The subject of the email was “Re: C.Y. District school”.
Sandra Guymon, the director and sole employee of a “very very very small library” in upstate New York, was searching for information about this curiously named district in southern Alberta.
“My Grandfather Duncan Lorne Martin was a school teacher at C.Y. District school. I have some photos from about 1917. I know he lived in Taber Alberta, but I don’t know anything about the C.Y. district, and can’t seem to find anything about it on the internet.”
As Guymon explained, Martin was a native of Tottenham, Ontario, who came west around 1917 to teach at C.Y. School, northwest of the town of Taber. Martin enlisted with the Loyal Edmonton Regiment towards the end of the First World War, returning to the C.Y. district in 1919.
Martin initially boarded with the Garrett and Wilhelmina Gertzen family, who lived on a farm near the school, and later married Wilhelmina following the couple’s divorce. In 1926, the Martins moved to another farm in the area, where they would eke out a living for over a decade.
According to Guymon, Duncan and Wilhelmina enjoyed some success during the wetter years of 1927-28, before eventually being driven off the land in 1937, victims of the twin economic and ecological disasters known today as the Great Depression and the Dirty Thirties.
After returning to Tottenham, Martin worked for a time in the post office before hiring on as construction labourer at Camp Borden, where army and flight training was undertaken for the Canadian armed forces during the Second World War. He was hospitalized in April 1940 when a trench he was working on caved in. Shortly afterwards he suffered a brain aneurysm, and passed away at the age of 49.
Some 80 years later, Guymon is seeking to learn more about her intrepid grandfather’s western adventures, and the country her father and grandparents called home.
“I hope they might start up a conversation!” she added.
As it turns out, the origin of the C.Y. is rooted in southern Alberta ranching history.
Both the C.Y. school and district derive their name from the C.Y. Ranch, which was established in the late 19th century along the Belly (now Oldman) River, north of what is now Taber.
According to historian, Dr. Alex Johnston, the ranch was named “CY” as it was initially owned by an outfit known as the Cypress Cattle Company.
The C.Y. ranch covered many miles of rangeland. Stretching from the Retlaw area, west of the present-day town of Vauxhall, its vast acreage tracked eastward towards the “Grand Forks”: the confluence of the Bow and Belly rivers, the latter of which is know today as the Oldman. Sources disagree on the location of the ranch headquarters, one placing it near the Grand Forks, while Johnston places it closer to Taber, near where the McLean Bridge across the Oldman River is located today.
In 1886, a twenty-something James Archibald McLean had come west from Manitoba to become a rancher. Hiring on at the C.Y., he eventually became owner of the ranching empire, raising and exporting cattle from his base along the Belly for 20 years. McLean was married briefly during this time, his wife, Margaret, passed away shortly after giving birth to their only child, James, in 1906.
Around this time the southern prairie was opened to settlers, and as the open range closed in, McLean decided he wanted out. With a small fortune to be made selling grassland to eager settlers, the long-time rancher is reported to have sold all 38,000 acres of the CY for over a quarter of a million dollars in the Spring of 1907, earning roughly seven dollars an acre during an era where quarter sections (160 acres) elsewhere were going for $10 a pop.
After selling out, McLean became publisher of the Taber Times newspaper, and embarked upon a career in politics, serving for several years in the provincial Liberal government as MLA for Taber. Notably, he played a significant role in the establishment of irrigation in the region as a Cabinet Minister in both the Sifton and Stewart administrations. It was also during this period that he cemented his legacy as one of the “Big Four”: joining fellow cattlemen, Pat Burns, A.E. Cross, and George Lane in putting up $25000 each to bankroll the first ever Calgary Stampede in 1912.
Not long after money changed hands, the C.Y. ranch lands were put on the market by a land speculator from Guelph, ON, who began offering “quarters, halves, three-quarters, or whole sections to suit the customer at $10 per acre”.
Despite the inflated price there were many takers, a considerable number of whom had come west from Ontario and lived together until they could establish their homesteads.
By 1913 enough settlers had trickled into the C.Y. district to form a school, and on June 25, 1913, C.Y. School District No. 2992 was incorporated.
A one-room school was built on the SE-17-11-17-W of 4M, about 10 miles NW of Taber, and about 11 miles straight south of the community of Retlaw.
Referred to as the “C.Y. District”, or just simply “the CY” by the locals, the school became a social hub for the community hosting events such as square dances and radio dances, Christmas parties, church services, and bridal showers to name a few.
While these flat, treeless plains appeared ideal for grain farming, the harsh reality set in quickly. After experiencing abundant years in 1915 and 1916, where above average precipitation and inflated grain prices led to high yields and big returns, similar conditions would seldom be experienced for most of the next two decades.
Weather records for the period 1918-1939, for the years where complete annual data is available, indicates that the Vauxhall region averaged a touch over 11 inches of precipitation a year, including all rain and snow. To put this in perspective, deserts are defined as areas that receive an average annual precipitation of 10 inches or less. For many years during this period, the Vauxhall area received well below 10 inches annually, dipping as low as 6.8” in 1918, and 7.5” in 1931.
Situated on primarily marginal and submarginal soil, the country south of Retlaw was particularly prone to soil drifting; and with four to five inches of precipitation being required just to get a crop to the point where it can produce grain, farming in the desert would yield predictable results.
As a result, the hopefully homesteaders began to abandon the C.Y. The federal census showed that the rural farming population of the surrounding municipal district dropped by half between 1921 and 1926. By the end of 1928, local government had been disorganized altogether, and within a decade most of the surrounding country was under the control of the provincially-administered Special Areas Board.
Guymon relates her own family’s experience during the Dirty Thirties, which was typical for that place and time:
“The farm was successful until the Great Depression hit. Drought, dust storms, grasshoppers, and hail destroyed the crops. My father says that he can remember that when he was 5 years old, he watched the dust storms coming. They had 100 cattle at the time. My grandfather sold the cattle, abandoned the farm and in 1937 they moved to Ontario in a Model A Ford.”
In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, a provincial survey indicated that only 10 resident farmers remained on the lands of the old C.Y. school district.
As Belinda Crowson explores in her essay, “Consolidation of Taber School Division”, the widespread farm abandonment starved drybelt schools of students and resources, leaving the province with little recourse but to encourage the consolidation of one-room schools into larger, centralized units.
The election of the Social Credit government in 1935 fast-tracked this process, and the following year C.Y. was one of about 110 one-room schools that had become part of the Taber School Division No. 6, now Horizon School Division.
With the dissolution of local government and the school district, C.Y.’s days were numbered.
In September 1938, the Taber Times reported that the inspector, a Mr. McCullough, “saw fit to close the CY school on account of the small attendance.” The remaining eight students were shuttled off to schools in Taber, Retlaw, and Iron Springs, and it would appear the school remained closed from this point forward.
Most of the C.Y. district has changed hands since the homestead days. Much of the land within was reclaimed by the province after it was abandoned during the dry years. Some of this tax recovery land remains intact, having never been broken by the plow. The remainder of the C.Y. today is the dominion of dryland farmers and cattlemen, a blend of lease land and private land holdings, surrounded by an irrigation empire.
If you have any information about C.Y. school, or stories to share about the community, you can email Sandra via Forgotten Alberta by clicking here.
Sources: Sandra Martin Guymon; en.wikipedia.org ; University of Lethbridge Library Southern Alberta Newspaper Collection; findagrave.com; Environment Canada, Vauxhall, Alberta Monthly Data Report for 1914-1939; University of Calgary Libraries Early Alberta Newspapers Collection; University of Calgary Libraries Local Histories Collection; OpenAlberta.ca; Peel’s Prairie Provinces; biographi.ca; Land use classification in the special areas of Alberta, and in Rosenheim and Acadia Valley / A. Stewart and W.D. Porter; Retlaw: A collection of memories; Drybelt Pioneers, First and Second edition.