Charlotte Gorley was scanning some family photos when a couple of unfamiliar images captured her attention.
“I have found two photos of the Oyen school fire in ,” explained Ms. Gorley, a resident of Victoria, B.C., in an email message. “The photos show clouds of smoke billowing out and a crowd of people watching.”
On the back of one of the images, a postcard, was written: “This is a picture our school when it was in flames”, signed by “Barney, Oyen”.
Both images were from the collection of Wilma Gyger (nee Gorley), daughter of Harold Gorley and Thelma Miller, who passed away in 2017.
A genealogy researcher, Gorley wished to learn about the area, and the ‘backstory’ behind these postcards and images.
“I’m curious to know more about the fire and the community of Oyen,” she added.
The town of Oyen is somewhat of a rarity in Alberta these days: a community undergoing a bit of an economic boom.
Located about 300 km east of Calgary, and a short drive from the Saskatchewan border, Oyen has been the benefactor of a pair of major projects occurring in the region.
Construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in the area has proven a boon to local industry, leaving local hotels and pubs full to the brim, and local businesses appreciating the cash injection.
A few years earlier the town and Special Areas Board, the regional governing authority, teamed up with CN Rail to build a 155-acre rail yard and logistic park within the community, in the hope of bringing projects like Keystone to the region.
While energy has driven the community’s fortunes in recent years, it is the surrounding agricultural community that has given Oyen staying power.
This corner of the “dry belt” was first settled around 1908, with settlers arriving here from the United States, eastern Canada, and Europe. Within a few years, the railroad found its way to these parts, spurring the creation of the village of Oyen.
Named for the Norwegian settler upon whose land the townsite was constructed, Oyen was incorporated as a village in 1913, and quickly became a commercial hub. By 1915, the village was home to 225 souls and three grain elevators along the Canadian Northern’s Goose Lake Line.
Schools were one of the first institutions to become established in prairie communities, and Oyen was no exception. The first children in the district attended Feadview school, which opened a mile and half west of the village in 1912. Oyen School District No. 3058 was incorporated a year later in November 1913, with students initially attending classes in the village’s Methodist church.
It wasn’t long before the church classroom was bursting at the seams. Boasting an enrollment of over 30 students in 1915, the construction of a new school became top of mind for the locals.
Like the industrious folks of Oyen today, the village’s first residents wasted no time getting the job done. In May of 1916, tenders were issued for “a brick veneer two-story school house, size 48×40 with extended front”. The board of trustees swiftly selected a site and schemata for the new school, a contractor to build it, and issued a $6000 debenture to fund the construction.
Work began early in September in the hope that students would be in the new school by the new year.
The trustees had covered all the bases, save for one. In their haste to begin construction, they had neglected to get the provincial Minister of Education to authorize their plans, a legislative requirement.
Upon learning of the irregularities, the Minister dug in his heels, and refused to approve the debenture. As a result, school construction ground to a standstill. The trustees, embarrassed by their predicament, and unwilling to go back on their agreement with the contractor, elected instead to take the Minister to court to compel his approval.
Frustrated by the stand-off and standstill, the ratepayers of Oyen voted to sack the board late in 1916, appointing a single trustee to oversee affairs.
“Meanwhile,” quipped the editor of the Oyen News, “the members of the local board are in a delightful state of uncertainty as to whether or not they will be asked to shoulder, personally, the whole cost of the work that has already been done.”
When the issue went before the courts in early January 1917, the judge ruled against the district, determining they had failed to follow the School Ordinance. The Minister, the justice ruled, “could not be compelled to authorize the expenditure of money for unauthorized purposes”.
The ratepayers received more bad news in March, when they were informed that the school roof would have to be raised, and an extra acre of land expropriated, in order for the new building to meet the department specifications.
“Wake up ye Gods, and start something.”
Already on the hook for $6000, ratepayers of the village voted to start from scratch and to borrow an additional $4000 to construct a new building, this time on three acres of land.
Adding insult to injury, the people of Oyen were reminded daily of this boondoggle, as the derelict school stood unfinished for several years afterwards. It would eventually be torn down and replaced by the office for the public school division.
Within months plans for next new school were announced. Featuring a “brick veneer finish”, and measuring 74 x 30 feet, the school was to have a finished basement, two classrooms on the main floor, and two on the second floor.
As the editor of the Oyen News gushed: “This school when finished, ‘will [sic] be one of the most up-to-date schools in the province and one, of which, Oyen can be proud”
Construction on the new ‘new’ school commenced in early September. As it grew nearer to completion in early 1918, the editor reflected on the tribulations of the past, while providing some unintended foreshadowing of events to come.
“This long looked for building has had a memorable history ever since the foundation stone was laid. It has been held up, talked about, boycotted, cussed, and discussed and there it stands, a beautiful building, an ornament to any city and an asset to any community. It has come through the fiery trail without a blemish and now stands ready to be used for moulding and shaping the characters and destinies of juvenile Oyen.”
With the school question now settled, the editor wondered: “What will we all do now?”
“Wake up ye Gods, and start something.”
The school would be open a mere three days before his challenge would be answered.
In the wee hours of Monday, March 11, 1918, smoke was spotted rising from the roof and windows of the school building. Believed to have started in the basement where the furnaces were located, the blaze moved swiftly through the air pipes to engulf the entire structure.
Excited students, arriving for their first day of classes in the new school, stood in wonderment as white smoke emerged from atop the building. Arriving firefighters discovered to their dismay that their hoses were frozen, leaving them unable to do anything but stand amongst the crowd of students and onlookers who had gathered to bear witness to the latest sordid chapter in the Oyen school debacle.
Within two hours, all that remained was a smoking ruin, part brick veneer, and a chimney, looming defiantly over the smoldering rubble.
Demoralized, townsfolk were forced to contemplate constructing a new school for the third time in three years.
However, the community’s pioneer resilience shone through. Another debenture for $6000 was issued, and by late summer work had begun anew, once more, while students continued their studies at the Methodist Church.
In early September, the News proclaimed there was to be: “A Bigger and Better School For Town of Oyen”.
Reported to be “virtually identical” to the previous version, the newest building did come with one significant upgrade.
“A decided improvement had been made with regard to the furnace chamber, which will be a foot higher than it was in the other school and surrounded by an eight-inch brick wall with several layers of asbestos between the wall, making the chamber absolutely fire proof.”
In the face of spiralling debt loads, quarrels over insurance payouts, and a Spanish Influenza outbreak that saw the community quarantined in mid-October, Oyen’s newest new school opened in mid-December 1918. It was a well-deserved Christmas present for the long-suffering people of Oyen.
Over a century later, Oyen Public School continues to serve the young and impressionable of the region, having undergone a two-room addition in 1952 , and a major renovation in the mid ‘80s.
It can rightly be said that the people of Oyen endured both trial and fire to provide a basic education for their children.
Asbestos would be an issue for another day.
- I’d like to thank Charlotte Gorley for her assistance and cooperation in putting this article together. Also thank you to Jane at the Oyen Public Library for her assistance in accessing historical materials used for this article.
Sources: Charlotte Gorley; townofoyen.com; Municipal population lists | Alberta.ca; Peel’s Prairie Provinces (peel.library.ualberta.ca), a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries; Many Trails Crossed Here: A Story of Oyen, Alberta, and the Surrounding Districts, Volumes 1 and 2; Enns, Frederick. The Legal Status of the Canadian Public School Board. Diss. University of Alberta, 1961; University of Lethbridge Library Southern Alberta Newspaper Collection.