Throughout its history, the former Philip Sheffield school has been a barometer, even a bellwether, for the state of its contemporary communities.
That’s part of why a small group of history buffs, a former student and the current principal of the school, now Abbotsford Virtual School, has set out to document history of the oldest building in the Abbotsford School District.
“This school brought all of those communities together. … Where the neighbourhood schools have long, very important links to their community, this is the one that speaks for all of them,” said Kris Foulds, curator of The Reach Gallery Museum, referring to the communities that ultimately amalgamated to form the City of Abbotsford.
Christine Wiebe, who graduated from AVS at age 75 last year, said the idea for the Philip Sheffield history project was sparked by a conversation she had with principal Brad Hutchison after graduation.
“He said ‘you know, there’s no history of Philip Sheffield on the internet. It should be there. It has a rich history,’” Wiebe said.
|A photo of a newly constructed classroom at the Philip Sheffield High School from around 1936.
The Reach Gallery Museum archives (Ref: P13445)
The project is being spearheaded by a small group, including Wiebe, Foulds, Hutchison and University of Fraser Valley associate professor of history Robin Anderson.
Foulds said the focus on Sheffield is also because of how it evolved with the needs of the community.
“A lot of the schools that, when they’re no longer used as a high school, [were] maybe just left empty or sold,” Foulds said.
“This one evolved in between elementary school, as that was the need in the post-war, it was the baby boom. We have all these millions of elementary school students, now what the heck are we going to do with those? And then as this area aged out, this is a largely older community in this area, and the attendance dropped, well what we needed was online learning.”
|A photo of a newly constructed auditorium at the Philip Sheffield High School from around 1936.
The Reach Gallery Museum archives (Ref: P13447)
Two of Anderson’s students, Aron Newman and Sarah Evans, are undertaking a large part of the research involved in the project, looking not only at the school’s history, but also that of Sheffield.
Anderson said Sheffield was picked to lead the formation of what appears to be B.C.’s first consolidated rural school district in 1935, where individual communities previously operated schools by themselves. That consolidation came decades before the amalgamation of the District of Abbotsford in the 1970s and the City of Abbotsford in the 1990s.
After Sheffield died in his early 40s of a ruptured appendix, the school district renamed the Abbotsford-Sumas Consolidated High School to Philip Sheffield High School in 1936. There it remained until it became the Philip Sheffield Elementary School in 1956 through to 2007, when it became AVS.
One particular point of interest in the project was the war years, 1939-45, when the school took a major interest in the war effort.
That largely included clubs, like Red Cross clubs or Comfort Clubs, holding fundraisers to buy tobacco or sweets for soldiers and picked berries to help local agriculture during the war. The crawl space under the gym was reportedly used as a shooting range, and the school also had cadet programs.
|A photo of a newly constructed trades room at the Philip Sheffield High School from around 1936.
The Reach Gallery Museum archives (Ref: P13456)
“They felt that people should be prepared; the students should know how to fire a rifle and be prepared to stand up for the country and look after it,” Wiebe said.
But the history of the school also reflects one of Canada’s darkest moments — the dispossession of Japanese-Canadians as they were taken away into internment camps and their properties sold to veterans on government loans.
One historical account, Foulds said, “writes about students being taken away, that his best friends, because he lived in one of the strong Japanese communities, … were just gone. They were here and then they were gone.”
Foulds said the reason for doing the project now is because time is running out to get in touch with some of the students from the high school. Some of that outreach is being done through luncheons for old graduates.
The two UFV students working on the project were expected to bring a report of their findings to the group in mid-September, and Anderson said the project will likely see another pair of students working next summer the project.
Findings will be added gradually to The Reach’s website, but those involved in the project were unable to say at this point when exactly it will be web-ready.
Any former students who can contribute to the project can reach out to Foulds at firstname.lastname@example.org or 604-864-8087 ext. 122.