The Woolwich School

   The Barkfield School here at the Mennonite Heritage Village museum is a sample of the kind of one-room school that dotted the Rural Municipality (RM) of Hanover in the first half of the twentieth century. One teacher (often young, female, and single), eight grades, a huge blackboard around two walls, a picture of the King and Queen up front, and oiled plank floors.

   What were children learning in their one-room schools in the 1930s? If you are tempted to think that what the teacher and pupils covered was a primitive curriculum, think again. Ernie Braun from Tourond, has found detailed notes of courses taught at the Woolwich School by thirty-something Agnes Willms in 1929-34. Woolwich (pronounced “Wool-wich” by the Mennonites) was located at the extreme western edge of the RM of Hanover. It was during the Great Depression, and she was paid all of $450 for the year. She stayed at Woolwich for five years, which was unusual for a single woman. Often the lady teacher was whisked off to the altar by the most eligible young man of the district, not to return to the classroom.

   Agnes kept careful notes of her teaching topics in a spreadsheet, likely because she was required to show it to the school inspector at his next visit. That inspector was probably Archibald Adam Herriot. In his book, Schools, Our Heritage, John K. Schellenberg says that “the pupils were scared of him suddenly coming unannounced; the teachers loved him, especially the ladies!”

   The topics of instructions were math, language, grammar, reading, literature, spelling, geography, history, music, drawing, nature study, agriculture, physiology, and science. Whew. Agnes never recorded anything for agriculture, probably because the pupils had already had enough of that. But everything else was fair game and got some of her attention.

   To get a feeling for the curriculum, let’s look at the Grade VII literature and reading material. In November these 13-year olds were expected to read Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, and A Winter’s Tale. In December it was As You Like It. The next year it was 12th Night, Timon of Athens, Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, and Othello! Seriously.

   Miss Willms seems to have been especially fond of choral music. For this, all the pupils participated together as a wonderful little choir, singing everything from simple children’s songs to Christmas carols, folk songs, and oratorio selections. They even sang the difficult old carol Past Three O’Clock (lyrics at hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com). There was also a lot of music theory, including opera. One wonders what that meant for kids in the backwoods during the Depression.

   Perhaps an example of the impact this teacher had on her students was revealed in 1981 when a group of alumni hosted a reunion of all former Woolwich students at the Grunthal park. With Agnes in the audience, a 63-year-old former Grade VII student sang several stanzas of a song that Miss Willms had taught the class in 1932.

   In those days the teacher offered a glimpse of what was called “culture.” Miss Willms was an immigrant to Canada, having been born in Russia. She was apparently comfortable with European culture and had absorbed that of British Canada. There is no hint of German or French language instruction in her notes. I’m sure Inspector Harriot was very pleased with Miss Willms’ work, and the children will have had their minds and spirits enlarged.

Calendar of Events

November 9, 7:00 PM – Celebrating 150 Years of Immigration

November 17 & 18, 9:00 AM – 7:00 PM – Christmas in the Village

December 3, 7:00 PM – Vespers Service

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About the Author

Barry is the Executive Director of the Mennonite Heritage Village. While he does not consider himself to be a historian, he places a high value on the preservation and interpretation of the Mennonite and pioneer stories that help people of all ages understand and appreciate their heritage. Learn more about the MHV.

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