7. The Story of Toles School in Amber Valley
This is a story that takes place from 1910 to 1950. It's about people, black people, sticking together and succeeding in building a Canadian community. School was important for the students and their parents of Amber Valley. It helped stitch them and their community together.
Originally known as Pine Creek, Amber Valley was a small community situated about 20 kilometres east of Athabasca. Well north of Edmonton, the area has a winter average temperature of minus -16 degrees Celsius or less. The terrain was rugged and covered mainly in bush. The early settlers supplemented their farm living with extra jobs as freight haulers, railway porters and labourers. The settlers who began arriving in 1910–1911 were African-Americans from Oklahoma, a segregationist state formed in 1907. Oklahoma was quickly becoming inhospitable and many blacks decided to leave. Some were drawn to Canada, which at the time was promoting settlement on the Prairies, or the "Last Best West" as they were called.
The newcomers set down deep roots. Seventy-five of the original 95 land patents were taken out in the name of the original settlers. Amber Valley outlived other Prairie places settled by black immigrants. A government memo of the day concluded that American blacks would not be able to adapt to the colder Canadian climate. Was that memo ever proven wrong!
The Toles School, which opened in 1913, was named after Nimrod Toles, an early black settler. The schoolhouse welcomed students up to Grade 8, but it was more than a place of learning. There were no other public buildings at the time, so it also served as a venue for church services, weddings, funerals, meetings, elections and social events. It was the natural place for the local people to come together. It also was the natural place for them to take their children. School was simply part of life in Amber Valley as in any other Canadian rural community.
The original log structure was replaced in 1932 with a new one-room schoolhouse—the building reconstructed today in the Canada Hall of the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The Museum has chosen to re-create the school as it looked during the 1940s. The reconstruction was carefully reproduced from old documents and photographs. Museum staff was fortunate to be able to work with former students and their descendants who provided artifacts, photographs and personal stories that truly enliven the display.
This area features photographs of early settlers and summarizes the general history of Amber Valley. Students might travel up to three kilometres in order to get to school each day. The reconstructed outhouse serves as a reminder that indoor plumbing at home and school was for many rural Canadians a luxury.
Just inside the school entrance is a room filled with children's overcoats and shoes. The ceramic water cooler was used to store drinking water from the well outdoors. One can listen to a recording in which a former Toles School student describes a typical packed lunch, including the traditional baloney sandwich.
The selection of photographs and artifacts illustrates an average school day. In addition to the textbooks, maps, chalkboards, notebooks and other school supplies, rows of desks and an oil-drum wood heater help set the scene. Audio stations allow visitors to listen to a gospel music recital and hear first-hand accounts of life and schooling in Amber Valley.
The students' desks are fitted out to show the different subjects the students studied: reading, writing, music, math, geography and history. The teacher's desk, at the front of the classroom, introduces visitors to some of the people who taught at Toles School and outlines the challenges of teaching several grades at once. A portrait of Booker T. Washington hangs to the rear of the room and pays tribute to a pioneering African-American educator who was much admired in Amber Valley and elsewhere.
Sit down and look out the window for a minute. Close your eyes. It is the month of May. A fragrant whiff of spring air wafts through the open window. Imagine you are looking at a pipe swing, a teeter-totter, a small baseball field. Over at the edge of the school yard is a path that leads to a larger baseball diamond where the Amber Valley baseball team trained for its professional matches with other teams in Western Canada. They were really good. Most of the players started learning the game right here in the school yard. In Amber Valley, school was a place of beginnings.