by Lawrence A. Crich
(1986) No history of early education in Sarnia would be complete without some mention of the efforts of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society in Upper Canada on the St. Clair Indian Reserve. The Reserve then covered a much greater area than its modern counterpart stretching north of our present Devine Street. William Jones, the first government agent of the St. Clair Reserve recommended Elijah Harris of Caradoc for the position of teacher on the reserve “as a fit person to be a teacher to the Indians. He is a Methodist and in the habit of preaching occasionally.” Mr. Harris and his family arrived at the St. Clair Reserve on March 3, 1832. The Rev. Thomas Turner arrived shortly after on July 11th to act as Methodist minister for the area. Rev. Turner covered a wide area as minister to both Indians and Whites ranging north to the Maxwell community settlement near modern Bright’s Grove and points east to Warwick and Adelaide. The Maxwell settlement, the first legal white settlement in Lambton County, was started by Henry Jones on the “Owen Settlement Plan” in 1827/28.
In 1831 the Colonial Government caused to be erected a building 26 feet by 36 feet with 14 foot ceilings to serve as a school-church. It was located near the St. Clair River bank and just north of the present Devine Street. Agent Jones made the following observation in his letter to Toronto (York). “St. Clair, August 1, 1833 – I think it a pity that so fine a building as our school house should remain unpainted. It is admired as a handsome and convenient building by all who see it. It is now used as a Church as well as a School House.” It was a heavy frame building, clap-boarded on the outside with a north0south orientation. The double door was located on the west side facing the river. The exterior eventually received a coat of yellow paint.
On November 22, 1833, a parsonage was completed nearby for 375 pounds, 10 shillings by Messrs. Kemp and I.B. LaLabestie of Amherstburg. The mission school and parsonage along with their grounds which included a cemetery were enclosed by a picket fence. The road ran between them and the river.
We know that the grounds included a cemetery because Commander Vidal, R.N., recorded in his diary, “Nov. 30, 1839- Mrs. Mitton departed this life at half-past eight. Got leave from Mr. Com. Jones to open the ground by the schoolhouse.” Mrs. Mitton was Commander Vidal’s grandmother. Again from his diary- “Dec. 4- “All the villagers came and at eleven started with the body carried by four soldiers, buried it at the schoolhouse yard.” “Dec. 6 – Got a certificate of burial by Messrs. Douce, Jones and Cameron.” From the December 6th entry, it is safe to infer that Rev. John Douce, Methodist missionary in charge, read the burial service at this, the first white funeral in the area.
The mission building was purchased by J.C. Hughson and became part of their planning mill about 1870. In March, 1887, Jacob Lawrence & Sons bought the factory and in September 1889, the factory including the “mission” was destroyed by fire. The parsonage stood until 1924 when it was demolished by the lumber company. In 1932, the United Church of Canada erected a cairn on the north side of Devine Street west to commemorate the church-school mission.
It was in this school that the first formal education took place. It was erected primarily for the education of the Indians but it also served the Whites of the area as their place of worship. From the booklet “The Central Church 1832-1919” the following statement is to be found on page 15 – “to this mission in July, 1832, by the joint action of Lord Colborne and the British Wesleyan Missionary Board, came Rev. Thomas Turner, as the first regular appointment of a Protestant minister within the bounds of Lambton County. In this school-church he conducted regular preaching services to Indians and white people.” No record exists stating that white children were taught in this school. However, it was the only existing school in the area at the time. No doubt, Mr. Harris taught his own children in it and it would seem only logical that other white families would take advantage of the facility for their children. The next school appeared in 1838.
Extremely little can be found written about education within Sarnia during the early years of existence. Perhaps, a number of factors contributed to this state of affairs. Sarnia was not officially planned like Corunna, Point Edward and Errol, which had been planned and were expected to develop into significant urban centres. Point Edward, in particular, seemed destined to have a very promising future with the very busy railway and shipping centre at the St. Clair River ferry on what was then one of the main lines between Toronto and Chicago. Sarnia, on the other hand, gradually developed along the St. Clair waterfront during the early 1830s.
The original French squatter farmers who settled south of Davis Street on the Indian lands before 1800, called the area “La Chute,” (or) “The Rapids.” These French farmers were probably the first true white settlers although that credit seems to have been given to the Maxwell settlement on Perch Creek. Whether these farmers were there legally or otherwise, they were still first. The area was named Port Sarnia in January 4, 1836at a meeting chaired by Captain Richard Emeric Vidal, R.N. by a vote of 26 to 6. At that time there were 44 taxpayers in the village, nine frame houses, 4 log houses, two brick dwellings, two taverns and three stores. There was one carriage. In 1834 there were only 5 small houses. George Durand had a store and a Mr. Allen a tavern to accommodate travellers (no doubt the locals also took advantage of the facility) so the area was showing growth. Nevertheless, Sarnia’s early existence wasn’t much more than a few warehouses on the bank of the St. Clair and backing to Front Street. Small businesses, light industry, and homes for the various merchants and their employees gradually built up along Front and Christina Streets and then spread east along such streets as Lochiel, George, and Cromwell. It was an extremely slow development as by 1897 Sarnia had a population of only some 7,000. The fate of Sarnia and the decline of Point Edward was determined when the decision was made to build the St. Clair Tunnel in 1891. With the formation of Imperial Oil Limited in 1897, the roots of the Chemical Valley were established.
Another factor contributing to the lack of materials on early education was due to the absence of a formal structure. The first Board of Education was formed only in 1851.
Education did, however, get underway shortly after Sarnia came into existence. This was due to the efforts of a few spirited citizens. Mr. Duncan McNaughton, in 1838, filled up a classroom on the upper floor of a warehouse on the dock which lay midway between Lochiel and Cromwell Streets. During that same year a Mr. Duncan had a school on the west side of Christina Street about the middle of the block between George and Lochiel Streets. These of course were private schools. The next year, 1839, Mr. McNaughton built a home on a lot located on the east side of Christina Street across from the present St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. Part of the Kenwick Place complex, particularly the parking garage and the stores to the west cover the site. In his home, he set up his school. This school continued until 1843, when Mr. McNaughton moved to a farm in Plympton Township. At the time, a two-room red brick schoolhouse was built on the same lot as Mr. McNaughton’s former residence. It is not known if Mr. McNaughton still owned it or if the land now belonged to Captain Vidal as some sources would suggest. Apparently, some civic body was formed to purchase the land and built the school. This civic body may have been a three-trustee board; however, no records remain to suggest this. For those people who can remember an earlier Sarnia, the site was occupied by the old Sarnia arena which was connected to Kenwick Terrace on the upper floor and a garage on the main floor. The A&P store was one of the last businesses on the main floor before the building was demolished.
Very little is known about this school except that it had two classrooms and was finished with red brick. The first two teachers were Mr. McNaughton, who walked in weekly from his farm in Plympton Township Sunday evening, taught six days and returned home Saturday after school. A Mr. Stevens assisted him. Later, Mrs. Maxwell, Mr. Axtell (Axtle), Miss Howard, and Mr. William Stewart were among the early teachers. It is believed that Mr. Axtell or Axtle was Rev. Nathan Axtle who was the minister of the Methodist Chapel in 1847/48. He was a young, bright man who was impulsive and changeable which led to his being dropped after serving three years, the third being spent in Sarnia. Because of the time frame and the uniqueness of his name, it is felt that Axtell/ Axtle the teacher and Nathan Axtle the minister are one and the same person.
On the red brick schoolhouse campus, a one-room frame school was built just north of the first school. In Charlotte Vidal Nisbet’s article in the Sarnia Observer, March 27, 1937, it is suggested that this frame building was of two rooms: it is certain that this is incorrect as the Board minutes speak of it as a one-room building. This was Sarnia’s first secondary or grammar school and was opened in 1844 according to the Historical Atlas of the County of Lambton. Mr. W.J. Walker was the first teacher. Miss Nisbet called him Dominie Walker. In July 1856, Mr. Walker refused to deliver the registers to the Board and had to be directed to do so.
In the July 20, 1856 Board minutes when the union of the Common and Grammar Schools’ Boards’ of Trustees was being completed, the term “School” Section #1, Sarnia Township was used in reference to the Grammar and Common Schools of Sarnia. These were the red brick and frame schools across from the present St. Andrew’s Church. From this, it can be concluded that this school was S.S. #1, Sarnia Township. Sarnia was still a small centre, and like other small centres across Ontario, the local school was within a school section. These schools were also called the Christina Street Schools and this term was used as late as 1858, although it was generally thought of as the Red Brick School.
The Red School House and its companion grammar school were the fore-runners of the Union School or Grammar and Common Schools built in 1860 on the site of Sarnia General Hospital.
Perhaps few people today know that all these early schools charged the students in attendance a term or monthly fee. They were not supported by provincial grants or local taxes in the early years. Gradually, the schools were supported by a combination of provincial grants, local taxes and fees. These fees for resident families were finally abolished in the 1870s. The fee structure, however, is still in place for non-resident students or separate school supporters who wish to attend the public schools but not change their taxes to the public schools. The fee must be paid by the individual or the student’s home school board.
With the building of the Union School in 1860, the Red Brick School and its companion passed into history.
During the 1840s, two more schools developed. One was opened in the Baptist Chapel at the corner of Lochiel and Elizabeth (Vidal) Streets. This location is across Lochiel Street from the Odeon Theatre and is now occupied by part of the parking complex for the Sarnia Eaton’s Mall. Mr. Russell, Mr. James Dunlap, Mr. Frost and Mr. J.D. Wood were associated with this school in its early years. In June, 1856, Mr. Russell was fired for intoxicated at school. Did this mean that he was drunk or had had a drink? The latter might well eliminate a number of teachers today.
A second school was set up March 3, 1860 in the Sons of Temperance Hall, located on Victoria Street, for $4 a month. Miss Jennie McNaughton was engaged at $18 a month as the first teacher. By October 10, 1862, the school was increased to two rooms when Miss Emily Wilson was hired at $10 a month as assistant to Miss McNaughton.
A school of at least one room existed in a Mr. Curtis’ house on Lochiel Street. In the November 1, 1861 minutes it was recorded that an attempt was made to get Mr. Curtis to fix up the lower floor of the house for a classroom but he refused. It is believed that a classroom existed on the upper floor at that time. Little more is known about the Curtis school.
In May, 1866, the congregation of the Baptist Chapel was notified by the Board that their facilities would no longer be needed after June 30th. The noise of the factory next door was the contributing cause of the move. Plans were made to rent space in the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, the forerunner of Central United Church, then located just south of the corner of Lochiel and Mechanic (Brock) Streets for $60 a year. This was a very plain building as most Methodist churches were then, and at one time was built on stilts due to the wet nature of the ground. The creek was located just south of the building. In the dry weather, sheep would graze under it and would have to be driven away during church services because of their noise. Some sources would suggest that the building was originally located at the foot of Lochiel Street and moved to the Lochiel-Brock site. It is not known how many classes were set up but toward the end it is known that there were two. On or about April 14, 1868, the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel was destroyed by fire and Miss Sylvia Pottinger and Miss Isabella Mudie’s classes had to have new locations. Miss Mudie was moved into the City Hall at the corner of Lochiel and Christina Streets now in the heart of the Sarnia Eaton’s Mall, and Miss Pottinger was set up once more in the Baptist Church.
All the small schools located at various times along Lochiel Street in private homes, in the Baptist Church, in the Hall of the Sons of Temperance, the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, and City Hall were the forerunners of the old Lochiel (School) built in 1872.
These little schools, from the warehouse school of 1838 to the various classrooms located along Front and Christina Streets and on or near Lochiel Street, represented early education in our City. With the construction of the Union School in 1860 and Lochiel School in 1872, education took on a more formal and permanent appearance.
Perhaps it is only fitting to mention the existence of a number of private schools that existed in the last half of the 1800s, although they fall outside the scope of this book [Editor’s Note: Crich was writing in “The Way it Was: the History of the Sarnia Public Elementary Schools”] Miss Nesbit reported that there was a two-room school on Vidal Street just north of the George Wenino house taught by a Miss Farrell. Mrs. Walker, widow of Rev. David Walker, had a very good school in her home on Christina Street immediately north of St. Andrew’s Church, assisted by a Miss King. Later, Miss King opened her own school. Following Miss King, Miss Betty McCallum ran the same school. A Miss Gibbons ran a school on George Street. The last private school of which Miss Nisbet wrote in the Sarnia Observer was taught by a Miss Holmes. These schools probably touched but a few lives and the ordinary folk in Sarnia had no contact with them. Other sources mention a school on Durand Street run by Douglas Mudie and one run by a Miss Lawson.