School Cairns & Cohorts

My love for cairns is maybe a little strange. I don’t know anyone else that slams on the brakes whenever they see a cairn. (Well, other than Andrew, ha.) Since developing this fascination, I have learned that many of these cairns we encounter are school cairns. These endearing sites dot the landscape, paying tribute to the one-room schoolhouses that once dotted the prairies.

The other day I was driving the country roads with a friend, and she was reflecting on the new school year that’s just about to begin, and the many changes being implemented in an effort to educate kids amid the ongoing pandemic.

Cohorts — that’s the new thing they’re trying.

I’m prone to daydreaming. As she spoke, my mind wandered to the many school cairns I’ve seen. Each one represents a group of former students coming together to commemorate these long-abandoned sites, forming committees to set up and care for these little cairns.

My imagination leapt fifty years into the future: Pandemic Cohort gatherings take place across the province to commemorate the time back in 2020 when they were young and were forced to spend all day every day in a small, randomly-selected group. At these Pandemic 2020 Cohort gatherings, they’re laughing as they reminisce about those wild uncertain times.

Just a daydreamy thought borne of seeing a lot (a LOT) of school cairns this year. The more I see, the more I think about how much people must have loved being grouped into a small random cohort all those years ago. The cairns are evidence.

Here are just a few schools and school cairns we’ve seen:

We encountered the Eldon School cairn near Gilbert Plains, on our way to see the Negrych Homestead. This might be my favourite, as it is an adorable mini copy of the actual school which continues to stand straight and tall in the wheat field behind it.
Also near Gilbert Plains, we stopped for this cairn, which reads “Site of Deer Park School No.1171 1902-1967 Land donated by Alex Hnatiuk”. There is a little box nearby that contains a little book and pen. I signed the book.
All of the school sites within Hanover have little metal signs marking their spots… but Friedensfeld School has its own cairn.
St. Raymond School No. 782 in the countryside between Ste. Anne and Giroux still stands well off the highway, tucked in behind a stand of trees. No sign. I just knew what it was called because of my Manitoba Back Roads map. The teacher had lived above the main-floor school.
These are the markers our local Historical Society has put up at every former school site in Hanover, which I appreciate. Several old schools continue to stand as residences, including this one.
On the way home from Carman, I pulled over for this double-plaque cairn for Pomeroy school and church.
The bottom paragraph says: “The Pomeroy School, as so many others in the early west, served as a social and cultural focus for the district.”
The Pomeroy School lives on at the Pembina Thresherman’s Museum located between Morden and Winkler. Andrew and I visited in 2018.
The Barkfield School was moved from its site in the Grunthal/Pansy region. You can now visit the schoolhouse at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach.
Willow Plain S.D. 1588 was built in 1911. The building still stands in Sarto and is a historical site today.
Ellwood S.D. No. 1233 (near Mayfeld) 1904-1960: “The last page is turned. The book is closed.”
Deer Range S.D. No. 922 south of Edrans. No plaque, no cairn… yet the school still stands alongside its flagpole on a hill near a stand of oaks. (See the biffy in the shade?)
My mom and aunt helped me locate the cairn commemorating Gillespie School, which they attended as little girls.

This book documents each of the 46 school districts (each originally a one-room schoolhouse) which became one giant school division in 1968. It’s filled with fond stories of a bygone era. As a new era of schooling unfolds, looking back at the past makes me think it could possibly someday be reflected upon fondly, too. Time will tell.

Somewhat related posts:

Negrych Homestead: The Best Preserved Pioneer Homestead in Canada!

Spencer: This Book is a Weird One

Willow Plain School District #1588

Blumenhoff School & the “Here-I-Am-ers”

Well, at least we found the Barkfield School site.