Sunday 16 October 2022

The Rockwood Academy

I recently came into possession of a series of real-photo postcards produced by Don Hilts, a resident and historian of Rockwood, Ontario, who made a speciality of historical images of this beautiful town. Amongst the many pictures on offer are some of the Rockwood Academy, an educational institution once well known in the region and beyond. So, it seemed opportune to display some of these postcards and talk about the history of this noted place of learning.
(Rockwood Academy. Real-photo postcard by Don Hilts, no date.)

Situated on the banks of the Eramosa river some 10km northeast of Guelph, Rockwood began to take shape in the early 1820s as John Harris and Colonel Henry Strange planned a townsite on property they had purchased at that location. John Harris and other early settlers were Quakers and the settlement was consequently known as Brotherstown in its early days.

(Rockwood Academy as seen from Highway 7; courtesy of Google Street View.)

Several mills were established along the banks of the river at suitable spots and the town attracted the usual set of businesses able to serve the farming community that was established in its environs. A school and post office were added to these commercial enterprises in due course.

The Gazetteer and Directory of the County of Wellington (1867) describes the village in these terms:

Rockwood—A post village and station on the Grand Trunk Railway, situated in the township of Eramosa, on a branch of the Grand River, eight miles from Guelph, having a telegraph office, together with extensive marble quarries and fine water power. The village contains two flouring, one saw mill, four general stores, four hotels, three blacksmith shops, and the Rockwood Academy. Daily mail.
Clearly, the Rockwood Academy stood out as one of the attractive features of the village.
(Rockwood Academy, 2017. (CC) by Magnolia677.)

The Academy was founded by William Wetherald in 1850. William was born to Quakers John and Isabel on 26 September 1820 in Swaledale, Yorkshire. In 1835, the family immigrated to a farm in Puslinch Township. Of slight build, William had difficulty with farm labour but was interested in continuing the education that he had begun at the Friends School at Ackworth, Yorkshire.

(William Wetherald, ca. 1850. Courtesy of Guelph Public Library F38-0-14-0-0-531.)

To this end, he hit on the scheme of fashioning axe handles from elm and bartering them in Guelph for scholarly supplies: a Bible, paper, a steel pen, and a bottle of ink. Over the next seven years, Wetherald went through textbooks in various subjects, studying late into to the night. Such was his success that, at age 23, he secured a teaching position at a school in Eramosa.

On 17 March 1846, Wetherald married Jemima Harris Balls, a relation of John Harris, when she was seventeen years old.

Having enjoyed success as a teacher, and having observed the lack of advanced educational opportunities in the region, Wetherald advertised the Rockwood Academy in the Guelph Advertiser in the summer of 1850 in this wise:

Boarding School
William Wetherald, having been engaged for some years in private as well as public tuition, respectfully intimates that he can accommodate a few additional pupils, to whose domestic comfort and literary progress the closest attention will be given.
The course of instruction embraces the following branches:—English grammar, writing, arithmetic, bookkeeping, history, geography, Latin, geometry, the theory of land surveying, and algebra.
The first Academy in 1850 was a log cabin. By 1851, Wetherald had erected a storey-and-a-half frame structure, followed by a handsome three storey stone building in 1854. The stone building was vernacular Georgian in style with a centre hall plan and two windows on either side of the central entrance. The second and third floors featured five windows each and both side walls included chimneys for heating.
(William Wetherald, no date. Courtesy of Wellington County Museum & Archives, A1992.179, ph. 31096.)

In the interior, the basement contained a kitchen and dining room. The main floor held a library, living room, parlour and a large classroom. The second floor had five bedrooms for the family (Wetherald had eight children at Rockwood, with a ninth later) as well as quarters for a servant or assistant, while the third floor contained nine dormitory rooms for student boarders.

Wetherald did seem to take to this work and his teaching style might be described as earnest. It is characterized as follows in an obituary ("Canada yearly meeting of Friends," 1899, p. 66):

Rigid disciplinarian though he was, he won the allegiance of his pupils by an intellectual power they were compelled to respect, and a moral enthusiasm to which they could not fail to respond.
Mr. J.T. Mitchell, a former pupil, describes Wetherald's teaching in a retrospective as follows (Douglass 1984, p. 14):
Mr. Wetherald was a great teacher…. He could, so to speak, hypnotize instruction into a boy…. He had a magnetic personality, especially his eyes, which might be termed “ X-rays”. They searched a boy through and through, and having detected all his weak spots, proceeded to administer healing unguents to the same. He seldom used the rod, and never in anger, and never in the presence of other pupils, but in a separate room in another part of the building, and although we never knew what exactly happened, we were able to perceive a marked change in the character of the boy afterwards…. Mr. Wetherald, wise professor, glad as he was to assist an eager pupil, would not let me rush the pace, but insisted on sandwiching in Le Juif Errant; Don Quixote; and Gil Bias between Anthony, Caesar, de Bello Gallico, and Horace as a relaxation. He also taught me to play chess, of which he was a brilliant player, and in cricket, and other outdoor sports, always joined us in them as one of ourselves….
In 1864, Wetherald accepted the position of Superintendent of Haverford College, a Quaker college near Philadelphia. However, he remained there only a year, returning to Canada in 1866 to a farm near Fenwick, in Niagara County.
(Rockwood Academy, 1866. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, Grundy 79.)

Upon his departure, Wetherald rented Rockwood Academy to Donald McCaig and Alexander McMillan. Under their direction, the Academy continued to flourish. Another classroom was added, along with extra dormitories and a stone gymnasium.

(Alexander McMillan, no date. Courtesy of Wellington County Museum & Archives, A2007.56, ph. 24691_02.)

In 1871, McCaig was appointed as the principal to the Central School in Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario, leaving Alexander McMillan to continue the work of the Academy. This McMillan did until 1882. At that point the school closed and McMillan converted the facility into a knitting factory. Closure of the Academy was likely to due the expansion of public education in Ontario: High schools were built in centres like Galt and Guelph that competed for advanced rural students, while the introduction of free and compulsory elementary education throughout the province lessened the pool of younger children to draw on.

The knitting enterprise was not successful and the old Academy became a resort (a "Home of rest"), a venture that also seemed not to last too long. It was purchased by Mrs. Gordon of Rockwood around 1900 and converted into a farm and remained in her family.

In 1960, Yosef Drenters purchased the building and three adjacent acres, the remainder of the property having been sold for development. Drenters was a sulptor who had admired the property on trips through Rockwood from his father's farm north of town.

(Yosef Drenters sitting in his living room at Rockwood Academy, ca. 1970. Courtesy of Wellington County Museum & Archives, A1992.179.)

He set about returning the Academy to its state when it was an educational institute. He scoured old farmhouses for appropriate flooring, a dining room mantlepiece, and other period, architectural details. He made the dining room table out of parts from several others. He also added a stone chapel and walled garden.

Upon his death in 1983, he willed the property to the Ontario Heritage Foundation. His brother Andreas took up residency and continued to undertake sympathetic updates and restorations.

The Academy was designated a historic structure under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1986.

For many decades after its closure, the Rockwood Academy was remembered for the role it had played in the education of men who later attained political or commercial prominence. Whether their time there was long or short, the fact that so many alumni went on to social achievements certainly reinforces the impression that the Academy delivered a good education.

Some of the most prominent alumni include:

For decades after its closure, obituaries of men of note in the region and beyond made a point of mentioning the deceased's education at the Rockwood Academy in their youth.
Obviously, the Rockwood Academy catered to boys only. However, two of William Wetherald's daughters achieved distinction in arts and letters.
(Ethelwyn Wetherald, ca. 1900. Courtesy of Brock University Archives, Agnes Ethelwyn Wetherald fonds RG 84.)

Ethelwyn Wetherald became an author and journalist with a reputation across North America. Duff (1914) provides a quick précis of her journalistic undertakings (p. 14):

Ethelwyn was educated at Friends’ School in Ontario and New York. She has had considerable journalistic experience, having been on the editorial staff of the Toronto Globe, as well as conducting, at one time, a regular column in that journal, using the pen-name of “Bel Thistlethwaite.” With Mrs. Cameron, she conducted a woman’s magazine known as “Wives and Daughters,” in London, Ont., and was on the staff of Chas. Dudley Warner while he was compiling his monumental work, “The world’s best literature.” From her home at Chantler, Welland County, she is still a frequent contributor to the press, revealing among other admirable qualities, a playful humor that would not be suspected by a reader of her poems alone.
She also published poems in numerous magazines and also several books. A prominent theme of the poems is psychological experience of passing scenes, as in "Tangled in Stars," the feature poem in her book of the same name (1902):
Tangled in stars and spirit-steeped in dew,
The city worker to his desk returns,
While 'mid the stony streets remembrance burns,
Like honeysuckle running through and through
A barren hedge. He lifts his load anew,
And carries it amid the thronging ferns
And crowding leaves of memory, while yearns
Above him once again the open blue.

His letter-littered desk goes up in flowers;
The world recedes, and backward dreamily
Come days and nights, like jewels rare and few.
And while the consciousness of those bright hours
Abides with him, we know him yet to be
Tangled in stars and spirit-steeped in dew.

(Jane Wetherald, no date. Courtesy of Brock University Archives, Agnes Ethelwyn Wetherald fonds RG 84.)

Jane Wetherald also had a career in letters, including editing but also a focus on oratory and elocution. A brief biography of her is given in Moffatt (1896):

Jane H. Wetherald was born in Rockwood, Ont., where her father was for many years Principal of the Rockwood Academy. In 1886 Miss Wetherald attended the Philadelphia School of Oratory, graduating with honours, and has filled engagements in most of the towns and cities of Ontario. For three years previous to 1895 Miss Wetherald, as editor of the Ladies’ Journal of Toronto, put new life and vigor into that publication, and showed a talent for journalistic work equal to that possessed by her for elocution.
In her contribution to the magazine, Jane takes the view that the Philadelphia School of Oratory had done much to promote elocution in Canada but that is was high time for Canadians to take hold of the subject for themselves. Did they, I wonder?

In any event, although these women were not alumnae of Rockwood Academy, their experiences and fortunes were certainly connected with it.

(The Wetherald family, ca. 1861. Courtesy of Brock University Archives, Agnes Ethelwyn Wetherald fonds RG 84.)
The Academy featured in the movie Agnes of God (Jewison 1985), when it was dressed up as a Montreal convent. Don Hilts also took a picture of the Academy in this temporary vestment:
(Rockwood Academy as a Montreal convent, 1984, by Don Hilts.) A casting call went out locally for women aged 75–90 to play nuns. Ina Warren points out that (Globe & Mail, 20 November 1984):
About 30 women turned up, but those wearing too much makeup were told to take it off—real nuns don’t wear blusher.
Whether or not an applicant got one of the 14 nun jobs, depended on how she looked in a wimple.
If life were only always so wimple!
Works consulted for this post include: