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Jessie Margaret Henderson: Pioneer Teacher of Spirit River
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By Betty Dahlie

The Spirit River Signal in March, 1951, carried a story about the services of one of Spirit River's longest serving teachers. A plaque on a new two-room wing of the Spirit River School stated: "Dedicated in Honour of Margaret Henderson—For her many years of service as a school teacher—1919-1947." The plaque was unveiled by J. K. Fildes, chairman of the Spirit River School Board, in a ceremony attended by one of the largest crowds ever in Spirit River.

Dr. E.J.M. Church of the Alberta Department of Education read an inspector's report, filed February 27, 1945 which described Miss Henderson as follows:
By carrying on during the dark days of the Depression in the thirties she made a great contribution to the community. Her work in the classroom has always been of exceptionally high order. As the years went by, her efficiency increased, rather than diminished. It is an honour for me to pay highest tribute to a teacher who has given her life unselfishly to the education and advancement of the community.1
Jessie Margaret O. Henderson was born at Union Road, Lot 33, near Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, on July 4, 1881. She was the eldest child of Dr. James Henderson and his wife Annie Gregor, and was one of five daughters. One son, James Gregor, died at the age of nine in 1903.

Jessie Margaret Henderson came from a well-educated and fairly prominent family. Her grandfather, Kenneth Henderson, was a medical doctor who was elected a member of the P.E.I Legislative Council in 1863, and served on the Executive Council until 1866. He was then elected to the House of Assembly, holding this position for four years, after which he retired from public life.2

Miss Henderson's father, James, also studied medicine and set up a medical practice at Beach Hill, P.E.I., immediately after graduating. In 1879 he married Annie Gregor, a school teacher from Charlottetown. Except for four years in California, Dr. Henderson practised in Beach Hill until his retirement.

With this family background, it is not surprising that Jessie Margaret Henderson decided to pursue a career in education. She received her basic education in Prince Edward Island, completing her studies at the Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown. She then taught for three years in Prince Edward Island before moving west to Regina, North-West Territories. There she attended the Regina Normal School in 1902-03, receiving her primary teaching certificate on December 30, 1903. The Regina Normal Souvenir, published by the students, gave her high praise: "Judging from the lessons Miss Henderson has taught at Normal, the three years of teaching in P.E.I, must have been very successful."3

Miss Henderson taught for a short time in what is now the province of Saskatchewan, then moved to Alberta before it became a province. For the next few years she taught in the Crowsnest Pass area, in Canmore, and in Tofield, before going to Spirit River. She did not like the Crowsnest Pass area (she hated the wind), but remembered Mrs. Raskivitch as "being very good to me when I was in Bellevue."4

In Canmore, Miss Henderson shared a house with another teacher whom she called "Crowe" and an office secretary named "Travers," both of whom simply called her "Henderson." The three enjoyed living together, often welcoming other people for dinner, going to skating parties, and attending local dances. After a time each of them wanted to explore other places, Crowe going to Vancouver area to teach and later to Seattle; Travers finding a job as legal secretary to a lawyer named Sandecock in Drumheller; and Henderson going to Tofield for a couple of years.

Miss Henderson's adventuresome spirit next took her to the old Spirit River Settlement, what used to be old Fort Dunvegan prior to 1900. The first train on the newly-built Edmonton, Dunvegan & British Columbia Railway arrived on January 17, 1916, in what is now the town of Spirit River. This is located two and a half miles north of the Old Settlement and is on the banks of the Spirit River. It is believed that she arrived at the Old Spirit River Settlement in September of 1916 to teach the 1916-17 term in a one-room log building on the Presbyterian & Methodist Mission Church Farm. At this time the population of the Old Spirit River Settlement was approximately one hundred, including whites and natives, some people having already moved to the new Spirit River townsite to be nearer the railway.
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Reprinted with permission from Betty Dahlie and Alberta History (Autumn 2000 Volume 48, Number 4) 17-24.
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