By Walter Schoen, March 2000
In the spring and early summer of 1939 a colony of Sudeten refugees arrived at Tupper, B.C., at the site of the old Tate Creek Ranch. A two-room school was built to serve the children and youths of these families. I was eight years old at the time, so my memories are spotty, but as it was a dramatic time for us all, they are very vivid.
The building was typical of rural school houses of the time: two-by-four frame, two rooms back-to-back with a door between them; a small, unheated cloakroom at each end and a roofed over, small open porch at both entrances. For insulation, the space between inside and outside walls was filled with sawdust mixed with slaked lime to discourage occupancy by mice and insects. Lighting, when necessary in the classroom, was provided by a hissing two-mantle Coleman gas lamp dangling from the ceiling by a bent wire. For heating there was a wood-burning stove, large enough to handle three-foot logs, approximately in the middle of each room. It was surrounded on three sides by a wobbly sheet-metal arrangement and a piece of sheet metal on the floor in front of the stove door as a safety measure against fire. A long line of stove pipes, suspended from the ceiling with hay wire, took the smoke to a brick chimney built on a two-by-two foot closet intended for broom storage, but one teacher had a different use for it as we shall see later. The “air-conditioning system” consisted of an eighteen inch square outlet through the ceiling that could be opened and closed with a hook on a long stick referred to as “the long arm”, and two narrow windows, high up on the north wall, that could also be opened with “the long arm”. The south wall was mostly large windows that didn’t open, but let in a lot of badly needed light. On sunny winter days they also augmented the heating system but on warm, sunny days in other seasons helped overheated the room.
As was common in public buildings of the time, the floor was bare wood that was periodically oiled to keep down dust. It also discouraged dropping things, as anything touching it would also be oily. Blackboards lined two walls. Furnishings consisted of a teacher’s desk and chair, one book-case about six feet long by four high, and desks for the pupils – the kind that were screwed to one-by-three boards with the back of one serving as the front for the one behind. Seats were hinged so they could be lifted up. There were usually four in a row so they could be moved easily for floor cleaning or general rearranging. They made a scraping noise on the bare wooden floor if the occupant got fidgety, much to the annoyance of the teacher.
There was no plumbing. Drinking water was melting ice in a five-gallon stone crock with a little tap at the bottom on a shelf at the side of the room. Blocks of ice were cut from a nearby lake in winter, stored in the ice-house, carefully packed in sawdust as insulation from the outside and to prevent them from freezing together. One of the janitor’s duties was to dig one of the blocks out and put it in the crock each morning, and add a few drops of chlorine to kill any bacteria. The water supply could be augmented in winter by melting snow in a pail on the wood stove. Sanitary facilities consisted of two single-seat outhouses well back from the school, and widely separated, the left one for boys and the right one for girls. Not many students asked to “leave the room” on sub-zero days. There was a small basin in the classroom, but water for washing hands was only available in winter from the snow melting in the pail on the stove.
Behind the ice-house was a huge, neatly stacked pile of three-foot logs, the winter’s fuel supply. For lack of any other playground equipment, it was a popular play area. Climbing on it was forbidden, ostensibly for safety reasons, but really because the janitor got upset when the ends of the pile were messed up.
There was no basement. The building rested on piles of wooden blocks. A banking of dirt along the outside kept cold winds and snow from blowing underneath. That, too, was a popular play area, especially for the younger ones, much to the annoyance of Mr. Brumlik, the janitor who had to shovel the dirt back up periodically until it froze in place later in the season.
The head teacher was Miss Eveline De Courcy Meade, a middle aged, no-nonsense Victorian school-marm, born in England, whose father had been an officer in the British army in India. Before coming to Canada she had been teaching English, American and Canadian children in Tokyo. She was there only ten months when the 1923 earthquake struck. She was shipped out as a refugee via Victoria, BC, where she arrived without a nickel. She decided she liked it there and got on staff. She then organized a school at Shelley, BC, near Prince George, and from there came to Rose Prairie, a hamlet near Fort St. John, BC. From there she was assigned to the new school at Tate Creek (now Tomslake). She had the lower classes, and the other teacher, a young beginner, Miss Braun, had the older ones. She knew a few words of German which she used on occasion in moments of stress, to the amusement the students. “Wenn die bellen ringen dann mussen alle ruhig sein.” Meaning, “When the bell rings, everyone has to be quiet.” She also had a strong sense of patriotism for the Empire. A picture of crossed Union Jacks (British flags) and the Canadian coat of arms between them graced the front wall, and every morning all the pupils had to stand at attention and recite: I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the empire for which it stands: one king, one empire, and one flag,”
Miss Meade was a hardy person. She chose to live in a small shack, actually an unused granary fixed up a bit, about ten by twelve feet, just off the school grounds. As all houses in the area, it had no plumbing or power. Her only luxury was a battery-powered radio mainly to get news of the world. She had an opening for ventilation built on one side above her bed which she kept open even in the coldest weather, at least that’s what she said, and we had no reason to disbelieve her. She owned a large brown dog and a white horse, that she called Chinook. She allowed the horse freedom to roam. Often on cold mornings we could hear her stentorian voice calling it from a great distance, “Shin-i-noo-kee!” She rode the horse on visits to neighbours; eventually she also got a small carriage for it to pull when she wanted to go to Pouce Coupe, the nearest town, about twelve miles by the winding dirt road. The horse disappeared the following spring after it had thrown her and she broke her arm.
Miss Meade’s teaching methods were as strict and rigid as her lifestyle. Rote learning. We spent long hours reciting phonics. I can still see the large capital A with all the “aye” sounds under it: ay, ai, a…e, etc. Especially memorable was the “i with the lazy g h”, as in night. The multiplication tables were thoroughly drilled into us up to the “twelve times table” for the grade threes. For language lessons she had sets of cards. For the younger ones, with four cartoon pictures for which the pupil was to write a story; for the older ones, with short sentences, that pupils were taught to combine into longer sentences; a process that was much later incorporated into the Senior Secondary English programs under the fancy heading, “sentence combining.” We never had problems with who and whom, lie and lay, and other such folksy illiteracies. Correct usage was drilled into us and it stuck.
Reading was taught from prescribed texts that started with Jerry and Jane (books one, two and three). Jerry and Jane were brother and sister of about school age although they never went to school. Jerry wore blue shorts and Jane a white dress. They were always neat and clean and obedient to mother, who was also neat and slim. They lived in a neat white house with a red roof in a semi-rural setting. They had a dog, Spot, and a white cat, Snow. “See Spot. See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.” Father, wearing a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase, left for work and came home by car. The grandparents (one set) lived on a farm and were visited on occasion. The children were always well behaved in the car. In later editions of the series Jerry’s name was changed to Dick.
Miss Meade’s discipline, as might be expected form the daughter of a British Army officer, was firm, and punishments followed in consistent progression, varying only with the nature of the offense. If lapses in attention or too many errors in reciting the phonics chart were general in the class, the punishment might just be putting the heads down on the desk and sleeping. Oddly enough, it worked. An individual’s first offense was having him or her stand beside the desk for a while; if the situation was deemed more serious, it was kneeling at the front of the class facing the wall. Further offenses might be standing in the corner or sleeping on a storage box under the windows. The next step was to sit under her desk (when she wasn’t sitting in it, of course, which she seldom did), or being locked in the broom storage closet under the chimney, a punishment she abandoned after one of the bigger boys, probably claustrophobic, spread-eagled himself and screamed his objections and she couldn’t wrestle him into it. Then, as a final recourse, there was the strap. Every school was issued a Department of Education regulation piece of leather belting, one inch wide and about a foot long. If she felt some extra persuasion needed, she would put the strap into a pail of boiling water on the stove before using it; this probably made no difference to the degree of pain inflicted, but certainly had its psychological effect.
Whatever else may be said of Miss Meade, her teaching was effective. In less than a year she had many of us entered in the Elks’ Drama and Music Festival in Pouce Coupe, and many of us won prizes in elocution, drama and folk-dancing.
Initially there were about sixty students, about thirty or more to a room roughly divided by age as grade levels made no sense at this time. All of them spoke German, albeit with some variation in dialect. Those that lived within a mile or so from the school came on foot, others living farther away in small groups were brought and usually picked up by a horse drawn wagon or sleigh. This soon ended as work necessitated use of the horses and manpower elsewhere. It was not easy, especially for small children, to get to school on foot, especially in the sub-zero temperatures and not uncommon deep snow. But there was little absenteeism or lateness. Everyone brought lunch, which was often frozen by the time it got to school. Lunch bags were lined up around the stove to be thawed out by lunch time. Often the inkwells, also frozen during the night, would have to be thawed out at the stove before written work could begin. Even with some shortening of school hours during the shorter daylight of winter, children would arrive and leave in the dark. No one complained. That’s just the way it was.
After two years, the older children, young teenagers, did not go to school any more and only one room was used, enrolling beginners to Grade 8. Miss Meade moved on and for three years the teacher was Miss Lydia Hinke, also a firm person, but more benign.