David Boyle and the Elora Museum

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.
This is the second part of a series of columns on David Boyle, Elora’s outstanding educator.

David Boyle, following his appointment as principal of the Elora Public School in 1871, spent the next two years completing the integration of the Boys’ and Girls’ schools, organizing the equipment in the new school and relocating and re-energizing the Mechanics Library.

In the spring of 1873, Boyle began what would become his major project in the village — the Elora Museum. His initial idea was to collect a number of biological specimens for use in classroom instruction. School museums were already in operation elsewhere, particularly in England, and Boyle knew of their organization and management from his reading. He also saw a use for the museum in promoting the work of the Mechanics Institute, and in arousing interest in science in the general public.

Boyle appealed widely for donations to the museum from the public. He accepted virtually anything, and the museum soon acquired a large collection of stuffed animals and birds, mounted insects, archaeological specimens, pioneer artifacts, books, manuscripts, coins, and curiosities picked up by those residents who had travelled to foreign countries.

The museum combined valuable items with a great deal of junk, but Boyle feared offending a donor in rejecting an item – because the donor might at a later time have something very valuable to offer. For several years Boyle had been exploring the Elora gorge, collecting fossils from the limestone rocks. He wrote to other museums, to governments, and even to mining companies, requesting specimens for the museum, and offering Elora fossils and rocks in exchange.

Local publicity for the museum was provided by his brother-in-law, Thomas Frankland who was editor of the Elora News. The museum caught the fancy of the public in Elora, but Boyle was more gratified by the material sent to him from outside the village. By the mid-1870s, the Elora Museum put Boyle in contact with a number of prominent scientists in North America and England.

Within a year, the museum had outgrown Boyle’s classroom at the school. An escalating enrollment, plus a need for a new high-school building, prompted the Elora public and high-school boards to undertake yet another construction project, which involved the rebuilding of the former boys’ school, the addition of a second storey to it, and the construction of a new wing, to the north, toward Knox Church. The high-school would move into the former girls’ school, fronting on Mill Street.

The rebuilt public school contained six rooms. Five were classrooms; the sixth housed the Elora Museum, originally, on the second floor of the north wing, and later downstairs.

Boyle’s optimism and enthusiasm had infected the boards. Not only had they constructed a room for the museum, but they provided an operating budget of $100 for it for the 1875 year. For its first two years, it had been supported by donations and out of Boyle’s own pocket.

Boyle catalogued additions to the collection, prepared exchanges of items with other museums, and even built display cases. Still, he managed to find time for work with the library, a nature society, the teachers’ association, and to undertake some of his own field research.

He was also his own best student. Boyle devoured scientific writings, particularly those on biology, geology and Charles Darwin’s theories.

Boyle became an active collector of geological specimens after H.A. Nicholson, one of the leading scientists in Canada at the time, spent a summer examining fossils in the Elora area. Nicholson was so impressed with Boyle and his museum that he named a new discovery after Boyle.

Using his expanding knowledge, Boyle assembled collections of local fossils for exchange. One crate went to T.H. Huxley in England, one of Boyle’s heroes; in return, Huxley dispatched a box of British specimens to Boyle’s museum. He made similar exchanges with many top universities, and with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

As a teacher, Boyle sought to place science at the centre of the school curriculum. As a former working man, he quickly identified and emphasized the practical aspects of the sciences, but he also saw a moral value in these subjects, particularly the biological sciences.

The wanton destruction of nature would cease, Boyle believed, if everyone understood the role of each plant and animal. He held what would now be called a holistic view of nature: everything, including man, is connected to everything else. Boyle encouraged his students and others in the village to embrace conservation and the protection of wildlife.

To further public education and foster discussion, Boyle organized the Elora Natural History Society in 1874. The group consisted of senior high-school students and a sprinkling of the general public who shared some of Boyle’s interests. Members researched and presented papers at the meetings. A few, such as colonel Charles Clarke’s address on local birds, and Boyle’s, on Elora’s geology, were printed as pamphlets and circulated to members and other interested readers.

The existence of a society such as this in a town of Elora’s size in the 1870s (about 1,600) demonstrates Boyle’s success as a popularizer of science, but it also shows that Elora boasted a solid core of well-read and intelligent citizens. Among the members of the Elora Natural History Society were three ministers: A.D. McDonald and James Middlemiss, the Presbyterians, and C.E. Thompson, of St. John’s Anglican. These progressive clergymen had little difficulty in reconciling new theories in science with their religion.

Though these three ministers consistently supported and defended Boyle; fundamentalists in Elora, particularly in the Methodist and Baptist churches, did not.

Some went so far as to denounce Boyle as unfit to teach, but he retained the confidence of the majority of the village, even when he publicly identified himself as an agnostic, an act of daring at the time, and something many teachers 75 years later would be reluctant to do. Most of those who abhorred Boyle’s religious beliefs conceded that his teaching methods produced desirable results.

Boyle’s success as a teacher brought him renown from the time he came to the Elora Public School as principal in 1871. Soon, he was elected president of the Wellington County Teachers Association, and increasingly he was asked to speak to groups of teachers throughout the county and elsewhere. Some of his lectures were later reprinted in the Canada Education Monthly. While an officer of the association, Boyle began a campaign to raise the status and salaries of teachers, both of which, at the time, were near the bottom of the ladder.

Many teachers came to Elora to inspect Boyle’s museum; some began similar, though much smaller, school museums of their own.

The major success of the museum, though, was with the general public. This fact pleased David Boyle immensely. He began opening the museum on holidays for local residents and visitors. He even drew crowds on Christmas Day.

The largest throngs poured through the museum when the railways brought special excursions to Elora. The museum became as much an attraction as the gorge.

Hordes of over 1,000 often passed through the door on a single day; the record was about 3,000, on a day when the Great Western Railway held its employees’ picnic in Elora.

Boyle found time to send parts of the collection to exhibitions in Canada and the United States; the prize money he invariably won helped to support the museum.

After 10 years as teacher and principal, David Boyle resigned in the fall of 1881. He had been asked to accept a job as promoter of a new series of school texts, incorporating Canadian content and the new teaching methods that Boyle championed.

It is not surprising that he wished to make a change in his career. By this time, he was finding the routine of teaching and school administration to be burdensome. The new job would allow him a break from his numerous and time-consuming responsibilities, and time to contemplate his future direction.

To be concluded next week.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Aug. 18 and 25, 1992.

Thorning Revisited