The Learning Curve

The Path to Higher Education through the schools of Durham

By Bill Trbovich

The schools of yesteryear are a far cry from what we take for granted today. There were no gymnasiums in the first schools of Durham, no libraries, no science labs, no Public Address systems, not even a washroom; that function was handled by a two-hole outhouse! There were no sprawling edifices like we have today; back then your school had one room!  There were no busses, if you wanted schooling; you walked, sometimes for miles. If you lived on a farm as many of the early students did, you often had to board at someone’s house in town through the week and then walk home on a Friday afternoon.

The One Room House of Education

The town of Durham was founded in 1842 but there wasn’t a school built until 1848 and the residents had to demand that it be constructed.

The first written records dated January 18, 1877, states there were four different school buildings in the town used between 1842 and 1877 as well as two additional buildings to accommodate the overflow of students!  Before the construction of the first school in 1848, classes were held in private homes.

A petition from Council representatives of Bentick and Glenelg Townships was presented to the Wellington District Council meeting in Guelph on February 5, 1848. It called for the establishment of three union school sections along Garafraxa Road (modern day Highway 6). The petition was granted with Durham designated as Union School Section 1, Union School Section 2 was the Rocky and Union School Section 3 was a Latona. 

The first school was a one room structure made of logs which sat on the north bank of the Saugeen River near where the Town Hall now stands. The first Durham school followed the other early log schools in the district with the ends facing north and south and the sides, each with two windows faced east and west. This design made the interior as bright as possible. There was no electricity, so during the winter months, classes ended when it became dark outside!

Heat was provided by a single wood burning stove or fireplace, usually located just inside the front door. On either side of this door, shelves were installed about four feet off the floor where students could place their lunches and mitts and beneath the shelves were wooden pegs to hang their coats and caps.

A shelf was attached the full length of the side walls and a wide board was placed slanting slightly downward from the shelf with an edge cap at the bottom to hold books and papers. The shelf gave the students a place to store their books when not in use. This was the desk for the older students who sat facing the wall on a long backless bench which ran the length of the wall. Imagine trying to sit in class for six hours on a seat with no back and facing the wall!

The younger students sat at long lower tables made from dressed lumber on benches across the middle of the room. At the front of the room was a one or two step riser for the teacher’s desk and stool. From here the teacher could see everything that was happening in the classroom. Hanging on the wall next to the teacher’s desk was a four foot square blackboard made from dressed lumber. This was the house of higher learning in Durham in 1848. There was only one room, one teacher and as many as 60 to 90 students. So exactly how did this arrangement work on a daily basis you might ask? When taken in the context of modern schools this would be seen as unworkable, especially when you consider the grades ran from Grade one to Grade eight.

However, work it did and from all accounts it worked rather well in no small part because of the dedication of the teachers and the respect they commanded from the students. When a class was to be taught a lesson, for example Grade five students, the teacher would call those students to stand in front of riser at the front of the school. They would stand there until the lesson was finished and work had been assigned to them. Then those students would return to their desks to finish the assignment and another group of students were called to the front for a different lesson.

The first subjects taught were Reading, Writing and Arithmetic; Reading also included Spelling, Grammar and Sentence Structure. Curriculum varied from school to school depending upon the teacher’s ability and after a year or two, other subjects such as Geography, History and even moral studies designed to build good character. Teaching aids were few if any, so a good teacher learned to improvise.

A second school, of wood frame construction was built in the mid 1850’s just up the hill from the original log structure, which it replaced and a third school, made of stone, was built north of the second school. By 1862 the two schools were overflowing with 209 pupils with only three teachers! In 1875, a contract was approved for a new four room brick school on Elgin Street at the end of Mill Street.

Many of us of a certain age remember college entrance exams that were written after graduating from Grade 13 if you wanted to go on to university. From the early years until the mid-1930, students who completed Senior Fourth Grade (equivalent to today’s Grade 8) were required to write an Entrance Exam to go to High school! These were province-wide written exams on subjects completed at public school and were held in a central location by the school inspectors.

The Model Teacher  

The first teachers were usually people living in the community who possessed some formal education. As the demands for teachers grew, the Department of Education decided to establish an Examining Board in Owen Sound and Collingwood. Candidates who appeared before the Board were questioned on their knowledge of the required subjects and those considered most knowledgeable were granted teaching licenses. The only flaw in this system is that those with the most subject knowledge may not have the proper teaching skills. The solution was the creation of the Model School, which later became the Normal School and today better known as Teacher’s College.

Enrollment in the first model school ranged from 25-30 teachers-in-training who came from communities across south western Ontario as far away as Sarnia. The school operated for 37 years. The entrance requirement for Model School was Grade 10. Successful students would receive a 3rd class Certificate which was good for three years. That certificate could be renewed by the school inspector if the teaching methods were deemed satisfactory. Many of the teachers from Durham attended Owen Sound Collegiate and Vocational school and completed Grade 12, allowing them to upgrade their certificate to 2nd class. If they completed Grade 13 and attended Normal School (Teachers College) for one year, they would receive a 1st class teaching certificate.

In 1890, a four room addition was added to the Durham Public School at Elgin and Mill Streets. The desks for the addition were manufactured by the Durham Foundry. By 1904, school enrollment was 330 students. In 1911, a Durham District Continuation School was established for High School Grades.

Durham Public School 1930:
Courtesy Grey Roots Archival Collection

Now the expanded Public school housed not only a public school, but a Continuation School and a Model School: the building was overflowing and classes had to be held in the Town Hall, the Armoury and the Old Library! Townspeople were not happy with this arrangement and let their feelings be known to Town Council.  

In 1915, Town Council approved the building of the Durham High School on the banks of the Saugeen River facing George Street East. The four-room, two-story brick building was opened in the spring of 1916.

Courtesy Grey Roots Archival Collection

In 1926, two classrooms, a science room, staff rooms and an office were added and soon a full curriculum for University entrance was established. Home Economics and Manual Training were introduced in 1938 and Music was introduced in 1946.

It became the Durham District High School in 1951 and the introduction of bus service for rural students increased the student population and further expansion was necessary. A major renovation was undertaken in 1952 with the addition of a gymnasium, stage, change rooms, cafeteria, a new Manual Training shop, Home Economics room, offices and other auxiliary rooms. By 1963, attendance had grown to over 300 students and Durham High School had grown from four rooms at 3 teachers in 1916 to 14 rooms and 18 teachers in 1963.

Durham High School 1967:
Courtesy Grey Roots Archival Collection

Too Good to Last

By the early 1960’s, both federal and provincial governments realized there was no equality of educational opportunities between urban and rural students. Students in urban areas had access to technical, vocational, commercial and other specialized schools and rural students did not. To correct this situation, the Federal government agreed to pay for constructing, equipping and establishing a technical, vocational addition to an academic high school. Thus the Composite High School was born. The new high school areas had to be large enough to supply at least 1,000 students to the high school. On January 1, 1966, the South East Grey Board of Education was established; Ontario’s first rural Board of Education. The Board consisted of Durham, Hanover and the Townships of Bentick and Normanby. Many say local politics were involved but the Board decided to build an addition to the Hanover High School to accommodate Business and Commerce, Science and Trades and Technology Departments even though there was already a Composite School in Walkerton only six miles to the west. The decision meant the end for Durham High School. It closed in 1970 and Durham high school students would now be bused to either Grey Highlands Secondary School in Flesherton or John Diefenbaker Secondary School in Hanover.

When the High School closed, the building was extensively modified and renovated to house Grades five to eight and it reopened as the Durham District Community School.

The Creation of Something Very Unique

The old brick school built in 1875 was sold to Durham Chair and Store Fixtures as a storage depot. On October 22, 1954, the corner stone for a new public school was laid on the site on Kincardine Street south of Saddler. This school was like no other in Ontario, the first to have a circular open-concept Kindergarten and architecturally it was ultra-modern.

The laying of the corner stone of the new Durham Public School, October 22, 1954
Courtesy of Grey Roots Archival Collection

On April 1, 1955, the student population led by their Principal, John C McKechnie, staff and a student band, paraded from their old school on Mill Street to the new ten-room Saugeen Valley Elementary School. In 1971, a classroom for the Developmentally Challenged was opened at Saugeen Valley. Durham was the first elementary school in the province to have such a classroom integrated with it. The success of this program routinely attracts educators from across the province who frequently visits the classroom to this current day. The school underwent extensive modifications during the 1990’s and the name was changed to Spruce Ridge Community School.

Spruce Ridge Community School Durham, Ontario
Photo by Author

St. Peter’s & St. Paul’s Separate School located at 190 John Street West, was established in Durham on August 21, 1963 with only two classrooms. By September 1968 it had an enrollment of 83 students using those two classrooms plus one portable. The first addition was made to the school 1970 and a second addition was completed in 1991, expanding to five classrooms. Current enrollment is 103 students.

St Peter’s & St. Paul’s Separate School
Photo by Author