elementary-junior-senior school, that I would be teaching elementary as well as senior grades, and that I was expected to teach all the senior English including Senior Matriculation. The main problem was that I had no textbooks for the courses, and there were none in the school. At that time all books were ordered through the drug store and it was two weeks before they arrived from the coast. For two weeks it all had to come out of my head.
For teachers of that era, the train ride in was something to be remembered. There was the departure from Vancouver several days before the other teachers and then the stopover in Edmonton. Then came the long uncomfortable ride on the NAR with no food until the breakfast stops at Spirit River in the very early dawn, the apprehension going over the long wooden trestle, and finally the arrival at Pouce Coupe. To show how quickly conditions changed during those years, in 1940 there were about fifty teachers on the train and in 1944 a mere half dozen made the train trip from the coast.
The staff in the school term 1940-1941 consisted of Mr. F. J. Orme, Principal, Mr. Bert Brown, Mr. A.M. Fotheringham, Miss Estelle Watchorn, Miss Lillian Harper, and myself. I do not know exactly how many pupils we had, but these figures can be checked in the annual Public School reports.
The school was very plain and bare, with practically no equipment and no library. There were four rooms upstairs, a stairway leading down to the office and a very small classroom with another classroom sticking out at the back. An antiquated furnace heated only part of the school and stoves had to be used in a couple of the rooms.
Coming from the city and university, I found life in the rural Dawson Creek novel and intriguing, and loved every minute of it. I was impressed by the resourcefulness of the country children. They took the cold winters and the long walks or horseback rides to school in their stride.
The second year Mr. Orme left and Mr. Fotheringham took over as principal. We added Miss Lillian Johnson, Miss Catherine Burnett, Miss Cathy Hood and Miss Marie Haddow to our staff. The next year Mr. Fotheringham left to join the Airforce and Dr. English asked me to accept the principalship, which I held for two years. During that time our pupil population zoomed and our staff expanded to sixteen. Again I would like to have figures checked, but [I know] pupil registration went up over 600.
I am afraid I cannot list all the teachers who taught during that period, but the following were among them:
Mr. A. O. Palsson (who became Vice-principal), Miss Hinke, Mrs. Bricker,
Mrs. Jean Gething, Mrs. Hamilton, Miss Betty Baxter, Miss Nesta Carter,
Mrs. Evelyn Mouat, Miss Shirley Brown, Miss Alice Hauger, Mrs. Bennet,
Miss Ruth Campbell and Mrs. Evelyn Dahlen
In 1942 we saw the coming of the Alaska Highway. Overnight the town changed dramatically, but it was not till the fall term that the effect was felt in the schools. Classes became very large, up to fifty. We could not enroll all the children who wanted to go to school. There was simply no more room. Not only the number of children presented problems, but also their varied backgrounds because the civilian workers who were moving in came from all parts of Canada and the States. An addition of two rooms was put on the school and the annex was built, but we were still hopelessly overcrowded.
All through this period there was difficulty getting supplies. Because the American Army had priority on anything coming in by rail we sometimes had to wait quite a while. A piano whose arrival we expected daily for months must have been shunted back and forth several times somewhere between Dawson Creek and Edmonton before we received it. Coal was in very short supply and we had to close down in one period of bitter cold. During the shutdown all the fire extinguishers froze and it was some time before replacements could be found. At one point we were down to one box of chalk for the whole school and the teachers would come along to the office each morning to pick up their ration for the day.
In the days before the building of the highway the high point of the school year was the festival in Pouce Coupe. We entered the play “Elmer” one year and the “Ghost in the Green Gown” the next. The children really enjoyed the opportunity to take part in such productions and were very proud of the trophies they won.
The whole school district took part in these festivals. On one of the final nights, in the great confusion of rounding up all the children and sending them off home, one little grade eighter evaded us. At midnight the mother arrived at our room in the Harper Block demanding her daughter. We roused all the teachers and sent search parties off in all directions. The mother had a horse and buggy into which Miss Watchorn and myself crowded for an unforgettable ride up and down the streets of Dawson Creek in the June dawn looking for a lost child, who was finally found trudging home from Pouce.
Another memory is of the visit of the Governor-General, and the Earl of Athlone and the Princess Alice. As we had been told that the party would not be stopping, we had made no preparations for the visit. For some reason, plans were changed, and we had about an hour’s warning. We borrowed a less tattered flag from Mr. Braden, persuaded Mrs. Calverley to find us some flowers for a bouquet, and picked the neatest Grade One pupil to present them. In the days before Women’s Lib, her Highness was impressed by the fact that there were two woman principals in High Schools in the Block. At this time Miss Marjorie Lean was principal at Fort St. John.
The first two years I was in Dawson Creek, I had a room in the Harper Block; the last two Miss Hood and I shared a small house on what used to be the golf course. Soon after we moved in, one of the trucking companies set up a storage yard behind and to the left of our cottage. On several occasions we were awakened at night by loud crashes. Once more a truck taking a short cut through our yard had tangled with the clothesline upsetting the outhouse to which it was attached.
The house was comfortable when both stoves were going, but we rarely managed to keep them going all night. On cold mornings there was always ice to be broken on the water barrel in the kitchen. We could tell if it was really cold by stretching one arm out from the covers and turning the hand lotion bottle upside down. If the liquid was frozen it was an occasion for wearing all the warm clothes we had.
I remember one horrible morning when wind, temperature and the winter sun combined to turn every street in town into a slithering ice arena on which it was impossible to walk. I fell down three times on the way to school. Another time the tip of my nose froze in the short three-block walk from home to school.
Another very vivid memory of those years is the mud. The school was closed once because Dawson Creek was completely isolated. The only vehicle in or out was the mail truck and it didn’t always make it. I can remember being mired in the center of the main street and ending up flat in the mud.
The four years I spent teaching in Dawson Creek were amongst the busiest and happiest of my life. Primarily because of the people I met and the friends I made amongst the students, staff and people in the town. Then too, there was a great deal of satisfaction in accepting the challenge of teaching conditions and teaching loads that were pretty heavy and doing not too bad a job.
No teacher ever forgets her first year’s teaching and the students in her first classes. Of that first year my only sad memory is of the Grade Twelve boys who showed such promise and who were lost overseas so very soon afterwards, Jack Linklater and Dick Bennett.
On anyone who has grown up at the coast and then moved north for a time, the land itself leaves a deep impression. There are many vivid pictures in my mind — the gold and brown of the autumn fields, the northern lights, the chill whiteness of the winter, the fresh green of the spring — and always so much sky.