Teachers were strict in the Bygone Days

At one time there were close to 400 one room schools on the Island.

'That damn long hardwood thing, a round stick, he'd hit us over the hands and you'll never do that again'

A group of school children and their teacher pose in front of the school in Alexandra, P.E.I., in June 1898. (PARO)

Reginald "Dutch" Thompson's column The Bygone Days brings you the voices of Island seniors, many of whom are now long-departed. These tales of the way things used to be offer a fascinating glimpse into the past. Every second weekend CBC P.E.I. will bring you one of Dutch's columns. 

Another school year has begun on P.E.I., but school was a lot different in the bygone days.

At one time there were close to 400 one-room schools on the Island. Layton Millar, who was born in 1909, attended Ellerslie School almost five kilometres away either by walking or on a mare named Queenie.

Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He has published a book about P.E.I.'s bygone days. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"First teacher's name was Stewart, Etta Stewart," Millar said.

"She was pretty strict. I don't remember ever getting the strap. I remember standing in the corner different times."

Millar continued his unusual mode of travel after he left school. He became the rural mailman and he delivered the mail on a bicycle. 

Gerald Best, who was born in Crapaud in 1911, would walk to school except in the winter, when his father would take the kids with the horse and old wood sleigh. The straw on the floor of the sleigh came in handy, he said.

"We would curl up in the cold mornings and he'd take us to school and then come back after us."

'He was tough'

Best remembered his teacher from Grade 6 to 10, a man named Dan Bell.

"He'd been in the first great war … and he came to Crapaud as a teacher. I never remember if we did anything wrong. That damn long hardwood thing, a round stick, he'd hit us over the hands and you'll never do that again. No, I guess not. He was tough."

West Kent School on Kent Street in Charlottetown, circa 1895. (PARO)

Little did Gerald the schoolboy know that years later he would drive what was called the van, one of the first school buses on P.E.I.

It was a covered wagon pulled by a team of horses and he landed that job in the middle of the Great Depression. 

He had a farmhand help him with chores and driving the kids to school in the horse and wagon. Best said he made $7.50 every Friday, and paid the farmhand $5 a month. Still, Best, who had to pay the mortgage, look after the horses and the farm, said the farmhand was better off than him.

Bittersweet memory

"He had good meals, three meals a day stayed here. Horse to drive on Saturday night. He always had the horse."

School was a bittersweet memory for Best. He was in school in Grade 6 when his older brother came to the dorm one day to take him home. Their mother had just died. 

Laura Whitty says she 'couldn't speak a word of English' when she started school at age seven, and eventually lost her ability to speak French. (Dutch Thompson)

School was even more difficult for French-speaking Islanders in the bygone days.

Laura Whitty was born in 1918 in the northeastern end of P.E.I. She was a Gallant before she got married. In fact she was a double Gallant — her mom was a Gallant as well. 

Whitty grew up in a small Acadian enclave in the village of St. Charles, where she walked more than three kilometres to school every day. 

"It was a little school, all grades together. When I started school I was seven years old and I couldn't speak a word of English."

Wouldn't answer to English

She said she learned to speak English in school, but English wasn't welcome by her parents at home.

"When we used to come home from school and said some English words, they wouldn't answer."

Whitty said she ended up losing her French, partly because of the situation at school and partly because when she left school in Grade 6 at the age of 13 she went to work at a general store, where the language in the workplace was almost always English. 

In 1926, Jessie Norton Beck won the Governor General's prize for top marks at Brudenell school. (Dutch Thompson)

Jesse Norton Beck went to the Brudenell school in the 19-teens when the first cars started appearing on the island. The first thing Beck and her brother did every morning was a run up to the Georgetown Road to see what traffic had passed the day before.

"There were only about two cars in the district. The doctor from Georgetown and I think it was a jeweler from Montague, and one had a knobby tread and one had a diagonal tread, diamond shape. So you know who went by because there clay road you know, and you know who was around."

In 1926, Beck won the Governor General's prize for top marks in her school and she went on to become a registered nurse and write a history of the Norton family. The ancestral home is still on the Brudenell golf course.

Driving everywhere

Beck is known by thousands of Island students as the woman who started up the P.E.I. Music Festival. 

When Beck was a girl, her dad bought a McLaughlin touring car. She immediately started driving the car and went everywhere — even though she was only 14 years old.

Not all students were as well behaved as Beck, however.

The late Jimmy Fiddler Banks attended the school in St. George's near Bridgetown in eastern P.E.I. He was six years old on his first day of school. 

He said there were lots of big boys in his class. It was a one-room school so he was a little bit intimidated. And it was a new teacher that day — a male teacher — and he arrived wearing a straw hat, what we'd now call a boater. 

Well the big boys didn't think very much of those new straw hat, Banks said, so they held the new teacher down and pulled his hair through the holes in the straw hat and braided it so that the hat was stuck to his head. 

Banks said the teacher lasted one day.

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