Untold stories, memories shared: Eramosa school celebrates 50 years

Nestled in rural Guelph-Eramosa Township between Brucedale and Oustic, Eramosa Public School is a hub that has held its community together over the years. 

This year marks the school’s 50th anniversary and the significance of the milestone is not lost on those involved from the beginning. 

“I think it’s important to celebrate it because it’s been a real asset to the community and still is,” said Murray Smeltzer, one of the school board trustees that opened the school in 1965. 

“It’s been kept in such wonderful condition and it’s still a very, very functional educational point in the community, the municipality.”

On a cool afternoon in October, five individuals from Eramosa Public School’s past gathered to talk about the school’s 50-year history. 

Smeltzer, 81, said he was nominated to the local board in 1963. 

“I was actually nominated on the day John F. Kennedy was shot in … November 1963, nominated in the Rockwood Town Hall,” he said.

“The issue was, at the time, that there was more capacity needed in the township.”

Eramosa School 50 Years

Anniversary celebration – On Oct. 9 five community members involved with Eramosa Public School over the last 50 years gathered to tell stories and share memories with some current students and staff. From left: front, Grade 6 students Anna Swackhammer and Emily Day; back, former school bus driver Margaret Parkinson, former teacher Jean Jackson, former teacher Marg Frayne, current principal Katrina Plazek, former bus driver Alleda Martin and former school board trustee Murray Smeltzer.     photos by Jaime Myslik

Former Eramosa Township contained a number of one-room schoolhouses spaced out so all students could easily walk to school. 

Smeltzer said that prior to his election to the board the idea was to expand S.S. #2 School at “Four Corners” near the intersection of Wellington Roads 124 and 29. 

“A lot of people in the north here didn’t think that was a good idea,” Smeltzer said, explaining the expansion was one of the reasons he ran for the school board. 

“The three of us – Bill Jackson, Ross McDougall and myself – we voted against the expansion at Four Corners the first meeting we had.”

Instead the board chose to build Eramosa Public School at its current site on the Fifth Line and after talking to an architect and touring other schools, officials were confident they were building a school that would last. 

“We heard all kinds of stories; quite a few central schools [were being] built at that time and people, some of them were kind of upset the way some of them were built and the way they weren’t looking as if they were lasting too good,” Smeltzer said.

“Cracked walls and all this type of thing and we had a good architect and we emphasized some of those things to him and he showed us around real good, we were in Kenilworth and all the different places to look at schools from ’63 to ’65, you see, until we built this building.”

Marg Frayne, 68, taught at Eramosa Public School for 18 years starting in 1987. She said she was a student when all of the one-room schoolhouses were closing in Lambton County in the 1950s.

“It was pretty controversial when it started because they were closing all these one-room schoolhouses and they were consolidating and not everybody liked that idea,” she said. 

“My dad was on council down there, and I mean, he was threatened.”

However, Smeltzer said consolidation was more widely accepted in Eramosa Township. 

“We didn’t have any resistance to that because it was coming and people kind of understood it and they were fairly well satisfied because it was still going to be relatively local,” he said.

“There was more of a growing concern then too about children on the roads because there was more traffic and things that could happen to kids.”

Smeltzer said the township had to borrow money for the build. 

“It was a big step for me to be sitting there making a debt for people,” he said. “And the debt worked out now that the people who used [the school] are the people that paid for it.”

When the building was first constructed the idea was for it to act as a community centre as well as a school. Over the years it has been used as a voting station and as a site for large community gatherings. 

When Eramosa Public School opened in February 1965 it consolidated all the schools in Eramosa Township except for the Rockwood school, presenting a change for both students and teachers. 

Jean Jackson, 90, taught at the school when it first opened and remained there until 1990. Having previously worked as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, Jackson went from eight to 20 children in her entire school to 20 to 39 students in her class alone. The school opened to students in February, but the official opening wasn’t until September 1965. 

“By September the enrollment was a little more than [they] expected, so my classroom was on the stage for a year and when the other classes came in for gym we had to go to their room,” Jackson said. 

The next year she had her own classroom, with 39 Grade 2 students and she continued teaching Grade 2 for the rest of her career, taking on a Grade 2/3 split in later years. Jackson preferred the bigger school over a  one-room schoolhouses. 

“I think I liked it bigger because … there were other adults to talk to,” she said. “If you had difficulties you had somebody … to talk it over (with) and I found that the parents were always very supportive.” 

Teaching a single grade also cut down on preparation time.     

“We did more interesting things because we had … more time to do it,” she said. ‘Like projects and so on.”

The school’s rural location, while excellent for students,  offered some unique challenges in the winter, said Jackson, who recalled that once during a winter storm while she was teaching at a one-room schoolhouse she stayed over at one of her student’s family’s house until the storm passed two days later. 

Alternatively, at Eramosa Public School, one of the storms was so bad a snowplow operator led her home, ensuring the road was clear for her vehicle. 

Another change that came with Eramosa Public School was transportation. Students primarily walked to one-room schoolhouses, but once the consolidated school was built, many took buses. 

Two of the drivers responsible for getting students to and from school were Alleda Martin, 78, bus driver from 1981 to 1987 and Margaret Parkinson, 87, who drove from 1974 to 1993. 

“I know the rules on the buses have sure changed since I started driving,” Martin said. “We used to drive in fog and sleet and hail; the only thing that they cancelled the bus for was freezing rain. I drove down a road one day and I thought, ‘I must have passed their house,’ it was so foggy I couldn’t see from one pole to the next.”

But all in all, Martin said she loved driving the school bus. 

“Kids keep you young I think,” she said. “You learn all kinds of things from them, even what’s going on at home sometimes.

“I had two families of three and I can remember the first little boy that came, he was scared to death, he hid behind the hedge every time, I had to coax him out to get on the bus … By the time the third one came they were just flying out the door. They were all anxious to get going.”

Parkinson’s weather memories stretch back to her very first day, March 15, 1974. 

“It was snowing and blowing and I had to get somebody to pull me up the hill at my first stop … and that was my first memory,” she said. “I thought ‘well am I ever stupid doing this’ … Somebody from that side of the road came out with a tractor and pulled me up the hill.”

Another of Parkinson’s memories involves Jackson, her sister. 

“One morning I was driving in with the bus and saw this little lad out crying and … Jean Jackson … was on yard duty that morning, she saw this little fella crying and she ran over, picked him up, put her arm around him and pretty soon he was laughing again and playing with his friends,” she said. 

The schoolyard is one of the  school’s unique features. At roughly five acres in size, it provides a plethora of opportunities for students. 

“When you got the land for the school I think it was a very, very wise decision to make the school yard this large because I think it really has impacted the development of the children, like physically and socially,” Frayne told Smeltzer.

“And the kinds of things they can explore in this yard. We have a wildlife area out there and they don’t go in it now but all the trees and the plantings affect their growth and development.”

Both Frayne and Jackson used the yard and took their students out around the school to snowshoe in the winter, make bird houses, and tap maple trees to make maple syrup right in the school.

Frayne said teachers also benefited from the acreage.

“I think it made yard duty a pleasure at this school, most days,” she said.

“There were days when I’d be out on yard duty, and no teacher likes to be on yard duty in minus-10 weather, but you just look around and you know the sun would be shining and the kids would be just having a fabulous time and you just felt this is the best place to be because of this yard and the feeling of joy watching children play at recess.”

Students today are still gaining those experiences in the playground.  

“I think even more so with the way technology’s going; it’s very important it is the new world, but at recesses the children don’t take out their technology so they have time to socialize and communicate and all of those things, so it’s the best,” said current principal Katrina Plazek.

Principals have had a big impact on the school over the years. Frayne remembers one principal used “Eramosa Ernie,” a donated taxidermy beaver, to fool students on Groundhog Day. 

“We took them out in the back, we yelled across the valley … we taught them a chant and we all yelled and [the principal] was hiding behind a tree with the stuffed beaver and he stuck it out and they went ‘ohhhh’ they were all so disgusted with us,” she said with a laugh, noting the students recognized Eramosa Ernie.

Activities involving the entire school are one of the benefits of the small school environment, Frayne said, adding they wouldn’t have worked in a big school.  

Another memory shared by Frayne relating to the small-school feel was about a particular “Survivor Santa” themed Christmas concert the year Survivor came out on TV. Each of the classes had a part to play in the overall concert-theme.

“I remember the practices … that are grueling for a teacher but … they’re hard because you have to practice, which children don’t like doing, but we organized it as a staff,” she said. “So it was a whole school  effort.” 

Jackson’s Christmas concert memory was more comical. 

“We had a Christmas tree that was all decorated as part of the properties that were used in the play. All of a sudden one of the children stumbled into it, upset it and knocked all the decorations off it,” she explained.

“Now in the meantime the music teacher … was playing the piano between numbers so one of my students kept peaking out from behind the curtain telling her to ‘keep playing, we’re not ready yet.’ So this went on for two or three times before we finally told him that he could tell the music to stop. 

“So after that we put on our play and everything ended well.”

Officials say the school’s size also allows the students to really get involved in the school community in a way they may not be able to in larger schools. 

“When you have a small number of children they can be part of a lot of things,” Frayne said. “You do all the same activities in this school as you do in a … large school, like all the same sports, all the same extracurricular (activities), all the same artistic things …

“But we have a smaller number of children here so they all get to do [something] and also the teachers can … encourage kids to participate in different activities … they can take (on) a lot of responsibility.”

A celebration recognizing  Eramosa Public School’s 50th anniversary is being planned, but the date is still undetermined.