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Nov. 14, 2019 | Thursday
Entertainment News
Niagara's History Unveiled: Laura Secord school was a model for province
Laura Secord Memorial School in 1923. (Courtesy the Jean Huggins Collection)

The Laura Secord Memorial School no longer functions as a school. It closed in 2010.

At the time, the community sadly acknowledged that the venerable building could no longer continue as a modern elementary school; however, Willowbank, the School of Restoration Arts, has taken over the building and uses it for classrooms and demonstrations.

The two-acre playground has been subdivided. Half has been sold as building lots to support Willowbank’s future programs. The remainder became a park in 2017, the only one in the village.

The school is a large one-storey brick and stone building with a raised Queenston limestone basement. Sitting on a slight knoll facing Princess Street, it has the characteristics of Edwardian classicism with arts and crafts details.

If you face the school at the intersection of Princess and Maple streets in the winter when the trees are bare, you will notice that Willowbank up on the hill behind the school resembles the school’s front facade. Willowbank’s four pairs of pillars seem to match Laura Secord’s two pair, albeit on a smaller scale.

The Laura Secord Memorial School replaced a stone building built in 1844.

Construction took place in 1914 and the school was opened on Sept. 18, 1915. It had two classrooms even though enrollment could be as high as 120. In its first 38 years, there were only two principals, Charles R. Kilkenny (from the opening until June 1918) and Hazel A. Corman, who ran the school until her retirement in 1953.

Corman, recording her recollection of the school’s history, notes that, “At (the) impressive (school opening) ceremony, Mr. Charles Lowrey, who acted as chairman, gave a resume of its construction by architect A. E. Nicholson at a cost of $19,047 – $3,000 of which was a gift of J. D. Larkin of Buffalo and a further gift of $3,000 (from) the Queenston Women’s Institute.”

At the time, the school was described as a model for the province. It had flush toilets, a steam heating system and a well under it to provide running water for pressure drinking fountains.

(Until 1924, the Women’s Institute used the hall that it built in the school. At that point, the institute received a letter from the school trustees ordering them to take their belongings and leave the building, even though they had a 999-year lease.

The trustees made it clear they would not return the W.I.’s $3,000 donation. The case went to the Supreme Court of Canada, which found in favour of the institute.)

The opening program that followed, according to Corman, included the playing of O Canada by the Fruit Growers Band and speeches by various dignitaries. She then recounts that “Mayor James Sheppard gave a most interesting account of his recollections of the old school built in 1844, which had seen Queenston pass from a great port with mule teams portaging cargoes to Chippawa, later replaced by horse railroad, and having 13 hotels, four liquor stores, a shoe factory employing 40 employees, to the pleasant village of today.”

A ladies’ sitting room was added to the auditorium some years later and in 1946 the school was connected to the new municipal water supply.

Corman also comments on not one, but two bells being in the school during her tenure, “Interesting items of equipment are the large bells, the one in the belfry having come from “Paddy Miles” the (Michigan Central Railway) train which was the chief means of transportation to N. Falls, the conductor of which for years was fondly known as Paddy Miles. The smaller bell, mounted in the corridor, was once a ship’s bell on the first Queenston-Lewiston ferry operated by William Humphries to take passengers to meet Toronto boats.”

After the Second World War, a cannon was placed beside the school, much to the enjoyment of the village children playing war games. The cannon is gone now, first to the Queenston cenotaph and now in the Old Town near Butler’s Barracks.

Former villager T. Alan Clifford spoke of his days as a student at Laura Secord Memorial School:

“Laura Secord Public School was a two-room school that, according to my mother, my grandfather Charles Lowrey had been instrumental in having it built. I was told the stone used to build it came from his quarry at St. Davids. My mother had attended the old school at the turn of the century … Much of the schoolyard was covered in cinders from the coal-burning boiler which heated the school. A fall on these in the yard always meant torn flesh from which the cinders had to be picked out. At recess the boys played baseball or soccer in season, caught frogs in the pond beside the yard, tried to start fires with magnifying lenses, built forts from which to throw snowballs, or rode our bikes. No teacher ever supervised the yard. Occasionally, the principal, Miss Corman would come out to stop a fight but the teachers usually spent recesses in the library having tea. The school, then, as was quite common, had separate boys and girls entrances.

“Teachers rang a hand bell at times but the school had a bell on the roof which was rung from inside in the hall separating the two classrooms. To ring it you pulled on a rope that emerged from the ceiling. Care had to be taken not to pull too hard and flip the bell over. If that happened, someone had to get a ladder, go up into the attic, into the cupola on the roof and flip the bell back over. There was a door on the cupola that opened onto the roof and it had a latch on the inside. Those were great years in which to grow up and the village provided a wonderful environment in which to do so ... the fact that everyone knew who you were kept us from committing serious misdemeanours.”

Marian Murray was a teacher at Laura Secord School. In a Jan. 7, 2015, interview, she gave her view of mid-20th century life in Queenston. Murray started teaching in 1944 and, single at the time, she boarded in the village. She said that if you lived in Queenston, you had to participate in village life. Nearly everyone who attended the school walked to and from it, as well as going home for lunch. (During an earlier period, this wasn’t true. Helen Glendenning, who lived near Niagara Glen, took the trolley to school most days. She comments that on the days she had to walk, she spent her five-cent trolley fare on candy at the store!)

Murray taught primary school, although in her first year, after teaching for four months, the school principal fell and hurt her back, so Murray took over the senior classes. Her substitute with the primary children was Jean Huggins, a life-long resident of Queenston, and its historian. Unfortunately, she wasn’t a success. Murray considered her to be a “bit of a tartar.”

In the post-war period, boys were allowed to stay at school until they were 16. They could be troublesome at this stage and some were known to come to school drunk.

New classrooms were added to Laura Secord School between 1955 and 1957. They weren’t enough for the long-term, though, and in 1968, the primary children were moved to Brockview School, at Line 2 and Concession 1.

Like Laura Secord School, it is now closed, although the building is still there and used as a community hall by the local Croatian community. Murray stopped teaching in 1953, when her daughter was born. She returned to the classroom in 1959 and continued to teach until she retired in 1980.

Today, the Laura Secord School is the Willowbank School for Restoration Arts lower campus. It continues to serve the villagers, however.

During the 2018 municipal election campaign, the former gymnasium was the only space in the village large enough to hold an all-candidates meeting.

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To learn more about the topic of this story you can visit the Niagara Historical Society & Museum website at, www.niagarahistorical.museum, or visit the museum for yourself.

The Niagara Historical Museum is located at 43 Castlereagh St. in Old Town, in Memorial Hall. Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.

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