Pioneer Schools and Education


Taught to the tune of the hickory stick.

What Were the Schools Like?

Teacher and students, Muskoka Lakes, Ontario, 1887
Teacher and students, Muskoka Lakes, Ontario, 1887

The one-room schoolhouse was often a source of pride for the community who had built it. It was also the centre of community activities, meetings, dances, and social gatherings. The early schoolhouses, built with either wood, stone or brick, were often poorly heated and ventilated. Good lighting was also a problem. Some schools had very little in the way of equipment, such as blackboards, maps, globes and textbooks. With time, the government passed school acts to ensure the improvement of school accommodation for all students.

I Remember . . .

Maisie Emery Cook was a student in Leduc, Alberta. She remembers when the first school was built:

“In 1900 when there were six school-age children in the area, a school district was formed. Logs were hauled in and a small building was erected, and that fall a high school student from Edmonton was installed as teacher [the school year lasted just three months]. . . . In 1901 we had a four month term and also in 1902, each with a different teacher.”

Maisie Emery Cook, Memories of a Pioneer Schoolteacher (Edmonton: The Author, 1968), pp. 2-3.

A typical cast iron, pot-belly stove.
A typical cast iron, pot-belly stove.

After years of various models of pot-bellied stoves, the most popular stove used in one-room schoolhouses became the Waterman-Waterbury Heater, manufactured by the Waterman-Waterbury Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the United States with Canadian West headquarters in Regina, Saskatchewan. This massive stove was usually placed in a back corner of the schoolroom and connected to the chimney by a length of overhead eight-inch stovepipes. The theory being that the longer the pipe the more heating surface there was to heat the room.

I Remember . . .

“A boy from down the road had the job of cleaning out the stove and lighting it. I think he got 25 cents cash. A quarter in those days was a lot. It could be more than his father had in his pocket at any one time. Usually the boy got the fire going and the first hour might be cold, but you pack 30 or 40 kids in nine grades into one of those little schools and they warm up pretty soon.”

Barry Broadfoot, The Pioneer Years, 1895-1914: Memories of Settlers Who Opened the West (Don Mills, Ont.: PaperJacks, 1978), p. 285.

On Blackboards

Blackboards were considered an essential part of any schoolroom. They provided a place for both the teacher and the students to write and work out math and grammar exercises. Some blackboards were made from slate. Others were made by painting a wooden board. The wood boards had their drawbacks. “The objections to the wooden surface are, that it is liable to warp and crack, is costly, and requires to be painted very frequently.”

What Was It Like to Be a Student?

J.L. MacDonald, teacher, and students, School District #3, Glenelg, Ontario, 1910
J.L. MacDonald, teacher, and students, School District #3, Glenelg, Ontario, 1910

Even when a community was fortunate enough to have a schoolhouse, there was no guarantee that every child would attend school. Some families could not afford the school fees, which were paid as taxes. Other families depended on their children to help on the farm. This meant that they might not attend school for long periods of time, especially when crops needed to be planted or harvested. Some children had to stay home in the cold months because they had no coat or boots to wear for the long walk to school and back!

J. George Hodgins, The School House, Its Architecture, External and Internal Arrangements: With Additional Papers on Gymnastics, the Use of Apparatus, School Discipline, Methods of Teaching . . . (Toronto: Lovell and Gibson, 1857), p. 81.

Rules for Students:

  1.  Respect your schoolmaster. Obey him and accept his punishments.
  2.  Do not call your classmates names or fight with them. Love and help each other.
  3.  Never make noises or disturb your neighbours at work.
  4.  Be silent during classes. Do not talk unless it is absolutely necessary.
  5.  Do not leave your seat without permission.
  6.  No more than one student at a time may go to the washroom.
  7.  At the end of class, wash your hands and face. Wash your feet if they are bare.
  8.  Bring firewood into the classroom for the stove whenever the teacher tells you.
  9.  Go quietly in and out of the classroom.
  10.  If the master calls your name after class, straighten the benches and tables. Sweep the room, dust, and leave everything tidy.
Pefferlaw Public  school (S.S. #9, Georgina) with the class of 1945. (By the way, That's me in front).
Pefferlaw Public
school (S.S. #9, Georgina) with the class of 1945.

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