Prospect School, 1876-1880
Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1976, Volume 21, Number 2
The district of Prospect takes its name from Sam Marlatt’s farm. At his house-raising bee, a neighbour asked Sam what he intended to call his place. Sam replied laconically, “Prospectthe prospects are we will starve to death!”
But the Portage Plains had rich soil and no one starved. By 1878, all the “free” land had been taken up by the land companies, soldier grants, and homesteads. Then land sold at three and four dollars an acre.
Many of the land owners were absentee landlords. Some rented their land at a fee or on shares. Often early settlers on their way west stayed a year or two on leased land; then when they had located homesteads, they moved on. They and their children’s names appear, then disappear again in the historical records of the period.
While all the farmable land on the Portage Plains was registered, the acreage broken was not extensive in 1876. Much of the district was still wild prairie. The so-called buffalo grass dominated with patches of sweet grass and red top in the lower meadows. William T. Thomson bought a soldier’s claim (land grants to 1870 veterans) in 1878. It had ten acres broken on the quarter. Because the coarse prairie grass hurt the children’s bare feet, he plowed a furrow across the unbroken prairie the three miles to the school. This was the path to school until the land was broken. William Thomson’s grandson, Fred Thomson of Portage la Prairie, preserved these records.
There were no aspen or elm on the Portage Plains, and few willows beyond Portage Creek; only the fire-hardy scrub oak. The oak grew in tiny bluffs dotting the plains. All the other trees came in after the last of the prairie fires.
The Portage Plains are low in elevation. In ordinary years, before July or August, it was impossible to travel as the crow flies without having to wade numerous sloughs. It is for this reason that many of the farmsteads built on the highest land on a quarter section are built right on top of Indian campsites. Many an artifact was picked out of the potato patch behind the house.
The first organized school on the Portage Plains was in the Prospect district. It opened on 1 May 1876 in the log house of D. B. McDonald, situated on the southwest quarter of 36-12-17. The building stood on the southeast corner of an oak bluff. The two or three top logs and roof of this building are now part of a granary on the land of Herbert (Joe) Driver. Section 36 is on the north edge of the Prospect district. The reason for this was first the availability of a building and secondly the fact that many children in the southern part of the district were already attending school in the town of Portage la Prairie. In the early days of the Prospect school, children walked there over the open prairie. None had the luxury of a pony. Horses were still scarce on the Portage Plains. Oxen were used to break and till the soil.
The slate was the major teaching aid of the day. Indeed, it had a monopoly in that area. Textbooks were often those brought west by the settlers. Many of the survivors have two addresses written on the fly-leaf: one for Ontario, and one for the N.W.T. or Manitoba. While by no means complete, there follows a list of texts used in the Prospect School, which survive in the author’s library: Daboll’s Schoolmaster Assistant (arithmetic) by Nathan Daboll and Samuel Green, Utica, 1842; The English Reader by Mr. R. Bartlett, Toronto, circa 1848; Rev. Egerton Ryerson’s Third Reader, Toronto, 1868; Advanced Arithmetic by B. Smith and A. McMurchy, Toronto, 1871; A Treatise on Arithmetic by James Thomson, Belfast, 1850; Chambers Educational Course, Biography, Edinburgh, 1837; How Plants Grow, Asa Grey, New York, 1871.
The records which follow are found in what was called the “secretary’s book.” It is a small 4½" by 7¼" two-place account book, ½ inch thick. This document was one of many dealing with Manitoba history, particularly Portage la Prairie history, saved from time and destruction by a now-retired farmer from the Prospect district, Fred Thomson. He has in his day worked as a guide and field assistant to anthropologists and historians. He is among those mentioned in the Preface to Bulletin No. 157, National Museum of Canada. Mr. Thomson’s extensive artifact collection is now the teaching collection at the University of Winnipeg. The Fort La Reine Museum had its origins in his personal antique collection.
The Record begins in 1876 upon the organization of the school, and ends in 1880 at the splitting of the district into West and East Prospect. The seeds of this division are to be found in the earliest minutes of the school.
The first record in the book is that of a regular school meeting held at the home of James Allen on 10 April 1876. The problem of organization of the district arose, there being a rift between the families on the east and west sides of the district on the matter of the school’s location. The dispute will hang fire for four years.
It was decided at the meeting that D. B. McDonald’s house on the southwest quarter of Section 36 should be rented for six months (the school term) to be used as a classroom. Also, those people on the extreme south side of the district who already sent their children to the town of Portage la Prairie were allowed to withdraw from the district.
John Sanderson is at this meeting. His homestead claim is number one. The first farm on the Portage Plains was probably Martlett’s. It was three miles north of Portage la Prairie. The first permanent settlement was the three Red River families who settled in Portage la Prairie in 1851.
William Furber is also at the meeting. Bill dug clay pits just south of the old school. He and Charlie Logan made sunbaked bricks with which they built their houses. The Logan house was empty in 1874, but the Furber house was still in use. School boys like George Thomson and Billy Wesgate hid in the pits when they played hooky, as there were few places for a boy to hide on the bald prairie.
Finally the meeting passed the motion on a six-month levy of $200 to run the school.
At the 13 April 1876 meeting Mr. Kennedy was elected to the chair. An application was read from Miss M. A. Brown offering her services as a teacher. They decided to offer her the job at $150 for six months. She accepted.
At the annual meeting at Mark Graham’s house on 5 February 1977, the people decide to rent for another year. After a discussion on the matter, it is decided to run the school for six months again. John Fulton was the teacher at Prospect this year. He walked across the prairie from his father’s farm at Oakland. He was forced to wade the sloughs at times, and he caught a severe cold. He died shortly after the end of the school term.
1877 was a census year at Prospect. There were 55 children in the district between the ages of five and sixteen, from fifteen families. Forty-two children were attending school. As a number were over fourteen, the grade range was probably full.
In 1878, the tax levy is $175. It is obtained at a rate of 4/10 of a cent on the dollar. The average assessment is between $800 and $900, giving a tax of $3 to $4. Some assessment values run over the $1,000 mark, but of fifty-nine ratepayers, only five are assessed over $2,000 and of these, four are absentee landlords.
On 19 February 1879, a special meeting is called by Mr. Pinkham of the Dept. of Education. It was held at the Thomas Logan house. William Furber was in the chair, and Walter Henderson was secretary. It was at this meeting that the rift that had simmered for four years came to a head.
James McDonald and Gardner Greenly put forth the motion that the new school building be put on the southwest corner of Mr. McCowan’s lot no. 30, or one of the other corners. Tom Logan and Jim Rutledge wanted it built on the section where the rented house was. Then Dave Coulter and Bill Smith put forth the motion that it go on the four mile section with Dave giving the acre out of section 25 for the school yard. This last motion carried.
But the building program was held off, for the ratepayers on the east side were still upset over the location. Therefore the school board rented Mr. Dalimare’s house for six months at $5 per month. Mr. Fraser and Mr. Graham wanted to hire a second class teacher. But D. Coulter and Mr. Yuill thought it would be too expensive, so they decided to get a third class teacher. The levy was $200 for the six months. The school location was put off for further discussion.
Nine days later, the board met to view two tenders for the teaching position. One is from John Henderson with a third class B certificate, who offered to teach the six months for $200. The other is from James Leach without certificate or permit, who offered to teach for $165. Mr. Moffat and Mr. Wishart went for the lower tender. Mr. Logan voted against. He was outvoted by the other board members. School opened on the 16th of June 1879. But Tom Logan wasn’t finished with the matter. At the 3 September meeting, as secretary treasurer, he informed Mr. Moffat and Mr. Wishart that he would not pay Mr. Leach out of district funds.
The battle continued at the next meeting on 17 November. Moffat and Wishart want the taxes collected to pay the teacher. Logan will not pay the unlicensed teacher. Mr. Wishart and Mr. Moffat place on record their satisfaction with Mr. Leach’s work, and restate that he should be paid. Then Tom Logan uses the School Act to force them to hand all moneys over to him as secretary treasurer. This prevents them from collecting the money and paying the man. The two members refuse to sign the minutes. Tom Logan records their refusal.
At the 2 February 1880 annual meeting, James Moffat and J. Dalimore get Tom Logan into the chair and Jim McDonald and D. Coulter make D. D. Fraser secretary. The new trustees are D. D. Graser, D. McCowan and W. Furber. $300 is the tax levy for the next year.
The first meeting of the new board is on 7 February 1880. D. McCowan is the new secretary treasurer. He moves that Leach’s bill for the six months in 1879 be paid; Mr. Moffat seconds it. In a last word, Tom Logan asks Leach to provide a letter from the department stating that the trustees are justified in paying him.
On 16 June 1880, Tom Logan is back to do battle, this time over the school site. First it is moved that the tender for a frame school be put out. Then Tom calls for a general meeting of the ratepayers, under Mr. Pinkham, to consider the choice of the site.
By 2 July, things have come to a boiling point, and the special meeting is held at Moffat’s. There are thirty ratepayers present. D. Coulter takes the chair. The first motion is from Tom Logan and Tom Phillips. They call for the adjournment of the meeting until after the government’s Board of Education meeting. They want outside arbitration on the site. They are defeated in a 26 to 4 vote. The motion to build on the Northwest corner of the northwest quarter of section 19, township 12, range 6 west is on the floor. Tom tries to make an amendment to the motion to postpone any decision, as there is a petition out among the ratepayers. Again he is defeated 26 to 4.
The meeting then decides to raise $500 that year and borrow the balance by a two-year loan. The meeting thanks Mr. Moffat and the chairman and everyone goes home.
The district of Prospect never met again. The split was formalized and East and West Prospect school districts come into being. In 1881, West Prospect built a school house and painted it red. It operated until 1965. The building is now part of the Pioneer Village at Portage la Prairie.
S. R. Marlatt, the first treasurer, kept the books the first year. They give a graphic illustration of how the rural school was run.
Prospect School Opened May 1/76
S. R. Marlatt Treasurer in Act. with Prospect School
[Signed] Thomas Logan [Signed] Gardner Greenly Auditors
It is possible that the original Prospect school district was the earliest rural school organized outside the old river lot parishes. It certainly was one of the earliest.
Page revised: 4 August 2012