Friday, January 12, 2024

The Story of Sam Gordon - Memorable Early Westboro Teacher

(This is the first of what I hope will be a series of articles about life in Westboro in the 1850s)

Today Westboro is home to many large schools, and dozens of excellent teachers helping educate the roughly 2,000 kids that attend these schools. But today I want turn back the clock 170 years to primitive Westboro, when the neighbourhood had just one school, with one room full of kids of all ages (who travelled in from all over the area), and most notably for the sake of this story, one teacher.

I wrote about the early days of schools in Kitchissippi a few years ago (check out that story here) and in the article, I wrote about the first school, which was established in 1851 in what is now Westboro, on land donated by the Thomson family (who built Maplelawn, aka the Keg Manor home). 

The Thomsons donated a 66' x 99' piece of land in 1851, in the heart of what would one day be Westboro, but at the time was simply part of the wilderness of Nepean Township. The name Skead's Mills was still years away, and the early names of Baytown and Birchton would come later too. The land really was in the middle of nowhere. Even All Saints Church was still 14 years away from having its cornerstone laid. 

19th century frame school house. (This is not in Westboro, but
an example of what it may have looked like. This is actually
Jockvale School, also in Nepean Township, circa 1889).
(Source: Nepean Museum)

The school was built on what is now the northwest corner of Richmond and Churchill (where Gezellig's is now located), and would have looked not unlike the school depicted above. Today's Churchill Avenue Public School traces its origins back to this 1851 school.

Very little is known about this original school house, or even the brick one that replaced it in 1866 when the first one was apparently beginning to fall apart. 

So that makes it all the more exciting that I stumbled across a really great story about the school from the 1850s. I mean, any story about Kitchissippi from that era is rare and exciting, but this one brings alive such a cool early days story that I just had to share it. 

It's all thanks to an interview the Citizen did in 1927 with an elderly Ottawa resident, James McIsaac, who had attended school in Westboro in the 1850s, and remembered fondly one of the teachers there from that time, Mr. Sam Gordon.

The story is set during the years 1856 and 1857 while James McIsaac was a young 8-9 year old student at the school.  

Now at the time, most of the teachers in Nepean Township were male. And the school had just one room to accommodate the 20 to 30 students in attendance (the earliest figure I have is 29 students who attended in the 1863 year, which is a few years after this story is set, so the number of students attending in the mid-1850s was likely even smaller). The student population would have been made up of children from west end farms stretching from Woodroffe to Bayswater, from the Ottawa River all the way south to Baseline. This was what was known as Nepean Township "school section 2". It was just farms, and at the time in the mid-1850s, only half of the land, if that, was even occupied.

Sam Gordon had come to Bytown from Ireland in the early 1850s, part of the large number of Irish relocating to Canada at the time, largely due to the potato famine. He was a college graduate, and had been the head of an academy of some kind back home. He was in his fourties, and unmarried. It was on his very first day of school in Westboro that the mysterious Irishman caught the attention of his group of farm kids. 

Sam had been brought in as a replacement teacher and on his first day, upon arriving at school, the students noticed a new fiddle hanging on the wall. 

"When recess came the pupils ran helter-skelter into the yard", recounted the Citizen. "Soon through the open door they heard what Mr. McIsaac describes as the most beautiful violin music. One by one the pupils crept back into the school and sat listening spellbound to the strains that came from the master's fiddle." 

"Well, children", Gordon said at the conclusion of his piece, "you evidently like music. I love it, so we will have plenty of it." 

And they did. From then on, every day at recess, Gordon would play his fiddle for the children. As well, on every Saturday afternoon, Sam had all the children back for what he called the "school house cleaning", where he would play more music. Barn dance music was mixed with music "which made many of the children cry, it was so sad and solemn." Eventually, Sam taught the children drill and fairy dances on these Saturdays, all to the music of his violin. "Ah, those were the days", recalled McIsaac. 

McIsaac noted though that before there was music, there was work. "The boys carried water from the school well, and the girls swept and scrubbed the school floor. The soap and brooms were bought with money brought by the children from home. Now wasn't that nice? It gave the little ones a real sense of ownership in the school."

"The Village School in 1848" painted by Albert Anker

Sam Gordon was also an artist, and drew on the walls and in the children's books. He drew "the most beautiful sketches of landscapes, of cows in the nearby fields, of the children themselves, of the schoolhouse, and of all sorts of pretty things", remembered McIsaac. "This old bachelor seemed to have a beautiful soul and the children all loved him."

Gordon was unique for the era. The Citizen called him "a teacher who ruled by love and the power of music at a period when other teachers ruled by physical force."  There was a ruler and a strap present in the school, said McIsaac, but they were seldom, if ever used.

But the use (or at least the threat) of physical force by teachers at the time was usually necessary. Male students attending school in the country were often the sons of farmers. They were often physically big and very strong, having put in many years of hard labour on the family farm. And they could be as old as 25 attending school in that era. The Citizen compared them to the supervisors of lumbering jobs in the forest:

"The old time school teachers (forties to sixties) were nearly all what in the vernacular might be called cards. Most of them had oddities of manner and action which will make them long remembered. They had also a vigor of action which made them celebrated. In many ways they were in a class with the bush foremen of the fifties and sixties. Both had to hold their jobs by force. Both had to be supreme, no matter how. If the big boys ran the school, the teacher had to resign and teacher jobs were not numerous. The bush foreman had, on his part, to handle men who were rough and ready and who would just as soon fight as eat. Some of them would sooner fight than eat. Some of them were larger physically than the foreman, and if the foreman resorted to questionable methods of holding his job, he had cause for excuse."  

So back to Sam Gordon, his value to the kids was never more apparent than from one time when he fell ill for a period of time, and a temporary teacher was brought in to the Westboro school house. The replacement teacher was a larger man of about 50 years of age. "After this chap had been in the school a couple of days, the pupils all knew just how much they really thought of Sam", said McIsaac.

The new teacher came from somewhere in the country, or perhaps Bytown, McIsaac couldn't remember clearly. But he recalled that he walked in to work each day, carrying with him a bundle which contained his lunch. Each morning upon arrival, he would place the bundle up in the school loft through a trap door. 

The replacement teacher also apparently had a habit of falling asleep mid-class with his head on the desk. 

"Well it was not long before the children discovered how soundly the temporary teacher slept. One day two of the larger boys had the temerity to get on the teacher's desk and by mutual aid succeeded in getting the teacher's bundle down from the loft", recalled McIsaac. "Then they went out to the road and put the bundle on a load of logs which was being taken to Bytown."

"The boys were back in their place before the teacher woke up. When the teacher looked for his bundle at noon that day there were lots of excitement", joked McIsaac.

"It was noticed that then next day the teacher took only 40 winks, so to speak, and the day after that Sam Gordon came back and all was well."

McIsaac shared another remembrance of another temporary teacher who filled in at one time, a younger man, who was studying for the ministry, and who lived along the Rideau River. McIsaac recalled he had a "marked dislike" of dust inside the school. As Richmond Road was a dry dirt road at the time, particularly in the heat of the spring or early summer, and as the school faced Richmond Road, dust that was kicked up by the road would constantly find its way inside the school.  

"He was a kind teacher, but his habit of always flecking dust off his clothes and polishing his desk sort of got on the nerves of the children."

What a neat glimpse into the long lost days of very early Westboro! 

As records are so sparse from the era, I could not confirm who Sam Gordon was, or definitively confirm where he went after his time in Westboro. It appears likely that he is the same Sam Gordon who a few years later was teaching in Goulbourne Township, in school section 2 there. The 1863 Superintendent's report to Carleton County Council noted that Samuel Gordon was their teacher, with 48 pupils, in a log school house. 

Old records of Goulbourne Township in the 1860s also list a Samuel Gordon living and farming in Munster Hamlet, but with a sizable family. As our Westboro Sam Gordon was a bachelor without children, it seems unlikely the Munster Sam Gordon is the same one. And with the commonality of the name, I can't connect him definitively to any records. So the trail simply goes cold.

However, it's clear the influence Sam Gordon had on that group of early west end children, particularly when you consider how 70 years after the fact, James McIsaac was able to recount with such incredible detail the man who had left such an impression on him as a youth. 

So, it appears this story remains just that - a tidbit of school life in Westboro so long ago. And it is thanks to the interview with elderly McIsaac in 1927 that this story is preserved and can now bring Sam Gordon to life again, 170 years later.

"The Violinist" - Alson Skinner Clark


  1. Thanks so much Dave.

    Isn’t Gezeligs on the NW corner of that intersection? The SW corner would be where lululemon is, no?

    1. Great catch! I've fixed it. It was on the northwest corner, not southwest.