Prairie College to celebrate 100 years

Prairie College Sign

Prairie College is in party mode, about to commemorate their 100th anniversary with a week of celebration starting July 13th. While their official anniversary is October 9th, the weather is better in July, especially for welcoming 800+ guests to town.

And there is much to celebrate! 17,000+ graduates have come through Prairie’s halls, who have gone on to work on every habited continent. As with any institution with a lengthy history, the College has experienced ups and downs throughout the years. However, their raison d’être has remained the same: To Know Christ and Make Him Known. It was this goal that in 1921 caused local farmer J. Fergus Kirk to write Midland Bible Institute in Kansas City for a teacher for his nieces and nephews and other townsfolk who were interested in the Bible. Leslie Earl Maxwell responded to the letter with enthusiasm, planning to stay for just a few years to informally teach the small group of students, then move into mission service elsewhere. The first class was held on October 9th, 1922 with eight students, mostly locals and relatives of the Kirks. To everyone’s surprise, after that first year, students just kept on coming. Unbeknownst and completely unfathomable to them in 1922, Kirk and Maxwell would spend the rest of their lives establishing Prairie Bible Institute, together welcoming and teaching thousands of students from around the globe.

It became clear in those early years that whatever this new venture was, it was going to be more than a Bible study and would need a formal structure, both with policies and administration, but also with infrastructure. New buildings would be constructed as they could be afforded, which sometimes meant a building took several years to be completed. It was through the generosity of local friends and neighbours that students were fed, and buildings constructed.

That this new school would ever be more than a few local students was unfathomable to many; some in the wider community anticipated a swift end to the endeavour and thought the new building would make for an excellent dance hall.

One of Prairie’s earliest mindsets was “hoping for nothing” which reflected the founders’ open hands and willing hearts to let the fledgling school become that which they felt God was leading it to be, and not what they alone might envision. The motto also referred to L.E.’s belief that the staff should not come expecting a salary, but that needs would be taken care of, and that a ministry required sacrifice. It was also meant to underscore the equality of all staff; none received compensation but all received housing, food, medical coverage, and a place to serve. Any donations to the staff fund were distributed equally among the staff.

With a growing student population, and buildings to put them in, came the need for more faculty. L.E. called upon Miss Dorothy Ruth Miller from Nyack, N.Y., his own favourite teacher from his College days, as well as Ernest Richardson, Kathleen Anderson, and J.M. Murray. Later joining the faculty were Ruth and Kathleen Dearing, Robert Snyder, and Arthur Chamberlain. The above and many others would all have a profound affect on the students in their classes. Miss Miller and the Dearing sisters would affirm the new school’s view that women as well as men should be instructors, preachers, and students.

Prairie’s enrollment swelled to 900+ students in the post-war years, its highest annual enrollment to date, with service men and women coming to the College to learn and then return to their service locations overseas to evangelize to the people they had come to know while they were stationed. In addition, Prairie’s strong mission emphasis caused Prairie graduates to spread around the globe…from war-torn France to the savannas of Africa to the jungles of South America and to remote Asian villages.

It was during the war years that Prairie opened a high school and a grade school, later to become Prairie Christian Academy, as an additional education option in Town. The school remained part of the College until PCA would become a separate entity in 2004.

The Institute needed a way to sustain its students and workers, so cows for meat and milk were important from the very beginning; a farm was established at least as early as 1942, in operation until 1987. Staff were remunerated with room and board, and students had free tuition and minimal cost for room and board, in exchange for lending a hand. The farm spanned 960 acres and included fields for grain, silage, and pasture in addition to 2,000 chickens, and a hundred head of dairy cows. Prairie had its own pasteurizing plant in 1976 and produced as much as 250 gallons of milk per day. Prairie became almost entirely self-sufficient, producing much of the food needed for survival with large gardens and canning parties in addition to the farm, and later establishing a campus store for other needs. The campus had a print shop with printing press, carpentry, machining, and welding shops, an infirmary (a 60-bed hospital with lab and technician, two RNs, and an x-ray machine by 1950), butcher shop, a bush camp to cut their own lumber, an independent campus heating system, and a seniors’ care home.

Music became a large part of campus life, from the school’s very earliest days. The music department had developed and printed two instructional music course books by 1948, and by 1968 had more faculty in just the music department than Prairie has full-time teaching faculty today. They sent out speaking and singing groups from May to September, across the country, as part of their “Extension Department”; groups such as “The Men of Song”, the “Prairie Ambassadors”, and the “Janz Quartet”. These groups were also projected across radio waves to stations around the world, in addition to rousing sermons from L.E. Maxwell, only ceasing radio ministry in 1978. Doug Kirk, born one year before Prairie’s founding and no stranger to Three Hills folks, used his CAF radio training to run these broadcasts. The College still receives requests to purchase the musical arrangements of Kathleen Dearing and others; lucky Tilly Shop visitors can sometimes find these much-loved books on the store’s shelves.

It would be an incomplete story on Prairie’s history if one failed to mention the rather unique social regulations put in place at the school’s founding, growing in both rigour and rumour through the decades, especially as the Institute sought to resist the sexual revolution of the 60’s and beyond. While the school never did have the fabled pink and blue sidewalks that those who never attended Prairie are quick to “remember”, men and women were purposefully kept apart in order to focus on their studies and to more easily discern their life direction and purpose. Nevertheless, many love stories miraculously took root at Prairie, with the College jokingly referred to at times as “Prairie Bridal Institute”. Men and women coming to Prairie with similar life goals and vision made, in many instances, for strong marriages and mission partners.

Vocational training would be added to Bible courses starting in the ‘90’s with the Prairie School of Mission Aviation (now Prairie Aviation Training Centre). With its founding flight completed in 1992 (by then student, now Flight Instructor Michael Fox), PATC celebrates its 30th anniversary this year having sent hundreds of graduated pilots to both dusty airstrips and to the cockpits of jumbo jets throughout its history. Through a partnership established with Mission Aviation Fellowship in 2017, PATC has been able to strengthen its operations and reach.

Interestingly, the school has been using planes and the Three Hills wide-open skies since at least 1935 to transport both L.E. Maxwell and the Janz Quartet to their various speaking and singing engagements. The school’s first airstrip was located near to the current Prairie campus, approximately where PCA is today.

Prairie would add sport as another avenue of ministry and growth for students, formally in the 90’s, becoming part of the Prairie Athletic Conference, then the Alberta College Athletic Conference. The Explore Program, focusing on outdoor leadership and wilderness skills, was born in 1998, the Discover intercultural studies program in 2003, a Practical Nursing program in 2006, Primary Care Paramedic program in 2007, Digital Media in 2013, Prison Ministry in 2016; all avenues to address a great need in the world and to provide students with marketplace employment while still providing biblical training.

Of course, no one who has lived in Three Hills for the past decade can forget the school’s near-move to Drumheller in 2009, precipitated by an unstable financial situation and what seemed to be a fortuitous building arrangement in Drum. After a public meeting showed strong community response to the College remaining in the Town of its founding, the College re-evaluated and got to work repairing relationships and their finances. Today the College is in a stable, healthy financial situation, thanks to many generous donors. The College is preparing to launch a $100M Capital Campaign over five years for complete renewal of the campus infrastructure, setting the school up for the next 100 years.

As the College prepares to celebrate its centenary, President Mark Maxwell (grandson of co-founder L.E. Maxwell) cannot help but marvel at God’s faithfulness to the school, through the joys and difficulties of the last hundred years. “Words fail to adequately reflect the events of the past century at Prairie, and to capture the potential for the next century.” Says Maxwell. “As I reflect on Prairie’s early days, I am repeatedly impressed with the fact that L.E. and the team around him did a good job, a very good job! We look toward the next century and will continue to build on Prairie’s solid foundation, to continue to be a team working in harmony, with strong programs, and to welcome students from around the world so that they can go out and meet the greatest needs of the world. We are planning for a total revamp of our campus facilities through our Centennial Campaign to set the school up for a productive second century.”

Prairie’s Centennial Celebrations will run from July 13-17, with main sessions taking place under a big tent, perhaps not dissimilar to tent meetings of the past.

Information about the planned celebratory events can be found on the College’s webpage.