By John Francis, Bruce Peninsula Press
On Saturday, August 19, 2023 the St Edmunds Bruce Peninsula Museum held a celebration of the 125th anniversary of SS#1, Tobermory. Currently used as a museum, the school was built in 1898 and served as a one-room school until 1965.
There were two schools in those days: SS#1, which served the farming community at Tobermory Settlement and SS#2 which served the fishing and sawmill community in Tobermory Village. With enrolments dwindling in the 1960s, the St Edmunds Township Board of Education elected to close SS#1 and move all students to the village school.
The township decided to retain the settlement school building and use it as a museum. That museum has grown steadily in scope and ambition since its inauguration in 1967. It houses an impressive collection of pioneer artifacts and documents as well as some original furniture from the school.
The museum also has two pioneer cabins. One was built by Jacob Belrose in 1875-76, a few hundred metres north of its current location at the museum. It housed several families over a period of more than 90 years. It was donated to the museum in 1967 by Bill Willaughan. The other was built around 1870 by the shore of Little Dunks Bay, probably by Abraham Davis (but nobody’s absolutely certain). It was used as an outbuilding for several decades before the land was purchased by the Province of Ontario, after which the cabin was allowed to deteriorate. The building was donated to the museum by Parks Canada and moved to the museum location last year. Restoration is just beginning.
But the heart and soul of the museum is the school, an institution which was an important part of the lives of generations of the pioneer families: Watson, Wyonch, McArthur, Munn, Belrose, Bartley, Davis, Spears, Adams, Hopkins…
On its 125th birthday, the building looked great. Rob Davis, who emceed the event on behalf of the Museum Committee spoke with obvious pride of the building and the history it represents. The committee’s success was recognized by Mayor Milt McIver, MPP Rick Byers and MP Alex Ruff, all of whom attended.
Three former students told of their time at the school: Barry Hatt, son of longtime teacher Roy Hatt, attended in the 1950s and spoke at the celebration. Helen Spears, who was a student when the school closed in 1965 wrote a letter which Rob Davis read. And Viola (Watson) Adams, who attended from 1935 to 1943.
Here is the text of Vi’s speech:
This is a great day for such a wonderful celebration. Imagine if this building could talk, the stories and memories that would be shared for 125 years. Since that’s not possible, we’ve relied on historical records; I’d like to share a few of them with you as well as some personal memories.
I started attending this school when I was six years old , going into grade one with Mr Roy Hatt as my teacher. We had eight grades in the one room with children ranging in ages from 6 to 17. Mr Hatt was well respected and a firm taskmaster. The strap was visible from time to time on his desk but used rarely. The older boys knew when enough was enough so there seemed to be very few situations that required that form of punishment.
Most of the children had long walks to school and not the warm winter clothing available today so the heat from the old box stove was welcomed to gather around for heat. The children from Charlie McArthur’s family had close to 3 miles to walk — their farm was [near where the cell phone tower now sits] near Cameron Lake and had a very long driveway. Also quite a number [of children came] from all around the five-mile block [Warner Bay Road, McArthur Road, Cape Hurd Road]. Baize Munn’s, Borden Hopkins’, Grandpa [Arthur] Watson’s, Jim Watson’s, Bill Leonard’s Wes Belrose’s, Dave Hyde’s — all with several children walking to school. The numbers fluctuated from mid-thirties to forties, with the boys often missing days to help with haying etc and the girls were also needed to help at home from time to time.
Lots of baseball was played in the schoolyard, mostly by the boys and Mr Hatt, while the girls would square dance in the yard with some of the classmates calling for different dances.
We also planted a garden down near the edge of the bush. One of the fathers plowed up a stretch, probably about twelve feet wide and the length of the lower area — sometimes it produced well but not always. One year only green beans grew and since we were expected to eat anything that grew, too bad nobody seemed to like green beans. We boiled them in a pot on our woodstove and served them in cups to the grade 8 class who sat on the outside aisle near to the window. Eventually Mr Hatt found a row of uneaten green beans below the window outside.
The boys especially were given a health lesson on how healthy beans were for them and had to keep the wood pile well stocked for quite awhile.
The flagpole also provided entertainment for the older boys who cold climb out the upstairs window and slide down — sometimes with a few pins needed to hold some rips together to the end of the day. Children provided much of their own entertainment outdoors but indoors the teacher and older children were the leaders. Lots of spelling, math and geography contests to help in more of a fun way for those with problems in those subjects.
Two toilets were installed — called pail-a-day meaning they needed a pail of water put in each day, but how modern we felt! [At home] we all had outdoor facilities or outhouses as we called them, with an Eatons catalogue for toilet paper.
Again, Mr Hatt educated us on that part of hygiene, in using 2 or 3 sheets of real toilet paper, not a quarter of a roll at a time.
In my early years, the upstairs of this building was often used by the country people as a mid-week social gathering place: crokinole and card parties often with old time music by the Adams family for a few dances, followed usually with lunch.
Of course the events became easier when the stairs were moved to the front area from the wood shed at the back. Some improvements were also made to the front entrance with a new set of cement steps, an iron railing and the flat area at the landing being replaced with cement, then wood.
The boys in the higher grades were especially pleased to be taught woodworking or “manual training” as it was referred to in those years.
Mr Hatt would leave one of the older girls in charge of the classroom while he worked with the boys upstairs for an hour or so. That was quite an honour for the girl chosen to keep order.
It’s hard to think of our teachers with a starting salary of $800.00 a year in 1932 depression years and mention was made of a government grant of $539.35 being received by the teacher at SS#1, St Edmunds at that time.
The log cabin donated by Bill Willaughan was a fitting addition to the museum property, especially with many local families having lived in it. Probably [my husband] Lloyd’s father’s family lived there longest, raising all but the last three of their eleven children in it before moving back a concession. My family also lived there for a time while my dad was building a log house on the way to town. Lloyd reminisced about hearing the hand separator being used at the Davis farm (where the golf course was later) on a clear night with the upstairs window open. They could also see freighters going by the islands on clear nights.
Since it was all one room, separated by hanging sheets for dividers, I can’t imagine much in quiet times.
Back to the schoolhouse: from time to time, changes were made to accommodate more children. Part of the platform in front was removed to allow for more seating; by this time we had 40+ children and upstairs work benches and cupboards to store the manual training tools were built.
About 1942, Mr Harold Bruin, a music teacher from Lion’s Head, came up weekly and within a couple of years, a piano was purchased.
Even in the early years, a health nurse made visits to the school, checking eyes and ears and hair. It was fairly common at times for children to have head lice. Also, immunization was starting, much to our horror and many of us girls were terrified of getting the needles. We’d stand in a line up with our left arm or our hip and I promptly fainted when it was my turn. We each got three needles for diphtheria, five for scarlet fever and whatever for whooping cough, as well as a vaccination for smallpox.
Hydro came to Tobermory in the mid-forties and with electricity available, it brought many rewarding benefits for us at school, especially in reading and writing.
In the early 50s, attendance was at its peak but started declining so rapidly that we were hearing that our school may close. Busing was now in effect and SS#3 [the children who came by bus from the McVicar/Johnson Harbour area] decided to transfer their 12-15 children from the overcrowded harbour school to the settlement which solved the attendance problem for a time, but in 1965 it was announced that SS#1 St Edmunds would be closing.
But what could be done with it?
The first thought was a museum but many felt we’d never be able to have enough exhibits to make it of interest for people to visit. As you can see, now people have contributed generously, encouraged especially by Willow Watson who was keenly interested and you can see we have a museum to be proud of.
It’s a building we are proud of and the many memories left with us are priceless. We hope that the generations to come will appreciate the history and sacrifices of our forefathers and enjoy the stories they may hear from time to time. As we are all aware, volunteers in any small town are priceless. The ones involved in the museum spend hours in many ways that only they know, in planning events as well as keeping inside and out clean and tidy.
We are honoured to say a big thank you to Cele Eadie, Ruth Bainbridge, Judy Caulfeild-Browne, Nora Dean, Rob Davis, Shirley Johnstone, Kathleen Hollis, Spencer Adams, Terry Milligan, Sheryl Marshall, Gail Beagan, Ada Sada, Bettie Hopkins, Margarite DiFilippo, Karen Van Oss, Debbie Thornton and Lucy Weir. Karin Phillips is our township employee who also contributes a lot of volunteer time.
We thank you all for a job well done.