SS#1 Kenyon, more commonly known as Big Beaver School, educated elementary-aged children in the Kenyon Township for 140 years. It stood as the heart of the community and acted as a center for activities like meetings and social events. Children took pride in their schools and many Glengarrians share fond memories of their time spent in one-room schoolhouses scattered along county roads. Take a virtual tour of the building and travel back in time for the student experience in a 19th and early 20th century schoolhouse.
Big Beaver School first opened its doors in 1842 on lot seven in the eighth concession of Kenyon. Boys sat on one side of the room and girls on the other and all faced the center with an aisle between them. To accommodate the growing pupil attendance of 90, the school was rebuilt in 1874 on almost the same site (also known as Battle Hill School). The second school was larger and had a raised platform at the front for the teacher and benches across the room. Eventually the school was found to be getting out of date and in poor repair. In 1910, they built the current version. A change in government attitude towards the usefulness of one-room schoolhouses resulted in their closure and the opening of central schools. Big Beaver closed in 1969. Former student Christena Longmore purchased the school and in 1992, she donated it to the Laggan Book Committee. They moved the school one mile to Laggan Public School for its 25th anniversary where it was restored and used as a learning module. In 2011, Big Beaver moved to the Glengarry Pioneer Museum.
Because of the small and isolated settlements in early Glengarry, education was often held in the home. The development of communities resulted in the demand for public education. The District Schools Act of 1807 provided the first public funds for grammar schools in Ontario. In 1816, the Common School Act authorized funding for the establishment of common schools (elementary). These acts, along with the development of the General Board of Education in 1823 resulted in the development of the one-room school system. Originally planned for the sons of the wealthy, interest in education for all children grew in Upper Canada. It wasn’t until the 1840’s that education and schools began to grow in Glengarry. In 1871, Ontario had a free and universal educational system funded by provincial and municipal taxes.
At the sound of the nine o’clock bell, students lined up outside; girls on one side and boys on the other. Most children had walked to school, which could be a quarter mile through any type of weather. During extreme weather, some children were fortunate to get a ride by horse. The day began with a Bible reading, the Lord’s Prayer, a hymn, the National Anthem and a salute to the flag. After this, the regular schoolwork began. The teacher was responsible for eight grades and taught all subjects including arithmetic, spelling, composition, literature, reading, history, geography, health, art, music, and writing. While one class was taught, the others worked independently at their desks.
Attendance in school fluctuated depending on the season. Older boys and girls attended only in the winter as they were needed on the farm during planting and harvest. Big Beaver students spent their breaks on the west side of the school where an acre of flat-dry land afforded them one of the best playgrounds.
In the early 19th century, teachers were scarce and teaching was considered a very low status job. They often had little education and no qualifications, and were often retired army officers. Early schoolteachers were more likely to be men than women. It wasn’t until the 1880’s-90’s that more women began teaching. Early female educators were typically young and single who taught until they married. The creation of the General Board of Education resulted in requirements for teachers to have qualifications and higher education. There were three levels of qualifications. The 3rd class must have completed Fourth Form (grade 12).The 2nd class must have attended a model or normal school (teacher’s college) for one year. The 1st class must have completed Form 5 (grade 13).After you completed the fifth form, you would attend a Faculty of Education (such as a university). All teachers were allowed to teach in public schools. Teachers were paid with a small salary and a government grant. The earliest recorded salary for a Big Beaver teacher is to Miss McLean in 1878 for$120.00. Sarah Jessie was the first teacher in the new 1910 school. Throughout Big Beaver’s existence, the board never hired a teacher who was not of Scottish or Irish decent and never did the school have a Roman Catholic teacher. This is evidence of the prominent Scottish and Irish residents who settled in Glengarry County during the 18th and 19th centuries.
In 1807, an act was passed that resulted in the opening of a few grammar schools. Originally created to prepare the sons of well-to-do families for university, the Common School Amendment Act of 1871 changed this and secondary and primary education was open to all children. Until 1947, students had to successfully complete an entrance exam to attend high school. Only those successful and whose parents could afford it sent their children to High School. In early June, there were morning classes and sometimes “after-four classes” to prepare students for the exam. Prior to 1945, grammar schools were located in towns and cities which forced rural children to board with someone in town. Unfortunately, the move resulted in a large number of dropouts.
Discipline methods were severe in early education. With the variety of ages and large class sizes, teachers enforced classroom rules and expected good behavior from all students. The most severe punishment used was either the strap or the rod. Another punishment was to stay after school to clean the classroom, or to stand in the corner with your back to the class. Discipline methods became less severe and the use of the strap began to be banned in the 1970’s. In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled corporal punishment in schools as illegal.
Many early schools had very little equipment, furnishings, and supplies. There was a shortage of books and paper and children used slates and pencils instead. It was not until the mid to late 1800’s that the Department of Education approved the publishing of school books and that textbooks became available. Children would often share textbooks.
Pot belly stoves were usually found directly in the middle of the schoolhouse. It was the teacher’s job to make sure the chimney was cleaned. The task of bringing in firewood and ensuring the box was full of logs and starting the fire was left to the students. The biggest expense for schools was the firewood. According to minutes from the 1876 Meeting of the Freeholders and Households of SS#1, a motion was moved and seconded that every parents within the section must send, “before the 5th of February, half a cord of good wood or be liable to pay One dollar.” The stove served two purposes; for heat and to warm up lunches. Many children would place soup or milk on the stove to reheat, as well as potatoes from the morning walk they carried to keep their hands warm. Schools were built about a mile away from any settlements and many children in the township walked as far as a quarter of a mile.
Water coolers were a staple item in many one roomed school houses. Before school started, students would collect water from the well to fill the cooler. The cooler would be left at the back of the school for children to fetch a drink from when needed. Students who were well off would have their own cups to drink from, but in most cases, rural schools would have one tin cup beside the water cooler to be shared by everyone. This often led to germs being spread quickly and was eventually against school rules as it was deemed unsanitary. According to students who attended Big Beaver in the 1940’s, students fetched water from the well on E.L.D MacMillan’s homestead, only a couple yards away because the well on the school property had been contaminated by a cesspool.
*The Glengarry Pioneer Museum would like to acknowledge Marissa Gareau for doing the initial research for this project while she was a seasonal employee many years ago. We would also like to acknowledge the work of the late Marion MacMaster and other members of the Laggan Book Committee who wrote the wonderful book documenting schools of this area in The Schools of the Glens. It is an amazing resource which is available for reference at the Glengarry Pioneer Museum.