School Days

If there was no school near at hand, the better-educated parents taught their children themselves. Some of the homes could boast of a few books.

I have described those early schools in Part I of this history. Clay floors were mentioned; to make these, the ground was first made quite wet and then rolled and pounded level. This wetting and pounding of the clay was continued periodically until the needed space was like cement. The floor was finished after the school was erected.

There were no luxurious washrooms, of course, in those days. Outside privies were built then, and for many years to come. They were kept in anything but a sanitary condition.

There were no sidewalks or good roads, the children had to make their way to school by rough paths through the woods. However it had its good points as we shall see. In winter the walking through the bush was hard when the snow was deep, and not likely any shovelling on the rough paths would have been done for them. Many a day schooling was lost owing to the severe winter weather.

Early spring brought plenty of pools of water, spongy mud, wet feet and bad colds.

But as the days grew warmer, the woods were truly delightful with the clean spring air, the odour of the new leaves bursting from their buds and the songs of many spring birds. Pussy willows, were, shall we say, the first flowers to be gathered, others followed in their various seasons.

The delicate little mauve spring beauties with their hair long and fastened by combs or a bandeau that they had knit themselves. Little girls learned to knit by using the plain rib stitch for making garters if any other such easy work as they could do. This is how the plain rib knitting got the name “garter stitch.” Girls with straight hair usually wore it braided in pig-tails. The boys wore either long or short knee-length trousers or a home-spun shirt. Their jackets were quite short. They were in their bare-feet all during the warm days of fall. It was during the winter that the children had to dress warm, in fact the adults as well. At the best their homes were not very comfortable.

The girls wore one or two pairs of heavy woollen long stockings; home knit of course and long woollen underwear. Their high necked and long sleeved dresses were of dark wool and their coats were generally made with a cape. A warm bonnet and muffler or shawl completed the outfit. There were no rubbers in those days and the boots of the whole family were heavily greased to make them water proof.

The boys wore home spun woollen shirts. The old timers said they were like “sandpaper next to the skin.” Their coats, caps and trousers were very heavy and they also wore long woollen stockings and home knit mufflers. Both the girls and boys wore a belt or sash with their coats. Some of the children were fortunate enough to have fur coats made from the skins of the native animals. All wore heavy mittens.

The parents no doubt copied the idea from the Indians and made leather moccasins for all the family to wear when the snow was dry. Snow shoes were also worn when the snow was deep. Small children remained at home when the weather was severe. School was dismissed early on dark days in winter and on very stormy ones there was no school at all.

Lunches for the noon day mean were taken to school by the children whose homes were a distance way. Bread was the standby or the cakes that had been baked in the ashes. Meat, jam or maple syrup perhaps a scone was added and raw fruit if it were available. In all probability many a little child went to school with a very scanty lunch, likely only bread and dripping.

As the years progressed gradual changes were being made. Log schools gave way to frame ones and then later to brick.

The 1850-60s saw more of the teachers, who cared to, receive professional training. [1] It was only beginning we must admit. When some of the students entered the model school to take a fourteen week teachers’ training course, their academic work was so poor that much of the time had to be spent on it. There was little time left for their training. This was due to the fact that their teachers had little knowledge of the work, themselves.

However as time went on there was an improvement, it was gradual of course. Later in the 1870’s a comment was noticed in the newspaper by one of the examiners of the candidates on the teacher’s exams, that orthography (spelling) and writing was very poor. An improvement would have to be made there.

Classification of the teachers was as follows:

Class A – could teach anywhere in the county but had to have at least five years experience.

Class B – could teach anywhere in the township

Class C – could teach anywhere in a locality.

The class C (model) certificate was good for three years. Some taught on a permit after that. The teachers passed their exams with a class A or B standing. Class A of course meant that higher marks had been obtained than class B.


[1]  By 1860, teacher training, or normal schools were in existence. However by 1870 only one quarter of teachers in Ontario had such advanced training. Paul Axelrod, The Promise of Schooling pg. 45-46

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