Pioneer Days

Oshawa has an educational system now, which ranks among the best in the province. The children in the city are attending schools that are of most modern construction and have the best equipment. It has taken years of careful planning, step by step, along with many verbal battles and heated arguments to get this far. First of all, let us draw back the curtain of years and see if we can discern what life was like for teachers and schools in those far off days, when the place was first being settled.

By the year 1750, the first white traders had found their way along the north shoreline of Lake Ontario and had established a trading post at the mouth of the creek. This district was a wilderness when those traders first came. They described it as having been “nothing but a black ash swamp.” Their descendants have handed down this somewhat contemptuous remark.

In the year 1793, Kingston road had been surveyed by order of Governor Simcoe. His object was to open up the province east of York for settlers. Small clearings were being made and a few pioneers lived in rude log cabins. Those brave people came from the British Isles and the United States. Needless to say, life for them was very hard.

Some of the early settlers in Canada from the United States were United Empire Loyalists (U.E.L.). After the Revolution and the States gained their independence in 1776, a number of the people, especially New Englanders remained loyal to the British crown. They left good homes behind to come to Canada. Of course it meant starting all over again and carving out new homes for themselves in the wilderness here. A few of them came to this district and some of the residents in Oshawa today are their descendants. We wonder sometimes if the U.E.L.’s ever thought to themselves in the midst of their hardships, after all has it really been worthwhile.

In the early times if there were no schools to attend, the better-educated parents taught their children themselves. Shortly after 1800, small clearings were being made in the forest and a few sparsely scattered sitters lined in rude log cabins. Some of them had come from the British Isles as well the U.S.A

It was about that time when Joseph Moore came to the small settlement here, from Boston U.S.A. He founded the first school in this district and used his superior education to make his living. Not much is recorded of him except that he was a well educated man and a “lawyer of parts.” Mr. Moore was much respected throughout his community as well as the whole county. His school was situated on the farm of Benjamin Rodgers on the lake shore between Oxford Street and Park Road South. The school was also on the shore. The property was still owned by descendants of the Rodgers family until recently. Of course the streets, just mentioned, were non-existent then. The attendance at the school was small and the few families who lived there paid the upkeep.

By the year 1812 more settlers had come to Oshawa and among them was John Ritson who had driven in from Ottawa with another man. When they reached here their wagon had broken down and they stopped for repairs. When they started out they had intended going farther west but Ritson liked the place and stayed. Ritson Road was named for his family which had a farm in that district. A small school was soon established near the community of Harmony and John Ritson was the first teacher.[1]

There was an old foundation on the property of the late Hon. Gordon D. Conant on a location that he called the “Pines”, and what he stated was all that remained of an old log school, the first one built in the corporation. It was situated two blocks east of Ritson Road and north of Wentworth Street. There is a possibility it was the one in which John Ritson taught and was the first one in the community. The next teacher at this school was Abraham Farewell.

Mrs. Gordon D. Conant[2] has in her possession a diary that was written by her late husband’s grandfather, the late Daniel Conant. In it he states what his wife Mary Eliza (Shipman) Conant (April 27, 1818 – December 16, 1881) taught in the school in the “Pines” prior to their marriage in 1841. [3] Shipman’s obituary printed in the Oshawa Vindicator,[4] December 21, 1881, gives a few details of her early career as a teacher, “Possessing a good education for that day, she, for some years taught school in what was about the first school in this locality, situated not far from the Oshawa station of the Grand Trunk railway.  Not a few of our citizens today were her scholars and have a vivid recollection of and affection for her.” [5]

Other early schools have been mentioned in the Oshawa district, but the reports are vague. It is recorded that there was a two room log school the only one of its kind in Upper Canada. It was located in the Centre part of the village[6].

In 1829 another log school of better construction than those already mentioned, was erected (near the intersection of King Street and Simcoe Street on the McGrigor farm.) This site was spoken of as having been in the south west ward. The building may have been an improvement but there was no unnecessary expenditure. It served the need of the scattered families for a few years. Douglas Ross comments on this school “For six years after 1829, two teachers bore rule in this small building until it was torn down.  The first male teacher was a Mr. Andrew Masson.”[7], who was father of the late George Masson – Manager of the Masson Works 1875-90[8].  This plant was a Moulding Foundry. Miss Fannie Hall succeeded him.

The typical elementary school of those early days was built of logs and measured about 18 feet by 20 feet. Rough benches were provided for the pupils and a slanting board was fastened along the wall. Those boards served as desks for writing and the children had to stand to use them. A lectern type of desk was provided for the teacher and a fireplace heated the room. A pail held the drinking water and a dipper was kept handy for all to use. There was a plentiful supply of birch rods.  The children had to make their way through the woods by paths that ended up at a larger clearing around the building.

There was another type of log school perhaps of a little later plan than the one first described. In this one the desks were arranged in long rows around the room with an equally long seat in front of each desk. By this plan the students faced the wall to get what light they could from the windows. The teacher stood in the middle of the circle with the pupils’ backs to him. A large wood stove was in the middle of the floor and no doubt they were glad of its warmth in winter. Nevertheless one can imagine what a dismal place it would have been on a cold dark day. There were no maps or blackboards in those early types of schools.

For the most part the common schoolteachers had only a common school education and no professional training. They were usually discharged soldiers or new comers who were ill equipped to take a more lucrative position. The teacher’s qualifications were his ability to keep order while his pupils memorized their lessons that he assigned to them from their textbooks and recited them to him. The three R’s were well pounded in with the hickory stick. A few of the teachers wore long frock coats with capacious pockets at the back. This gave the mischievous ones in the class opportunity to drop bones, apple cores and bread crusts in them.[9]

The teacher received a small government grant and besides this, the parents were expected to contribute towards his salary. There wasn’t much money around those days, so they paid in part, by giving him his living. If he was single he boarded one week at a time in the different parents’ homes. If married they brought him food such as bacon, flour, maple syrup and cornmeal.[10] The teachers in those days were nearly all men. A woman’s ability for the job was not recognized at all. Perhaps a school in those rough and ready days would have been impossible for her anyway.

The early schools were in operation for about six months in the winter. There were about twelve to twenty-five in attendance on a voluntary basis. Their ages ranged from six to ten years. In some places young men and women returned to school for the winter to advance their education if a competent teacher could be found.  Their ages ranged from eighteen to twenty.

The teacher had his own textbooks, a spelling book like “Mavors,” which might suit every purpose, and a more advanced speller and reader. There was also an arithmetic book, possibly a grammar, geography and certainly a Bible. The pupils brought such textbooks as were available, a slate and such paper as could be found. Their pens, ink and rulers were homemade; the pens likely from goose quills and the ink from dye or lamp black.

Nearly all children remained in school long enough to learn to read and spell orally quite a number of words. It took nine to fifteen months to master the words of a whole spelling book and this came after much hard work. Reading lessons went along hand in hand with those in spelling.  To learn to read, they started with the alphabet, then to simple words and sentences. They were pushed along as quickly as possible to reading narratives, strongly moral and religious in tone. After about fifteen months of reading and spelling, about four-fifths remained to learn writing and arithmetic and to read and spell from more difficult books. About nine months were required for this. There was also religious and moral instruction, which consisted of memorizing New Testament verses and reading the Bible.

The selection and arrangement of those courses in the pioneer schools was uninteresting and possibly unintelligible to the child. This may have been one of the reasons why the discipline was so harsh. The aims of most of the parents then were limited. They thought that children derived very little advantage from more than a limited amount of “book learnin’.” Here is the opinion of one parent, “there wasn’t no use in tip-toeing children up higher than their fathers were teached.”[11] It was not the order of the day to encourage initiative in the child; he was expected to memorize and not question. Here is an example of the definition of a new process in arithmetic that he learned by heart – “multiplication teaches of two numbers given to find a third, which shall contain either of the given numbers as often as the other contains a unit.” Such was the education of the pioneer child.


[1] Ross says that “In 1812 a school was begun in the Harmony district on the Kingston Road near Wilson Road. Various letters and manuscripts describe it as being “near the Roger’s homestead” and “near the Pickell’s farm.”

[2] Verna Conant, 1888-1992

[3] Mary Shipman Conant is buried in Union Cemetery.

[4]  Newspaper

[5]  Oshawa Vindicator, December 21, 1881.  Oshawa Community Archives, File 0013, 004, 0014.

[6] This could be the school mentioned earlier near Wilson Road and King Street East.

[7] Douglas Ross, Education in Oshawa, pg 5.

[8] Note that Kaiser’s Historic Sketches of Oshawa claims that the school was operated by G.M. Masson. P. 53

[9] Kaiser. Historic Sketches of Oshawa. P. 52

[10] Kaiser. Historic Sketches of Oshawa. P. 52

[11] Doug Ross. Education in Oshawa. P. 22

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