This story is part of our partnership with Maryboro Lodge The Fenelon Falls Museum and was written by Glenn Walker.
KAWARTHA LAKES-Alex (pronounced ‘Alec’) and his younger sister Jean Robertson grew up on their father’s farm on the Scotch Line Road, east of Dunsford. As was common in those days, their dad (Torrance) was a mixed farmer, and was a cattle drover, who ran the neighbourhood beef ring—back then neighbours would go together to slaughter animals because no one had refrigeration. Like most rural children, Alex and Jean walked to the neighbourhood school, SS#1 Verulam, commonly called the Scotch Line School. Unlike many rural children, both Alex and Jean completed secondary school at LCI (later renamed LCVI) and Jean went on to complete a nursing degree at McMaster University—they could only afford to send one child to university.
When Alex married Muriel Thurston (from Dunsford), he bought the farm next door to his parents (now part of the Dunsford Golf & Country Club), where he would work until 1957, when sold the farm and worked with Alex (‘Alec’) Kennedy building houses. The next year he took a job at Emily Provincial Park, which was then still being developed. He would work in natural resources for the rest of his life. Jean married Walter Marshall in 1953 and moved away, living in Ottawa for many years.
Later in life, both Alex and Jean remembered their experiences attending the Scotch Line School. Each year, Alex would share a hand-written story from his younger years with his children at Christmas time. Jean wrote a memoir for her children. Together the Robertsons recall what life was like for rural children attending school:
Typical Winter School Day circa 1935-1938, by James Alexander Robertson, December 2009.
In those days, winters were cold, with lots of snow—get up in the morning by 6:30/7:00 to a cold house, as the wood stove, only source of heat had burned out hours ago. No hydro then—wood stove used for heating and cooking—kerosene lamps for lighting in house, lanterns in barn, water pail and cistern pump often frozen. Dad and hired man doing chores, back in house by 7:30, mother making oatmeal porridge for breakfast for everyone.
Put on warm clothes and footwear, take lunch and homework—head off to school. Follow the footpath through the fields—being careful not to step off or you may be down to your crotch in snow—very hard to get back up on frozen path. There is an eerie feeling as you pass by the cedar swamp, home of the lynx family, you feel like you are being watched. Mr. Kennedy, owner of the property, kept cattle at the east barn by the swamp. They had to be fed daily and watered from the nearby well—he said when he was there all alone and all was quiet he occasionally saw or heard the elusive lynx cats. After climbing over three rail fences and one wire fence we arrived at the school at about 8:30-8:45.
Now since this is winter time the school was very cold—heated only by a large wood stove and a long string of stove pipes from the stove to the chimney at the back of the school. The pipes were up fairly high, so did not provide much heat at the lower level. Often on very cold days, the teacher would allow the kids to leave their seats and gather around the stove to keep warm. Most of the kids would bring a large potato to school and about 11 o’clock we would put them on top of the stove to bake—the teacher was good to see they were turned over and properly cooked. Water was supplied by a well about 100 feet from the front door and was kept on a shelf near the stove in a pail with a dipper nearby. Also some kids would bring milk and canned soup to heat for lunch.
There were no telephones, no hydro, no nearby homes so we were very isolated and often the roads would be blocked by snow.
One winter, probably 1938-1939, my sister Jean arrived at school on a very cold morning, got her coat, scarf and toque off and the teacher looked at her and said, “Get your coat and over clothes back on and get home quickly. I think you have measles”—back out in the cold without even getting warmed up. I don’t remember if she had measles or not—quite common in those days.
We stayed in school until 4:00 pm, then made a hasty exit to try and be home before dark. One thing I enjoyed on arriving home was finding a rice pudding left over from dinner that mother had made for Dad and the hired man. I think she tried to save a bit for me.
Being a boy, I had to help with the barn chores, while my sisters helped with the house chores. Later by lamplight we struggled with homework and then off to bed to get rested for another day of the same. However, if it snowed during the night or the next morning the next day could be worse.
In the terrible depression, 1929-1939, school boards were like everyone, short of money, partly because a lot of people did not have enough to pay their taxes. School trustees worked without pay and our teacher worked for $500.00 yearly out of which she paid for board and lodging at a nearby home, usually a farm.
Soon the trustees were looking for volunteers or older students to take on the caretaking duties. I remember about 1935-1936, the Tully sisters and trustees themselves were at the school from time to time. The Tully girls—3 of them were former students who lived about three quarters of a mile from the school. They were always willing to help the teacher as needed, such as Christmas concerts. They were unable to go to high school at Lindsay due to a lack of money to pay for board away from home. They were smart, attractive girls, now in their twenties, who eventually married and went on to live very successful lives.
Now students and teacher provided measure of caretaking for a while until the trustees asked older students if they would take on the job for pay. We discussed this at home and my parents thought I should give it a try. I’m not sure what they paid, but I think it was $35.00 for the year. Later my sister Jean agreed to help, but I did it alone the first year, probably 1936-1937. I think in 1937-1938 I got $25.00 and Jean got $15 for a lot of work.
Following is a list of the duties to be performed:
Be at the school no later than 8:30. Winter, spring and fall.
Winter or as required light fire in stove
Shovel snow off entrance to school 60-80 feet
Get pail of water from well
If fresh snow, clear walkway to front door to girls’ toilet at north end of woodshed
Same to boys’ toilet south end of woodshed
Clear snow away from woodshed door
Take ashes, removed from stove before lighting, to pail in both toilets—for odor control.
Carry wood from woodshed behind school to front entrance—stack between cloak rooms. There was no back door to the school—wood must be carried along outside the full length of the building
On nice days carry extra wood and stack
Split in woodshed and bring in kindling wood
Daily after students have left:
Clean blackboards first with brushes and then clean brushes outside
Wipe blackboards with damp cloth
Sweep floor both classroom and front entrance and cloakrooms (lunchrooms)
Dust all desks and seats
Check inkwells and fill as required
Ensure paper and matches on hand to light fire in stove
Empty water pail
Lock front door and head for home. It would be dark now often and I would hope for moonlight.
Wipe dust off all windowsills and shelves in cloakroom
Clean windows—ladder required
As required, when ground not frozen, dig hole by fence at back of woodshed and empty toilet waste pails—cover with ashes and fill in with dirt.
Firewood was supplied by tender annually in four foot lengths, split and piled between school and woodshed, all hardwood. Trustees and volunteers along with a local sawing machine cut wood into 16 inch lengths. After wood dried, around June 15th or later, wood was piled in the woodshed. This was done by volunteers, trustees, or offered to student caretaker for the sum of $5.00. Jean and I did this once or twice. It was a lot of wood, at least ten bush cords.
During summer holidays, all wood floors in the school, which was all floors, had to be oiled using oil and brushes supplied by trustees. The work was done by the student caretaker. It was a big job and I can’t remember if there was extra pay for this.
Now to enjoy summer at home on the farm, working six and one half days per week. Sunday morning there were morning chores, then to church, then dinner in the afternoon. We could then walk two miles to the lake to swim or go groundhog hunting on the local farms or get together with neighbour kids to play ball. We did no extra farm work on Sundays. Monday to Saturday the farm work was milking, gardening, haying, harvesting, early morning to late evening. After evening chores of milking cows by hand, feeding pigs, cattle, horses, chickens, cleaning out stables, often before dark there was bringing in another load of hay or sheaves or stacking them in the barn. Harvesting meant cutting hay, raking hay, loading it on the wagon, hauled by horses, to barn and unloading in the mows, spreading it and tramping it. Grain crops were cut with binder, sheaves were stooked to dry for at least a week and then hauled to the barn and spread out in the mows ready for threshing. Threshing was done usually two times, once in July or August and again later in September or October. It was mostly barn threshing, which was very dusty. Neighbours traded help for threshing and silo filling so you shared this job with six or seven neighbours, usually more than one day at each farm. Silo filling was not done until September, so we kids were back in school.
A lot more detail could be included in ‘summer on the farm’ but you now have some knowledge of life on the farm before tractors and modern machinery, electricity, television and all household appliances. Happy Holidays indeed! Soon its back to school again.
Nothing changed much in those days. Then in 1939 WWII started and most young able bodied men left, leaving older farmers to cope as best they could. We counted eleven men left from about three miles of the Scotch Line in 1939, 40 and 41. This led to farm mechanizations, tractors, combines, balers, etc.
1938-1939 saw an improvement in the economy of the country. Electricity was being extended to rural areas. The farmers now had the opportunity to sign up for hydro. Three applicants per mile was required to get service on rural roads, resulting in a lot of coaxing adjacent neighbours to sign up.
The line came up the Scotch Line in 1938, but my dad was building an addition to the barn that year so we got wired up in 1939. Imagine, no more kerosene lamps and lanterns and as milking machines became available, no more milking by hand. No more storing ice for the ice boxes as electric refrigerators were acquired by those that could afford them. No more battery radios with frequent failing batteries. Electric household appliances, when they could be afforded, were a real benefit for the farm wife, especially the washing machines and electric irons, followed by the various labour saving devices in the home as we know them today.
Wood stoves furnaces remained pretty much as they were for many years, mainly due to the availability of firewood on the farms. Televisions did not appear until the 1950s, and were quite expensive, so when our dad [‘s parents] got one we would visit them on Sunday night to watch The Ed Sullivan Show.
As mentioned before, the lack of manpower ushered in a new era for the farmer. A gradual switch from horses to tractors. My dad got a homemade version of the auto truck, a Rio Speed Wagon truck. This was about 1941 or 1942. It proved to be unreliable so we got our first real tractor in 1943, a Massey Harris 102 Junior, a very good machine. By this time the drought of the 1930s was over and both hay and grain crops were very good. Farm machinery had to be adapted for use by the tractor. The local blacksmith made many of the changes. In the following years, new machinery made for tractor use was acquired. Eventually few draft horses were kept on the farms.
Due to the shortage of men to work on the farm, I missed a year, 1937-1938. I had to consult my 1942 Lindsay Collegiate Tatler [yearbook] to verify this. I was in grade XI in 1942, so my last year at SS No. 1 Verulam was 1937-1938 (12 years old in 1938). I started high school in 1939.
The transition from grade school to high school was difficult, partially due to missing a year.
Whether you believe it or not, the story of my early days is true, to the best of my memory, chronicle of the way we were back then.
Off to School, by Jean Robertson
School attendance for me began when I was a little past six and a half years of age. Nursery school, prekindergarten, kindergarten were forms of education not yet in place in our rural area. I doubt there was a particular edict which dictated at what age a child must begin school. In my case, it was a physical more than an intellectual determination.
Our school was a typical red brick, one-room building, located three miles from our home. There were no school buses, in those days. We walked to school. But we did have a choice of the distance we walked. The three-mile walk was by road, one mile along a dirt road to the highway, one and a half miles along the highway to the next concession line, and another half mile along another dirt road to school.
But we children learned a shorter route, only one mile in distance. We simply walked across farmer’s fields. But in doing so, we had a few fences to climb and a small forest to go through. Thus the later age at which children started to school. We had to be big enough and strong enough to walk the three miles by road or the more rugged one mile, transgressing fields.
How I occupied the days of my preschool years I cannot recall. I do remember evenings though. My older sister and brother were, of course, already in school and they spent evenings ‘playing school.’ We had a small blackboard, chalk and a brush. In the process they taught me and my younger sister to read, write and do arithmetic. Thus I was not totally illiterate when I finally started to school.
The first day was so exciting. There were big kids and little kids, all together in one room. There were large seats at one side, medium sized seats at the other side, in total probably about thirty seats. The teacher had what seemed like an enormous desk at the front of the room. There were large blackboards all along the front wall and along one side. Many large windows on the south side gave plenty of light to the room.
The entrance door to the school opened to a foyer from which were entrances to the cloak rooms, one for the girls on one side, one for the boys on the other side. Doors from each of these cloak rooms opened to the main door of the school. Against the wall between these two doors was a massive iron stove which had to be stoked with wood all day in the winter months. Wood for the stove was kept in great piles in the woodshed, a separate building behind the school. This building also housed the toilets, the girls’ room at one side, the boys’ room at the other side. These were not flush toilets, but simple two-holer outhouse arrangements. Not unfamiliar structures to us as everyone in the school came from farm houses where there was no indoor plumbing, no electricity, no central heating.
So primitive. So deprive were we. Except that we didn’t know it. We knew no other lifestyle. Thus we did not feel impoverished. In fact, we had lots of fun.
During school hours, we were expected to pay attention to the teacher, to be disciplined and to be quiet. The teacher would begin the day’s classes with instructions to the older students, give them some work to do, move on to the next grade and so on until everybody was busy.
I remember on the first day of school that the teacher asked me to read from my primer textbook. It was just assumed that when we started school that we would have some level of reading skill. So when we are asked to read it was to determine at what skill level we were. I stood up and began reading, but because I was able to read the whole book through, she had me discontinue after a few pages. My older siblings had taught me well at home before I started school.
So many memories of elementary school in that red brick building with the lettering above the front door, ‘S.S. #1 Verulam.’ Most memories such happy ones, some a little less pleasant. Like all school children, we liked recess time and lunch hour. In good weather, we’d be outside, as quickly as possible and off to the swings, or the skipping rope, or running races, or most fun of all, we played baseball. There was little in the school budget for play equipment, but somehow we were provided with a ball and bat and we staked out our own diamond and played ball at recess and lunch hour until the very last minute when the school bell rang. Unlike the central bell system of the modern school, we had a real school bell—a brass one which the teacher shook vigorously by hand to announce to us when time was up and back to school we marched.
Another really exciting time or us was the Christmas concert. Sometime in November, our school room underwent a huge transformation. A couple of local farmers came in and constructed our stage. It was a raised platform built all across the front of the school. Then the green curtains were installed, such that we had ‘rooms’ at either end of the stage and a ‘hallway’ across the back for our various entrances and exits through the curtains. A long curtain across the front of the stage was for the opening and closing of the various acts in our productions.
Rehearsals for the concert had already begun before the stage was built. Everybody had a part in something, a recitation, a play, singing in a duet or choir—the latter would, of course, include the whole school.
The date for the concert would be chosen by the teacher and the children would notify their parents, that being the only means of communication between teacher and parents. No such thing as a copier, printing out numerous papers for children to take home in those days.
Then came the big night. School was usually dismissed a little early that day so that we could get home, have time to do any last-minute practicing of lines or songs, get dressed up in our best, have an early supper, and maybe even a little rest because that was an exciting evening and it would also be a late one.
All the local neighbourhood people, those with children in the school and also those who did not have children, crowded into the school that evening. Usually, the school was quite full. They sat at the children’s desks and extra benches were set up at the back for the crowd overflow.
The concert began. The usual Christmas songs. ‘Jolly Old St. Nicholas,’ one of my favourites, was on the list pretty well every year and was sung in chorus by all the pupils assembled on the stage. Then a carol or two in which the audience would join. Our concerts were before the days of Rudolph, so that song was not on our list. Some of the pupils would be involved in recitations, solos or duets might be sung sometimes, I recall that several pupils would be involved in a reel dance. Such dances required much practice as timing and precision were vital for the dance to be done properly. At last, the concert was nearly finished. Closing songs consisted of more carols, the audience again joining in.
Then the big excitement! There was always a Christmas tree at the front of the school. It had some decorations, most of them having been constructed by the pupils. No lights, of course, there being no electricity in our school. Night light for our concert was by ceiling gas lamps.
So when the concert was over, the tree became our focus. Then, from outside, a magical sound could be heard. Jingle bells! At first we heard them in the distance, then they came closer, then the door opened and there he was! Santa Claus, in his big red suit, and with his long white beard. And he was ringing the bells and shouting “Ho, Ho, Ho,” as he proceeded to the front of the school. Then he wished everyone a “Merry Christmas.” He, then, of course, spoke to us children and asked if we had all been good boys and girls this year. Naturally a loud chorus of “Yes” from us all. “Well, then, Santa Claus has something for you. And each of us, in turn, received a bag of candy from Santa Claus. Oh, we were so happy. The big man in his red suit then left the room, ringing the bells and calling “Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night,” as he left. Again we heard the jingle bells as they faded away in the distance. Santa Claus was gone. But the concert was not over. Younger pupils would join their parents wherever they were sitting in the audience and older pupils sat in front of the stage awaiting the second concert.
There were always some adults in the community who were quite willing to give of their time and talent to put on a play, always a funny one, after the children’s concert was finished. They had met in each other’s homes for a few weeks before Christmas for their rehearsals. My memory of these productions is a little vague, given my young age and the lateness of the hour! Some of us, I suspect, probably fell asleep. But, in general, I recall that these plays were very well done. They were very good actors.
Some of the younger men involved in those plays would soon be off to war, this being the 1930s and early 1940s, the time of the Second World War. Some treasured memories of my elementary school years.
The Red Brick School House, by Jean Robertson
So many memories of those years in the one room red brick school. By today’s standards, it would probably be regarded as pretty rugged and most certainly lacking any frills. No special outings to museums or other such places intended to broaden the intellectual horizons of children. No fun days, which, I’m told, children have today—buses taking them to various activities such as skiing or skating, intended, no doubt, to give the children a break from their strenuous days of study. No we simply went to school every day and it was every day, apart from summer holidays and few days at Christmas and Easter. No ‘professional development for teachers’ days.
I do not recall our school ever being closed for reasons of bad weather. Heavy rain, winter blizzards, no matter, we braved the elements and walked the fields to school. Some days in winter were particularly cold or the snow was so very deep that someone would give us a ride to school by means of horse and cutter or a team of horses. And a sleigh. That was luxury, not having to walk through very deep snow or face extremely cold winds.
One winter day, I vividly recall. It was not too cold, but it was snowing. We all walked to school with not too much difficulty. After arriving at school, we had all removed our boots and snowsuits and were standing by the big wood stove to warm up when the teacher came over to say ‘good morning’ to us. She looked at me, for some reason, what seemed, a particularly long time and I wondered why. Finally, she said, rather alarmingly—‘Jean, you have the measles,” followed by “You will have to put your things back on and go back home. You cannot stay at school.” That was the total conversation. No questions. I did what I was told. Back into my snowsuit and boots, out into the snowstorm and I walked by myself the mile across the fields to home. I told my mother that the teacher had said that I had the measles and that she had sent me home. I was not feeling ill, but I was sent to bed and as the measles progressed I did become sick for a few days.
That’s just the way things were done then. There was no telephone in the school for the teacher to notify my parents. To come for me or even to let them know I was being sent home. Nor was anyone asked to accompany me. No, I was on my own. I was eight years old.
Apart from the usual childhood diseases, measles, chicken pox and rarely head colds, I recall very little illness among us. We were, it seemed, on the whole, a pretty healthy and hardy group of children. Nor do I ever remember a teacher being ill. The teacher was just there every day.
No doubt, many of today’s educators would consider our school to be, at least, rather low on the education level. I would have to disagreed and on more than one occasion over the years, have staunchly defended the education given to us in that school. Granted, not a lot of extras, but basic reading, writing and arithmetic were very important and were taught extremely well by all our teachers. We respected them, we were attentive, and disciplined and we learned.
For one thing, neither the teacher nor we students ever knew when the school inspector would come knocking at the door. He would usually stay a half day or so, observing the teacher’s performance and also there would be some time spent with us children and we never knew who would be asked to stand and read for him or he might ask some arithmetic, spelling or grammar questions. So we were surely on our very best behaviour that day. A sign of relief too, no doubt, by both teacher and children, when he left as he would not likely return again for several weeks. A treasured memory of the red brick school.
These stories are memories and nobody’s memory is perfect. Sometimes details get a little mixed up, things get forgotten or overlooked, and the perspective is inevitably subjective. If you notice something that not right, have something you would like to tell us, or a memory to share the museum would be happy to hear from you: [email protected]