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For over a century, each rural neighbourhood had its own schoolhouse, that (along with the church) was the local cultural institution. Constructed so that every family was within walking distance (there were no school buses), children gathered to learn and communities joined together with pride to celebrate what local youth could accomplish. Progressing from volunteer instruction in informal classrooms during the pioneer period, through the era wooden schools of the nineteenth century, by the early twentieth century, most neighbourhoods had constructed a brick schoolhouse where students learned from the Ontario Reader curriculum. Warm memories of community schools have persisted long after they closed, as most have become interesting private homes.
When the first settlers came to the Kawarthas, Upper Canada had opened one grammar school to serve each district—but these schools were so distant that they were beyond the reach of local students. Instead, children might be fortunate enough to learn from a part-time neighbourhood volunteer.
They might also receive some education at church. Anne Langton taught children from her home, and Fenelon Falls’ Anglican minister Thomas Fidler also volunteered, until he was swept over the falls and drowned. In the first generation, most children got by with little to no education. Few children would attend school once they were old enough to work on the farm.
In the 1840s, Canada West (later Ontario) worked towards standardizing public education to make it accessible for all children. Schools were organized into numbered School Sections, governed by trustees from the neighbourhood. Each community constructed a school house, which were typically resembled pioneer log homes. The Langtons led the construction of the first local schoolhouse at Blythe in 1842 (later SS#3, Verulam).
A few years later SS#1 Fenelon opened in 1848 and SS#2 at the farm of Donald Gilchrist, near Glenarm. One log school in Dalton Township served until 1909. Once sawn lumber was common, frame schools became the norm, for instance SS#1 Digby (1876); SS#15 Emily (1874); and SS#4 Somerville at Baddow (now the Baddow Hall).
By 1900, a common school design incorporated three windows on each side, with one on each side of the main entrance, and a cast iron bell on the roof, though many rural school made do with just a hand bell.
Brick schoolhouses were then becoming the norm, red was more common than buff. Norland’s school was made from limestone, some others used precast concrete block. Many schools, like their log predecessors, had little to distinguish architecturally from the common vernacular buildings of their day.
Unique Architectural Specimens
Some school sections made an effort to create a beautiful building. Mariposa Township’s SS#4 (1883-1965) boasted an Italianate edifice which welcomed students from 1883 through 1965. The Cameron School sported a Gothic arch over its main entrance (reminiscent of a church), and other buildings might have included Gothic details in their window transoms.
Larger schools incorporated ornate architectural features designed like Lindsay’s North Ward (Alexandra) School, with its pillared facade. The so-called Castle School in Little Britain, was so named for the battlemented tower over its main entrance.
Inside the Schoolhouse
School buildings were typically utilitarian in their layout. Early schools often did not have desks, students just sat on benches in front of the windows. Electric light was still many decades away when these schools first opened, and kerosene and/or oil lamps would illuminate Ontario’s one-room schoolhouses well into the 1930s.
By the twentieth century most had a cloakroom just inside the main entrance and the classroom, which typically consisted of two to four rows of desks. Smaller desks for younger students were located at the front. Desks could have a flat top – sometimes hinged to access books, papers, and writing utensils beneath – or be angled. The most common desk style had a folding seat in front and an angled top immediately behind. Supported by a wrought-iron frame, these desks were bolted to the floor and arranged in rows to facilitate good discipline and independent seatwork. At the front of the classroom was a raised dais (platform) with a blackboard. Some schools had an upright piano or a pump organ to supply music for Christmas concerts and opening exercises. Stretching the full length of the wall behind the dais was a slate blackboard on which teachers demonstrated the basics of cursive writing, arithmetic. Hanging above the blackboard in many schools was a retractable map of Canada; alongside a portrait of the reigning monarch.
Teaching a One-Room Class
In a one-room schoolhouse, teachers were expected to deliver everything their students needed—the supports that educators take for granted today simply did not exist. They had to teach all subjects and all grades together in the same class. Classes ranged from 5 to 30 students, ages 5 to 14, sometimes as old as 16. Typically, teachers would give a short lesson to one grade (typically 1-4 students), assign work, and move on to instructing a different group. Older students were expected to help their younger classmates with their lessons—and classmates’ collegiality was essential to the schoolhouse functioning. There was no prep time, and teachers were expected to keep the classroom clean, and to heat the building using a cast iron stove.
Often a neighbor came over early in the morning to start the stove and senior girls would be hired to help the teacher clean the school (it was seen as girls work in those days). In the evening, teachers would look over their students assigned work, and suggest corrections that needed to be made. Teaching certainly was a long day!
Becoming a Teacher
New teachers were typically not much older than their students—it was common to start at age 17 or 18, even younger if necessary. In the twentieth century most teachers spent one year at a model or normal school. Lindsay and Minden had model schools, while Peterborough’s Normal School operated from 1908 through the 1960s. In the 1950s, teachers were in short supply, so a six-week summer school course would suffice.
Having received a teaching certificate, the new teacher walked alone into the schoolhouse, as Catherine Junkin recalled, “there is no back up, you are the person, and you sink or you swim.” Teachers were certainly expected to live upstanding lives to serve as role models for their students.
The School Day
The teacher began the day by ringing the bell out across the schoolyard, students would line up, enter, take off their coats, and assume their places in the classroom. Opening exercises consisted of The Lord’s Prayer, God Save the Queen (later O Canada was sung as well) and a Bible reading. Catherine Junkin’s classes did reading first thing in the morning, then math, then reading again after lunch. Fun activities like art were saved for the end of the day.
The teacher typically did not accompany the pupils out for lunch break, this was the only time they had to get ready for their lessons. Rather than gathering with other children their own age, many families would stick together at recess.
Reading, ’Riting, ’Rithmetic
One-room schools taught largely using rote learning—students would learn by repeating things over and again, in the standard textbook, The Ontario Reader. Cursive writing entailed copying a word printed at the top of the page, line after line down the page. Similarly drawing entailed copying a sketch. In arithmetic, students would repeat mathematical exercises. The Reader contained short stories, poems and rhymes, that students were asked to read either to themselves, or for the class as they stood beside their desk.
Many students found this type of instruction boring, though it would be impolite to express this in class. Creativity, ingenuity and originality were not the order of day. Given the constraints of trying to teach so many subjects to so many grades together, it was not practical to nurture the unique gifts of each student, and many youth to moved on to their working lives at 14 or 16.
One-room schools were part of a neighbourhood culture—for better or worse. At one school there were only 9 students, and one family had no respect for another because one Dad was a cattle thief. The animosity between households was taken out on the children. On the other hand, family and kinship ties often brought neighbourhoods together, and students would take care of each other, providing the love and support that their friends and siblings needed. As one teacher recalled, “there was always a ringleader” and if there was a disturbance at recess, the teacher would only have to look out to see what the ringleader was up to.
Arbour Day was a school celebration created to encourage students to think beautifying their school’s grounds and their community as a whole. Modelled after a Spanish tree-planting holiday, mornings would be spent cleaning the school itself: polishing desks, sweeping floors, and ensuring that their classroom was neat and tidy. At Fell’s Station in 1896, the local newspaper correspondent noted that the day was “synonymous with cleaning, sweeping, dusting, washing and polishing.” Thereafter, the class planting trees, tending gardens, and going on hikes, playing outdoor games.
Arbour Day provided an opportunity to take what we would today call field trips. Sometimes, athletic contests would take place on Arbour Day, with the pupils of one schoolhouse facing off against those of another in the same school section.
Introduced in 1912, the School Fair was a much anticipated annual event, much like local agricultural exhibitions, showing crops, flowers, livestock, sewing, cooking, and handicrafts. They also featured school exercises like writing, drawing, and collections of schoolwork. Students also participated in school drills, marching like military cadets. Villages throughout Victoria County hosted the fairs, which featured the surrounding school sections. School Fairs seem to have ended during the Second World War.
In the nineteenth century schools would often invite the neighbourhood over to see their Christmas tree, a joyous sight that many families would not have at home. By the twentieth century school concerts had become significant community events, and teachers were often evaluated on the basis this performance. Preparations might begin in November as every detail was rehearsed. The Christmas tree was decorated with paper chains and strings of popcorn. A makeshift stage would be erected and decorated, refreshments prepared and a collection taken up to raise funds to improve the school program.
Getting to School
Even as young children, students typically walked to school, often across the farm fields of the neighbourhood. In winter, some students might ski to school, but others had to trudge through the snow and blizzard conditions. Because of the difficulties of getting to school, attendance in winter might be just a fraction of what it was in better weather, though in summer, many youth left to help on the farm. At Baddow’s Stoney Lonesome School (SS#13 Somerville) the community constructed a page wire bridge to allow pupils from both sides of the Burnt River to attend. Attending a secondary school often entail a journey of several miles.
Some families would let their children take a horse to town, a considerable sacrifice when it was the motive power of the farming operation. By the 1950s, many parents could drive their children to school on rainy days, but walking remained the norm.
Of the many options teachers had for maintaining discipline, the strap and dunce cap have lived on in popular imagination, though they were seldom if ever used. Many teachers retired being able to say they never resorted to either punishment, although to the end schoolhouses were equipped with a strap, everyone knew it was there, and the fear it instilled helped keep students in line.
Dan McQuarrie, teacher at SS#1 Digby remembered an incident where the strap was used. The student locked himself in the outhouse, the teacher smashed in the door: “There, in the snow, a battle was fought as decisive as the battle of Waterloo. I brought him into the school and there administered further punishment that all could see. Well, that left me in supreme command. The father of the boy then visited the trustees and asked them to have me fired immediately. They advised me of his request and I told them that if they wanted me to leave, I would close school the next day and they could look for another teacher. This of course they refused to do, so I asked one of them to visit the father and ask him to meet me the next evening on my way home and I would administer to him the same punishment I gave his son. Luckily for me he never appeared and from then [on] for the next year and a half I enjoyed the respect of all the pupils and parents.”
A more common punishment in the later years of a one-room schools was to stand in a corner facing the wall or to stand holding a few pieces of firewood on outstretched arms for a couple minutes.
By the 1960s it was becoming evident that there were a lot of advantages to consolidating the education system into larger, central schools, and with the advent of school buses, it became practical. By bringing all the rural students together in the villages, they could be offered so many more ways to learning, extracurricular activities, and opportunities to have friends their own age than was possible in one room schools. For those who lived through the transition, the difference was “night and day.” Teachers could do a far better job of instructing when they did not have to try to meet the needs of all ages at once.
The experience of a one room school was a lot like a large extended family, and this familiarity between teachers and students would be missed, but almost everyone could see what an advance was achieved through consolidation. Ops Elementary School opened in 1966, followed by Fenelon Township Public School the next year and Mariposa Elementary School in 1972.
Most local schoolhouses, outlived their intended use, being renovated into interesting private homes. Sometimes, their interiors were kept largely intact and traces of school days gone by were retained: initials carved into a window sill can add character. Those schoolhouses which didn’t become private homes enjoyed a variety of subsequent uses. The Cameron School (SS#6 Fenelon) served as an antique store for a number of years in the 1990s. The Palestine School (SS#6 Eldon) continues to function as a community hall. The Oakwood School (SS#12 Mariposa) is today home to that village’s branch of the Kawartha Lakes Public Library. Both Kawartha Settlers’ Village and Maryboro Lodge have school programs allowing local youth a chance to experience aspects of life in a one-room schoolhouse.