Early Schools in East Hants

Paper presented at a meeting of the East Hants Historical Society in Kennetcook, NS - February 13, 1968

 Early Schools in East Hants County, Nova Scotia
By Ross Graves

Ladies and Gentlemen, my topic tonight is “Early Schools in East Hants.” I chose this topic because I am just now working on a history of schools in this area for a Masters Thesis at Acadia, which will later serve, I hope, as a chapter in a projected history of East Hants. The story of the development of schools here is an involved topic, entailing an immense amount of detail. It concerns: where the earliest schools were, what areas the original school sections covered, the shifts in school boundaries over the years, who the teachers were, and what is known of their previous and subsequent careers, all this and more. Now it all makes fascinating research, but I’m afraid it would make dry listening.

To avoid getting bogged down in detail, I thought I would deal with the topic in a general manner and confine myself to the earliest period, that is up to the passage of the “Free Schools Act” of 1864. We will deal first with an outline of the settlement of East Hants, and an indication of the factors that delayed the establishment of schools for thirty years thereafter, and secondly, with a picture of school life, customs, and arrangements as they prevailed in East Hants in the early 1800s.

As I suppose everyone here knows, Eastern Hants was formerly divided into two “Townships,” Douglas and Rawdon.  Rawdon Township included Upper, Centre and South Rawdon, Pleasant Valley, Greenfield and parts of Hillsvale; while Douglas Township, much the larger of the two, took in all the area from Walton to Maitland to Shubenacadie, as well as Stanley, the Kennetcooks, the Gores, and the Nine Mile River to its confluence with the Shubenacadie at Elmsdale.

Just as we think of three principal groups coming to England, the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, so there were three stages in the settling of East Hants. (I am speaking of its settlement after the expulsion of the Acadians in 1755.)

The first group were those who settled along the Shubenacadie River and the Shores of the Bay and were generally Ulster-Scots in origin, with a few New Englanders in the Maitland area. Those in this first group did not come in a body; no organized efforts at settlement by them seem to have been made, presumably for the reason that the area of cleared lands was limited. Here the settlers straggled in by twos and threes from the early 1770s to the 1800s and commenced making their farms—the Faulkners, MacLellans, O’Briens, Densmores, Putnams, Rines, Mains, Roses of Urbania.

The inland portion of East Hants was not settled until 1783 and 1784, when large tracts along the Kennetcook, Five Mile and Nine Mile rivers were granted to a second group of settlers, disbanded members of the Second Battalion of the 84th Regiment of Foot, “The Royal Highland Emigrants” whose commander, Colonel John Small, is credited with naming the Township “Douglas.”  And so came Blois, McDougal, Thompson (M.N), Gorman, Forbes, Burns, Wright, Blackburn, McPhee, Gill, Whittier, Laffin, and three Germans—Hennigar, Ettinger, and Miller.

A final major group of settlers was a party of Loyalists from South Carolina, who in 1784 were given grants between Douglas and Newport Townships, and the area they settled they named Rawdon, in the honour of Lord Rawdon under whom several of them had served in the Southern Colonies. Here came Withrows, Livelys, Murphys, Wallaces, Meeks, Brisons, and Bonds to our county.

Hardy pioneers these were, they who obtained their grants of land, built their log houses, chopped the forests to make cleared fields, struggled to survive and only after they had obtained the necessities of life, undertook to provide some means of educating their children. But this would take years. They undertook to carve farms out of the wilderness in the face of discouragements that stagger the imagination. Think, for instance, of the South Carolina Loyalists who settled in Rawdon, accustomed as they must have been, to the comforts of the comparatively civilized colony whence they had come. They now found themselves scarcely settled in a most primitive country, with the forests facing their log cabins on every side, no roads to facilitate communication with other localities or even with the neighbours half a mile away, and the rigors of our Nova Scotia winters—we remember the weather a month or two ago tonight—which doubtless made them long for the milder southern climate with which they were familiar, and in the case of some, for the temperate winters of the old country.

Provisions must be obtained to supply one’s needs until one could become self-sufficient. These the settlers obtained at Windsor, brought by scow up the Kennetcook River, and then carried as best they could along the rough trails to their log cabins. A Rawdon settler (Captain John Saunderson) writing in after years said, “There was at the time of our first settling no communication between Rawdon and Windsor. Provisions were fetched from Windsor….I carried mine on my back seven miles through the woods.” There was no wagon to drive and no ploughed road to drive it on, had there been one. When the settler arrived home at the end of the day to his cabin, built of round logs, the roof covered in spruce bark, the cracks caulked with moss, the whole surrounded by a field of chopping partially burned off, his prospects would seem drear indeed. The view from his window would not show another habitation, only near the house the portion of land he had cleared and sowed, the rough stumps of partially cleared land. Beyond that was the forest, ominously close in the moonlight, the outer trees gleaming spectrally, and the darkness beyond that again; memories of Indian marauders of less than twenty years back would pass through his head.

Small wonder that most of the 84th regiment men and the South Carolina Loyalists left within a few years. In Rawdon, for example, in 1791, seven years after its settlement, of the original 56 granted (Captain Bond’s group only) only 15 were still resident within the township. Those who settled along the rivers and along the bay were, of course, much better off for transportation. (Ancestor of the O’Brien’s drowned enroute to Windsor). Those who settled on former Acadian lands had a rather easier time of it, but still the battle for survival was all important, and demanded the cooperation of all the members of the family unit. There would be little incentive to provide schooling.

But surely not very many years could have gone by before some attempt was made to provide the rudiments of education for the children. The most of these folks were accustomed to having schools. They would not willingly have allowed their children to grow up illiterate. Throughout Nova Scotia were a large number of wandering ex-soldiers who, being disbanded at the close of the rebellion, were given grants, but unfit for the plough, soon deserted the land and offered their services as itinerant schoolmasters to eke out a living. Perhaps two or three families employed such a one to teach, the class being conducted in one of the rooms of a central house.

In 1811, the first major act to assist in the establishment of local schools was passed by the Provincial Legislature. This proved a great incentive for schools in East Hants. Douglas and Rawdon Townships were divided into districts, and in several of the districts, families subscribed for the hiring of a teacher. The following year, that is in 1812, we find records of schools being held in what are now the communities of Stanley, South Maitland, Centre Rawdon, South Rawdon and Upper Nine Mile River–East Gore combined. In 1813 or 1814, mention is made of schools at Shubenacadie and Noel. But bear in mind that there were short term arrangements. In the earliest days, a contract with a schoolmaster lasted one term. That was one-half year, and a section might have a teacher one term and then none for several terms thereafter, owing to the difficulty of obtaining a schoolmaster, or the difficulty of paying for one.

The earliest teachers as we have said, were usually wandering, itinerant schoolmasters, aptly described by a Hants county native as follows:

“When a man fails in his trade, or is too lazy to work, he resorts to teaching as a livelihood, and the school house, like the asylum for the poor, receives all those who are from misfortune or incapacity, unable to provide for themselves. The wretched teacher has no home: he makes the tour of the settlement, and resides a stipulated number of days in every house—too short a time for his own comfort and too long for that of the family, who can but ill afford the tax or the accommodation. He is among them but not of them. His morning is passed in punishing the idleness of others, his evening in being punished for his own, for all are too busy to associate with him. His engagement is generally for a short period. He is then succeeded by another, who changes the entire system and spends his whole time in what he calls ‘rectifying the errors of his predecessor’.”

But then the most of our forefathers here were rural folk, ill-qualified to judge the qualifications of a prospective teacher. They wanted to have a school for their children; too poor to pay for an adequate master, what else could they do?  It is true that teachers were supposed to apply for a license to teach, but this was not always done. An 1824 report on schools in East Hants says:

“We find in many instances that the inhabitants have employed transient men of bad morals, and small abilities as teachers, owing to their inability to pay men of better qualifications.”

The report goes on to show the situation in each section in East Hants.  Here are some excerpts… (The date is 1824):

  1. Kennetcook Church District (Upper Kennetcook, Five Mile River, Kennetcook Corner).  “Joseph Clark Master, good morals and ability.”
  2. Noel Road District, (All of Noel Road from Kennetcook Corner to Noel).  I. Shay, Master, “good morals, small ability.”
  3. Kennetcook Middle District, (Riverside Corner to Clarksville).  “No School has ever been established here.”
  4. Lower Kennetcook District, (Lower part of Clarksville, Stanley).  P.S. Coleman, Master, “Ability good, morals not good.”
  5. Shubenacadie, Mouth of the River, (Maitland).  Adam Roy, Master, “Good morals and ability.”  (Adam Roy lived in Maitland on the “Homer Densmore” property; he was Grandfather to Miss Dollie Roy).
  6. Plaster Rock District (South Maitland).  “Not able to keep a Master constantly employed.”
  7. Upper District (East Noel).  “Master, a stranger, small ability.” (Note that his name is not given, he is merely referred to as “a stranger.” One wonders if this is that ancient schoolmaster who came to teach at East Noel, who boarded and died at the home of John At-the-Head-of-the-Marsh Densmore, and whose mysterious past is supposed to have been the origin of the well known “Bone Knocker” series of incidents.)

Back to the thread of our narrative. We had been speaking of the difficulty local trustees would have in judging the qualifications of a stranger who might present himself as a prospective schoolmaster. One desire was the written testimonial, but even this led to difficulties. James Soutar, teacher in Centre Rawdon, in 1844 arrived from Musquodoboit with a testimonial from Rev. Mr. Sprott of that place, but a local inhabitant, a Baptist, apparently rejected the Presbyterian minister’s judgment, and schoolmaster Soutar, writing to a friend back in Musquodoboit, of his settling in Rawdon says (and here is the original letter from which I quote):

“Mr. Gould, when he heard that I had testimonials from under Mr. Sprott’s hand, stated that it was a convincing proof in his estimation, that I was a most consummate Blackguard; however, he has sent his daughter Jessie Gould, to be polished and tapered off for schoolmistress if you please.  (Mr. Gould) is a ne’er do well, and over head and ears in debt, and I do not expect to get a farthing for teaching Jessie, whatever I get from herself is another affair.”

If Mr. Soutar’s last comment means what it appears on the surface to mean, Mr. Gould’s reservations in hiring the new teacher were not without some justification.

In another letter dated the same year, schoolmaster Soutar complains that he has not yet been paid his wages:

“I found money as scarce among the Rawdoners as elsewhere,       and that although they had agreed and promised to pay me half yearly, they did not calculate upon (being) called upon until the end of the year. At all events I find that I will not be able to get much from them until the first of October, as few or none of them raise their own bread. I have made up my mind not to remain another year here, given official notice accordingly, so that you may say I am in the market to be disposed of to the highest bidder.”

Salaries of teachers were, as one might expect, almost incredibly low. Sometimes a local man having a family was employed, taking produce as partial payment for his salary, and supplementing his stipend by small farming. In this category are such teachers as James Withrow and Thomas Moxon, both of Pleasant Valley, Joseph Clark of Five Mile River, (the old Irishman with such a reputation for discipline) and Adam Roy of Maitland. At any rate, all teachers were certain of other board and fairly certain of their portion of the provincial allowance at the end of the year. As for anything more, they ran some risk. When salaries of teachers eventually rose, there were grave misgivings on the part of many. One year, the Upper Rawdon trustees hired a teacher for the winter term for the unprecedented wage of forty dollars, and the children of disaffected ratepayers began the doggerel:

O, Lord above, look from above,
On us poor little scholars,
They hired a fool to teach the school,
And they’re giving her forty dollars.

As we have indicated, a portion of the salary was the teacher’s board; the early schoolmasters were expected to board around at the different homes for a period in proportion to the number of children from that home in his school. One can readily imagine the inconvenience such an arrangement would create. John Thomas taught in East Hants in the 1820s and 1830s at South Rawdon, Centre Rawdon, and at Shubenacadie. Writing when he was past eighty of some of his experiences during a lifetime of teaching he said:

“You are aware that teachers at the present day are more cared for than teachers formerly. I have in some sections had for food in poor families where I boarded, nothing but an Indian meal, without milk or sweetening. In other families, fish and potatoes and mangel tops for my dinner; slept on hay and straw beds on the floor, where mice, fleas, and bugs could be felt all hours of the night. I have frequently found one, two, and three mice crushed to death lying under me. The straw not even in a sack, and my covering old clothing. I suffered all this, so great was my will to give instruction to the poor and rising generation. Yea, many families of poor children have I educated and never received a farthing.”

We trust the extreme case of Mr. Thomas refers to were elsewhere in the province than among the good folk of East Hants.

Here is another first hand account of teacher’s “boarding around,” one of East Hants’ early teachers, Mr. Jeremiah Willoughby, printed anonymously in 1884, a little book entitled (read the title).  [There is no mention of the name of the book]

In the portion I wish to read, he is speaking of his first school, and from other sources, we know Selma is the section he refers to. (read pages 41-40). Poor Mr. Willoughby lasted only four months at Selma. He then took charge of a school in Rawdon but came to grief there as well. (He became involved in a Lawsuit brought by the daughter of Henry Moore Smith against the Rev. Mr. Doyle, and narrowly escaped being committed for forgery).

The diary of Squire George Densmore of East Noel suggests difficulties with the teacher in that area in 1858.  (Squire George, circa 1812-1887, East Noel on the Point, on the George Beattie Place).

Nov 15.  Mr. Robertson commenced School

Nov 25.  Robert commenced going to school

Dec 7.  Dismissed schoolmaster

Dec 20.  Mr. McDonald began school

I have referred before to the letters of James Soutar, teacher here a century and a quarter ago. They were written to his friend Robert Logan of Musquodoboit, whose grandson Col. Robert Logan of Minneapolis gave them to me some years ago. The letters refer in a vivid manner to many facets of the school system in East Hants at that time, coloured of course by Mr. Soutar’s outlook.

Here he speaks of first taking charge of the Centre Rawdon School in 1844:

“Here I am upon the heights of Rawdon, with the whole country       round about me, Blow-me-down, the Bay of Fundy, Cumberland, the Londonderry range of mountains in the distance. The school- house regularly ceiled, (top), bottom and sides, with venetian windows, is situated on top of a hill (and cannot be hid), where four roads meet, with a Baptist meeting house at one side of it, and a Methodist at the other, and the Church of England about a quarter of a mile distant. My Trustees and Subscribers consist of twelve Church of England, four Presbyterian, two Methodist, two Baptists and two Roman Catholics, in all twenty-two good men and true, (such as they are) able and willing to pay.

The teachers that have been predecessors of me were the off-scouring of the scruff of the earth. I must exclude poor Miss Parker, who taught the girls to sew and misread and write a little, so that I have a vast deal both to do and undo. However, I have called for a public examination at the end of three months, and as usual astonished the natives. All were well pleased with the progress of their children, both reading, writing (in particular) and ciphering, not forgetting bookkeeping and English grammar if you please….”

This introduces another aspect of these early schools, the semi-annual public examination. At the end of each school term the Trustees were required to hold a “Public Examination” and on the basis of this, certify that the work of the teacher was satisfactory or not. The teacher was required to file a return giving a list of scholars with a report on attendance and the amount of money raised within the section and how it was applied. As this portion of the return was prepared by the teacher, often the certificate evaluating his teaching was prepared by the teacher as well, leaving the Trustees only the trouble of signing it. One of these old school returns merits a passing notice—that for Upper Kennetcook for the summer term of 1833.  It begins:

“…the half yearly return of the Kennetcook Church school, being     district No. 12 from the 1st of June to the 20th of November 1833, both dates inclusive: taught by Charles William Henry McDonnell, a licensed teacher, who humbly submits it to the candid perusal and inspection of the Honourable Board of Commissioners: sincerely hoping it may meet with unanimous approbation.”

The Return lists fifty-five pupils, most of the children ranged between six and fifteen, but there are two 20-year-olds and one 25-year old, and at the other end of the scale are two four-year-olds. But the special interest of this particular return is that the schoolmaster Charles William Henry McDonnell has given each pupil a capsule-size assessment, a value judgment, based on the pupil’s performance during the school term, and no doubt in contact with him in the home as well, when the teacher would be boarding his term at that home.  Here are some of his comments:

  1. James ?iller, aged 9; Being so sedate appointed monitor.
  2. John Hennigar, aged 12; An obedient attentive scholar.
  3. Thomas Miller, aged 14; Dismissed for being stubborn, but since reformed and admitted.
  4. John Christian Miller, aged 9; A mischievous child and well watched.
  5. Caleb Hennigar, aged 8; He being an only son, consequently spoilt.
  6. Margaret Miller, aged 20; a discreet young woman.
  7. Michael Burns, aged 4; Very troublesome, being young.
  8. William Ettinger, aged 9; A boy who can play at truant well.
  9. Rachel Elois, aged 12; An honour to her sex, being so steady.
  10. John L.; A very bad boy indeed.

Last on the return appears what is ostensibly the Trustee’s evaluation of Mr. McDonnell’s performance as a teacher, but written, we feel quite certain, by Charles William Henry himself;

“We do certify to the Honourable Board of Commissioners of Common Schools – upon honour- that we have examined the pupils and state of the school, and found rapid improvement made by each scholar, under the elementary scientific and systematic plan tuition, as taught by Charles William Henry McDonnell, with whose conduct we are perfectly well satisfied, being that of a gentleman.

All our children are becoming perfect adepts in penmanship—almost incredible unless we were eye witnesses to their performance in that masterly free style, in which they are taught; we can say equally the same in regard to the other branches of education which they are now studying under Charles William Henry McDonnell. He, teaching by the dint of kind persuasion, giving rewards to the meritorious producing emulation amongst his pupils; they living in peace and harmony, as one happy family, each striving to excel and in everything to please their teacher, fearing to offend.”

“One happy family” indeed; we have only to remember McDonnell’s opinion of some of his boys to feel a hollow note here. But, the evaluation; of schoolmaster McDonnell, written in his own handwriting, goes on;

“We do not so much esteem him for his above qualifications as we do for his strict Morality, (and) his industrious and kind attention to his well conducted Sabbath School, held in the church under the Superintendence of the Rev. George E.W. Morris, to whom a quarterly return has been given, of 62 scholars repeating 7,667 verses in the Holy Scriptures.”

Sixty-two children repeating 7667 verses; a reconstruction of the scene staggers the imagination. We could go on with illustrations to show school affairs in East Hants from a century and a half ago, but it is time to draw this paper to a close.

And how shall we sum it up, how present a concise picture of education in our district from its settlement in the 1770s and 1780s to the Free School Acts of 1864 and 1865? We have seen that because of various factors—scattered population and adverse conditions—the settlers here were slow in establishing schools. Eventually, about 1810 and 1811, schools were started on a temporary basis, and as more and more assistance was proffered by the Provincial Government, the other sections followed suit, and school districts thus established have continued over the years.

Arrangements with teachers and procedures within the schools were such as were appropriate to the economic situation and the customs of the times. When Free Schools came in the 1860s, they appear to have been generally accepted, (except Gore Schoolhouse). A general attitude of the Douglas-Rawdon folk toward schools was favourable; a tradition of respect for education grew, and aided by Government Grants progress in such circumstances was inevitable.

A final indication of this Hants County attitude appears in the document I have before me, in which the Rawdon Overseers of the Poor in the year 1870, “bound out” an eight-year-old child of destitute parents to Robert Robinson of Pleasant Valley. The Overseers are very careful to stipulate that the child was kept:

“Comfortable in diet, washing, lodging and clothing….to be learned to write a legible hand, to read correctly and to cipher through the rule of three, if capable of being taught the same.”

It’s all there; food, clothing and shelter—reading, writing and arithmetic—and for good measure, washing; the amenities of life for even the poorest level of society, as seen in rural Hants of a hundred years ago.