In search of school days of yesteryear

Legacy project draws on memories of past East Kootenay students, teachers and parents.

Clockwise from top: Derryll White of the Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History holds a class photo from Mount Baker High School 1947-1948

Do you have old class photos lying around? A school pin? A story about getting an education in the East Kootenay?

If so, coordinators of a special history project would like to hear from you.

Since May, the Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History and School District #5 have been working to collect the history of education in the East Kootenay.

Now, the project —dubbed “A Legacy of Learning” — is gearing up, and the Basin Institute’s executive director Derryll White is asking folks to sort through the boxes in their attic, and dredge out the memory banks, to see if you have something to contribute.

“Education history is really ephemeral. It just disappears and no one is collecting it,” said White.

“It’s a part of history that everyone can share – it’s a common experience, everybody went to school.”

He said the institute will not keep your photos or memorabilia. Rather, project coordinators simply want to scan photos and take snapshots of memorabilia, then return it to its owner.

“We have agreed to locate, collect, scan and return all photographs, documents, publications, crests and other memorabilia relating to school events, staff and students,” said White.

The project was born from a conversation between White and School District 5 trustee Chris Johns, who is also a long-time Cranbrook educator.

“We started talking about the possibilities and catching all of that material before it is lost forever,” said Johns.

“Schools close, schools burn down. There are all sorts of things we have lost and will never be able to recover.”

The project started small, Johns went on, but grew once the school district board entered into a partnership with the institute. Last month, the B.C. government pledged almost $45,000 to the institute, so it could hire four people full time for 27 weeks to carry out the bulk of the project work.

“We are expecting to get inundated with memorabilia from the community, from schools, from people’s basements and attics,” said Johns.

“A Legacy of Learning” covers schools in what used to be School Districts 1 and 2, amalgamated as School District 5 in the late 1990s. That includes 20 communities – not only Cranbrook, Fernie, Elkford and Sparwood but also communities such as Moyie, Lumberton, Fort Steele, Wardner, Baynes Lake, Elko, Hosmer and Grasmere, which no longer have schools but used to.

There was even a school in Gold Creek at Letcher’s Camp that the institute didn’t even know about until the project began.

“Education was about building a community. Schools were used for political meetings, community events. They served the community,” said White.

During the world wars and the depression, schools helped the community plant Victory Gardens, where children learnt how to grow their own produce.

Schools are a huge part of the fabric of the community, White went on.

“We want to look at what education has done for this part of the East Kootenay,” he said.

Stories and photos gathered in the project will teach lessons about how communities became what they are today, White said. He expects to learn the story of teaching in the region – especially for women, who once couldn’t work after marriage. He hopes to hear stories about what young people used their education to do in later life and how the community helped foster that path.

Already, parallels are popping up between schools in history and schools today. White has seen photos of Cranbrook rallying to have Mount Baker Secondary School built in the late-1940s. Students marched carrying banners; the entire community was invested in seeing the high school brought to life.

Johns, who is today the chair of the committee to replace that very school, said he paid close attention to that history,

“I have definitely seen the parallels,” said Johns. “I’m looking at that and thinking, I wonder if we can use some of this experience and lobby even harder than we have been to get that replacement. Seeing those old pictures of Mount Baker, people are quite excited about it.”

But it’s not just those big stories the project is hoping to draw out. Everyone who grew up here has recollections of their school days, and it’s hard to know what we will learn once those stories are collected as one.

“It’s something everybody can relate to,” said White. “It’s a very common story that none of us pay attention to. We don’t think about how our school years formulated what we do.”

If you would like to submit items to A Legacy of Learning, you can either go through a local school, or contact the Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History at 250-489-9150, email dwhite@basininstitute.org.