Have we found a clue to the barn mystery?

Diamond cross on Vermilyea Road barn

Look up and left: an example – from Vermilyea Road, just north of Belleville, Ont., where I work – of the mysterious diamond crosses carved into some barns in our area. Why, people, why?

You know, I love solving mysteries, or at least seeing mysteries solved. As a rule the most mysterious mysteries in my day-to-day life are where I might have left my reading glasses, or my phone, or my keys – not super-exciting stuff, but one does get a nice surge of satisfaction when the mystery is solved and the missing object located. (My reading glasses, by the way, are quite frequently discovered perched atop my head.)

The most recent mystery I shared here at Meanwhile, at the Manse was one brought to my attention by reader Greg Polan. As you may recall, the mystery in question – which you can read all about here – is the phenomenon of diamond-cross cutouts on the upper levels of quite a few barns in Hastings County and some other parts of Ontario (as well as some places in the United States). As Greg put it, these barn crosses are “enigmatic in terms of original purpose and meaning.” People, enigma = mystery!

As was explained (more or less) in that earlier post, cutouts on barn walls are not uncommon, and probably have something to do with a combination of letting birds (owls, swallows) in or out of the barn, and providing ventilation and light inside the barn. But the diamond crosses that Greg drew to my attention are unusual, in that the pattern is a complex one to make, and has no apparent practical advantage over a plain old four-sided square or diamond. Whoever built the barns that have these unusual features went to a lot of trouble over them. Why?

Well, that’s the mystery.

I was pleased that when I uploaded that post and then shared it on Facebook, several readers indicated that they are now intrigued by the mystery too, and have already started looking closer at barns they pass in their travels to see if they bear the mysterious diamond crosses. Personally, I always look for them now, having been alerted to their existence by Greg, and I’ve spotted several.

The comments that came in (some from people having consulted their parents or other elders) also contained some suggestions about the purpose of the diamond-cross cutouts: ventilation, again (though why so decorative?); a tradition carried over from early Dutch builders in the U.S.; a symbol of Freemasonry or other such organizations; a church symbol of some sort; a Celtic cross; a Mennonite connection; a symbol to ward off witches – or the taxman! All god suggestions, in my view.

But something that two different readers dug up really intrigued me, and I think it might hold a clue to the mystery. Because many readers don’t see all the comments on my posts (whether here or on Facebook – the link showed up in both places), I thought I would share it here. It’s definitely food for thought.

The clue comes in an article published online in 2013 and (according to the online posting), written in 2008 as part of college project on research writing. The author is M. Custer, and I’m afraid I don’t know any more about M. Custer (including his or her first name, or geographical location) than that.

The full article is here, and I encourage anyone interested in this topic to read the whole thing; it’s fascinating! (Though the type is awfully small. Where are my reading glasses?)

But here’s the main gist of M. Custer’s piece: it’s possible that the crosses are a symbol intended to invoke protection against fire, whether caused by lightning strike or something else. The writer cites a couple of saints who are supposed to be able to intervene against the threat of fire, and who also happen to have interesting-looking crosses connected with them.

One of these is St. Florian, whose cross resembles a Maltese cross and is used as a symbol by fire departments pretty much everywhere; it looks like this:

Saint-Florian-Cross

And here’s what it looks like when worked into a fire-department logo:

St. Florian cross fire department

The other saint that M. Custer dug up is St. Brigid of Kildare, one of Ireland’s patron saints, who is sometimes thought to protect against fire. Her cross is quite an unusual one and, with a bit of imagination, one might be able to see it as a model for our Ontario barn crosses. Here are a couple of variations:

St. Brigid's cross

St. Brigid's cross 2

But after all this business about saints who are supposed to offer protection from fire, Custer also sensibly notes that Lutherans (associated with these barn cutouts in the U.S.) and many other Protestants do not adhere to a belief in protection by saints – so maybe this theory too flies out the window.

However: to quote M. Custer once again (and as someone who grew up in a rural area, I absolutely know this to be true): “Barns were the largest building and investment on a farmstead. It was considered normal and sensible to pay more for the barn than the farmhouse since a barn protected a farm family’s grain, tools, livestock, machinery, food and means for survival through winter.”

Back when these old barns were built, and in fact still today, a barn fire can be, and often is, a disaster, the destruction taking a farm family’s livestock and machinery and thus posing a very serious and immediate threat to the family’s livelihood.

Custer goes on: “Because barns represented success and survival, a cross-shaped [cutout] may have been a traditional symbol of protection and good luck.” And, I might add, if this diamond cross was seen as a good-luck symbol to ward off fires, I suspect the owners of the barn, Lutheran or whatever form of Protestant though they might have been, wouldn’t have cared a whit that the symbol had its origins in traditions surrounding Roman Catholic saints. Hey, if it protects your barn and thus your family from a disastrous fire – or even if it might protect them – who’s to question it? Whatever it takes…

ermilyea Road barn with diamond cross

Can you imagine a barn-builder carving that diamond cross as superstitious protection against fire? I believe I can.

Anyway, I think it’s an intriguing, and credible, theory, and I thank M. Custer for the research and for sharing the article, and my readers for finding it.

And now I shall sit back and await more clues and theories. Please feel free to share them, and let’s try to solve this mystery!

Here, my rural friends, is a mystery for you to solve

Cooper Road - Madoc, ON

See the diamond-shaped opening not far below the roofline of this barn (which happens to be on Cooper Road not far from Queensborough)? What do you suppose it was put there for? Would you believe that apparently nobody knows for sure? And so we have a mystery for you to solve. (Photo courtesy of Greg Polan)

I’ve said it before and doubtless I will say it again: readers of Meanwhile, at the Manse come up with the most interesting things. This time, it’s a mystery that needs solving.

I’d like to say I’m putting on my Nancy Drew headscarf yet again, but actually I don’t think Nancy could solve this one. Not the Hardy Boys either. They’re all a little too urban for this one. This particular mystery has to do with an unusual design element in some 19th-century Hastings County barns, and why it might have been put there. The detectives we need are people knowledgeable about farming history and traditions in our part of the world. Detectives: I know who you are. And I want to hear from you!

As does reader Greg Polan, who got me going on this fascinating line of inquiry.

It began with a post I did earlier this year about the beautiful old barns that dot the landscape in the Queensborough area. A few months after it appeared, Greg posted a comment:

“Also very interesting are the diamond cross barn cutouts found on some barns in Hastings County. Are now enigmatic in terms of original purpose and meaning … seemingly forgotten over time.”

Well! The words “enigmatic” and “seemingly forgotten over time” are enough to grab my attention. Intrigued, I asked Greg to elaborate, and he steered me to a scholarly article on the barn mystery that was published back in 1981 by Thomas F. McIlwraith of the University of Toronto, who is now emeritus professor in U of T’s Department of Geography and Planning. I’ll tell you more about the interesting contents of that article in just a bit.

Greg also sent some more information of his own:

“This symbol is also found on barns in New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New York, and Ohio, to name a few U.S. states. Sometimes as singles, or in twos or threes. Likely a cultural transference element from early European settlers that some associate with a German influence (speculative). Characteristic of the earliest of barns in Ontario early- to mid-19th century until about 1900. Original meaning and purpose seemingly forgotten in our time but must have been more common than we realize now.”

And then he told me this:

“There are a couple of good examples along Cooper Road if you look for them.”

Wow – that’s close to home! Cooper Road is just a few miles west of Queensborough.

And then Greg was kind enough to email me some photos he’s taken of the diamond cutouts on barns in this area. The one at the top of this page is one of the Cooper Road barns he refers to; here are some more of his photos:

Sidney Township - Hastings (2) - April 2017

A barn in southwestern Hastings County’s Sidney Township that has three of the mysterious diamond cutouts. (Photo courtesy of Greg Polan)

Hastings County barn 2

Another Hastings County barn with the diamond cutouts. (Photo courtesy of Greg Polan)

Vermilyea Road - Sidney Twp - Hastings County - Nov 2017

A barn on Vermilyea Road, Sidney Township. (Photo courtesy of Greg Polan)

County Road 35 West of Campbellford - Nov 2017

A barn on Northumberland County Road 35 west of Campbellford. (Photo courtesy of Greg Polan)

Hastings County barn 1

It looks like the diamond cutouts have been filled in and painted on this Hastings County barn (Photo courtesy of Greg Polan)

Let me tell you a little bit about Greg – or actually, I’ll let him tell you a bit about himself – and then I’ll share some of the various theories that Thomas F. McIlwraith puts forward as to why these curious shapes were added to some 19th-century barns. I asked Greg if he had a connection to this area, and he sure does – one that goes way back:

“My connection to Hastings [County] goes back several generations as my mom was a Burris (as in “Burris School”) and my great-grandfather was Jackson Burris, who owned the 200 acres now bordered by Highway 62, Public School Road, Hazzards Road, and Cooper Road. [Note from Katherine: this is the site of our much-loved, and recently saved from closure, Madoc Township Public School!] I grew up in Belleville and now reside in Acton, Ont. I still have family in the Hastings area and I visit the area as often as I can.”

Pioneer America

Pioneer America, the journal in which the scholarly article on diamond crosses appeared.

Okay, let’s move on to Prof. McIlwraith’s 1981 article in the journal Pioneer America. It’s entitled The Diamond Cross: An Enigmatic Sign in the Rural Ontario Landscape. You can read the article in its entirety if you click here and register (it’s easy and free) for an account with JSTOR, which is an online repository of scholarly articles. But since I’ve already done that, I’ll try to bring you what I think are the highlights. I’ll start, however, by quoting most of Prof. McIlwraith’s first paragraph:

High up in the gabled ends of hundreds of century-old barns throughout Ontario appear, one or more at a time, small diamond-shaped openings with triangles on the corners, sawn through the board siding. The diamond cross first registered with me during fieldwork in Simcoe County, Ont., in September 1971. Since then, it has been an enduring blossom in my rural Ontario landscape, long defying interpretation, yet offering a path to deeper awareness of the cultural landscape of the province.

And then he provides these observations and reflections based on his extensive research:

  • The barns with the crosses were built between 1858 and 1904.
  • More than half of all the diamond crosses are single ones, but they also show up in pairs and “less commonly in groups of three, four and very occasionally five.”
  • Southern Ontario – the Grand River area and “an arc extending from the Lake Huron shore south of Goderich eastward through to the Kingston area” – is “the heartland” for the phenomenon, but the diamond crosses also appear in several U.S. states, as Greg noted – though not, interestingly, in New England.
  • Theories about a functional use for the diamond-cross cutouts include:
    • Allowing access for pigeons. (Unlikely, Prof. McIlwraith notes, since farmers consider pigeons pests.)
    • Allowing access for swallows and owls, more acceptable barn birds – but Prof. McIlwraith says there is no evidence that this is the reason for them.
    • Allowing light and ventilation – though Prof. McIlwraith says that the diamond crosses “are not really very useful for either purpose,” mainly because they are so small.

Overall, on the theory that the diamond crosses were installed to be useful in some way, Prof. McIlwraith concludes: “As far as admitting birds, air, or light is concerned, the chance of functional explanation for the design seems to be virtually nil.”

He then looks into non-functional (i.e. decorative or symbolic) explanations, and tells us that the “diamond cross is a design of great antiquity,” citing examples from a Chinese bowl from the fifth millennium B.C. and artifacts from Africa where it is believed to be a fertility symbol. But what’s the link (if any) between that symbolism and Ontario barns? That’s the mystery. The professor notes that plain diamonds are easy to cut into planks, and thus many barns have diamond shapes (as well as, occasionally, stars or squares). But “it takes an extra effort to extend the diagonals, punch out the side triangles, and notch the other triangles top and bottom. This effort makes the ordinary diamonds distinctive, creating a shape not generally encountered. It simply is not reasonable to suggest that so many farmers cut these openings in their barns to apply a nonfunctional embellishment without some common external influence.”

But what was that “external influence”? A now-forgotten decorative or even spiritual tradition brought to the New World from the Old by early settlers?

Neither Prof. McIlwraith nor, as far as I know, anyone else has the answer to that question. The good professor concludes his study eloquently:

The diamond cross seems to be as old as Ontario settlement, although it was widespread only about the middle of the 19th century. There are secrets yet to be discovered regarding its diffusion and acceptance; they could tell us a good deal about the mixture of social backgrounds in Ontario, and the degree of local mobility. Today, rural residents talk knowledgeably about rail fences and stone piles, but the diamond cross has left barely a trace in the consciousness or study of life in rural Ontario. The modesty of the diamond cross is so very characteristic of the unostentatious nature of the old Ontario landscape. Its decline is a matter of forgetting rather than of rejection, an expression of the progressive adjustment of immigrants from the Old World to living in the New.

The notion of a rural tradition that has now been utterly forgotten fascinates me – and makes me hope that maybe it’s not forgotten after all; that maybe someone out there can shed some light on why there are diamond crosses in the barns of Hastings County and elsewhere.

I’ll let Greg Polan have the last word, and remind you, dear reader, of your mission to help solve this mystery:

“I’m just fascinated about how something that was once relatively common in old rural Ontario (and as it turns out in many U.S. states as well) has simply been forgotten about. I would be very curious if your readers can share some insight into their purpose and meaning.”

Okay, folks: the ball is in your court!

Bless This House

Here are the Praise Friends singing Bless This House. From left, they are Janet Ellenberger, Patsy Mitchell, Sandra Brett, Ann Colebourne, Katherine Fleming and Heather Ferguson. Their accompanist is Claudia Scott.

It’s been highlight upon highlight at St. Andrew’s United Church in Queensborough. On Sunday, May 28, we had a rousingly successful, jam-packed Music Night to raise money to send kids to summer camp. (And you can read all about that here.) We followed it up this past Sunday (June 4) with another jam-packed event, a service celebrating 127 years of worship in our pretty rural church.

Good things are happening at St. Andrew’s!

The highlight of our anniversary service was the special music provided by a group of six women who call themselves Praise Friends. The stated mission of the six good friends – who come from small towns and villages throughout south, central and northern Hastings County – is simple: “To praise God through song.” They’ve performed at church services, special events, fundraisers and variety nights, and we were so pleased to have them bring their gift of music to St. Andrew’s. (Mind you, we had a bit of pull: one of the Praise Friends is Katherine Fleming of Madoc, our church’s pianist.)

The group – who are, in addition to Katherine Fleming, Sandra Brett of Stirling, Ann Colebourne of Foxboro, Janet Ellenberger of Coe Hill, Heather Ferguson of Stirling and Patsy Mitchell of Foxboro, with accompanist Claudia Scott of Belleville – performed several lovely pieces before and during our worship service to a very appreciative congregation. Among the highlights for me were a terrific arrangement of one of my favourite hymns, Be Thou My Vision, as well as an extremely moving piece (new to me) called You Are Mine, by the American liturgical music composer David Haas; you can hear a version of it here.

But the song that had very special meaning for me – the one that’s in the video atop this post – was Bless This House. When I was a kid growing up here in the Manse in Queensborough, that song was well-known and frequently sung. In doing a bit of research on it just now, I learned that Bless This House was published in 1927 and made particularly popular through recordings by the likes of Vera Lynn, Perry Como (mid-1950s) and Doris Day (1962) – setting it up for popularity and widespread recognition (and humming) in my 1960s childhood. So as Praise Friends did their beautiful rendition at St. Andrew’s, I recognized quite a few of the words. It is a song asking for God’s blessing on a building – and it works equally well whether the building is a family home, a house of worship, or another place where people gather. I can remember it being sung by school choirs at Madoc Township Public School, asking for a blessing on our school; that was in the days when one was allowed to do things such as invoke a higher being in a school situation.

Here are the words:

Bless this house, O Lord, we pray;
Make it safe by night and day.
Bless these walls so firm and stout,
Keeping want and trouble out.

Bless the roof and chimneys tall;
Let thy peace lie over all.
Bless this door, that it may prove
Ever open to joy and love.

Bless these windows shining bright,
Letting in God’s heavenly light.
Bless the hearth ablazing there
With smoke ascending like a prayer.

Bless now all who dwell within;
Keep them pure and free from sin.
Bless us all that we may be
Fit, O Lord, to dwell with Thee.

Bless us all that one day we
May dwell, O Lord, with Thee.

“Bless these windows shining bright, letting in God’s heavenly light”: the historic stained-glass windows at St. Andrew’s United Church.

As the members of Praise Friends harmonized so beautifully on “Bless these windows shining bright,” and the outdoor light shone in on us through the simple but lovely red, blue, green and gold stained glass at St. Andrew’s, I thought: “What a perfect musical piece for a historic little church’s anniversary.”

So many blessings have come to the faithful members of St. Andrew’s for 127 years and more; and those faithful servants have in turn, through their care and good works, brought so many blessings to the Queensborough and area community, and to places in need in the wider world. Our fundraiser to send kids to camp is just the most recent in a long, long line – a 127-year-plus line – of community outreach projects.

Our service was followed by a time of food and fellowship in the church hall. Those of us who faithfully attend services at St. Andrew’s every Sunday were joined by members of our partner churches – St. John’s United in Tweed and Bethesda United in the hamlet of White Lake – as well as many old friends and current and former members of our church. Our recently renovated (hey, we’re busy!) church hall was filled to overflowing with people enjoying a fine lunch and sharing stories and news. It was a day full of joy.

Our house was blessed.

A community comes together for a cause: saving our schools

bob-sager-at-public-meeting

Everyone was listening hard as Madoc Township Reeve Bob Sager made the case from the floor for the importance of Madoc Township Public School and its unmatched playground at last week’s public meeting about the future of the school.

I came away from last week’s public meeting about the future of Madoc Township Public School feeling a mix of anxiety and pride. The anxiety was over whether our community will be successful in keeping this splendid rural school open. The pride was in the thoughtful and clear-headed way in which members of the community asked their questions and made their case for why it should be kept open.

In case you’re new to this issue, the background is all contained in my recent posts here and here and here and here and here. The one-sentence version: the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board is proposing to close rural Madoc Township Public School, send its students to Madoc Public School in the village of Madoc, and send the Grades 7 and 8 students from both schools’ catchment areas, who currently are at Madoc Public, to Centre Hastings Secondary School, also in the village of Madoc. The change, which would take effect starting this coming school year (i.e. in September 2017), is proposed by the board because enrolment at CHSS and, to a lesser extent, Madoc Township Public School, is below the schools’ capacity and because (according to the board) maintenance and renovation requirements for the schools are higher “than the average for the system.”

The board’s process for deciding on whether to follow through with this proposal is to first set up what’s called an “accommodation review committee,” consisting of school and community representatives as well as the board’s regional superintendent of education. This committee’s job is to be the liaison between the community and the school board, and to provide the board’s elected trustees and administrators (unelected employees) with information, feedback and possible alternate courses of action, before the trustees make their final decision this coming June. (If you think that’s a tight timeline for such an important decision that affects so many people, notably children – you’re not alone.)

The committee for our three local schools having been duly formed, the first meeting for the public as a whole was held last week in the gym at CHSS. Turnout was good, though it would probably have been better had the meeting not been rescheduled by a day because of freezing rain, and had the weather not been bad on both the originally scheduled date and the new one.

The evening began with an hour-long presentation by board officials on the accommodation process – the background, the information about the schools that the board is working with, the timeline for the process, and so on. Doubtless this is a necessary step, though at one point I leaned over to my neighbour in the audience to wonder in a whisper whether they were trying to bore us into a catatonic state. All the information presented in the PowertPoint was already in everyone’s hands in the form of printouts that the board folks thoughtfully made available, so we basically went through it all twice. However, as a teacher I well know that you can’t present information too often if you want it to sink in, so I definitely am cutting the board people some slack on that point.

Then the floor was opened to questions, and that, of course, was the interesting part. There were questions about:

  • The accuracy of information provided in the board’s profiles of the three schools. Rooms in the high school that are no longer classrooms were listed as such, one person pointed out; errors like that would skew the data on how much space in the school is underused. One parent perceptively pointed out that the board gave two different figures in two different places for capacity and usage at Madoc Township Public School. In one document, capacity was listed as 184 students, with an actual enrolment of 121, which translated to usage of 66 per cent. In another document, the enrolment of 121 stood but capacity was listed as 161, which gives a significantly higher usage rate of 75 per cent. Oddly, she was told that the 66-per-cent figure was the correct one; I say “oddly,” because according to the documents, the 161-capacity, 75-per-cent-usage figure was more recent than the other one. I think that’s one mystery for the accommodation committee to get to the bottom of.
  • Whether the needs of the children had been considered, or was the board’s recommendation only about money. Noting the concern that many people have about “factory farms” and their impact on rural communities, the agriculture system and our food supply, one questioner suggested that recommendations like the one the board is considering are the educational equivalent: “factory schools.” Another, the mother of a child who’s in Grade 7 in the autism program at Madoc Public School, was almost in tears as she told the room that her son is not ready to be moved into a high-school environment as soon as this coming September. Another mum talked about her young children’s fearful questions to her about whether they’ll be riding the school bus with the big kids from high school.
  • The advisability of closing a school – Madoc Township Public – with extraordinary playground facilities: 5½ acres, according to one questioner, closer to seven acres according to the board’s own documentation (compared to a little less than 2½ acres at Madoc Public School). Madoc Township Reeve Bob Sager put it simply but well in his question from the floor: “There is room to play at Madoc Township Public School. Has that been taken into consideration?” Or, to quote a boy who bravely stepped up to the mike and said he is going into Grade 7 next year: “What will we do to go outside?” (Loud applause from the crowd to that, as to many of the questions asked at the meeting.)
  • What about those renovations? One person asked two good questions on this topic: First, why does the board documentation suggest that all listed renovations ($7 million at the high school, $2.3 million at Madoc Public and $2.9 million at Madoc Township) need to be done more or less right now? Surely, she suggested, the work can and would be done in stages over a period of several years? And second: Has the board consulted with contractors to find out how accurate its cost estimates for the renovations are?

Now, at this point you might be wondering what kind of answers were given to these excellent questions. In fact, there were no answers. The audience was told that all the questions and concerns were being recorded, and that the issues raised would be for the accommodation committee to consider and work through. (If you think that sounds like an awful lot of work for a group of community volunteers – once again, you’re not alone.)

Okay, on to more of the questions from the floor:

  • How do we contact members of the accommodation committee? This one actually got an answer: that there’ll be an email address for the committee on the board’s website. Speaking personally, I don’t think that’s good enough, and I don’t think queries should have to go through the school board’s email system. Also: I can’t as yet find that email address, though there is a listing of the committee members (without contact information) here.
  • Who will make the final decision on what happens to the schools? Again, an answer: The elected trustees who sit on the board. Followup question #1: How many trustees are there? Answer: Ten. Followup question #2: How many of them are here tonight? Answer: Two. (Bonnie Danes and Justin Bray, who represent central Hastings County and southeast Hastings County respectively.) Followup question #3: So 80 per cent of the people who will be making the final decision aren’t here tonight? No answer needed. It was a rhetorical question, and a perfectly correct observation.
  • What will happen down the road – or, as one questioner put it: “Where’s the growth going to go?” Closing Madoc Township Public School and moving the students to Madoc Public will completely fill that latter school up, and its attached land is small. Suppose, said the man at the mike, that even one good-sized company opens up in the area. Where would the children of its employees go to school? As I think about it, it strikes me that the smart subtext of that question is this: the board is betting on the failure of our rural area to attract growth and development, not its success. It’s betting on fewer people living here, not new people coming in. That, it seems to me, is unhelpful and unsupportive, and a big mistake.
Tom Deline speaks at public meeting

“Rural Ontario IS different:” the wise words of Centre Hastings Mayor Tom Deline.

Which leads me to some wise words that Tom Deline, the mayor of Centre Hastings (the municipality that takes in Madoc village), offered up from the floor. He told the board representatives that he recognizes the problems they’re facing (provincial-government funding rules for schools, declining enrolment, etc.), and sympathetically added that he wouldn’t relish their job. But, he said, closing a community’s school is like pulling out any other critical facility, such as an arena.

It’s about a sense of community, he said, urging the board: “Please, please consider the social and economic benefits of that particular school when you’re making those decisions.”

And then, in a statement that I feel is utterly true and absolutely critical, he said: “Rural Ontario is different.” We’re not a city; urban issues are not the same as our issues. Here where we live, Mayor Deline said, “the sense of community is tremendous.” And schools are a big part of that.

Another person speaking from the floor echoed that sentiment, pointing out that most people who live in rural areas have chosen to do so because they appreciate rural life – including their children being able to go to rural schools. While I don’t have kids, I know I chose to live in this rural area because of the quality of life here. We may not have all the amenities of a city – a nearby hospital, a big choice of shops – but for us that’s more than outweighed by space, and beauty, and friendly neighbours who help you out when you need it, and – to quote Reeve Sager again – room for our kids to play.

Rural Ontario is different, as Mayor Deline said. It is time for the provincial government to do a better job of recognizing that, and to work with its subordinate agencies – like school boards – to support and enrich rural life. Not shut it down.

Which is why I think we all need to get involved here, and get our elected representatives involved. Our local MPP, Todd Smith, is in the Conservative opposition as opposed to the governing Liberals, but he can ask the government (notably the minister of education) some pointed questions about support for rural schools. Why not contact him? His Belleville constituency office’s number is 613-962-1144 (toll-free 1-877-536-6248); his Queen’s Park office is 416-325-2702; and his email is todd.smithco@pc.ola.org.

Meanwhile, when the provincial riding boundaries change next year to match up with recent federal-riding changes, our MPP may well be the Conservative nominee for the new riding of Hastings-Lennox and Addington, none other than our longtime former MP, Darryl Kramp – a Madoc resident who is widely known and respected throughout this area. Why not contact him (here is his Twitter) and ask if he can help?

And while we’re at it (and even though education is a provincial, not a federal, matter), why not contact the guy who defeated Mr. Kramp in the last federal election, Liberal MP Mike Bossio? He is from Madoc, went to school there – and, what is probably more important, is hugely supportive of rural issues. He is, in fact, chair of the federal government’s National Rural Caucus, and in that role has been making considerable noise over the past year on the need to support rural communities. Why not ask if he can help? You can find Mr. Bossio’s contact information here.

Then there are the trustees on the school board, not just the two who came out to last week’s meeting – Bonnie Danes (who, to her great credit, voted against the “accommodation” process being started for our area) and Justin Bray – but the other eight, or 80 per cent, who didn’t come. You can find their names, phone numbers, email addresses and mailing addresses here. They are your elected representatives, and their mandate is to bring forward your issues. Tell them what those issues and concerns are!

There are also our local municipal councillors. It was great to see Reeve Sager and Mayor Deline speaking out at the meeting, but it would even better to see their respective councils pulling out all the stops in standing up for their local schools and our rural way of life. You can find the members of Madoc Township council here and Centre Hastings council here. Please let them know how you feel.

save-madoc-township-public-school-facebook-page

The new Facebook group Save Madoc Township Public School. Please join!

Finally, you might request membership (I doubt that you’ll be turned down) in the new Facebook group Save Madoc Township Public School, where lots of useful information is being shared. It was there, for instance, that I learned that under provincial rules about planned school closings (you can read the full document here), the board has an obligation to consult with the affected municipalities and other community partners about issues around underused school space – and presumably how that underused space might be used by said community partners. The person who posted the information asked: Has that consultation happened? A very good question. At the public meeting last week, we were given no indication that it had.

Also on that Facebook page, you’ll find a link to this interesting article from yesterday’s Toronto Star on provincewide concerns not only about rural schools being threatened with closures, but about the process surrounding those closures. It is good to know that we aren’t alone; the more pressure that all of us rural people can put on the government, the more chance there is that changes will be made and that rural schools – and by extension rural communities – will be given support rather than a governmental kick in the shins.

So what’s next? Well, first we should all contact the people I’ve mentioned, and anyone else you can think of who might be able to help. Oh, gracious – how could I have forgotten? Contact Ontario’s education minister! Her name is Mitzie Hunter, and her contact information is here. And while you’re at it, how about Ontario’s minister of rural affairs, Jeff Leal, who’s from nearby Peterborough? Here is his contact information. And the minister of municipal affairs, Bill Mauro, whose ministry’s website promises that it is “working with local governments and partners across Ontario to build safe and strong urban and rural communities with dynamic local economies, abundant greenspace and a high quality of life.” Bingo! Mr. Mauro’s contact information is here.

And last but not least: Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. Her contact information is here.

After that: attend meetings. The schedule the board has set up calls for there to be a meeting of the Madoc-area accommodation committee on Thursday, Feb. 9. I have inquired and have been told that a time and place for it have not yet been set, so stay tuned; that information will probably be provided through the three schools’ social-media (Facebook and Twitter) feeds, as well as under the “Upcoming Events” and/or “News Stand” sections of the school board’s website. There’s a followup meeting for the committee on Wednesday, March 1, but in between there are likely to be more informal school-by-school meetings – and at those, you will probably be allowed to speak, which we were informed at last week’s public meeting we could not do at the official committee meetings. (Though we are welcome to attend and be silent.)

On Wednesday, March 22, the board will hold the second of its two scheduled public meetings on the issue of changes to our three local schools. After that, it’s all about various board and committee meetings (you can see the full schedule here), and then the final decision at a board meeting Monday, June 19. Which is really not very far away.

The timeline is tight; the stakes are high; we probably have tough odds against us. But I feel sure that if we all do our part – by telling our elected representatives at every level how we (the people who elect them) feel, and by working together to come up with creative and innovative solutions to help the school board solve the tough problems it is up against – we have a really good shot. And in doing so, we can help others in rural Ontario who are facing the same problems and the same threat to their way of life.

I think this is a battle worth fighting. And that, with a lot of hard work, we can win.

Saving a school is hard work. It’s worth it.

Front of Madoc Township Public School

Madoc Township Public School, an excellent rural school that was built in 1961 and is threatened with closure at the end of the current school year. Let’s hope we can change that.

I am stunned by the number of people who read and shared my post from yesterday about the local public school board’s proposal to close Madoc Township Public School. Never has anything I’ve written in the almost five years that Meanwhile, at the Manse has been in existence come near to reaching an audience of that size. What does that tell me? It tells me that people care deeply about either the plight of rural schools in general in Ontario, or the specific plight of Madoc Township Public School – or more probably, both.

Even though I normally write only once a week, I thought I should update readers on developments that have taken place since yesterday’s post was written. I also wanted to offer some thoughts on how those who want to save our school might tackle the mission.

First, I want to say that I have thought better of my choice of words for the headline on yesterday’s post: “They want to close our school. We can push back.” Yes, it is 100-per-cent true that the recommendation that went before trustees on the Hastings Prince Edward District School Board yesterday was that the Township school be closed, that its students be bused to Madoc Public School in the village of Madoc, and that all grades 7 and 8 students from both schools’ catchment areas be moved to the high school in Madoc, Centre Hastings Secondary.

But then again, does anyone – the paid school-board administrators or the trustees who are elected by you and me to sit on the board and make the decisions – really want to close a school? I’m sure they don’t, given how much upset and outrage such moves always entail. This recommendation comes because our school board and many others are battling serious financial issues and a funding arrangement with the provincial government that severely limits the boards’ options. As a result, having thought about it quite a bit, I’ve modified that headline to read, “They say our school should be closed. We can push back.”

Now to the developments over the past 36 hours or so:

Yesterday afternoon, the school board’s school enrolment/school capacity committee received the recommendation from board administrators to begin a process called an “accommodation review” of schools in three areas: ours (that is, the Madoc area), Belleville, and Prince Edward County. This “accommodation review” (what does that mean, anyway?) is a process that will look at the feasibility of acting on the administrators’ recommendations that come with it, which involve closing quite a few schools and consolidating students elsewhere. (You can read a full report about it here.)

The committee did accept the recommendation – though I am pleased to say that the trustee who represents schools (including Madoc Township P.S.) and families in our area, Bonnie Danes, voted against it, expressing concerns about the loss of this important part of the rural community – and it then went before the full board last night. The board too gave the green light to the “accommodation reviews.”

Now, it’s very important to explain that school closures are a long way from a done deal at this point. The board’s vote last night merely sets the wheels in motion, and begins a process that will involve public consultation. Here, in fact (from the full report presented to the board, which you can read here), is the timeline. As you’ll see, the final and decisive vote won’t happen until this coming June:

school-review-timeline-page-1

school-review-timeline-page-2Another development since last I wrote is that Hastings County council also had a meeting, this very day. At it, as you can read here, councillors from our neck of the woods expressed what the Intelligencer‘s headline calls “deep concerns” about the proposed school closures. The councillors voted to meet with the school board to talk about the issues, and if necessary, to take their concerns to Ontario’s minister of education. To which I say: good for them. The mayor of Tweed, the municipality of which Queensborough is a part, said it well: “It does (affect) the community when you lose a school.”

That’s the thing, isn’t it? Rural communities like ours in Tweed, Madoc, Madoc Township and, yes, Queensborough, are thinly populated, and services and amenities are few and scattered. People who live here don’t – for the most part – complain about that; we make the best use we can of the services and amenities we do have. I’m thinking here of (to throw out just a few examples) the first-rate medical centre we have in Madoc. And the 24-hour grocery store that has saved my life (or at least my supper) more than once. And an incredible winery just up the road in the hamlet of Sulphide that is poised to become world-famous. And fantastic public libraries in Madoc and Tweed. And so on.

Our schools are among the most precious of our local services. The economies of our rural municipalities need people to come and live and work and open businesses and pay taxes here. If we lose schools, people with families (or who might someday have families) are less likely to do that. And then things just get worse. On the other hand, a vote of confidence in a school is a huge vote of confidence in the community it serves, and can be a major shot in the arm to that community’s economy and well-being and future.

Does the Ontario government want to support rural economies and rural life? Let’s hope the answer to that is yes. Let’s hope that the protests on behalf of rural schools that took place at Queen’s Park yesterday (yet another development in the past 36 hours) will have an impact.

Meanwhile, what can we, as ordinary folks who live in a rural area, do to try to save Madoc Township Public School? As you’ll have seen from the school board’s timeline, over the coming months there will be quite a few board meetings and consultation meetings and “public” meetings (I put “public” in quotation marks because all of these meetings are, or should be, open to the public – the people who, through their property taxes, pay the freight). We need to attend those meetings. And we need to come prepared. We need, to use a classic educational turn of phrase, to do our homework.

Stomping into a public meeting and shouting, “You can’t close my school!” is not constructive, and not all that helpful to anyone. If you’re going to push back against a proposal like a school closure, you should have a workable alternative or two up your sleeve:

  • What are the reasons the board administrators have for suggesting the school be closed – the school’s drawbacks and shortcomings? What suggestions can we come up with to mitigate those?
  • What is the financial reality the board is facing? What ways can we come up with to help it achieve its financial obligations while keeping our school open?
  • Why do the board administrators think things would be better for our kids if they went to a different school? What evidence can we supply to show that this isn’t – or at least needn’t be – the case?
  • What haven’t the board administrators thought of? What interesting and creative and exciting ideas can we come up with for our school that will help it better serve our community and, at the same time, allow the board to meet its provincially set financial targets?

Creativity will be required. The proverbial thinking outside the box.

Bravery will be required. It can be scary to put forward counter-proposals to those made by educational bureaucrats who are paid to come up with them, and are well-trained in the lingo and the tactics of defending their proposals.

But politeness, and kindness, and consideration for the plight the trustees and those school-board administrators find themselves in, are also really important. A polite and constructive dialogue will generally go a lot farther in resolving a problem than will a nasty shouting match.

That said: Creativity, again. Bravery, again. And hard work (getting names on petitions; getting people out to meetings; brainstorming ideas). And research.

And most of all: a determination to stand up for what’s best for our kids and our community.

They say our school should be closed. We can push back.

Madoc Township Public School

Madoc Township Public School, opened in 1961 to serve students from the rural area that includes Queensborough. Will this be its final year of operation?

The place where I began my school days, where I learned cursive writing and the times tables and long division and the parts of a flower and the life cycle of a monarch butterfly and how to say “Je m’appelle Katherine” and how to play Red Rover – that school is threatened with being closed at the end of the current school year. And I am very sad about that.

Well, sad – and mad. And mad not necessarily for the reasons you might suspect.

Me in front of Madoc Township Public School

Me in front of my old school.

The school in question is Madoc Township Public School, located a little west of the hamlet of Hazzards Corners, south of the hamlet of Eldorado, and north of the village of Madoc – pretty much dead centre in Madoc Township. That central location is deliberate, because the school was built in 1961 as a big (by the day’s standards) modern central facility to replace the one-room schoolhouses where until then the children of Madoc Township had received their primary-school education – schools at Hart’s, Cooper, O’Hara’s and so on. (I know those geographical references won’t mean anything to readers from outside central Hastings County, but please bear with me on this: they mean a lot to the people who live where I do.)

As time went on, children from one-room schools a little further afield were also moved to Madoc Township Public School. That was the case in 1966 for kids from Queensborough; our hamlet’s one-room school, built in 1901 (and now the Queensborough Community Centre) was closed that summer, and so in September I, along with all the other kids from the village, climbed aboard a big yellow bus to attend the new school a few miles west of us. I was just starting Grade 1 – we didn’t yet have kindergarten – so Madoc Township Public School was my very first educational experience.

I have the happiest of memories of those school years. Educational standards at Madoc Township Public School were high; our principal, the redoubtable Florence McCoy, demanded the best of her staff and students even as she set and encouraged an atmosphere of friendship and support for all. Florence McCoy, who emigrated as a young single woman from Northern Ireland and built a life on the far side of the Atlantic as a hugely respected educator and member of our local community, is one of my all-time heroes. Here she is surrounded by her staff at the time I began school there:

Staff of Madoc Township Public School

The staff of Madoc Township Public School, c. 1966-67: back row, from left, Anna Carman, Sadie Miller, Vera Burnside, Monica Tobin and Evelyn Boyle; front row, from left: Irene Reid, principal Florence McCoy and Gayle Ketcheson. As I’ve said before: best teachers ever.

So you’re probably thinking I’m mad about the threatened closing of Madoc Township Public School because it’s my old school. I expect there’s a bit of that running around in my head and heart, and I don’t know how there couldn’t be. But what I’m really mad about is this being yet another undermining of our rural way of life here in our historic North of 7 part of the world.

Here’s what we know as of this writing about the possible fate of our local school:

A report has been prepared for the school enrolment/school capacity committee of the Hastings Prince Edward District School Board (which oversees all public schools throughout those two counties) recommending several school closings and consolidations because of declining enrolment and the cost of maintaining aging school buildings. The recommendation that affects us here in the Queensborough/Madoc Township area is this (and here I am quoting from the document prepared for the committee):

  • Close Madoc Township Public School and consolidate students to Madoc Public
    School for September 2017.
  • Relocate Grade 7 and 8 students from Madoc Public School to Centre Hastings
    Secondary School, creating a Grade 7-12 model, for September 2017.
  • Explore opportunities for community partnerships aligned with the 2015-2020
    Strategic Plan priorities.

(I have no clue what that third recommendation means. As a journalist who covered the education beat for several years, I learned that there is no human organization more given to bureaucratic bafflegab than school boards.)

Now, I also attended Madoc Public School; that’s where students from Madoc Township P.S. went for grades 7 and 8 when I was a kid here, and that’s still what happens now, more than four decades later. It’s a happy little school, like Madoc Township, and I bear it no malice as I voice my opposition to our school being closed and its students sent there.

But Madoc Public School is almost at capacity now (unlike Madoc Township, or Centre Hastings Secondary School, which is the immediate neighbour of Madoc P.S.), and more to the point, it has almost no land. Its playground area is absolutely minimal – whereas one of the wonderful things about Madoc Township Public School is that it was built in the middle of farm fields and wide open spaces. Here’s just one area of the playground:

playground at Madoc Township Public School

Oh my goodness, what fun we used to have on “Field Day” at Madoc Township Public School, with those wide-open fields for races, high jumping, long jumping and so on. And we played ball in our own ball diamond too!

And here’s another:

Soccer field at Madoc Township Public School

The soccer field at Madoc Township Public School.

And that’s not all of it! There is a lot of space for kids to play at that school.

Now, don’t you think that at a time when kids are getting very little exercise and having a hard time focusing their brains because of the constant distraction of the phones and screens they spend their lives in front of (much like their parents and, let’s face it, all of us), a school with magnificent wide open spaces for good old-fashioned play is – well, a good thing?

Founders' plaques at Madoc Township Public School

Plaques paying tribute to the founders of Madoc Township Public School – including, of course, its founding principal, Florence McCoy.

So I’m mad about this great school, in its unparalleled natural setting, possibly being closed.

And I’m mad about the loss of a rural institution. God knows we here in rural Ontario have enough to contend with – high hydro rates; businesses that struggle to survive in the shadow of people’s incomprehensible (to me, anyway) determination to drive 35 miles to Walmart rather then buying local; less-than-great access to health services – without losing our community school too.

I’ve mentioned that once upon a time I was an education reporter who covered school boards for my local newspaper. One thing I learned from that experience is that nothing gets people more riled up than the threat of their kids’ school being closed. Another, more important, thing that I learned is that if you fight hard enough, you can sometimes win. The school board is directed by paid bureaucrats who make recommendations (like closing Madoc Township Public School); but the actual decisions are made by the trustees elected by you and me, and those trustees’ job is to represent the wishes and needs of their constituents.

On that note, here, central Hastings County, are your local trustees on the Hastings Prince Edward District School Board, along with their contact information:

Bonnie Danes (who once taught at Madoc Township Public School):
Phone: 613-472-6107
Email: bdanes@hpedsb.on.ca

Justin Bray:
Phone: 613-478-3696
Email: jbray@hpedsb.on.ca

I believe you should let them know what you think.

I believe you should, if you have the time, let all the other board trustees know what you think; you can find their contact information (as I did for Bonnie Danes and Justin Bray) at the school board’s website here. (Also: board chair Dwayne Inch is at 613-476-5174, dinch@hpedsb.on.ca; the top bureaucrat at the board, director of education Mandy Savery-Whiteway, is at 1-800-267-4350, x2201, directors.office@hpedsb.on.ca.)

If you can manage it, go to the meetings where this important decision will be discussed; there is great power in numbers, and in representation. The first such meeting (which crops up rather suspiciously soon, in my view, after the news about the planned closures emerged late this past Friday) is supposed to take place this very day (Monday, Nov. 21 – though the current weather situation might have an impact) at Prince Edward Collegiate Institute in Picton at 3:30 p.m., when the aforementioned school enrolment/school capacity committee meets. That will be followed later today by a full meeting of the board, also at PECI in Picton, at 7 p.m.

At those meetings and the others that will follow, make your case for why Madoc Township Public School is a vital part of our community. Elect spokespeople. Organize. Don’t be intimidated by anyone who might suggest they know more about our school, or the needs of our community, than we do.

I think we should stand up for our school, and for the sustainability of our rural way of life. It’s important. Let’s not give up without a fight.

In which we eat locally, and well, in glorious surroundings

Railway Creek Farms at Feast from Farm

Visitors check out the amazing selection of different kinds of organic garlic grown by Elly Finlayson (behind the counter, left, aided by her mum, the artist Jean Finlayson) at her Railway Creek Farms operation – which, I am pleased and proud to say, is just up the road from Queensborough in the hamlet of Cooper. Note the brilliant blue skies and the setting right beside Stoco Lake. Pretty nice!

Many’s the time I’ve told you about how good we are, here in the Queensborough area, at serving up great community meals. Whether it’s the famous St. Andrew’s United Church suppers (the Ham Supper in the spring and the Turkey Supper in the fall, and more on the latter at the end of this post), or community potlucks, or pancake breakfasts, or barbecues that are part of special events, or the food booth at the recent Hastings County Plowing Match – well, let’s just say that if you are fortunate enough to be in Queensborough when there’s a meal to be had, you will go away happy and replete.

Yesterday there was just such an event in our little hamlet, but before Raymond and I could even get to it, we had the opportunity to eat very, very well just a few miles away. The occasion was the annual Feast From Farm event in the village of Tweed, where local food producers show off their bounty – vegetables, beef, pork, lamb, chicken, herbs, baked goods, and so on – and we lucky visitors get to sample delightful dishes made by local chefs with these local products.

Palmateer's at Feast from Farm

Palmateer’s Meats of Tweed has been in business a long, long time, and there’s a reason for that – great-quality local products. Yesterday people were lining up for a taste of sausage freshly made by Tara Palmateer (left). It was delicious!

So I’m going to show you some photos from Feast From Farm, and then carry you on into a much lower-key but also delightful food event that happened later in the afternoon right here in Queensborough. All to show you that we really know how to eat and have a good time around here.

Enright Cattle Company tent at Feast from Farm

The booth of the Enright Cattle Co., a farm just outside Tweed that produces beef that’s in demand in top Ontario restaurants. We enjoyed an amazing snack – Hoisin Glazed Enright Cattle Beef Taco with Srirachi Aioli – prepared by the folks from the excellent Capers Restaurant in Belleville. Yum!

Leather bags from Enright Cattle Company at Feast from Farm 2016

Also at the Enright Cattle Co. booth: a display of the gorgeous handcrafted bags made from the carcasses of the farm’s cattle. I am lucky enough to own one of those bags!

Lineup for Langevin lamb, Feast from Farm

A lineup (which Raymond was in, though toward the back) for treats made from Langevin Sheep Company lamb.

Langevin Sheep Company, Feast from Farm

I like the fact that there’s a sheep farm not far from us – it’s between Tweed and Flinton – and I also like their pretty sign! Raymond, who loves fresh lamb, likes all of this even more than I do.

Pumpkin carving, Feast from Farm

Another thing you can do with locally grown food products: carve them! The kids were enjoying this.

Aside from all the good food we got to enjoy, I have to say the beautiful early-fall weather and the glorious lakeside setting made the event that much more enjoyable.

Great trees and blue sky at Feast from Farm

Beautiful trees (I believe they are ash) tower over the lakeside site of Feast From Farm.

Lineup, Potter Settlement Winery, Feast from Farm

The Potter Settlement Winery booth was a popular spot, where lineups formed as soon as the sun made it over the yardarm. Don’t worry – I don’t know what “the sun’s over the yardarm” means either, and I’m not sure anyone does. Basically it think it means  it’s a respectable hour to taste some amazing wine made with grapes grown right here in central Hastings County. The owner of Potter Settlement, Sandor Johnson, was on hand to pour and talk about his products, which are very quickly gaining wide acclaim. Just check out this recent splashy article in the Toronto Star!

Potter Settlement Winery at Feast from Farm 2

Another look at the Potter Settlement Winery booth. Raymond and I were lucky enough to be able to purchase a case of the fast-disappearing 2013 Marquette, which is an absolutely outstanding red. And made right here in our neck of the woods!

So after all this tasting, we headed back to the car with a case of Potter Settlement wine, some fat, fresh Hungarian garlic from Elly Finlayson’s Railway Creek Farms, a bottle of Kricklewood Farm Cold-Pressed Sunflower Oil, some recipes and business cards to aid us in future purchases (fresh lamb, yum, says Raymond) – and very full tummies.

But the eating wasn’t over yet!

Cornstalk/scarecrow at QCC corn roast

This friendly cornstalk scarecrow welcomed visitors to the Queensborough Community Centre corn roast.

Next on the agenda was the annual corn roast hosted by the Queensborough Community Centre committee, of which we are members.

Garden at the QCC

What a lovely garden! It was planted by children taking part in the annual summer youth drop-in program at the Queensborough Community Centre. There’s a mix of annuals and perennials, including some from historic local gardens. Since the summer program ended at the start of August, volunteers have been carefully tending to the garden.

The QCC holds several events throughout the year, and the corn roast is probably the most laid-back of them all. On a sleepy September Sunday afternoon, 10 or 12 dozen ears of fresh local corn are boiled, a few dozen hot dogs barbecued, and people come, grab some nosh and a drink – all free of charge – and sit down for a spell on one of the benches that have been set out under the trees in front of the community centre, our village’s former one-room schoolhouse dating from the dawn of the 20th century.

Did I mention that these food events were taking place in beautiful locations?

Yesterday as we sat on the benches under the trees, we shared stories and news and gossip with our neighbours as we enjoyed the simple but good food. People came, people went; there was a quiet buzz all afternoon. At the corn roast you almost always meet someone from the neighbourhood whom you didn’t know before, and that’s really nice.

QCC corn roast 2016

A relaxed way to spend the afternoon: enjoying hot dogs and fresh corn on a bench under the trees at the historic Queensborough Community Centre (formerly the village’s one-room schoolhouse).

I would like to think that right about now you are saying to yourself: “My gracious but there’s a lot of good stuff going on in the Queensborough area! Notably when it comes to food. I must visit one of these times…”

Which is exactly what you should do. And I will tell you exactly when.

Pies at the St. Andrew's supper

Homemade pie is the specialty at the St. Andrew’s Turkey Supper on Sept. 28.

The St. Andrew’s United Church Turkey Supper – at which you will enjoy a full turkey dinner, including our absolutely fabulous homemade pies – takes place Wednesday, Sept. 28, from 4:30 to 7 p.m. It’s held in the hall of our church, at 812 Bosley Rd., and this year while you’re eating your amazing turkey dinner you can also take in the renovations we (the St. Andrew’s congregation, that is) have done to the hall over the past summer: a new floor, newly painted walls, and a fresh look overall. The ticket price for the supper is $14 for adults, $6 for young people aged six to 12, and free for children under six. All proceeds go to support the work of St. Andrew’s, a vibrant little rural church.

It’s an event about food and community, in equal measure. It’s in Queensborough. In lovely surroundings. What more could you ask for?