My father, Marion Gibb Merkley was principal of the Coalhurst School from 1929 to 1936. These were challenging times - the years of the Great Depression - and yet my recollections of those days were ones of progress, unity and cooperation among the citizenry. Of course, production at the mine was the life-blood of the Community and the school the source of learning in which parents and students alike took much pride.
The teachers from Grade I through Grade 7 were Miss Crowe, Miss Tennant, Miss Frances Morrissey, Miss Rosewarne, Miss Catherine Morrissey and Mr. Sidney Oliver. Mr. Bill White and Marion G. Merkley somehow handled the high school grades between them. All were dedicated, outstanding teachers which was confirmed by visiting school inspectors as well as through comparative superior test scores by Coalhurst pupils. Howard Start, the custodian was another proud member of this team keeping the floors well oiled and swept, the classrooms warm even when temperatures fell to - 35 degrees F.
Marion G. Merkley found great satisfaction in his assignment at Coalhurst. The great challenge was to provide quality education to children who came from the most varied backgrounds imaginable. Most of the citizens were first generation Canadians having immigrated from Hungary, Italy, Poland, Holland. Czechoslovakia, Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. How well most parents spoke English in those days I am not sure.
No doubt the principal set the policy concerning discipline and students learned quickly that any form of rowdyism was not tolerated at the Coalhurst School. Every teacher kept a strap for use as needed and they were used every once in awhile. A trip to the principal's office was to be avoided at all cost. M.G.M. had a reputation for being a strict disciplinarian. This view was held by the student body which included his two sons. M.G.M.'s attitude was that there was no time for tomfoolery when there was so much to learn. Parents supported him wholeheartedly in that philosophy. Academic excellence was the purpose and goal of the school.
The School Board and parents alike were very supportive of the school. Despite adverse economic conditions, improvements were introduced. I wonder now where the funds came from. New playground equipment was installed - swings, overhead ladder bars, sandboxes, and an exciting new merrygo-round trapeze. Then the school grounds were fenced with wire mesh and steel posts, very handsome in those days, and a windbreak of trees was planted. Athletics were important with plenty of equipment. Every May 24, Queen Victoria's Birthday was track day competition. Medals and ribbons were awarded. It was a big day. Softball, baseball and football (soccer) were avidly supported. A community skating rink was always provided in winter with movies once in a while at the I.O.O.E Hall. In the summer we went swimming in the irrigation ditches and hiked to the Old Man River. The Community Club always had treats for kids at Christmastime. A cooperative community effort provided sidewalks of sideboards filled and smoothed with the red coal ashes from the slag dump. Previously there had only been a boardwalk for the main street where the stores were located. The streets could get muddy, especially in the spring. I remember another community activity when we had a diphtheria scare and all citizens were inoculated as a preventative. Incidentally, my father's arm swelled up as a result of these shots and he was miserable for some days. Anyone contracting chicken pox, scarlet fever, or measles in those days, as I did, was isolated to one's own home where a sign was posted to advise callers to stay away.
Yes, Coalhurst was a vibrant, progressive community in the early thirties. The noises of the mine's own locomotive shunting coal cars and the mine whistle at morning and quitting time attested to the coal production which was responsible for the town's growth. Then an untimely disaster occurred. In 1935 (as my memory serves me) an explosion deep in the mine killed sixteen men and injured others. It was a very sad day for all of Coalhurst. This calamity began a new era. The mine's activities were curtailed. People had to relocate to find employment. Many of the houses were sold and moved to other locations. Businesses shut down.
At the close of the school year my father determined to further his career by returning to school as a student, this time at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, in 1936. My mother helped support the family during this period by working as a secretary for she had learned shorthand and typing by attending night school twice weekly in Lethbridge over a long period of time. We had a 1929 Plymouth which my mother drove to attend night school. A red triangle on the rear fender attested to "four wheel brakes". Incidently, the radiator had to be drained in the winter after each use as there were no antifreeze products. Dad would fill the radiator with hot water each Saturday when we went to Lethbridge for music lessons and sometimes a "picture show". By springtime the garage would be three inches deep with ice from the repeated radiator drainings.
My brother and I returned to Canada to serve in the R.C.A.F. during World War 11, I as a pilot and flying instructor and my brother as a flight engineer.
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