As was the case with other rural schools a century ago, Utopia School District No. 840 offered excellent education to the many pioneer students who attended classes within this rustic structure. Let’s have a look back at a few early historical highlights.
A pioneer school and its supporters
Utopia School was one of 10 one-room country schools situated southeast of Pincher Creek. It sat adjacent to the Waterton River, better known to locals of the 1880s and 1890s as the Kootenay River. To its north was Fishburn School, to the west Robert Kerr and to the south New Yarrow School, each offering an education in the “three Rs” to eager students.
The school at Utopia was a frame structure, a rectangular one-storey building that housed students from grades 1 through 8. A peaked roof, adorned with wooden shakes, covered the building.
On one side were two sets of three rectangular windows, a popular style from that era on the frontier. These were opened during the hot weather of the spring, in order to make the school less stuffy as students prepared for their June exams.
At the front end of the structure was an enclosed porch, used as a mud and cloakroom for the students as they entered and exited the building. This room was a bonus during inclement or winter weather.
Off in the distance was a shed where the teacher and her pupils could stable any horses that were ridden to and from classes.
For nearly half a century following its opening in 1904, Utopia School met the educational needs of local students. The school district’s old ledgers, a few of which are now housed in the archives of Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village, chronicle some of the activities of those earlier times.
Starting in 1908, the first year for which property owners within the school district were listed, 27 families were on the roster. Pioneer surnames such as Fitzpatrick, Age, Walper, Swinney, Ward, White, Thomas, Speth, Gilruth, Miller, Blackburn and Whittacker highlight the pages of these intriguing ledgers.
Since Utopia did not have a post office at that time, many of these school supporters picked up their mail in nearby New Yarrow or Fishburn, depending on whether they resided to the south or farther north. Seven of these early families ventured as far as Pincher Creek, some 20 miles away, for their mail.
Revenues and expenditures reflected pioneer times
Utopia faced many of the same challenges as other pioneer school districts in terms of its revenues and expenditures. During its first operational year, 1904, it collected $262.86 in school taxes from the property owners who resided there. Each year, this revenue steadily increased so that four years later, nearly $1,000 was raked in.
One of the more intriguing tax revenues realized by the school district was from property owned by the Winnipeg Hudson’s Bay Co., which owned the west half of Section 26, Township 4, Range 28, West of the Fourth Meridian.
As guaranteed by dominion legislation, this fur-trading giant owned property in each township, which provided an extra source of property-based income for rural school districts. For Utopia, it provided anywhere from $9.36 to $14.40 in annual land tax levies.
The school district also realized annual grants from the Province of Alberta following its 1905 incorporation, usually received in three instalments. For many years, these amounted to between $135 and $255 each year.
Banking services of the Utopia School District were handled during those early years by the Pincher Creek branch of the Union Bank, located in a massive two-storey stone building at the corner of Main Street and East Avenue. Bookkeeper and former educator W.A. Ross (1875-1951) served as the district’s auditor for many years.
One of the more important expenditures was the teacher’s salary. In 1906-07 and 1907-08, the teacher was Annie Campbell, who appears to have received a monthly wage of $50, although the amounts do vary in the ledger. Payments at times were irregular, and it appears that extra wages were assigned at times when additional tutoring with the students was required.
She was succeeded in 1909 by Miss F.L. Ormond, who received a similar salary. Miss Dora McKerrill taught at Utopia the following year at much the same wages.
In 1906, Lillie Thomas provided the caretaking services at the school, looking after the coal-burning stove and assisting with the cleaning. A monthly wage of $5.50 was paid, although often the cheques were issued every second month.
Pioneer schools such as Utopia certainly were reflections of their rural communities. Utopia School closed due to consolidation in 1950, after educating students for 46 years.
The building remains standing on the south side of the road, a visual reminder of pioneer days gone by. An impressive gate at its entrance, arranged by former pupils, also bespeaks that rural community history.