Historic Koksilah School is still with us a century later

It’s been a long time since classes were held in what’s now one of the Cowichan Valley’s few formally dedicated heritage sites.

A recent obituary notice in the Times-Colonist for Marion Elworthy (nee Dale), 96, noted that she was “the last teacher of the one-room Old Koksilah School south of Duncan”.

It’s been a long time since classes were held in what’s now one of the Cowichan Valley’s few formally dedicated heritage sites. It’s been a long time, too, since Koksilah, founded in 1862 as an E&N Railway station and slated for greater things before “Duncan’s” came to be, was a community unto itself

Today’s schoolhouse, with its classical frontier-style lines, is the second on this site, the first having been built in 1911. Inez Duncan, daughter of Duncan namesake, W.C. Duncan, was its first teacher. For $65 per month she taught 13 girls and nine boys, “educational aids” (unspecified) for that year costing a further $151.86. Classes had to be conducted under canvas for several months after Jan. 21, 1914, when the school burned to the ground.

At the 1986 reunion former student Eddie Fletcher gave a firsthand description of “the day the school burnt.” He and his sister Eva were walking to school along the old Island Highway, carrying their lunches in lard pails — “three-pound size for Eva, five-pound size for me. Halfway along the Koksilah stretch by the James Evans farm, horses and wagons passed us at a full gallop, volunteers from Duncan Fire Department… Then the smoke showed above the trees. We ran the distance only to find the building a massive flame. The firemen with local help had cut poles from the surrounding bush to prop both sides inward to collapse in one space. The fire was so far advanced and, of course, there was no water available in quantity at the time. All this was under the direction of Jimmie Rutledge, the popular village barber and fire chief in Duncan.

“One other name I well remember, Charley Stoney [who] laughed and kidded me for crying because the school burned. ‘What are you bawling for, son? Think of the holiday you will have…’

“The holiday was very short, Robert McLay and crew were soon on the job. First a large tent was erected between the school site and the highway. Then — to work on the new building… The tent session was a pleasant interlude. Miss Mona MacDonald, a wonderful teacher, took us on lots of nature hikes. We would return to the tent to dip flowers in wax. She frequently joined our game of rounders at lunchtime. So the fire and tent were not all bad. We ended with a nice new school in September 1914.”

Few former students forgot the wood stove that was originally situated in mid-classroom. Besides providing heat, it was used to cook the lunch hour soup. “One kid would have to start cooking the soup at 11:30 and you would smell it as you did your work,” recalled the late Mike Langtry who attended Koksilah School in the early 1940s. Lois Evans remembered the stove, too: “Those who sat by [it] in winter boiled and the rest of the students froze.”

One regret of Koksilah School’s longtime supporters is that the desks on display aren’t the originals, Society President Bob Vye explaining that the school district “took all the old desks…over to the park and burned all the hardwood off them to sell [the metal frames] for scrap”. His group had to “chase all around to find some. The school district had a few that they’d totally restored. They just looked like new.”

Koksilah School operated continuously until 1964, was reopened briefly in 1970, then sat vacant. In 1986 former students held a reunion and later formed the Koksilah School Historical Society. Upon leasing the site from the school district, these dedicated volunteers who described themselves as being “lively but now aging,” acquired a grant to restore the interior and to replace the roof. In 1994 a parade marked the building’s 80th anniversary. Opened as a museum the following year, the historic structure has since had a sprinkler system installed and, in 1996, the school received a $15,000 B.C. 21 Community Projects Award for rebuilding and refinishing the interior. In 2000 it was granted formal heritage designation.

Ten years later, with the original building’s centennial fast approaching, Koksilah School’s still lively volunteers saw to repairs and repainting of its exterior and fence in time for their annual picnic on the school grounds.

As noted, Marion Elworthy was Koksilah School’s last teacher. Helen Bunty was its longest serving teacher, 1930-40, and she remained in touch with several of her former students until her death more than 50 years later. Another teacher of note was Margaret Evans, one of four generations of this family to be involved with Koksilah School, who attended Koksilah as both student and teacher.

Aug. 28, 2011, Koksilah School Society celebrated the centennial of the 1911 building.