Tales from Fern Chapel School

My Dad always talked about a story.
He was about three years older than my youngest uncle, Uncle Johnny.
I think Grades 1 to 9 were in the same schoolhouse. I don’t know what grade he was in, but for spelling Johnny had to get up and write on the chalkboard, “Arnold’s shirt is green.” Arnold was my Dad.

So he went up to the chalkboard to write it, but he missed the R in “shirt.”
Funny stories like that, it’s too bad but they do get lost.

– Glen Ockerman

I’m mostly a creature of habit. When it comes to getting around, I’ll typically follow the familiar routes I have always taken between points A and B. 

Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy the scenery. I love driving through the countryside. I look for wildlife, I watch the crops grow, and I love the changing seasons.

One of my favourite stretches is Highway 41 along Kehewin Lake. In my days with the 4 Wing Band, our bus would travel that route a few times every summer on our way to town parades in Wainwright, Vermilion, Elk Point, Dewberry, Clandonald, and St. Paul. It’s a beautiful stretch of road with the lake on one side and Moose Mountain on the other.

These days I travel that way a couple times a week. I’ve always enjoyed seeing the lake. I’ve paddled on it and camped on its shores with my two daughters. My older daughter caught her first fish there, all by herself! 

And I had always wanted to see what was on the other side of the highway – what was up and over the mountain. But, creature of habit that I am, I never turned off the highway in 30 years—until last week.

What did Whitman say about “the road less travelled by?” A chance meeting on that trip led to the highlight of my summer.

I was thoroughly enjoying my drive eastward on Township Road 575, up and down hills and valleys, curving around Moosehills Lake until the road finally straightened out, now as Twp 574.  It was a beautiful, hot day—I loved driving by the farms, pastures, and wetlands.

At one point I passed a small schoolhouse. It was obvious even in passing that the structure had been restored as a community project. As I drove by I made a mental note to come back soon and take some pictures.

Then common sense kicked in (it doesn’t always). I’m here; I have my camera; I have all the time in the world; why not stop now? So I turned around and went back to have a look at Fern Chapel School in Ferguson Flats. 

I was on the edge of the pavement taking pictures when a tractor came up along the road. I waved at the farmer, who waved back, stopped, and got down from the cab to talk to me.

The farmer was Glen Ockerman. Glen is passionate about his community and its history, and his family was involved in restoring the old schoolhouse. (The big credit, Glen says, goes to Bruno Kummetz, among others.) Glen asked me if I’d like to have a tour of the schoolhouse and take some pictures inside.

He called his wife Cathy, who met me and opened the building to show me around.

We spent the better part of an hour as Cathy showed me the building and the artifacts inside.
She explained the building was more than just a school. It served as the community hall for
meetings and dances for years. She told me the story of how it came to be restored, and how
proud the community is of what they

Most of all, she reflected on the history—the real, tangible history of local people and how they lived—that is honoured and preserved in the humble schoolhouse.

I’ve visited excellent replicas of one-room schools in small-town museums, and I’ve always found them fascinating. But Fern Chapel School is one of only two actual such structures in Alberta that have been restored for people to visit. 

The building was erected in 1913, a year before the First World War; and served the community until 1949, four years after the end of the Second World War. There is a 1946 calendar at the front of the single classroom, with a portrait of King George VI.

The wars, the king, the Union Jack flag
in the room are all part of history, of course. But dates and world events aren’t where history really lives. History lives in the experiences of
everyday people like ourselves, our parents, and their parents. 

Books will tell our own children about the settlement of the Prairies, about the wars and the Great Depression. But there’s no better way to experience the history of Ferguson Flats, of Alberta, and of Canada than to stand where people actually stood and see what they really saw. 

Fern Chapel School stands on its original site, and the artifacts are almost all original items collected by local people over the years.

To arrange your own visit to Fern Chapel School (and to 1946!), call Cathy at (780) 210-0045 or Glen at (780) 210-1025.

The school still stands on its original site.  JEFF GAYE
The classroom as seen by a student.  JEFF GAYE
A teacher’s-eye view of the classroom.  JEFF GAYE
An old Story & Clark pump organ.  JEFF GAYE
A bucket, a dipper, and an earthenware crock held water for drinking and washing..  JEFF GAYE
God Save The King: A 1946 calendar at the front of the classroom.  JEFF GAYE