By Orpha (Tom) Parfett:
In one room of the homestead house of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Willard, the Willard School began in 1910. The first teacher was Mr. Williams from Wales. He belonged to a group of Welsh singers who found there was not much call for this type of work, so found it necessary to teach school. The school district was established on May 10, 1910.
The nine children attending school at this time were Clarissa Willard, Frank, Lloyd, and Margaret Durston, Ernest Payne, Joe and Wayne Hannigan, and Selma and Frank Johnson. Walking or riding horseback was the chief method of transportation to school. It has been said if one gives his horse his head, he will always find his way home. Margaret Durston found this to be true when a blizzard blew in suddenly while riding home from school.
In 1911, a school was built six miles west and one and a half miles north of Milo, NE 7-19-22-W4. Directions from Milo – West 6 miles on Highway 542, turn north on Range Road 225 for 1½ miles. Latitude 50.59456, Longitude -113.02865. It was named “Willard”, after the Henry Willard family, and opened with Miss Collard as teacher. Misses Cannon, Elsie Bertrand, Martha Anderson, Marjorie Graham, two Miss Cobbs (no relation), Mr. Bill Hobbs, Clark Wallace and Gerald White followed over the successive years.
Enrollment enlarged to some thirty pupils, necessitating a larger one room school to be built in 1929 with Miss Martha Brand from Medicine Hat as its first teacher. Grades one to eight were taught.
Mr. Jim McLaughlin moved the little old Willard School by steam engine to the village of Queenstown where it was used for a church over the years. More recently, it was been donated to the Milo United Church.
Mrs. George Macomber from Queenstown taught four years at Willard School. During this term, Mrs. Macomber underwent surgery, and Miss Rowley and Miss Wannacott undertook the teaching duties during her recuperative period. Teachers following Mrs. Macomber were Mr. Edward Townsend from Calgary, Miss Margaret Ostrom from Carseland, Miss Myers from Reid Hill, Mrs. Beck and Mr. Knutson.
Pupils and teachers of the thirties will recall the frightening experiences of sudden violent dust storms which darkened the classroom and made travel home hazardous. Grass fires were another menace and on one occasion, pupils went to a nearby summerfallowed field until any danger to the school was over.
During these years, each school had its own school Board consisting of three trustees and a Secretary-Treasurer. Over the years those serving on this Board were: Henry Willard, Mr. and Mrs. W. F. Durston, Joe Hannigan, Bob Laing, Roy Tom, Theodore Jackson, Sam Hellevang, Mrs. Alice Jackson, Dave Richards and Frank Malcolm Sr. School inspectors visited regularly inspecting the teaching abilities, the pupils’ progress and helping to correct any difficulties between the teachers and School Board when they arose. The School Board was responsible for school business and supplies. In the earlier years, students did the janitor work, but later an adult was hired.
Christmas concerts played an important role in the lives of the teachers, pupils, their parents and the surrounding school districts. Though many weeks of constant practicing became tedious and tiresome for pupils and teachers alike, the end result – the program, was usually performed with perfection by those taking part. Mrs. Roy Tom accompanied the children, at first, for the singing of the Christmas carols and later Mrs. George Elder and Tommy Vickers played the musical requirements for many years. Many will remember the precision and vigor displayed by the drill team when Tommy played “Men of Harlech”. A dance usually followed these concerts, which on occasion, carried on till seven in the morning should a blizzard blow in. The Norwegian polka was masterfully performed in its true tradition by Sam Hellevang at these dances. Over the years, orchestras made up of Frank Durston, Bob Laing, Mr. and Mrs. Alan Robertson, Charlie Lund, and Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Webber Sr. played for these dances as well as for shivarees and pie socials.
During the “dirty thirties”, hard times, along with drought, dust, grasshoppers, and army worms took its toll in the demise of many farm crops. Families in the district moved to urban centres to earn a living in different ways and the young men joined the Forces with the start of the Second World War.
In 1941, Harold Hellevang, Bob, Dorothy and Phillip Gooch left Willard School to attend Eastway. The Willard School was closed after thirty years of many memorable experiences by all who attended there. The building was moved to Milo to be used as a classroom for a number of years. When the new Milo School was built, this old Willard schoolhouse was sold to Earl Jones and moved into town, where it is still being used by Con Peterson for a John Deere parts shop. (1973)
In 2010, both Willard schoolhouses are still in use. The first is a calving barn on a farm near Milo and the other is the Snake Valley Drop-In Center in Milo.
More information about Willard School may be found in “Snake Valley I & II- a history of Lake McGregor and Area” and “Trails to Highways,” at the Vulcan and District Archives and from school directories (maps and driving directions) which are available at the Milo Village Office, the Milo Municipal Library and the Vulcan & District Museum.