It feels like I am starting off every blog post I write with something along the lines of “we discovered another Kingston gem”, this may be getting old but it is so very true of the couple of hours we spent in Barriefield on a wonderful, sunny and warm spring morning. I had never been to Barriefield before, and I was surprised by the cuteness hiding in the triangle of Hwy 2, Hwy 15 and the Cataraqui River! It is really a trip into the country without ever leaving central Kingston. The first stone homes were built here on the hillside in 1814, then in 1820 it was named after Commodore Robert Barrie, Commissioner of the Naval Dockyard. In 1980 it was designated a Heritage Conservation District.
So much for the facts – we were lucky that the Frontenac School Museum curator, Jayne Henry, shared some lesser known local lore on Barriefield with us. It had been a military settlement for Fort Frontenac and Fort Henry originally and always been a poor neighbourhood. Prior to being designated a Heritage Conservation District, it was so run down and nearly abandoned, with houses in inhabitable conditions and mostly dirt floors, that residents were living in trailers in their front yards. It had also had a colourful reputation for being considered the Red Light District near the military base. You wouldn’t guess any of this when walking through the village today – the buildings are wonderfully restored and just look absolutely lovely. This hobby photographer couldn’t get enough! There is a little flyer available at the museum that has information on the history of every house in the village.
The Frontenac County School Museum began as a project to celebrate Kingston’s Tercentenary in 1973. A small group of retired educators spent many hours researching schools, photographing sites, collecting books and artifacts, and microfilming hundreds of school records. This applies to High School entry exams between the 1930s-60s – including inmates at Corrections Canada institutions in Kingston. Here, the amazing fact is that out of the prison population all applicants passed. In 1977, the Museum Association was formally established. The museum opened to the public in 1979. In 2006, it moved to its present location in historic Barriefield village. It is housed in the former Pittsburgh Township Hall that was used as a public library, built by well known architect William Newlands in 1886. Most of the current volunteers have spent their professional lives as educators within the Limestone District School Board as well.
The museum’s outstanding feature – beyond a tremendous collection of artifacts and storytelling of social and educational history – is the fact that they offer a variety of school programs to kids in all grades and even University students. Their programs usually consist of half days of actual lessons by a ‘School Marm’ in their historic school room. The original desks came straight out of Frontenac County schools and are all set with slates, chalk, cloth and Ontario Readers! Students will be taught actual lessons in pen and ink, cursive writing as well as crafts.
The students will be participating in a turn-of-the-century type school day. They will be assigned chores as classroom monitor e.g. taking attendance, black board wiping, the water dipper. Depending on the amount of time a group will spend at the museum, lessons in geography, music and a little field trip to the nearby Rock Garden can be included.
The best part is, that any class can ride to Barriefield for free on Kingston Transit busses – there now is a bus stop in Barriefield. The suggested donation for a program per class is $50. Personally, I think this could more than make up for a long and pricey field trip to Upper Canada Village. Programs are also offered through Beyond Classrooms, an awesome initiative moving classrooms into community spaces for enriched learning opportunities.
Having a closer look at the displays in the museum, we learned that teacher’s training only became more formalized in 1847, when the ‘Toronto Normal School’, the first provincial institution for the systematic training of elementary school-teachers, was established.
In this space, pictures really do tell stories. In class photos, the type of dress, shoes (or lack thereof!), cleanliness of students tell us about their social history. Within Frontenac County, there weren’t only one-room schoolhouses – a wide variety of circumstances are represented. I was amazed to see photos of Central Public School on Sydenham Street, which we are personally connected to. I wasn’t aware that it was a wonderful limestone building dating back to 1887 before it was deemed unsafe, torn down and replaced by the current building.
The museum is always looking for local residents to help identify children and teachers in their photos and displays. There is an oral history project in the making to preserve the local history that people share. Local author and columnist Gord Sly has shared many stories in the Whig Standard and actually turned them into a book, Good Old School Days, a compilation of three dozen columns he has written on the history of education in the Kingston area for the Whig-Standard the past three years. Please contact the museum if you would like to contribute your stories!