Open house offers a glimpse into the history of education in the district

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

It was a special treat on Saturday, August 5, 2023, as a group of volunteers opened up the doors of the S.S. Spohn #2 Schoolhouse to visitors for the first time in years.

Located roughly 20 kilometres north of the Town of Rainy River on Highway 600, near the community of Harris Hill, the one-room schoolhouse sits stately upon a well-kept yard, white and green paint shining brightly in the early-afternoon sunlight. I’ve made the trip from Fort Frances at the invite of the Harris Hill School Committee, who are holding the open house for visitors to see the last functionally extant one-room schoolhouse in the district. Built around 1925, the school is set back from the highway, but not so far as to be mistaken for anything else. I pull over to the side of the highway and wander towards the vibrant green door.

Visitors are already buzzing about the building, taking pictures, marvelling at the metal roof, and sharing stories about family members who once attended the school in years gone by. I walk around the outside of the school house. It’s in remarkable condition. I can only imagine how much work had to go into making it so. I’ll soon learn.

Entering the schoolhouse, I’m greeted by a small entryway. While the majority of the building is the school room, there are two small coat rooms to the immediate right of the door, as well as a closet full of ancient books, and beyond those, the school room proper.

The walls are a bright and welcoming blue, lit entirely naturally, though I am told at one point the building did have a hydro hookup for electric lights. Desks both original and donated are seated in five proper lines down the length of the school room. At the front of the room are several chalkboards that once must have held thousands of lessons for local school children. People are milling about, inspecting desks and learning materials and enjoying homemade cookies and refreshments.

Carolyn Kreger is one of the volunteers who has spent years helping to keep the school in presentable condition. Herself a retired teacher, she shares some of the stories of the school as we wander around its interior. She notes that most of the desks are indeed original, you can see the rails that run underneath them, but donations of other desks came in, due to thefts in the time the school sat empty and abandoned. Many other period-appropriate items have since been donated to the school, including maps, books, a wood furnace and container for drinking water that, while not original to the building, are still excellent artifacts that help visitors get an idea of what attending a rural school in the first half of the century would have been like.

“The last year there was a class here was 1965-66,” Kreger comments when I ask her just how long the school was abandoned.

“We started renovating it in 1992.”

Kreger said many of the people who volunteered their time and talents when they set about restoring the school were former students who wanted to see the building maintained and preserved for the future. Even with helpful hands and plenty of love and care, evidence of the time the school sat empty can still be seen. Kreger points out three separate bullet holes in the chalkboards from hunters’ stray bullets over the years, and the school’s wellhouse and teacher’s residence both sit empty and dilapidated on the grounds, due to insufficient funding to renovate them when they were still salvageable.

Kreger leads me over to some of the desks and points out the graffiti carved into them. Initials, hearts and more decorate some of the oldest desks in the building, etched into the wooden tops.

“Everyone back then had a pocket knife,” she offers by way of explanation.

There are more carvings on the school’s exterior, though they’re harder to see because of the white paint that has gone overtop. But they all still serve as a reminder that for nearly 50 years youth of the district did spend time here learning, forming bonds and memories, and carrying what they studied with them into the future.

While the open house at the S.S. Spohn #2 School House hasn’t been offered in some time due to pandemics and weather, Kreger noted she does plan to bring the event back on an annual basis again, for those who enjoy coming out to see it and learning a bit more history of the district.