Swan River, Manitoba, Canada
From 1956 to 1969, she held the postion of secretary-treasurer for the rural Pretty Valley School District of Manitoba. In the same area, she was a member of Pretty Valley Women’s Institute. She served one term as chairperson, during which time she presented several educational papers to the group, for example, on the topic of the United Nations. She was an assistant 4-H leader for the 4-H Girls’ Sewing Club of Kenville. She took a Department of Agriculture course in tailoring, and later taught the course to other Women’s Institute members in the locality.
She was appointed for two consecutive terms by the local Government of Manitoba Member of the Legislative Assembly (M.L.A.) to the Provincial Assessment Council for community grant applications requesting assistance for projects. In 1977, she was a committee member for the Kenville “Welcome Back Picnic”. Markers were erected for schools at Kenville, Pretty Valley, Ruby, Square Plains, Mountain Crest, and Davidson. Then, in 1998, she planned and hosted at her farm home a Pretty Valley Community reunion, which was held on August 1 of that year.
This former teacher spent her married life in volunteering in her community. She tells of some of these many activities.
Gwen was born at home, near the small village of Annaheim, Saskatchewan. The nearest rail town was Spalding, SK. She attended a rural school and, later, the last two years of high school at Ursuline Academy, a private school for girls directed by the Ursuline Order of Sisters, at Bruno, SK. Graduation year was 1948.
She taught for one year on permit in 1949-50 at Mountain Crest after having attended Summer School in Winnipeg at what was known in that day as the Normal School. It was while she was teaching that she met Robert (Bob) Palmer, her future husband.
Mountain Crest School was about seventeen miles from her home. It was situated at the foot of a forest preserve area. To the immediate south were the Duck Mountains – hills that arose from the prairie. The school had been closed for several years because of the lack of children. Prior to its reopening the year before Gwen arrived, it had been located further up in the hills.
With the purchasing of farms in the area by veterans returning from World War II, there eventually were sufficient children to operate the school. There were ten students in Gwen’s class. The board was unlike those of most school districts as it consisted of only an official trustee whose office was in faraway Winnipeg. At this time, this officer was responsible for small isolated rural schools far-flung across the Province of Manitoba. This was not an ideal situation for young inexperienced teachers, yet they managed somehow.
When she arrived at her school, she found no supplies and no books that would normally be found in a school. She also had no telephone. Her only official contact nearby was Mr. Rhind, her inspector, whose office was in Swan River, about fourteen miles away. He brought out some paper supplies to last until she could send in an order to the official trustee. Her inspector was always very good to her. Also in those years, students and teachers purchased their textbooks through Eaton’s mail-order catalogue from Winnipeg.
At this school, there was no systemmatic drinking water supply. There may have been a water cooler which someone would occasionally fill with water. However, if the children did not bring water from home with them, they often had to manage without any all day.
In the winter, heat was obtained from burning wood in a stove constructed from an old oil drum. The windows had to be repaired before the cold weather set in. Since there was no insulation in this building, which had been constructed in 1920, it was not warm inside. Usually, it was necessary for Gwen to hold her classes around the stove during the mornings as the room was so cold. Unlike many rural teachers, she had no janitorial duties. An out-of-school teenage daughter at the home where she boarded was responsible for lighting the fire each morning. This girl would have it blazing when the children and the teacher arrived. However, the school could have been somewhat warmer if she had performed her duty at least an hour earlier. She did not deviate from her arrival time all year.
Gwen was on her own if the roads were closed – which was often the case during winter. Weather conditions in winter provided her biggest challenge. She was responsible for deciding whether to have classes or to close the school. It was necessary for her to guess whether or not the roads would be open the next day. Although she tried to let the children know, they generally knew. The parents did not let them venture to school if the roads were plugged with snow.
The roads were dreadful for vehicles during the spring thaw. However, they posed little problem for these hardy children in walking to school. One little boy, who lived about three miles up in the hills, rode his horse as far as the home where Gwen boarded and left it there because there was no barn at the school. Then, he would walk the last half-mile. At Easter when she left to visit her parents, a neighbour drove her by tractor to one of the better roads which was graveled and open. She rode in comfort in a box at the rear of the tractor.
She could tell many interesting stories of her year at Mountain Crest School but feels that she can elaborate more over lunch or coffee.
Following her year of teaching at this school, she returned to Normal School for the 1950-51 year. On graduation, she obtained a teaching job in a classroom of 43 grades 5 and 6 students in Swan River.
She taught for two years before her marriage in 1952 to Robert Palmer of Pretty Valley District – about three miles from her first school – in the Swan River area. This was where he and his two sisters had attended. Not ready to retire from teaching, she became an itinerant substitute teacher in Pretty Valley, Kenville, and later, Swan Valley School Division until 1978. Pretty Valley was quite different from Mountain Crest – and had about 35 students in grades 1 to 9. It had water works and indoor plumbing while the other school was really a pioneer school. Pretty Valley School had been built in 1905, being older than Mountain Crest by 15 years.
She was asked to assume the position of secretary-treasurer on the Pretty Valley school board because the lady who held the position had it for about 30 years and, for some time, had wanted a replacement. She had been born and raised within the district. Thus, when Gwen came to the area, she was a real target, being fair game. She accepted and served from 1953 to the early 1960s when all rural schools closed. Among her duties in this position were the following: paying wages, advertising for teachers, banking, keeping financial records, and keeping the minutes of board meetings. As a trustee, she appreciated the teachers there because this was an isolated area. She became acquainted with them and helped them in any way that she could. Being the only teacher nearby in the district, she would do substitute teaching, when necessary. Later in the 1980s, she served as chairman of the school board in Swan Valley Division.
All school board members in Manitoba were members of the Manitoba School Trustees’ Association. Within this association were sub-committees, one of which was the Trustees’ Development Committee. She was elected a member of this committee, serving from October 1978 to October 1986. The chairman during her tenure on this sub-committee was Roy White, who attended Normal School the same year as Gwen and this author.
She served as chairperson on a committee of three, being an Advisory Council for Special Needs Children, Swan Valley Division, assisting Supervisor Del Kitch of Special Needs Students, on the integration of such students into regular classrooms in the local school division. Publicity on this change was especially important to parents and the public in general.
She was elected as a trustee of Swan Valley School Division, being chairperson for two years. Then came an appointment to the Manitoba Association of Trustees in 1981 and 1982, where she served with the Trustee Development Committee. Meetings were held in Winnipeg approximately six times a year.
Being a farmer’s wife involved her with the Agricultural Department, from which she completed all three phases of “Introduction to Practical Politics” under the sponsorship of the Rural Leadership Programme, Community Resources Centre at Brandon University, during the fall and the winter of 1983. The three phases were civic, provincial, and federal. As trustee of Swan River School Division at the time, she was asked to be one of three speakers in Phase 1. Each speaker dealt with the topic “Trying to Meet the Needs of the Community”. The group of approximately 20 persons taking the course spent time attending a provincial session, later journeying to Ottawa to attend sessions, and meeting and discussing with various members of Parliament from Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Gwen had the honour of introducing Tommy Douglas, former Saskatchewan Premier and later federal New Democratic Party leader, to the group. Could it have been because she was originally from Saskatchewan? This was the highlight of her participation.
Then there was the teaching of a winter short course for the Department of Agriculture, Community Resources. It was slated to be on ethnic cooking to take in some of the historic aspects of ingredients and countries. However, the partaking group requested “Chinese Cuisine” only. About a dozen ladies enrolled in this course, which was held in the Durban Hall. Over time, there were various courses available, which usually were suggested by interested people. Mileage and other expenses were paid by the Department, but time involved was volunteer.
Gwen was appointed to Swan Valley Hospital Board by Municipal Council and served on the Executive Committee in the office of vice-chairperson. Her role included many extra meetings during the demolition of the old hospital because of mould. Decisions regarding a temporary hospital and the eventual construction of the present one were required to be made. In February 2001, she attended and completed requirements of a certificate programme in Management for Effective Health Care Governance, held in Toronto. From 1992 to 1998, she represented the Swan Valley Hospital Board on the Board of the Swan River Branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association. Then in 2007, she was appointed by the Board to the Client Assessment Committee for Senior Lodges on the Parkland Regional Health Authority Council.
She volunteered at the Swan Valley Historical Museum from 1970 to 2011, a total of 41 years, commencing in the same year that the Swan Valley Historical Society was officially organized. She was one of ten persons appointed by a meeting of interested people to help plan the process of organizing. Along with Josephine Bear, she had the task of preparing a suitable charter, outlining the aims of the proposed historical society. They were later joined by Mrs. Jim Brown to prepare a constitution to present for approval of the historical society. Gwen is now the only remaining member of the group of ten persons that created this successful museum. She was treasurer on first executive and eventually held every executive position with the Historical Society. In time, the Society and the Museum Committee amalgamated into one board, with a change in name of the Corporation to Swan Valley Historical Museum, Inc. She became secretary of this board until her retirement in March 2011.
In 1976, a training course was offered by the Canadian Museum Association, making it possible for her to receive a Level I certificate in museum work. In the passing of time, Gwen has experienced a wide variety of jobs and has accumulated information regarding museum management. Following is a list of some of the major ones:
- Publicity in disseminating the museum information to the community;
- Using volunteer workers;
- Researching information re artifacts;
- Proper numbering and cataloguing artifacts;
- Repairing and cleaning artifacts;
- Planning events for financial reasons and public inclusion;
- Agenda for meetings;
- Topics for membership meetings;
- Creating a traveling exhibit for schools;
- Planning trips for members to other historic places;
- Guiding tour groups and school groups.
She was appointed by the local MLA two times to represent Parkland Region on Manitoba Heritage Council. She found this to be a most rewarding and educational experience. The Council was presented with information on buildings, natural areas, and other specific places that played a significant part in Manitoba history. It was Council’s task to sort out these places for special heritage status to be marked in some way as such. It also considered and recommended to the proper sources grant awards for restoration, if needed. Having this position enabled her to speak on several occasions.
One of those involved the Bank of Elevators at Inglis that was in competition with an organization in Winnipeg for a large federal grant. She pointed out the fact that rural areas are considered less often and that the community of Inglis had struggled to reach the point where it was. This was sufficient to sway the voting so that Inglis received the grant and became a National Heritage Site.
A similar circumstance was presented in the discussion of the Negrich Homestead Development at Valley River, near Dauphin. As Parkland representative, Gwen was honoured to be asked to unveil the plaque to mark this unique place of Manitoba history.
A presentation of the Red Deer Lake Mill Site at Barrows and other important mill sites in the Parkland area resulted in a permanent marker at Red Deer Site, hosted by the local people. Swan River mills were marked by the plaque displayed in the main museum building, as well as one to Forestry Interpretive Centre on the Wellman Lake Road.
The meetings and dialogues with well-known Heritage people have been invaluable over the years.
Throughout the museum’s existence, many photos and other artifacts that belonged in an archival setting had accumulated. It had long been a desire of the Board to have room for proper storage and use of these articles. Boris Zenechyshen was a member of the Museum Board as well as the Northwest Regional Library, which was in the process of remodeling and enlarging. He suggested the inclusion of an archive room in their plans if their Board would approve. A plan for the Swan Valley Historical Museum Archives was approved. The Board appointed Shirley Ross and Gwen to be a committee to proceed with arrangements and to apply for a grant for the project. The eventual grant provided funds for one staff member, Marilyn Stewart, to catalogue the material under the direction of Diane Haglund, rural coordinator at Manitoba Archives.
The committee was excited to be able to send invitations for the official opening, which included a morning seminar for others from Benito, Birch River, the Interpretive Centre of Northwest Regional Library, the Association of Manitoba Archives, and Historic Resources and held on November 17, 2003.
Gwen has written a number of articles over the years, mostly of a historical nature for the Swan Valley Star and Times. Some others are listed below.
- Manitoba Pageant – Manitoba Historical Society
- Winter 1973 – “Camperville and Duck Bay, Part I”
- Spring 1973 – “Camperville and Duck Bay, Part II”
- The Dawson Hind Quarterly – Association of Manitoba Museums. “Fur Trade in the Swan River Area”
- Kerville. Published locally for the area’s home-coming in 1977. It is a small history on the town and the surrounding rural school districts of Ruby, Mountain Crest, Harlington, Davidson, and Pretty Valley.
- Boots, Buggies, and Buses: Swan Valley Schools in Quest of Education. Published by Star and Times in 1998 for Swan Valley School Division as Centennial project. Written, researched, and compiled by a committee of Gwen Palmer, Berniece Nowak and edited by Shirley Ross.
- Lasting Impressions: Historical Sketches of Swan River Valley. Researched and authored by Gwen Palmer and Ed Dobbyn. Published by Friesen, Altona, MB, in 1984. This work received the Friesen Award of Merit in recognition of outstanding achievement for the documentation and compilation of a local history.
- God’s Kingdom Endures from Generation to Generation: A History of St. James Anglican Church, 1900-2000. Published by Star and Times for Centennial of St. James. Researched and authored by Gwen Palmer.
- Meet Me at Round-Up. Published by Friesen, Altona, 1977. Authored by Ed Dobbyn. Some research and the editing by Gwen Palmer.
On December 18, 2012, Gwen Palmer and another local resident, John Edwin Cotton, were each presented the Queen’s Jubilee Medal by Reeve Lorne Henkelman at the R.M. of Swan River Office for their meritorious volunteer work over the years in their community. Both recipients received fine tributes from Reeve Henkelman, Mayor Glen McKenzie of Swan River, MP Robert Sopuck, and Governor-General David Johnson of Canada. In addition, Gwen received a most touching tribute from her children, which was read by Town Councillor Duane Whyte. Twyla Machan, of The Swan Valley Star and Times, wrote an appropriate front page story for the December 25, 2012, edition of her newspaper. To show their appreciation for the volunteer work over the years, the municipal and town councils were nominators for the awards.
This former school teacher has lived a productive and rewarding life as a volunteer in several fields in her community – learning, leading, and teaching. She and her husband Robert have one son, three daughters, and five grandchildren, and are now retired from the farm and living in the community of Swan River.