Construction of Fergus High School mired in controversy

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Rising attendance in the early 1920s, combined with maintenance problems, put a big strain on the 1878 Fergus High School.

Initially three rooms, renovations and additions brought the capacity up to six. It stood to the west of St. Andrew’s Church, adjoining the old Fergus Public School. Both structures are long gone, demolished in 1948 at the time of the construction of James McQueen Public School.

After the First World War, capacity problems caught up with the Fergus public and high schools. The public school began using space above the fire hall, at the corner of St. Patrick and Tower Streets, for two classes. At the high school, enrolment figures, which traditionally had hovered in the 100 range, rose significantly each year.

Enrolment wasn’t the only problem. In March 1924, the boiler broke down, requiring extensive work to restore heating. The roof had suffered leaks for years, and washroom facilities were primitive even by late 19th century standards. The board spent large sums on both in the spring of 1924, and began correspondence with Queen’s Park, architects and other boards regarding a new school building.

When school opened the first week of Sept. 1924, Principal Preston counted 180 names on the list, and expected at least a dozen more from the country after harvest chores wound up. The board at once tackled the situation, deciding on Oct. 8 to hire a sixth teacher and divide Grade 10 into two classes. At that time, the school had no Grade 13, and Grade 9 was split into two classes.

The hiring of the sixth teacher brought the capacity problem to the fore. The board struck a committee to investigate new construction. The committee toured three new schools and was especially impressed with the Mimico High School, which was built in 1924 for less than $100,000.

The committee reported its findings to the full board on Nov. 17. Members believed a new school, like that in Mimico, could be constructed for well under the $100,000 mark, given the lower labour costs in Fergus. The board voted that night that a bylaw be placed before the ratepayers to approve issuing a debenture, and that the special committee continue its work.

In the 1920s, all debentures had to be approved by the ratepayers. Councillors John Woods and R.D. Kerr strongly supported the measure, and placed a motion to submit a $100,000 debenture bylaw, payable over 30 years, before the ratepayers.

Though the board was still divided on the matter of a new school, a majority favoured proceeding as quickly as possible. It voted to hire Toronto architect H.R. Gouinlock to design a new Fergus high school, based on his work with the Mimico school.

Within a few days, public animosity to the project had become palpable. Scare mongers insisted the project would bankrupt the municipality. Others could see no need whatsoever for a new school when the old one was less than 50 years old. To counter the objectors, the board met with Inspector Lavan.  He told them that the Department of Education preferred sites of at least three acres. The new school would qualify for increased annual grants from the province.

The large number of rural students attending Fergus – about 55% of the enrolment in 1924 – would lower the cost to Fergus ratepayers considerably. Rural municipalities would be directly responsible for their share based on attendance. That meant Fergus ratepayers, based on 1924 enrolment, would pay only $55,600 of the $100,000 debenture, with the remainder divided among Nichol, West Garafraxa, and Eramosa Townships.

The school debenture dominated the election campaign, and brought forward several candidates pledging o do all they could to prevent the construction of a new school. A good portion of the population believed that advanced schooling was a waste of both time and money.

Fergus ratepayers voted down the debenture issue by a margin of 247-43. Public disapproval didn’t stop there. All board of education members who had favoured the new school suffered defeat. Except one candidate, all Fergus council went down to defeat as well. Reeve Gregson lost to John Moffat, who campaigned to keep expenditures down.

Meanwhile, the high school enrolment reached another peak in the winter term of 1925, with 208 registered in a school designed for about half that number. Girls outnumbered boys 121 to 87. Boys had been in the minority for a half century. Many dropped out as soon as they could find work, take over more farm duties, or sign on for apprenticeships. Many girls had their eyes on teaching positions or office work until they married, and consequently required more formal schooling. But the ratio was narrowing, as better educational qualifications became necessary for everyone. That would place continuing strains on the old school that could not be resisted for long.

Though defeated, the champions of the new school were not dispirited. J.C. Templin, who was publisher of the Fergus News Record, a former teacher, and a member of the board’s special 1924 committee, believed a new school would be built before the decade was out. His son, Hugh Templin, was taking over direction of the paper. Hugh wrote that a new high school was a major step for a municipality to take, and was something that would be built for coming generations as well as the current one. It should be planned with the greater good of the community as the paramount concern.

The site selection committee, meanwhile, had been busy. Two sites were identified: part of the Gow quarry property (where the Fergus fire hall now stands), and an area to the west of the tennis courts on Tower Street, between Union and Queen Streets. Charles Mattaini, the Fergus contractor, owned four vacant lots, which comprised about half the property that committee members desired.

After some discussion, the board voiced a preference for the tennis court site. It voted to make an offer to purchase the four lots from Mattaini, for $500.

Over in Elora, Inspector Levan filed his report on the Elora High School. Though more favourable than the one for Fergus, he found major deficiencies in the facilities there, and recommended that the Elora board consider construction of a new school.

The Elora board received the report at its June meeting. The ensuing discussion produced a suggestion that Fergus and Elora combine their resources to build a consolidated high school to serve both towns and the surrounding townships. Elora students already took their Grade 12 classes in Fergus. With both boards considering new schools, there would be considerable savings in construction, and lower operating costs every year. A site somewhere between the two municipalities was proposed. That development put a new wrinkle into the Fergus school discussions.

The Fergus trustees continued to lobby in Toronto for the return of their provincial grant. To the surprise of everyone, MPP Lincoln Goldie showed up at the school on Dec. 15 with G. Howard Ferguson, the Ontario Premier, who was also Minister of Education.

Ferguson and Goldie were appalled at the conditions in both the high and public schools. The premier promised to restore the grant, if Fergus look steps to improve its facilities. In a follow-up letter he said he would monitor the progress. “I must insist that your Board at once devote attention to the problem … and submit plans at an early date,” he wrote.

While the school battle raged in Fergus, things in Elora had been sedate. That ended in late Nov. 1925, at the organizing meeting for a home and school association, to push for better educational facilities and a greater role for women. Elora residents were able to reach a consensus for a new joint school.

In Fergus the turmoil escalated. The 1926 Fergus school board began the year with a majority opposed to building, despite the strongly worded message from the premier. In March 1926, another major leak appeared in the high school roof, necessitating costly repairs.

The Fergus board stalled for months in setting up a meeting with Elora. In April, it struck a committee to negotiate with Elora. At the first meeting on June 4, T.E. Bissell of Elora offered three alternatives: a school midway between Fergus and Elora, a joint school adjoining Fergus on the Elora side, and a school in Fergus with provision for senior students from Elora.

Popular opinion favoured a site either midway between the towns, or one on the Beatty Line on the west side of Fergus. In 1926 Fergus had a population of about 2,300 and was in the midst of a boom. Elora had about 1,200 residents. The Fergus representatives delighted in the concession by Elora. The goodwill diminished when the proposal reached the full Fergus board. Members voiced various technical and legal complications.

A long and acrimonious exchange between board members at the July 1926 meeting dragged on until midnight. In October, the board discussed a Fergus-EIora school with departmental officials. As fall progressed enthusiasm for the idea waned, but several members still supported the joint school concept and suggested a plebiscite at the coming election. News Record editor Hugh Templin concluded, “The Fergus Board is better at rejecting ideas than in bringing forth others to take their place.”

Next week: Fergus finally gets a new school.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Sept. 10 and 17, 2004.



Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015