The Williams Lake School

The Williams Lake School

Haphazard History: Early schools in the area

The very first schools in the Cariboo region were built in response to the needs of the small communities.

The very first schools in the Cariboo region were built in response to the needs of the small communities located along the different routes to the Cariboo gold fields.

Typically, these schools were small, one-room structure, often taught by an unpaid volunteer from the community, and involving only a few students.

They were neither funded by, nor under control of, the government offices in Victoria, and the curriculum taught varied widely from school to school in terms of scope and complexity.

As the Cariboo Wagon Road was completed (from 1860 to 1864), permanent communities were established along the way, often located near the stopping houses where travellers could find accommodation, food, stabling, supplies, drinks, repairs and the like.

These stopping houses were often named for their distance from Lillooet, the original “Mile 0” of the Cariboo Wagon Road, and that is why we still have communities like 100 Mile House, 150 Mile House existing today.

The young province grew and so did the demand for a free, common, comprehensive, regulated public school system.

In 1872, Victoria established the Department of Education, which employed several travelling school inspectors to oversee and report on public schools throughout the province.

In order for a community to have its school accepted as a public school and be eligible for funding from the department, the following criteria had to be met:

1.) There had to be at least 12 pupils of school age (six to 16 years) and assurances provided that an average monthly attendance of at least 10 pupils could and would be maintained.

2.) There had to be three upstanding male citizens of the community to act as school trustees. These men looked after the school’s finances, maintenance of the building and grounds and the hiring and oversight of the teacher.

3.) There had to be a suitable sized tract of land, often donated by a public spirited resident or purchased at the lowest possible price, to be used as the site of the school and school grounds.

4.) There had to be a building (often constructed of hand-hewn logs) to serve as the school house. The minimum size was 12 feet by 20 feet, windows must be on the south side to take advantage of the sun, at least one outhouse must be provided and the building must be suitable for withstanding the elements in the area.

5.) The proposed land and building(s) had to be inspected by the government agent for the region, and he had to provide a written recommendation to Victoria.

Prior to any funding being approved the community had to receive written permission from the department granting approval to establish a school.

When all of these conditions were satisfied, Victoria would establish, through legislation, a legal description of the school district to be served by that school.

In the Cariboo, the first provincially-established public school district was Lac La Hache in 1873. The Lac La Hache school opened in September of 1874, but it was “ordered closed by Victoria after Dec. 31, 1878, on account of having been for 18 months below the legal average (of 10 pupils).

The trustees, however, kept it open until June 30, 1879 (from the Public Schools Report of 1880).

It appears that school closures due to declining enrolment was a problem, even then.

Meanwhile, nearer to Williams Lake, in 1872, a school opened at the new Roman Catholic mission located in the San Jose River valley.

This school was operated by the religious order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and it enrolled eight boarding students and three day students, all white children from ranches and settlements in the area.

By 1876, this school, now called the St. Joseph’s Mission School, was a thriving place, enrolling 13 girls and 22 boys.

The girls were taught academics and domestic skills, while the boys learned agricultural trades along with their academies.

On May 27, 1880, the first Williams Lake School District was created by the provincial legislature in Victoria.

It included: “all that tract of land embraced within the circumference of a circle whose centre shall be the 150 Mile Post on the Cariboo Road, and whose radius shall be a distance of seven miles from such mile post,” (the Public Schools Report, 1881).

A tract of land and a 16 foot by 24 foot sod-roofed log barn had been donated by Gavin Hamilton, the current owner of the 150 Mile House and Store.

It was located approximately where the office of the current 150 Mile School is located today.

The cost of renovating the building and fitting it out as a schoolhouse was $300.

On July 11, 1880, the region’s government agent, William Stephenson, recommended this school be approved as a public school, but that the government would need to close down a nearly “Chinese house of ill fame.”

This house had the reputation of being an opium den and a place of prostitution, and was considered to be “a most undesirable adjunct to a school house,” (letters, Provincial Archives).

Presumably, the house of ill repute was removed, and in September of 1880 the first public school in the Williams Lake School District was opened.

The teacher was Mr. Henry Bird, and there were 17 boys and three girls enrolled in grades 1 through 8. The total cost for operating this school for the 1880/81 school year, including the teacher’s salary at a princely $60 per month, was $757.81 (Public Schools Report, 1881).

During the 1881/82 school year, the school grew in size, enrolling 20 boys and four girls. This school boasted of a 97 per cent regular attendance record, and the 1883 Public Schools Report noted that: “This school has the highest percentage of regular attendance of any school in the province, those attending at any time being seldom or never absent.”

In 1890, for the first time, First Nations children were able to attend school at the St. Joseph’s Mission School.

The following year, the Federal Government reached an agreement with the Roman Catholic Church that St. Joseph’s would become a residential school exclusively for the education of First Nations children.

Over the next three years, the white students who had been attending school there moved back to schools in their own communities or turned to home schooling.

The subsequent tragic history of “the Mission” until its closure in 1981 is well documented elsewhere, and its negative influence on generations of First Nations Cariboo children is still having negative repercussions today.

The impact on the school at 150 Mile House was immediate. By 1893, the student enrolment at the old log schoolhouse had increased to the point where the space was completely inadequate.

The trustees and the townspeople began lobbying Victoria to have a new, larger schoolhouse built. Finally, in 1895, Victoria granted approval, and during the fall of 1895 and the spring of 1896, the new building was constructed.

This is the same “little red schoolhouse” which still stands today on the corner of the 150 Mile School grounds next to Highway 97.

In 1896, when it opened, it was a state of the art school, large enough to house 40 students, complete with new double desks, a cloakroom, a new barrel stove heater and separate outhouses for the boys and the girls.

That September, 38 students were enrolled, and this schoolhouse served its community well, remaining in continuous use until 1958, when a new four-room school was opened up on the hill where the very first one-room log schoolhouse had been located.

This “little red schoolhouse” has been refurbished and renovated and now is used by the local school and by community groups as an historical display teaching and meeting centre.

It serves as a clear reminder of a long and proud community history.

In 1919, the Pacific Great Eastern Railway was built through to Williams Lake and terminus was established at its north end.

Almost overnight, a new town was established and, by September when the first train arrived, the boom was on.

As the new town of Williams Lake grew and prospered, however, 150 Mile House was destined to lose its prominence as the business and service hub of the Cariboo.

By the summer of 1920, there were approximately 20 school-aged students in Williams Lake, and the 12-mile trip to attend school in 150 Mile House was considered to be too onerous for the children, especially in the winter.

A committee was formed and Victoria was petitioned for funding to build a new schoolhouse in Williams Lake.

Meanwhile, a teacher was hired, Miss Bertrand, a coloured lady originally from Barbados.

She had been teaching in the Chilcotin since 1915 and was considered to be an excellent teacher.

Not waiting for Victoria’s approval for the establishment of a school, the community arranged for classes to be held in the basement of the new Lakeview Hotel starting in September of 1920.

In the spring of 1921, word was received from Victoria that approval and funding for a new schoolhouse would not be forthcoming for at least another six months.

The townspeople were not happy with this timeline, so they decided to build it themselves.

They convinced a local lumber mill to provide all the lumber needed on a “buy now, pay later” basis, hauled it to town, and built a new schoolhouse in one week.

It was 18 feet by 30 feet, with lots of windows and a big barrel heater at each end.

Students began attending there in September of 1920.

The provincial government was not pleased with this circumvention of the approval process, and they refused to fund the construction costs, although they eventually did provide funding for the teacher’s salary for 1919/1920 and the schoolhouse furnishings.

Undaunted, the townspeople held whist drives, box socials, dances and other fundraising events for the schoolhouse for a number of years until all the bills were paid.

This school remained in continuous use until 1954, when it was donated to the local artists’ group to become their studio workshop.

In 1971 it was moved onto private land approximately a mile away, where it is still used as a storage shed and workshop.

These four schools, Lac La Hache, St. Joseph’s Mission, 150 Mile and Williams Lake played an important and integral part in the education of the students in the Central Cariboo for many years.

Their histories are intertwined with those of the communities they served, and their stories deserve to be remembered.

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