Bruce County Memories: Going To School In The Bush

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Photo Courtesy of Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre, AX977.045.001a Photo: Miss Mary Ireton and her charges, Hope Ness, 1892.
Submitted by Robin Hilborn, Bruce County Historical Society

At one time there were hundreds of one-room schools across Bruce County.

In the earliest days the children of the first settlers were taught in private homes, but by 1852 there were three log schoolhouses, at Kincardine, Southampton and Walkerton.

Kincardine opened the first school in 1851, in a squared log building of 20 feet by 26 feet. The first school superintendent was John Nairn, and his wife Jane was the teacher. She had 66 students and earned $145.80 a year, with a bonus for going in early to start the fire in the woodstove. 

Since there were no roads in the county when the first schools opened (except the Durham and Elora roads) many students had to walk miles through the bush. Landowners often donated land for schools so their children wouldn’t have to walk far to school.

Given their meagre salary, teachers from away would often board for a time with each family in the school section, or sleep in the schoolhouse. It took courage to face students ranging in age from 5 to 20, all in one room.

Women teachers were much in demand to teach young children. However, they rarely held their post for long because they had to resign if they married. School boards recognized the risks. An 1856 report explained the loss of one teacher this way: “some keen-eyed young pioneer, on matrimony intent, came along, and without consulting the school authorities, carried her off to adorn his shanty in the bush.”

By the turn of the 20th century there were over 200 School Sections in Bruce County, with an average of ten schools per township. 

Helene Murray Scott wrote of her school days in the 1982 Yearbook of the Bruce County Historical Society. The children at Stokes Bay, if they did not go to the home of D.D. McLeod for teaching, walked to schools at Swan Lake or Lindsay Township. They would set out before dawn carrying a lantern, making their way through the thick woods to get to school on time. 

Stokes Bay’s first and only regular schoolhouse, S.S. No. 9 Eastnor, was built in 1903. The one-room schoolhouse had a blackboard across the end wall behind the teacher’s desk. Fastened to the wall was a case filled with map rollers for teaching geography. Later on, an organ was purchased for music appreciation. 

The desks were all double with two boys or girls at each. A misbehaving boy was made to sit with a girl for punishment. This was a sore trial for most of the boys but the girls didn’t seem to think it such a bad idea.

In those days the plumbing was outside. Two small buildings, “backhouses,” stood at the very back of the school grounds. These buildings were two-holers and accommodated more than one person at a time, especially at “rush hour.”

In the 1987 Yearbook Elizabeth Polfuss recalled her happy days going to S.S. No. 2 Carrick around 1915. It was a one-room brick school on the banks of Otter Creek, a tributary of the Saugeen. There was no electricity, no running water, no indoor toilets and no pencil sharpeners. Water came from a pump in the yard and in winter, a pail was brought indoors. 

Heating consisted of an iron box stove which stood near the back of the room. The pupils bought all their own books, drawing paper, slate pencils, slates, pen, ink and pen nibs. She wrote, “Some of us lived two miles away. In good weather we walked to school, a really enjoyable experience. In bad weather we were taken by our Dad, in horse-drawn sleighs or buggies. The Otter Creek Flour and Grist Mill was situated across the road from our school and many times we rode home sitting on top of bags of ‘chop’.”

A school building could also serve as a church and community hall. The first church services at Formosa were held in the old log schoolhouse, built in 1854.

The School Sisters of Notre Dame provided teachers for Formosa schools from 1872 to 1976, working with lay educators to provide a Catholic-based education. In 1968 a number of rural schools were replaced by a larger central school in Formosa, Immaculate Conception, part of the Bruce-Grey Catholic District School Board.

The Bluewater District School Board, with headquarters in Chesley, was created in 1998 as the amalgamation of the Bruce County Board of Education and the Grey County Board of Education. Today it has 17,400 students in 40 elementary schools and nine secondary schools.