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The Founding of Fenelon Falls’ High School

March 22, 2024

Fenelon Falls Continuation School, (later Secondary School)

In Upper Canada most schooling was voluntary, especially in rural areas. By today’s standards, children grew up young, and many were at work as soon as they were able to help their parents. It was often said, that it was better for a young boy to have a strong back than a strong mind—a lifetime of hard physical labour awaited him. Most girls could expect to spend their days doing domestic work. A large proportion of the population had limited literacy. The Kawartha Lakes region was unusual in having a large number of gentry, who typically had the benefit of education before they moved to the area, but very limited facilities for educating any children they might have once they arrived.

To the extent that there was schooling, it was typically done by volunteers as an act of charity. Near Fenelon Falls, the first recorded volunteer teachers were Anne Langton (arrived 1837) and her Anglican minister, Rev. Thomas Fidler (arrived December 1839). By March 1840, Anne Langton wrote that Fidler was teaching 28 students, “some much more advanced in years and accomplishments than mine.” Fidler taught his classes at the Anglican Church, while Anne instructed from her home at Blythe. At the time, there was no expectation that children must go to school, so attendance was spotty—because of the need for child labour, weather, road conditions and the general absence of clocks or watches. Fidler drowned when his boat was swept over Fenelon Falls on May 15, 1847.

By 1848, Fenelon Falls had a school building, but there is no known surviving description of it—it was presumably a log structure, with a single room, that only offered primary education. By the 1860s, Fenelon Falls was becoming much more populous and prosperous. The surrounding countryside, which had been sparsely settled at first, was slowly developing into farms. Before long, most lots had been taken up and some were beginning to take shape as farms. Large-scale lumber and timber exports were also becoming practical with the construction of a railway to Lindsay.

On August 29, 1868, Fenelon Township Council borrowed $2000 to build a new brick schoolhouse at Fenelon Falls. Completed in 1869, School Section #3 Fenelon was the largest school in the township, with three paid teachers, including a male staff member who had an annual salary “as high as $500,” which was a generous amount in those days. Even with an 1876 addition, by 1884, the school was again full, leading to the construction of a second school south of the river, called the South Ward School. Planned by Lindsay’s William Duffus, it used stone from the canal, being the only stone school constructed in Victoria County—today it is the Masonic Lodge. Opened in the Fall of 1886, it cost $2500.

In the nineteenth century, for most children it was practically impossible to complete education beyond Grade 8. Most students just attended the neighbourhood one room school—where all eight grades were taught together, or village schools where two to four grades might be grouped—at least in later years. Some members of the local elite hired private tutors to educate their children. The Boyd family of Bobcaygeon brought Walter Comber, an Oxford-trained educator, over from England to teach their children. He would go on to found Bobcaygeon’s Hillcroft School.

In 1896, the Province created a system of continuation classes, which allowed students to receive secondary education from the existing public schools. Two years later, Principal Byron H. Maybee began to instruct continuation classes at Fenelon Falls’ South Ward Public School. Initially, the stone school primarily offered elementary courses, with a few continuation courses, but as demand grew it became a dual purpose school. In 1912, it became just a Continuation School, but even then, students could only receive Grade 12 education and had to go to Lindsay Collegiate Institute if they wished to complete Grade 13. Before the founding of Lindsay Collegiate Institute (later LCVI), Lindsay similarly had a Union School, that offered both elementary and secondary courses.

When Woodville’s school began offering continuation courses in 1922—with a new building the following year—there were three other continuation schools in Northern Victoria County—Fenelon Falls, Hillcroft (Bobcaygeon) and Kinmount. In time, the schools were graded: Once Fenelon Falls was deemed a Grade A School, students could complete Grade 13. Bobcaygeon and Woodville were Grade B, offering instruction up to Grade 12, while Kinmount was Grade C, limited to Grade 10.

The original Fenelon Falls Continuation School had just two classrooms, each split in two. The junior students were instructed on the first floor and the seniors on the second. The school did what it could to offer extra curricular activities, such as a Christmas concert, (Track and) Field Days and a spring picnic. As was often the case at local one room schools, the students enjoyed ball games at recess—they involved minimal equipment. Popular winter activities included checkers and gossip. The school taught chemistry even though they had little in the way of apparatus—and students recalled explosions projecting books across the room. In 1924, the school added an addition on the east side, which students would call “the Match Box,” allowing a separate room for each of the first two grades—because many students did not finish high school, there were many more juniors than graduates.

The stone school had no central heating, just box stoves on each floor. On cold days, they would huddle around the fire, and the building, of course, was not heated on weekends. There was no indoor plumbing. The caretaker filled a water container each day, that sat on a shelf in the hall—with all students using a communal cup. A frame lavatory stood behind the school, and girls and boys were expected to walk in opposite directions around the school to maintain proper decorum. The school also had very limited facilities for public performance and convocation, so these events were held at the community hall on Bond Street (now Immanuel Baptist Church).

In the late 1940s, some students started to come to school on buses and by 1953 practically all students outside of Fenelon Falls could rely on busing. Before then, it was up to families to figure out how to get to school. Some students rode horses, or brought a sleigh to school. Horses were stabled at the Brooks Hotel (later George Wilson Motors) or Dick Bulmer’s Blacksmith Shop (later the Livery Stable/Brewery/Waterbridge Chocolates). Girls could not wear slacks at school, so after caring for their horse, they would have to wash up and put on more appropriate attire.

Other scholars walked miles to school, even through drifts of snow. Some students had a driver’s licence and drove themselves. One of the most memorable methods was the “Burnt River Express,” a van driven by the Wilkinson family, with students sitting on benches in the back. Once at school, the Burnt River Express became a popular student hang out. Those fortunate enough to live near the rail line could employ the iron horse, but then they were at the mercy of the rail schedules and typically could not attend all their classes. Some students boarded in town. Until the advent of busing it was not practical for many rural students to finish high school.

By the early 1930s, the school had once again outgrown its building and the matchbox was torn down to make way for the new school which opened on August 30, 1933—having cost $25,290. The brick Fenelon Falls Continuation School, originally had four classrooms—which has been expanded many times in the years that followed. Many of the classes were taught upstairs, in what has since become the math hall—which once had a central staircase leading up to it.

The new school brought with it many advances including indoor plumbing. It had its own well, which unfortunately struck sulphur as it was drilled through the limestone rock below. The school had a drinking fountain, but many students will never forget its pungent odour. Commencement and concerts continued to be held at the community hall until the addition of the gymnasium/auditorium in the 1950s. It had a laboratory (that doubled as a science class room, cloak rooms, a school board room (which doubled as a library) and a small principal’s office. In keeping with the sensibilities of the time, girls and boys had separate entrances.

In the early 1950s, local control of schools gave way to the Victoria County School Board, established January 1, 1951. It sold the stone school to the Masonic Lodge for $1000, while retaining an option to purchase it back for the same price. Over the next couple of years, the schools were amalgamated, as systematic busing was introduced, which made it practical for all students to attend the central school, renamed Fenelon Falls High School in 1951, then Fenelon Falls District High School in 1960, then Fenelon Falls Secondary School in 1967. In 1952-3 the auditorium/gymnasium, change rooms and industrial arts shop were added. In 1956, two science labs, a library, typing room, two classrooms, a second shop and a staff room enhanced the school. Then four years later it received two home economics labs and six standard classrooms. Fenelon Falls District High School had come to be large enough to accommodate 600 students, as it served northern Victoria County.

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