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(The Depopulation of a Rural Area in Ontario County)
-J. M. Burns
Peterborough, Ontario

This copy property of Ramaracrdendalton history on line _________________________________________________________

Montreal School Section, S. S. #1, Mara, is located in Ontario County, east of Highway 12 and north of the Talbot River.

Origin of Name:
The first settlers were Scots from the islands along the west coast of Scotland. Isle of Islay appears to have been the chief contributor, though the islands of Mull and Skye are also mentioned. A Frenchman also lived in the neighbourhood.

These Scottish immigrants landed in Canada at Montreal, Quebec, and the name seems to have made such an impression on their minds that when they settled in Upper Canada they named their new settlement Montreal. A legend has it that, having bought their tickets for Montreal, Canada, they learned this one English word and used it as the answer to any question addressed to them in English. However, there is evidence that some, at least, of these Gaelic speaking people had a very fine schooling in the English language. But Montreal the settlement was called and when a school was built it bore that name. A neatly painted sign on the now-empty school house attests this fact.
The First School: The first school appears to have been a log structure built across the road from the present site about 112 years ago. Some of the original furniture was made by one of the rate payers, John McGregor.

A Site is Purchased:
The Registry office for the County of Ontario records; “ on July 27, 1846 a parcel of land, described by metes and bounds, and said to contain one quarter acre more or less, was conveyed by Donald Gilchrist, described as, *…of the Township of Mara in the County of York, in the District and Province of Canada, Yeoman,” to James McGregor, Henry McCuaig, and Ronald Gilchrist, Trustees of School Section number one. The consideration is shown as being, “Five Shillings of lawful money of Canada.” The land was probably given to the section and the price entered into the deal for legal purposes.

The New School:  rmcd.c
Probably about 1860 the building which stands there now was put up. At that time it was a barn-like frame structure on posts with an open space beneath. Sheep which found little difficulty getting into the yard found shelter under the school. Their bumping on the floor provided diversion for years for the pupils until an unappreciative school board had the space boarded up.

Maple saplings were obtained from the farm of James McGregor about a mile south of the school. These were brought to the school and planted by the pupils. Some of the girls appear to have taken a prominent part in this project. Years afterwards two of the ex-pupils were seen, in a reminiscent mood, examining the stalwart trees and trying to locate “their” trees. Henceforth, the trees and their leaves served as subjects for art lessons. When the school felt the need of an emblem, the logical choice was made—a maple leaf. The sight of a maple tree in autumn dress recalls to mind the blaze of colour across the front and side of the old school yard and brings on a spell of nostalgia to at least one of the school’s graduates.

“There is also another Deed, dated the 8th of January, 1879, whereby another parcel of land was conveyed by John Gilchrist, his wife Margaret Gilchrist barring dower, to Alexander Campbell, and John Cameron, Yeoman, Trustees of School Section number one, and said to contain three-quarters of an acre, more or less. The consideration in this case was shown as eighty-five dollars.” The grounds thus were enlarged to one acre. But neither the quarter-acre or the acre yard was sufficient space to hold the husky youngsters who attended. The entire countryside was their playground. The Talbot River was about a mile away and during the noon hour some of the lads used to race to this river, take a quick plunge, and race back to school.

Some time in the 80’s the school building was bricked and the yard enclosed with a “School Fence”. There was a succession of these fences. Most of them kept the sheep out–at first. Some were harder to climb than others.

About 1920 the yard was leveled and a school garden and flower beds were started. For years the yard was the scene of a battle between two ideals; the idea that is should be a playground, and the idea that it should be a lawn. The battle was an annual affair, being fought with purposeless, ceaseless persistence by the exponents of the playground idea and usually with purposeful, waning insistence by the various champions of the lawn idea. The former got in their telling blows in the spring when the frost was coming out of the ground and the battle scars, roughly in the shape of a base ball diamond, remained for the rest of the year. The latter had their innings later in the season when everyone (almost everyone) co-operated to dig and plant the garden and flower beds and to mow the entire yard with the school lawn mower.

In 1930, the community became improvement conscious. In that year the Montreal School was awarded a shield donated by the Gamebridge Women’s Institute for, “School Grounds Improvement”. In 1939 the school stood first in a county competition and in 1940 was given, “An Award of Merit”. (second place) by the Ontario Horticultural Society in a, “Provincial School Grounds Contest.”

Within the last thirty years the two little buildings disappeared from the far corners of the yard and structures serving the same purpose were built inside the woodshed at the back of the school. Prior to this the shed occupied a prominent place beside the school building. In 1933 a septic tank was installed under the front porch with entrances from the classroom.

Some of the Graduates:
The first pupil to graduate from Montreal School by way of the High School Entrance was Peter Gilchrist. So far, the pages of Who’s Who do not contain the names of any of the graduates. The one who has progressed farthest in the educational field is Percival Warren, Ph.D. Dr. Warren is a paleontologist in the Department of Geology, Edmonton, Alberta. Other graduates have gone into the ministry, engineering, and the teaching professions.

The Declining Enrollment:
Some of the older residents conservatively estimate the early enrollment of the school to have been between sixty and seventy-five pupils, with some venturing to suggest a higher number. How a teacher at that time found the energy and the time to get out at recess and play shinny, baseball; and football as a boy with the boys is hard to understand but they say he did. The enrollment rose and fell in uneven waves with each crest a little lower than the previous crest and each low spot a little lower than the one before. In 1918 there were seventeen pupils attending; in 1922 there were thirty-two: in 1946 there were four. On June 29, 1946, the pupils went home from that school for the four pupils were transported by school bus to Egypt School, S. S. #5, Thorah.

Last Days:
As the enrollment shrank the teacher found herself with more and more time available for each class until there was time to spare. The work of teaching was then found more tiresome as it became necessary to wait until pupils finished assigned tasks.

School was formally opened and closed and lessons conducted. School records were kept and Departmental reports duly made out in duplicate. Lack of numbers did not seem to dampen the enthusiasm of the children. The recited their lessons, sang, and played without restraint. There were no disciplinary problems.

Causes for the Decline:
“There is no one cause for the decline in the population of the section: there is a combination of causes. “This idea was voiced by practically everyone in the section who was asked why the enrollment had fallen so low that the school had to be closed. Some of the causes which made up this combination are listed below:

1) The problem is economic. There is not enough money in farming. The young people are going elsewhere to get higher wages.
2) The young folks are leaving the farm because the farmer is getting a raw deal.
3) It is a time between generations.
4) There is little social life within the community for young people.
5) The war has taken them off the farms.
6) The section was much larger at one time than it now is.
7) Improved bus service has enabled those who have passed their entrance to go to Beaverton Continuation School.
8) The farmers are now growing cattle instead of grain.
9) Those who have remained at home on the farm are not marrying.
10) Farm work is heavy; the hours are long; the amusements few.
11) There is a big overhead on the farm.
12) The children were educated away from the farm.
13) The soil is depleted.

Analysis of the Causes:
1) It is generally agreed that the rate of wages for farm labour is lower than in any other trade. The Canada Year Book supports this with statistics showing the rates of labour range from 58 cents to $1.19 per hour in Toronto. (Nearest large centre). The average farm wage for the same year was $3.99, per day, without board. The maximum wage is determined by the value of the farm crop. The man who manages a farm is faced with the fact that the amount of money paid in wages may be greater than the value of the crop this labour produces. The advantages of farm life; fresh air, sunshine, wholesome food, slower pace, absence from competitive strain, etc. etc…. are not apparent to the young man who leaves the farm to work in the city and the fact that they never become apparent to the extent that he wants to return is a stronger argument than any facts or figures which may be quoted to the contrary.

2) The farmer, in this section at any rate, has no voice in price setting. He takes his wheat to market and asks, ” How much will you give me for it?” Unable or unwilling to go through the intricacies of cost accounting he sells his products for as much as he can get, believing that what he buys is sold on the same principle. At the same time, he feels that he is losing by this arrangement.
Some are openly suspicious of official pleas to produce more of a specified farm product, quoting past incidents to show that, when they had co-operated, the price had dropped sharply when their product was ready for market, to be raised again when the big business man had it in storage.
At various times in the past, the farmer has given his confidence and support to individuals, groups, and institutions that claimed to be sympathetic toward him and promised to help, only to find the promises were disregarded when it became profitable for the said individuals, groups, and institutions to do so.
The children living on farms have been exposed to these mistrusts of their parents and have had incidents pointed out to them as they occurred when big business and government cooperated to manipulate prices. The children believe their parents. Therefore they leave.

3) The idea here is that a large group had left the school and had not yet children old enough to attend school. The Department of Education records show that the average attendance at Montreal School was 14 in 1917 and came up again to 27 in 1922. Earlier fluctuations are spoken of. At present it would appear that a migration of families into the section were necessary to repopulate it. (See #9.) Many of the old family names have died out–not moved out. The McGregors, McKinnons, Hendersons, and Chisholms are no more, and many of the staunch old pioneer names have very few representatives left.

4) This is all too apparent. A mild complaint is voiced against the forms of entertainment which are found in the summer resorts along Lake Simcoe in the summer months. But no leadership toward more acceptable forms of diversion is provided for the young folks. The school building lies vacant. It is ideally located as a meeting place for neighbourhood gatherings but it is not likely to be used for this purpose.

5) Of the 12 ex-students who joined the armed forces, one is back on the farm and it is not expected that he will stay.

6) About 1914 Beaver School, S.S. #6 Thorah, was built and a number of ratepayers transferred their children and their taxes to this school. The opening of a Roman Catholic Separate School, the Foley, in Brechin also took from this section a number of children and the financial support of their parents.

7) For many years those who passed their High School Entrance examinations ceased to attend any school. To overcome this, V classes were started about 1922 in which the first two years of High School work were taken on alternate years. These were continued until 1939 when a bus service over a snow-ploughed highway made it convenient for those who were through Public School to continue their education at Beaverton.

8) There is a well-marked shift from cereal growing to stock raising in this section. Some have made a complete change from mixed farming to ranching. Others have merely added more hay crop and pasture land to the mixture. In either case the amount of land under cultivation has decreased. The main reason for this seems to be the shortage of farm help. The average age of the farm worker in this neighbourhood has gone up much more than the general increase of ten years…..Good farm labourers are scarce and expensive. Ranching the land instead of working it cuts down the labour in the summer when the demand is greatest.
In some cases the shift indicates a transition from agriculture to industry. The farm owners are taking up some other work; trucking, carpentry, etc., while still hanging on to the farm as something to fall back on in case the new venture does not turn out well. A mark of the times is that the Gamebridge Creamery has closed down and the building will be used as a factory for the manufacture of tin ware.

9) An arm chair survey of the section discloses the following facts:
I 11 unmarried men, ages 20-30 years live in this section
II 2 unmarried women, ages 20-25 years live in this section
III 7 unmarried men, ages 31-55 years, live in this section
IV 5 unmarried women, ages 26-45 years, live in this section
V no one has married and settled in the section within the last 11 years.To this might have been added the fact that families now are smaller in number then they used to be.

10) That such conditions exist on the farm is undeniably true. That the former has control over each of these is obviously true. Theoretically, he may occur any size of load that pleases him, work what hours he likes, and make his own amusements. In practice, however, it doesn’t work that way. Many sincere attempts have been made to use systems used by industry but their exponents have been forced to cede to the old system, either by adopting it or by turning the farm over to one who did.

11) This is a rough estimate:
Capital Investment: a good 1oo acre farm, buildings, machinery and livestock………20,000.00
Overhead: Interest on mortgage or/and interest on investment, 5% of $20,00.00……………………………………………………………$1000
Repairs on buildings………………………………………………..$200.00
Depreciation of machinery, fences, horses……………………….$500.00
Insurance on buildings and live stock……………………………..$225.00
Farm supplies; twins, oil, feeds, tonics, sprays, commercial fertilizers, etc…………………………………………………………………….$700.00
Insurance on crops against damage from weather conditions, fungous diseases, insects, trespassing, etc., or an amount equal to the annual average loss there from……………………………………………………….$300.00

To this overhead add a reasonable profit. Say $2000, and we find that the farmer needs to sell his products for $6075.00 and this amount does not include any expenses for advertising, marketing, or secretarial work. Of course, no one believes such figures as these. The Income Tax Department would not accept such extravagant claims. Nor would the farmer, himself, believe them to the extent that he would unite to make a serious effort to get such a price for his goods.
If the principles of accounting used in reckoning the sale price of manufactured goods were used in reckoning the sale price of agricultural products, and if the farmers, individually and collectively, insisted on this price, our whole economic structure would be upset.

12) Montreal School was one of the first to have a school garden. The children and the teachers took an active part in the annual school fairs. From 1936 on at least one teacher and sometimes two teachers at Beaverton Continuation School were qualified to teach the subject agriculture in class.
The criticism would appear to be leveled at the courses of study. These appear guileless enough when examined word by word. However, courses of study are subject to individual interpretation. There is something besides the subject matter taught in every lesson and between lessons. That intangible something is conveyed by the teacher’s personality to an impressionable and responsive class, and is most noticeable when the class imitated the teacher in mannerisms, likes and dislikes. Most teachers who were born on a farm were teaching because they didn’t like farming. Some of them appeared interested in the young farmers of the section but not sufficiently to become persuaded to take up permanent residence on the farm. The attraction of the city was transmitted to the pupils by those who would have like to have gone there.

13) This was suggested to the residents of the section-not by them. The idea of soil mining is frowned upon in this community. The principle of returning to the land the crops which grew on it is followed conscientiously here. While commercial fertilizer is held in rather low esteem, it is only so in relation to natural fertilizer. Frankly admitting that the soil is not quite as good as it was, the farmers maintain it is not by any means depleted. This does not appear to be an important reason.

An Unhappy Conclusion:
The section has deteriorated.
I Only four children of school age reside in the section. The number of children of pre-school age is very small, indicating that there will soon be less than four of school age.
II The assessed valuation of the section has decreased by $60,201.00 in the last 18 years. The buildings on many of the farms are beginning to have a neglected appearance. Few new buildings are being put up and these are houses, not barns.
III The average age of the farm owner has increased obviously. One would judge about 15 years in the last 20 years. The farmer’s helper’s age does not appear to have increased but there are fewer of them.
IV Organizations which formerly bound the community together have died out.
V Family names are fast dying out. In most cases the future of the family depends upon one individual.
Some Guesses: The school will remain closed for some time. As the present trend of depopulation continues, a vacuum will be created. This will be filled with people alien to the community, if not to the country. These newcomers will proceed to raise crops and families, necessitating the re-opening of Montreal School.

The little industries which have sprung up and others in the embryonic stage will flourish for a time but will be squeezed out by their larger competitors during the next depression. By the same token, people who have gone to work in the city will come back to the farm to help raise crops.

Montreal School will be filled again with children. These will be no better and no worse than the little bare footed lads and lasses whose ancestors came from the Isle of Islay.

Appendix A
Teachers in Montreal School
-Donald McEachern -Miss Mrytle Thorne
-John McRae -Miss Effie Summerfeldt
-Dave Bruce -Miss Carrie Stinson
-Miss Purvis -Miss Alice Speedie
-John McCuaig -Miss Ethel Colquhoun
-Lachlan Gilchrist -Miss Marion Townsend
-Miss Cameron -Miss Ethel Jowett
-Miss Jessie McKay -Miss Marion McEwen
-William Stewart -Miss Millicent Milroy
-Mr. Davey -Miss Hazel Simpson
-Alex Birchard -Mrs. Alice Bolton
-Thomas A. Scholes -Miss Mrytle Carr
-Jim Weir -Miss Clare Tennant
-C. Veal -Miss Helen Hewett
-Fred Kay -Mrs. Lydia Speedie
-Herb Douglas
-Miss Jessie McCuaig
-Miss Ada Sleep
-Miss Arnott
-Miss Jessie Walls
-Miss Nettie White
-Miss Fanny Soundy
-Miss Ena Robinson

**Notes-Most of the reports were dated “November”. For a few years about 1922, they were printed in March. The first were dated “June”.
The following years are missing:
1914-1915—–Effie Summerfeldt
1922-1923—–Alice Speedie
1933-1934—-Mrs. Alice Bolton


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