Saturday 31 October 2015

Happy 111th birthday, Macdonald Consolidated School!

The new Art Gallery of Guelph opened its doors this past September. Formerly the Macdonald Stewart Art Gallery, the building had been closed for renovations since May. It now opens with some new exhibits, a rebuilt porch, and an accessible entrance. However, the structure did not begin life as an art gallery. It opened officially on Wednesday, 7 December 1904 as the Macdonald Consolidated School.

To judge from postcards made of the School in its early days, its key feature in the public mind was not art but gardening. Here are a two postcards made by the The Valentine & Sons Publishing Co. especially for local druggist A. B. Petrie, both entitled "Gardening Class, McDonald Consolidated School, Guelph, Ont." (Note that the proper spelling is indeed "Macdonald".)

The first picture shows a group of children and young women preparing the soil with hoes. Small signs can seen planted in the ground, doubtless recording which plants were placed where. Some of the children and a teacher can be seen looking towards the camera. The back of the Macdonald Consolidated School can be seen behind them on the left while houses along Brock Rd. (now Gordon St.) can be seen in the distance on the right, along the way leading to Guelph. (Recall that the O.A.C. was in Guelph Township at the time, outside the city limits.)

The postcard is postmarked on 20 Sep 1907, meaning that the picture must be of the school in its first few years.

The second picture shows almost a reverse angle, a scene of the garden with the Macdonald Institute and Hall in the background. In the foreground, young boys and girls—many of the latter in white pinafores—are shown tending to their plots. On the left, some boys are holding down boards set over the soil to prevent them from tramping it down. On the right, a youth seems to be wearing a pith helmet perhaps intended for a wearer with a larger head. In between, teachers in long dresses and proper hats teach the finer points of horticulture.

These gardens were the most visible sign of the special purpose of the Macdonald Consolidated School. Its mission was to help prepare rural youth for a rural life, and that meant farming. The founders of the school were alarmed by the increasing movement of the rural population of Canada to its cities. Between the 1901 and 1911 censuses, the population of Ontario became predominantly urban: 53% urban, 47% rural in 1911 (and 86% urban, 14% rural in 2011, in case you were wondering).

To no small extent, people were responding to economic opportunities that cities presented. Young women, for example, could move to town and find jobs as typists, telephone operators, bookkeepers, etc. As mentioned in an earlier post about the Macdonald Institute, the movement of women to office or factory work was viewed as being unnatural by Adelaide Hoodless, one of the founders of the Institute. Women were better suited to domestic life, which the Institute sought to equip them for. Gardening was part of this scheme, designed to give young women a familiarity and taste for working with the soil. Plus, if they could be persuaded to remain in the countryside, then young men would be more likely to remain also.

The rural school system in Canada was also seen as part of the problem. This system had hardly changed since Confederation. Rural schools typically involved a single, young woman teaching a group of students of all levels within a single classroom. Overworked and likely underpaid, these teachers tended to concentrate on the three Rs and were ill equipped to instruct students in the details of agriculture and farm management. City schools, however, sorted students into specific grades, had teachers who specialized in different grades and subjects, and were better equipped than their rural counterparts.

This disparity between rural and urban schools seems to have been the main concern of Sir William C. Macdonald (1831–1917), the benefactor of the Macdonald Consolidated school. Macdonald was the grandson of a Scottish Jacobite laird who relocated 200 members of his clan, including Macdonald's father, to 20,000 acres of farmland on Prince Edward Island in the late 1700s. Macdonald grew up on the farm and seems always to have felt an affinity for farming life, although he made his fortune as a city businessman. In the 1850s, he and his brother set up a tobacco business in Montreal, purchasing tobacco in Kentucky and processing and selling it locally. Business became brisk during the U.S. Civil War, during which Macdonald purchased tobacco from the Confederacy, processed it in his factory in Montreal, and then sold it into the Union.

(Courtesy of Wikimedia commons.)

Oddly, Macdonald seems to have disliked tobacco and did not use it personally or tolerate its use in his presence. Perhaps his ambivalence towards the source of his vast fortune helps to account for his use of it in philanthropic projects. He once said, "I am not proud of my business, and that feeling, perhaps, has been the reason for my donations." One of his main projects was education. In particular, Macdonald thought that the rural school system of Canada was failing rural residents, not preparing them adequately for making a living in agriculture and, thus, prompting a precipitous migration to urban centers.

A major problem for rural schools was scale. Scattered, small, single-room schools could not compete with concentrated, large, well-equipped urban ones. The obvious solution was consolidation, that is, combining several rural schools together in one place. Consolidation would allow the resulting school to offer the same amenities as urban schools but with a concentration on teaching knowledge and skills needed for rural life. The problem was stated succinctly in a report issued by the Ontario Minister of Education in 1905:

Irregular and small attendance, insufficient equipment, inadequate inspection, the preponderance of the lowest grade of teachers, a curriculum not hitherto happily adjusted, and lack of provision for advanced instruction, all combine to make these schools as a class, far inferior to those in urban centers.
The report notes that several U.S. states had sought to improve the quality of education in rural schools through consolidation. Macdonald believed in this approach and created the Macdonald Consolidated Schools Project to make it a reality in Canada.

Guelph became an obvious site to begin in Ontario. The Ontario Agricultural College there was already a center of agricultural education in the province, which would lend some credence to a consolidated school in the vicinity. Macdonald had already agreed to help organize and fund what became the Macdonald Institute at the site. Student teachers from the Institute could gain valuable experience by assisting at the Consolidated School, which would then profit by their help. It made eminent sense to combine the Institute and the Consolidated School on the O.A.C. campus. Macdonald duly saw that it was done.

Macdonald placed the project in the hands of Dr. James W. Robertson (1857–1930). Robertson was born in Dunlop, Scotland, and immigrated with his family to settle on a dairy farm near London, Ontario in 1875 (Iles 1907). A graduate of Woodstock College in 1879, Robertson gained a reputation for advancement of the industry. In 1886, he became a professor at the O.A.C. and, in 1890, the Dominion's first Commissioner for Agriculture and Dairying. He resigned that post in 1904 when Macdonald invited him to lead the Rural Schools program. Robertson was given charge of a $180,000 budget for the Consolidated School. He was assisted by Dr. James Mills, the Dominion Railway Commissioner, and President George Creelman of the O.A.C.

Construction of the buildings and staffing of the programs proceeded, with the Consolidated School bringing up the rear. Toronto architect George M. Miller designed all three structures, which were all built by Schultz Bros Co., Ltd., of Brantford. The School was typical of the Edwardian classical style for domestic buildings, with a symmetric facade and simple plan, something of a departure from the more grandiose designs of the Institute and Hall. The original porch was a simple gable design, as can be seen in the photo below:

(From The National Monthly of Canada, May 1905).

In 1906, the O.A.C. installed a broader, more ornate porch with Doric columns, more suited the School's aspirations as a temple of learning. The students may have been more impressed with the fancy new, indoor lavatories that were also installed at that time. This new setup and grading can be seen in the following postcard, also published by The Valentine & Sons Publishing Co. for A.B. Petrie.

The postcard is marked on 25 May 1907. A little note along the left-hand side reads, "This is my school. Alice." It would be interesting to find out who Alice was.

There is an interesting tale told about the appearance of the Consolidated School. Here is the version related on the historic plaque in front of the structure:

In planning Macdonald Consolidated School, the trustees made design changes without Sir William's knowledge, resulting in a building with a utilitarian façade and a simple peak-roofed porch. Sir William was so enraged on opening day in 1904 that he refused to leave his carriage, boarded a train instead and never returned to Guelph.
I suspect that this unlikely story is a campus legend. I have found no mention of it in contemporary sources. It seems unlikely since Macdonald was far too careful (though generous) with his money to allow a shamefully plain building to be erected with his name on it. The Mercury (3 Oct 1904) reports that Macdonald was in town—for the second time—to visit the O.A.C. and to view the nearly-completed Institute, Hall, and Consolidated School. Furthermore, the Mercury makes this report about Macdonald's first inspection (14 Sep 1904):
“In looking over the school building,” said Prof. Robertson, “Sir William ‘s only complaint was that sufficient money had not been spent upon it. He thought the exterior ornamentation might be considerably improved.”
The more ornate porch that appeared soon after may have resulted from this remark. In any event, it was known that Macdonald thought the building plain. However, he did return to see it a second time in October.

Curiously, though, Macdonald was absent for the official opening of all three buildings on 7 December. He was supposed to speak on that occasion and see his portrait unveiled in the Macdonald Institute. Newspaper accounts of the opening provide no explanation. Perhaps knowledge of his response to the design of the Consolidated School plus his unexplained absence from the official opening led to the story that he was surprised and mortified by the building's appearance.

At any rate, the building provided all the needed facilities under one roof (Nasby 1995, p. 62):

The basement contained four large lunch and playrooms and on the first floor there were classrooms, a manual training room and a ladies' waiting room. Additional classrooms were on the second floor plus a laboratory for chemistry and nature study, domestic science room and principal's office. An assembly hall to seat 200 with stage and dressing rooms was on the third floor.
The Mercury (14 November) also boasted that the building featured a combined hot air and steam heating system, the first of its kind in North America. Robertson clearly wanted to ensure that the building lacked no facility.

The manual training seemed to be focussed on woodworking, with students learning to make items like birdhouses, cutting boards, and plant stands (Wright 2007, p. 39). Here is a somewhat murky photo of the manual training room (Iles 1907, p. 579).

Another, murkier photo provides a view of the domestic science room, where girls were taught the rudiments of housekeeping (Iles 1907, p. 584).

Another notable feature of the Consolidated School was the transportation of students. Since the School combined students from several, far-flung, rural school sections, most could not make their own way back and forth. To meet this need, Robertson had purchased and shipped a set of special vans from Ottawa that would convey students to and from their homes (Mercury, 14 Sep.). Six routes were arranged, with local teamsters bidding on the contracts (Mercury, 15 Oct.). A slide showing several vans waiting for students in front of the building ca. 1905 can be seen in the collection the Wellington County Archives (A1985.110).

Some children got lifts from the family chauffeur, Dad, especially in winter (Koop 1987, pp. 36–37):

He came into the house and changed from his smock into a fur coat. Us kids were all bundled up too and got into the sleigh. He'd also pick up so many of the other students that were going to the Consolidated School and by the time he'd be going up Gordon Street (it was the Dundas Road back in those days) there would be crowds hanging on to that sleigh
Students who lived on the other side of Guelph often used the streetcars. A Macdonald Institute student signed "G.M.C." writes the following account in the O.A.C. Review (v. 25 n. 6, 1913, p. 333):
When I had waited eight minutes, the car came. It was too cold to frown at the motorman, and as I stumbled against the conductor, I forgot to frown at him. I deserve no credit from restraining those frowns. The car was full of the usual half-breakfasted crowd, with a generous supply of Consolidated School Children to fill in the cracks. It was one of the old cars and a bit cold, which did not make it at all cheerful.
She should be grateful: By caulking the cracks between adults, the Consolidated School children prevented cold drafts from blowing right through the car!

Classes at the Macdonald Consolidated School finally began on 14 November. Vans and streetcars brought students to the door. They were then herded to the assembly hall on the third floor. Principal Hotson gave a short speech of introduction. Then, the students were divided into classes: The primary class went with Miss Workman, the second with Miss Doak, the third with Miss Roddick, the fourth with Mr. Hanlon, and the fifth with Mr. Hotson himself. I wonder who was more nervous at that moment: The teachers or the students?

As mentioned above, the official opening came on 8 December. A host of dignitaries were present in the Macdonald Institute gymnasium, with the odd exception of Sir William Macdonald himself. The speakers were Dr. Mills, Dr. Robertson, Mrs. Hoodless, and Mr. Dryden (the Minister of Agriculture, on behalf of the Minister of Education, who also could not be present for some reason), with O.A.C. President Creelman as the emcee. Dr. Mills gave a speech and then unveiled the portrait of Macdonald. The remaining speakers then sang his praises and outlined their hopes for the new institutions. Then, many of the crowd walked over to the Consolidated School where Mr. Dryden and Dr. Mills said a few words to the students before they departed for home.

Given the lateness of the year, it seems likely that the students did not get on with their gardens immediately. However, they prepared well. For example, some students formed the "Macdonald School Society", which held a meeting with a full program on 16 December (Mercury, 19 Dec.). There were songs, recitations, readings, two mouth organ solos, and a debate. The topic of the debate was: "Resolved that country life is better than city life—Affirmative, Miss F. and Master I. Young; negative, Master H. Atkinson and Master J. Hemming." Given the mandate of the School, it seems likely that the negative side had a tough row to hoe. Indeed, although both sides acquitted themselves well, it turns out that country life is better than city life.

Also, the Consolidated School held an essay-writing contest on the topic of "Bulbs, their planting and care." The winning essays of the Senior Fourth and the Fifth classes, Miss Minnie Sinclair and Miss Emma McAllister, were printed on the front page of the Mercury (21 Dec.). I can only think that these girls, like their bulbs, were ready to get stuck in the dirt first thing in springtime.

The Macdonald Consolidated Schools were not successful in stemming the tide of rural to urban migration in Canada. In spite of the advantages of country living, the attractions or urban living were too great. However, the School in Guelph Township was a success in some ways. In the O.A.C. Review (v. 31, n. 3, Nov. 1918) inspector J.A. MacDonald (no relation to Sir William) writes that the School continued to provide a more ambitious and practical program than in standard rural schools. As evidence of this fact, the article prints the following picture of the Consolidated School gardens, taken from a back window of the building.

Furthermore, attendance at the School was higher than at regular rural schools and many non-resident families were willing to pay an extra fee to send their children to it. Finally, he claims that the community remained proud of the School and its contributions to local society.

Even so, local pride in the Consolidated School did not bring forth enough local money. Macdonald had arranged to defray all the costs of the School for a span of three years. At the end of that time, the School was deeded to the Provincial Ministry of Education for them to run and finance. The Province declined to subsidize the funding, so it was up to members of the Consolidated School districts. The main sticking point was the cost of transportation, which required an extra fee from ratepayers. Although all but one of the parents of children attending the School supported the fee, a majority of residents declined to pay it in a vote in 1907. The two nearest districts continued to run the school on a reduced basis while the other districts reverted to the old system.

A commentary in the O.A.C. Review (v. 23, n. 5, Feb. 1911) surmised that:

After six years' experience with these schools it must be acknowledged that, while the principle of consolidation has been confirmed an undoubted pedagogical success, these two educational reformers [Macdonald and Robertson] have been in advance of their times.
Given that consolidation and bussing is the norm in rural schools today, this claim seems undeniable.

The commentary goes on to muse, I think correctly, that its promoters had not done enough to persuade residents that the Consolidated School was worth the extra expenditure. It was a project that was conceived and executed without much involvement from the community, which was not sufficiently invested in it as a result. The School did not simply sell itself as its founders had supposed. The commentator suggests that a better plan would have involved consolidation on a smaller scale to begin with, scaling up later as circumstances allowed. Perhaps that approach would have been better, although maybe not grand enough for the ambitions of Sir William Macdonald.

In any event, the Macdonald Consolidated School carried on until it was closed by the County Board of Education in 1972. In 1978, it re-opened as the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre. Now it has metamorphosed once again, this time losing its association with the great tobacco magnate from Montreal who loved rural life and hated smoking.


  1. Thank you for your kind comment, Alex! I'm pleased that you enjoyed the post. More are always on the way...

  2. I went to MacDonald School for Kindergarten and Grade 1 (1969-71) and then it closed down, slated for demolition, and we were all moved to John McCrae School. Luckily they eventually turned it into the art gallery instead of destroying it. I had an incredibly mean kindergarten teacher, a fundamentalist Christian who tormented those of us who weren't brought up with religion. I always wondered what became of her. Her name was Miss Damude (sp?) but she married and I believe became Mrs. Chappell.

  3. Thanks for sharing that, Laurie! I don't know about Miss Damude but the closing of the Macdonald School would make for an interesting post.

  4. It would! It's hard to believe they thought it was a good idea to tear a beautiful building like that down. But I think that kind of thing happened a lot in the 60s and 70s. I remember it sat empty until 1978 when it became the art gallery and everyone was thinking it would be demolished. Actually there were lots of really bad teachers there so we kids weren't that upset! But it's great that it was saved. It's completely renovated inside now and there's no trace left of the old school, which is kind of sad.

  5. Hi I love your research here on the history of our beloved elementary school. I went from K to grade 5 and then our family moved to BC. 1963? to June 1968. In so thrilled it still stands today! I never knew they stopped teaching a few years later. We were bussed from Hespler Hwy and beyond. Some of the kids went to Central? Or Centennial? I remember most the vast and beautiful playgrounds. The back verandah leading into tje school. The beautiful wooden stair case leading from the main floor up to 2nd and 3rd floors. That was hard to see gone when my brother and I went back in the 80's but so happy the school was saved. Even an original child's
    drinking fountain! If you can point me in the direction of pictures from the 50s or 60s of the insides I'd be so thankful to share with my younger brothers. My email is My name back then was Debra Murtagh. Thank you again!!

  6. Thank you for the reminiscence about the MCS! Unfortunately, I'm not aware of any online collection of photos of the MCS interior. The Civic Museum does have some pics here: