We have come to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Gimli Public school.
It is a hundred years since the physical school was built, but we know that a school is much more than bricks and mortar. What gives it a heart are people: those who desired it, who planned for it, who raised money for it, who believed that it was possible, as well as the teachers, students, and staff. We know that nothing exists without a history and a context. Nothing gets built without a dream.
Let me take you back in time a bit to create the context for the creation of this school.
When the Icelandic settlers left Iceland for North America, they were unprepared for what faced them. In spite of its name , Iceland does not have winters like Manitoba.
The immigrants traveled from Iceland to Scotland, from there to Quebec City and across North America. Their final destination was not Willow Point. They landed there because they were being towed on a line of scows—men, women, children—when a storm came up and the captain cut the tow cable and left them to their fate.
Think about their situation. They landed on a sand bar. They had ratty second hand Hudson Bay tents for shelter. They’d come late in the year, and winter would soon arrive. Their first task was to build as many log cabins as there were stoves.
Yet, nine days after their landing at Willow Point, John Taylor, their leader, sent a letter to the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba saying
“The Icelanders in the colony are desirous of having a school for their children as soon as they can put up a schoolhouse They have a teacher with them and wish to be connected to the regular educational system of Canada.”
Nine days after landing. Wanting a schoolhouse. That, to me, is amazing. They had traveled all this distance with great difficulty, had undergone severe hardships, and now were in the midst of the wilderness in a completely foreign land and what they wanted was a school house. It was 1875.
The settlers could only build as many cabins as there were stoves. The result was crowded, inadequate shelter. Some of the food the Icelanders were sold in Winnipeg was of poor quality. Once the lake froze over, to keep from starving, they had to learn how to fish under the ice. Yet, before Christmas, Caroline Taylor, the niece of John Taylor, opened a school in English. Thirty people enrolled. Imagine the situation. Winter, snow drifts, blizzards, no roads, isolation, inadequate food, illness because they didn’t have the cows they were promised. In Iceland, milk had been a major part of their diet. Yet, they had a school. And people struggled through the snow and cold to get there.
The next year when the smallpox started, the school was disbanded. Temporarily disbanded. One hundred and three people died from the smallpox. The settlement was devastated. Yet, once the smallpox was over, Jane Taylor restarted the school, this time with sixty-three students.
In the following years, Rev. Pall Thorlakson held classes. In 1885 Gudni Thiorsteinsson organized and taught classes. There was Sigrdur G. Thorarensen and Johann P. Solmundsson and Bjorn B. Olson. All of them and many others were determined to see that children would get an education.
Most of these classes were of short duration. Classes would be held for weeks or months In 1878-79, For example, Kristjan Jonsson conducted elementary classes on Sundays and Wednesdays. Classes were held in whatever space was available. In some cases, classes were held in homes.
Finally, in 1890, fifteen years after the settlers arrived, the school district bought a building from the Lutheran church. It was a large log cabin where Gilbart’s funeral parlour is now. Enough people wanted an education that this building had to be enlarged and the first high school section added.
In 1895 Hjartur Leo taught classes for four months. There were many others who also taught but I mention Hjartur Leo because in 1900 he was to return as a principal. He would move to Winnipeg and become the Dean of the famous Jon Bjarnasson Academy. Janis Olaf Magnusson tells me that Hjartur was a brilliant mathematician and he frequently traveled to Lundar to teach mathematics to the senior students including her father, Agnar. Agar, in turn, earned two gold medals, one in Latin and one in mathematics, and went on to become a teacher.
This first school was enlarged, but the demand for education continued to increase so a two room frame building was built for elementary and high school sections. That building some of us remember as the town hall with Mr. Beddome in it as the town clerk. His office was on one side and there was a classroom on the other.
In 1906 a third classroom was added. The third classroom was a separate building. It was erected near the two room school.
In 1912 a fourth classroom was located in the Good Templar Hall at the corner of Third and First St. South.
Demand continued to grow. A fifth classroom was added. It was on the second floor of the H. P. Tergesen store.
Finally, in 1915, the school we are celebrating was built. It was made of brick. It had six rooms. A dream that had begun in 1875, 40 years before was finally realized. The building it replaced was sold to Jacob Greenberg and added to his store. The school cost 20,000 dollars. It seems like a small amount of money but it was actually a large amount.
In 1915 the average yearly salary was 687.00 a year for a man; 343.00 for a woman. Eggs 34 cents a dozen. A pound of steak 26 cents. A lb. of bacon 27 cents. A loaf of bread 7 cents. Gasoline was 15 cents a gallon.
The Gimli Public school served the community well, but demand continued to grow. By 1947, 32 years after it was built, the school could not accommodate the increasing number of students. The grade 7 class moved to one side of the town hall. In 1948 a temporary classroom was built in the school basement. In 1949, a classroom was created at the Gimli Rec centre. The school library was converted to a grade 12 classroom.
The need for more classroom space, for a chemistry laboratory, for commercial classes, meant that a high school had to be built. When I went to grade 9, I was part of the first group to attend the new high school. The original Gimli Public School continued to serve grades one to eight.
This school is a place of legends and endless stories and memories.
One of those legends is Ingi Bjarnason who was the caretaker for 17 years. In the early years, he and his family lived in the basement. His daughter, Hulda, was born in the school. There are stories about how the school board bought too small a furnace and Ingi had to keep getting up at night to fill it with fuel. I have memories of the school yard leveled with clinkers from the coal.
When I started school in 1945, the war was just over and we still lined up outside, stood at attention, and marched into the school. Discipline was the word. We were being prepared for being soldiers in the next war.
At noon and recess there was skip rope, double dutch, rugby without many rules, baseball, marbles against the wall in the spring, sliding down the fire escape on the weekends even though we were ordered not to do it. We all had our favorite teachers. Mine was Miss Greenberg. In her class I got to wear a white belt as a crossing guard at a street corner where there were so few cars that we gawked at those that went by.
The Gimli School we have gathered to celebrate is more than bricks. It was created from a dream of settlers wanting an education for their children. When we look back at the lives of people who attended this school and see what they have accomplished, we realize that the dream of those who built the school was realized. The school provided education, and education provided opportunities in the larger world.
My blessings on those who dreamt, who built, who taught, and those who learned in this school.
(Information for this speech was taken from The Gimli Saga, Framfari and Wickipedia.)