Saskatchewan Gen Web - One room School Project; Holbrook School District , Alameda, SK, CA


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  • THE BLIZZARD OF 1955 – THE NOTTAWA SCHOOL STORY

     

                                                          Author

                                     Marlene F. Lefebvre

          

     

                Winter had come early to rural Saskatchewan in the fall of 1955.  Heavy snow and blowing winds had worked their magic forming large drifts around the buildings and across the rural roads.  The district snow plough (a snow plough mounted on the front of Campbell Weir’s tractor) was hard pressed to keep the roads open even for a short while. 

                 On the morning of December 12, as I hurriedly dressed for the ½ mile trek to school, my thoughts weren’t on the weather but as any ten year old, they were only on the fun I would have that day. The whole student body was getting ready for the annual Christmas concert that was scheduled for the following week. I started the walk to school with my new pink lunch pail in hand and my special lunch treat, a Christmas mandarin orange, tucked in my pocket to keep it from freezing. 

                 Nottawa School had an enrollment of 14 students, from grade 1 to 8 and was part of the Wilkie school division.  Our teacher was a young man named Mr. Joseph Naklicki who very capably taught all the grades in one big room. As the Nottawa School didn’t have a teacherage, he boarded at the home of Henry Johnson.

                As I neared the school that Monday morning, it was a busy place. A variety of parents with cars and trucks were arriving and dropping off students. Lorraine, Larry, David and Elaine Wagner had been driven the 2 miles to school by their dad (Tony) as had Marie (Irene) Creagh.  Frank Oatway had dropped off Dwight and Derek and quickly returned home to clean turkeys. Warren Code was also in a hurry when he brought Faye and Ron to school as he was scheduled to haul grain with his brother Jim that day.

                As I approached the schoolyard gate, I stopped to wait for Jim McLean’s car to enter the schoolyard. His three sons Donald, Gordon and Ian climbed out and the two younger boys raced me to the school. Mr. Naklicki and Kenny Johnson had already arrived as Kenny’s father Henry had driven them in his car that morning.

                 The weather was not all that bad, the temperature had warmed up and although the sky was slightly over cast with some darker clouds in the west, there was very little wind.  So, at 8:30 that morning, no one knew what Mother Nature had in store for us, it was going to be a “BIG” surprise!

                The school was already toasty warm as the fire in the large pot bellied stove was roaring. This huge monster sat in the corner of the main room and during the week was banked in the evening with a few large lumps of coal to provide a quick start for the fire the next morning but since this was Monday, the fire had to be started from scratch.

                The school building consisted of a front porch area, a cloak room and the main school room. The porch area housed the schools indoor chemical toilets and although this area received very little heat, I am sure everyone was thankful we didn’t have to go out side when nature called. The wood shed was filled with wood and coal in the fall and was located at the back of the school. Usually one or two of the older boys were delegated to fetch in the wood and coal when needed.

                Within minutes the cloak room was filled with excited voices discussing the happenings of the previous weekend, as the students began to enter the school and remove their heavy outer clothing. In no time at all, the clothes hangers were full, wet boots and mittens were arranged close to the big stove to dry and the lunch pails were stored on the big long bench at the back of the room. 

                Sharply at 9 o’clock the school bell rang and the students filed to their seats. Attendance was taken and first lessons began.  All attention was on learning and ABCs and little thought was given to the snow that was starting to fall outside or the wind, which had started to pick up.  At the 10:30 a.m. recess one of the older boys who had made a trip to the shed for wood, reported that it was really starting to snow and blow.

                Some of the parents had also begun to take notice of the worsening weather. Frank Oatway had finished plucking two of his turkeys in the barn when he went out side and saw that the wind had come up and that it was starting to snow heavily. The blowing snow was starting to drastically reduce visibility so Warren and Jim Code decided to cancel their grain hauling for the day. Now everyone was starting to worry about how they were going to retrieve the children from school. 

                By 1954 rural Saskatchewan had the luxury of electricity and telephone service (although it was all party lines) and this included the Nottawa School and district. Soon concerned parents began to call their neighbors and other parents to check on the weather conditions and visibility as the storm began to worsen. One might say that this day the Nottawa parents invented the conference call. It didn’t take long before a decision was made that no students would be allowed to leave for home until the storm was over. This decision was then conveyed to a very anxious Mr. Naklicki who had been worriedly watching the conditions out side.

                After hanging up the telephone Mr. Naklicki turned to us and broke the bad news. “Your parents and I have decided that none of you will be allowed to go home because of the bad storm.” There was stunned silence, as what he had said began to sink in.  Then the whispers began as eyes widened and lips began to quiver. There was a look of shock on some faces. This meant that we wouldn’t be able to go home to see our mom and dads, we wouldn’t have any supper and worst of all we wouldn’t be able to sleep in our own beds. This was serious; especially when you are 6 or 7 and have probably never spent a night away from home.

                But Mr. Naklicki began to convince everyone that things were not all that bad. Although we couldn’t go home we were safe and we had more important things to do. We could prepare for the up coming Christmas concert. The previous week a few of the fathers had set up the stage at the front of the school room for the big event.   Much work had already been done, skits and recital pieces had been chosen and all of the students appearing in the nativity scene had been designated. Now he said we could spend the time after school practicing.

                There was only one problem; all of the families with children at Nottawa School that day had a telephone except the Wagners, so there was no way to contact them and let them know that all the children were staying at the school.  Mr. Wagner was very worried as he watched the storm developing.  He didn’t know if his children were safe, if they were still at school or if they would try to walk home.  So shortly after lunch, taking a few bologna sandwiches, he decided to walk the mile to the school across country following the fence line. After what must have been a very hard walk in the deep snow and near white out conditions he reached the school.   He was relieved to find his children were safe. He then decided that they should stay at the school with the rest of the students until the storm was over and they could be brought home safely. After he had rested and warmed up he walked home through the blizzard.

                Soon after Mr. Wagner had left, Mr. Naklicki decided to take stock of the food situation as there where 15 mouths to feed. He asked each of us to open our lunch pails and give him any food (apples, ½ sandwiches etc.) that we hadn’t eaten at lunch so he could save it for supper for the lower grades.  It was with a very heavy heart I handed over my mandarin orange that I had saved for last recess.  This, with food that Mr. Wagner had brought, he thought would tide us over until morning.

                As the afternoon progressed the storm had gotten worse. It was snowing heavily and a very strong wind was blowing the snow around the school and up against the south windows and it had gotten a lot colder.  The visibility outside was nearly zero at times and almost all the district roads had became virtually impassible.

                Since my house was the closest to the school, my father Ed Haugen was going to attempt to ride his horse through the storm to bring food.  My mother Lass packed up two sacks (fried chicken, cookies, buns, butter and jam) with as much food as my dad could carry.  He then slung the sacks of food over the saddle and started the ½ mile journey north to the school. By following the fence line and with at times having the horse belly deep and lunging through the snow drifts he and the food finally made it to the school. 

                Although I was very happy to see him I was very disappointed when he wouldn’t take me home with him. He said that the visibility was too bad and the snow too deep. After he had warmed up and given the horse a brief rest, he returned home, following the fence when he could see it and allowing the horse to follow her nose when he couldn’t.  Indeed, the safest place for all the students that day was at the school.

                Although classes continued after my father had left everyone’s thoughts were not on school work.  Mr. Naklicki decided to call an early dismissal so we could start practicing for the Christmas concert. In no time, everyone was busy with the grade ones and twos given the job of coloring snowmen and Santa Clauses for the school windows.  The grade threes and fours were cutting out big letters so they could spell out “Welcome and Merry Christmas” for their parents. Meanwhile, the higher grades were practicing the comedy skit, which was to be the highlight of the show. We also spent some time singing Christmas carols and rehearsing the nativity story, which involved nearly all the students.

                By late afternoon all the rehearsing was over and the children had begun to get restless.  It was decided that we should prepare for the evening and the over night stay. When Donald McLean attempted to fetch more wood from the wood shed, he discovered that the visibility outside the front door was almost zero. Mr. Naklicki, afraid that Donald could become disorientated and get lost in the blizzard, tied the flag pole rope around his waist and like a fish on a line let him out the door.   When he had an arm load of wood, he was guided back to the school door and safety. This scenario was repeated until all the wood and coal needed for the evening was safely stored behind the stove.  Mr. Naklicki carefully rationed the food at supper (giving the younger children a little more than the older ones) as he didn’t have any idea how long he would have to make the food last.

                Water for the school (both drinking and washing) was hauled to the school in a large 5 gallon container and brought fresh each day.  With everyone staying over night or perhaps longer the school would be short of water.  The one thing we did have was an abundance of snow and right outside the door. Soon a large pot of snow was melting on top of the pot bellied stove, this would provide us with all the drinking water we would need and also warm water for washing.

                As bed time approached, every one busied themselves preparing a bed on the stage. Sleeping up off the floor would be warmer than sleeping directly on the school room floor. The only problem might be the chance of rolling off the edge of the stage in the night.  Using their ski pants, mitts and scarves for a mattress and their coats for covers, the students began to prepare for sleep.  As the lights were dimmed and the students began to fall asleep, occasionally you could hear muffled sobs and the whispers of older siblings trying to console their young brothers and sisters.  Mr. Naklicki tried to make himself as comfortable as possible in his big wooden teacher’s chair but since he tended the fire all night, I am sure he slept very little.

                When the students awoke the next morning it was clear that the storm was not letting up but soon everyone was busy with washing faces, straightening rumpled clothes and fixing hair. Lorraine Wagner, who was one of the oldest students took over the job of mothering and was kept busy helping the younger children whenever and wherever she could. Mr. Naklicki, in an attempt to give us something warm with our meager breakfast decided to make tea, using the boiling snow water. Although I was allowed to drink tea at home (loaded with milk and sugar), some of the students had never tasted tea and as there was no milk or sugar to be had, we all found his offering very bitter and a few people made funny faces. Gordon McLean insisted on stirring his tea with his pen, which he would later regret, as it didn’t sit well with his stomach and he got very sick. I guess ink and tea on a near empty stomach isn’t a good combination.

                As the morning progressed, we kept busy by drawing, playing X and Os or hangman on the black boards or just fooling around.  About noon the wind did seem to be dying down and it looked like the worst might be over.  Again the telephone lines heated up with parents calling parents and the school. Perhaps we now would be rescued.

                By the 1950’s almost all of Saskatchewan’s farmers had gone away from horsepower and were using only tractors, so not many farmers still had a team of horses and a cutter or sleigh. As snow and winds had made the roads to the school impassable by motor vehicle the only other way was through the fields by horses and sleigh and even that would be slow going.

                 As soon as the wind seemed to be dying down, my dad, who had a light team of horses hurriedly, hitched them up to a small sleigh with a dog box. He then made the ½ mile trip to the school as quickly as possible. Henry Johnson also had a team and sleigh, but he lived 3 miles east of the school on the Phippen road, a long way to travel in very bad conditions.  Even though it was getting late in the afternoon he decided he would take his team and sleigh and make an attempt to reach the school. Once there, he could pick up his son, Mr. Naklicki, Marie Creagh and the Mc Lean boys. The Creaghs and McLeans also lived on the Phippen road. He could also pick up and drop off the Oatway boys as he had to pass their farm but the Wagner children lived 2 miles west of the school. It would be too far for him to drive them home this late in the afternoon with the poor road conditions as his team would be tired and he still would have to make it home himself. He decided that if he could make it to the school he would drop off the four Wagner children at the Oatways where they would stay until their father could pick them up.

                Boy was I glad to see my dad, as I knew he had come to take me home! He said that Fay and Ron Code’s parents had asked him to pick them up and take them to our house. So the three of us hurriedly put on our ski pants, coats, hats and mitts and wasting no time with long goodbyes to our school mates, ran outside and jumped into the sleigh box which was half filled with straw. He covered us with a quilt for the bumpy ride home over the hard packed snow drifts. Three very relieved kids finally reached my house where my mother had a big supper waiting.  Our part of the adventure was over.

                The rest of the students at the school who were anticipating rescue by Mr. Johnson were to be disappointed as the storm was not finished and soon the wind began to blow as hard as ever. The opportunity for their rescue was over. Sadly, Mr. Johnson telephoned the school to say he wasn’t coming. 

                Mr. Naklicki again tried to make the best of a bad thing and to take every ones mind off their troubles, decided they could do some more practicing for the concert.  Although everyone joined in there wasn’t much enthusiasm, besides they were missing two angels and a shepherd for the nativity play who were now safe at my house.

                That evening the routine began again with hot tea and very little supper and Donald and Kenny gathering in the wood and coal. The stage was moved closer to the stove in the back of the room which would hopefully make it warmer for everyone to sleep. Some of the smaller children were almost inconsolable as they prepared their beds; they just wanted to be home. This night would be a very long one.

                The plight of the students had not gone unnoticed. The local North Battleford radio station was reporting that the students and teacher were stranded and were running out of food. Although it was true that they were stuck at the school and perhaps a little hungry, no one was starving and they were all safe and warm.

                The next morning everyone was up early and spirits lifted as it had quit snowing and it seemed that the wind was dying down. By late morning the call that everyone was waiting for had come. Henry Johnson and Jim Mc Lean, who had made it the 1 ½ miles to the Johnson farm with his team, were indeed on their way to the school.  With eager anticipation the students watched out the window for their arrival and about one o’clock they were sighted coming cross the field. 

                Everyone was extremely happy to see them! It had been a very hard trip for the horses so Mr. Johnson decided to give them a short rest while everyone dressed and gathered their belongings. Soon everyone was safely stowed in the open sleigh box. This sleigh was usually used to haul grain but this day it was half filled with straw and since Mr. Johnson had also brought quilts with which to cover up, everyone would be warm and comfortable for the ride home. Before they left the school Lorraine Wagner wrote a large note on the black board to tell her dad that the four of them were going to stay with the Oatways.

                 The Oatway farm was one mile from the school by road but Mr. Johnson cut down on the distance by driving his rig through the field and across country. Soon the four Wagner children and the two Oatway boys were dropped off at their farm where Mrs. Dora Oatway had a big meal ready and waiting and for six hungry children it must have tasted awfully good.  

                 The rest of the trip would take longer as the snow drifts were deep in places and the horses were already tired from the trip to the school. After what seemed like an eternity the group finally made it to the Johnson farm where Mrs. Liz Johnson also had a big supper waiting.  After everyone had eaten the McLean family continued on home, dropping off Marie Creagh on their way.  Finally, for fourteen students and one very tired teacher the adventure was over.

                By late Thursday the snow plough had cleared its entire route, the roads were open and by Friday morning school resumed.  In the school yard the snow was so deep in places it covered the fence and on the south side of the school snow drifts reached the bottom of the windows.

                The next Wednesday, the much anticipated Christmas concert was held. The school room was decorated with red and green streamers which were attached in the middle of the ceiling with silver bells. A large curtain was strung across the front of the stage, a beautiful Christmas tree stood in the corner and all the students were dressed in their very best.  Nearly everyone in the community had come for the big event and everything went off without a hitch.   No one forgot their lines, no one fell off the stage, the comedy skit brought down the house and we sang all the Christmas carols pretty much in the right key.  I guess all that extra practicing had paid off. There was also a much anticipated visit from Santa Claus. Each child received a gift and a Christmas treat bag with candy, peanuts and a mandarin orange. This time taking no chances that this orange would slip through my fingers,  I promptly ate it.

                 All in all it was a very successful affair, but there was one small difference this year. After the adventure of the previous week no one was taking chances with the weather so the concert started at two o’clock in the afternoon instead of the usual seven o’clock. Just in case Mother Nature had any more tricks up her sleeve.

     

     

    Footnote:

     

                Archival records from the Environment Canada weather monitoring station at North Battleford show that this blizzard lasted nearly 43 hours. The temperature during the storm ranged between a high of -7.8 ◦C and a low of -23.3 ◦C.  The wind velocity varied between 19 km/hr and 72 km/hr producing a wind chill temperature reading between -19 ◦C and - 42◦C.   The visibility on the ground for 30 of the 43 hours was rated as zero and although there is no record of the actual amount of snow fall for this period the weather is described as snow, blowing snow or moderate snow, blowing snow for the entire time period.

     

    Student Roster for Nottawa  School 1955-56

     

    Teacher:   Mr. Joseph Naklicki

    Donald McLean      

    Grade eight

    Kenny Johnson

    Grade eight

    Lorraine Wagner

    Grade seven

    Larry Wagner

    Grade four

    David Wagner

    Grade five

    Marlene Haugen

    Grade five

    Elaine Wagner

    Grade three

    Faye Code

    Grade three

    Gordon McLean

    Grade four

    Ian McLean

    Grade two

    Dwight Oatway

    Grade two

    Derek Oatway

    Grade one

    Ronald Code

    Grade one

    Marie (Irene) Creagh

    Grade two

    Nottawa School in 1948

     

     

    The Nottawa School opened in 1908; it was built on land donated by Charlie Creagh (great uncle to the Marie (Irene) Creagh mentioned in the story). It was located on the south east corner of NE 10-41-21-West of the 3 meridan.  In its early years it was part of the Phippen school division and eventually became part of the larger Wilkie school division (now the Lands West School Division). It closed its doors at the end of June 1958. A few years later it was purchased by Mr. Cey who moved it to his farm north of Scott, Saskatchewan where it was converted to a welding shop.

     

     


    The Cairn on the
    Nottawa School site

     

     

    On the Nottawa field stone marker are two handprints, that of Ivy (Knuff) Bloder who was in grade one in 1908 and the other that of Leslie (Oatway) Gautschi who was in grade one in 1958 when the Nottawa School closed.

     

     

                The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Frank and Dora Oatway, Alice Code, Fay Riches, Irene (Marie) Swarbick, Lorraine Karlsson, Florence McLean, Patricia Huber and Gordon McLean who provided their memories, pictures and back ground information to make this story complete. Special thanks also to Arlene Oatway for proof reading.