Oldest gas station? Probably not. Great family history? Yes!

Pigden Motor Sales era ends

An excellent, though poignant, writeup about the Pigden family’s long tradition of car sales that appeared in the Belleville-based Community Press when the tradition ended in 1999 with the closure of the family’s large dealership in the north end of the village of Madoc. It was a tradition that began with Charlie Pigden’s Imperial gas station – the larger photo in the news story – in the hamlet of Eldorado – the very same gas station that piqued my interest, and that of many readers, a little while ago.

Who knew that a blog post about a no-longer-operational gas station would attract so much interest? I sure didn’t.

But my post early last month asking you readers to share what you know about a building in the hamlet of Eldorado – about 7½ miles west of the Manse here in Queensborough – that bears the prominent sign “Canada’s Oldest Gas Station” certainly brought in the responses. Some came in the form of comments on my post, some in emails, and some in face-to-face conversations. This defunct gas station struck a nerve!

Canada's Oldest Gas Station

The sign on the building on the east side of Highway 62 in the hamlet of Eldorado is large, and intriguing. “Canada’s Oldest Gas Station”? Really?

Now, I think one reason for this is the prominent location of the building and its sign. If you’re heading south toward Madoc and then Belleville and Highway 401 from “points north” (as we used to say) – that is, the cottage country of northern Hastings County/Algonquin Park/Haliburton County – you’ll doubtless be travelling on busy Highway 62. And that building and sign are right beside the highway, so everyone who’s passed by for the past many years has seen the sign – and probably wondered about its claim.

But it’s become clear to me that another reason for the huge response I got is the importance of one family to the history – social history, economic history and every other kind of history – of our local area. The family who started this gas station is, as many of you knew, the Pigdens.

In my first post about the mysterious sign, I asked readers to turn the tables and tell me a story about that garage, rather than me telling them a story. Well, I got stories. And more stories. So many stories, in fact, that I think it’s going to take two blog posts (at least) to share with you what I’ve learned – and that’s not even counting the followup post I did a couple of weeks after the initial one.

Wow!

As I told you in that second post on the gas station and its intriguing sign, it was Charlie Pigden and his wife Keitha who opened the business back in (or about) 1920. Now, thanks to Charlie and Keitha’s granddaughter, Dianne (Pigden) Brick, I am able to show you a nice photo of them, along with the text of the obituary for Charlie that appeared (probably in the North Hastings Review) when he died in late 1967:

Charlie and Keitha Pigden

Charlie Pigden death notice

Dianne generously lent me a bulging file folder on Pigden family history, which I have gone through with great interest and from which I have learned a lot.

The folder included sections on the Pigdens and the garage from several books: Gerry Boyce’s Eldorado: Ontario’s First Gold Rush (I’m happy to say that my own copy of this book by Hastings County’s pre-eminent historian will be arriving in the mail any day now); ‘Way Back When…, a history of Madoc and Madoc Township by my 1970s Centre Hastings Secondary School contemporaries Ardith McKinnon (now Ardith Racey, and she’s still a great writer – check out this piece from the Globe and Mail) and Garnet Pigden, published in 1975 (I am a proud owner of a copy, a treasure found at a bargain price at a Madoc yard sale a few years back); Roses in December, a memoir by the late Reta (Woods) Pitts (the mother of Gayle Ketcheson, my Grade 1 teacher at Madoc Township Public School, and of course I own that book too); and even a book on the history of Watrous, Sask.– and I’ll get to its amazing contents in a minute.

Yes, the tiny hamlet of Eldorado was the site of Ontario’s first gold mine, as a plaque there attests. The 19th-century gold rush briefly turned the Madoc-Eldorado area into a boom town. (Photo from ontarioplaques.com)

As I mentioned in my second post on the “oldest gas station,” Gerry Boyce’s book tells us that for building materials when he erected the garage, Charlie Pigden used material from buildings that had been at a copper mine in Eldorado. Now, in case you didn’t know, in the 19th century Eldorado and this entire area of central Hastings County, including Queensborough, were awash, so to speak, in small mining operations. In fact, Eldorado was the site of Ontario’s first gold mine, something that is documented in a book called Quest for Gold by the late Isabella Shaw, a Queensborough native who lived in the Eldorado area all her adult life. Interestingly, Isabella’s book (I call her by her first name because, I am very proud to say, she was my friend) has a slightly different version of the story; this was pointed out to me by reader Tamara, a new resident of the hamlet of Cooper who is avidly studying the history of our area. Tamara emailed me:

In regards to the gas station, [Isabella’s] book reads, “On March 21st, 1920, Charles Pigden started a garage business in Eldorado … He first rented the Fitzgerald blacksmith shop and commenced doing garage work in the back of the shop. The following year he built the large Pigden Garage on the east side of the Hastings Road using materials from an old abandoned hotel in Eldorado.” … Note it says ‘hotel’ versus ‘mine.’ At any rate, if this was the case he wouldn’t have been able to start selling gas until 1921 or ’22. It goes on to say that he started selling cars in 1925, and that was “in addition to selling Imperial Oil products, such as gas and oil.” He also apparently sold tractors, and farm machinery, which included milking machines and radios.

Here is the information on the Pigden operation in Eldorado from ‘Way Back When…:

Mr. Pigden sold Willies Overland cars and in 1928 he sold the impressive total of 100 of these vehicles. He also sold Imperial Gas and Oil, which is still being sold at Pigden’s in 1975. [Note from Katherine: by 1975, when the book was published, Pigden’s Garage and car dealership had been located at its new home on Russell (or is that Russel?) Street in Madoc for 25 years.] In 1934, he started selling Dodge, Desoto and Dodge Trucks. That year he sold two air-flow Desoto cars  and the Chrysler Corp. at that time was offering a free trip to the World’s Fair in the United States [this seems to have been the “World of Progress” World’s Fair in Chicago, of which you can see some great film footage here] to any dealer who sold one Desoto car. Mr. Pigden and a friend obtained free trips as a result of good salesmanship. One of these cars sold in 1934 is still in operation in Madoc Village. [Alas, probably no more.] It is owned by a mechanic at Pigden’s garage, Wilfred Thompson,  and is renowned for its prize-wining antique car status.

To complement that, let me show you a real treasure that Dianne Brick loaned me: Charlie Pigden’s certificate from the Ontario Department of Labour in 1951 to ply the car-repair trade:

Garage certificate

It’s fragile and yellowed, but what a treasure! A certificate from the Ontario government attesting that Charlie Pigden’s garage was authorized to carry our motor-vehicle repairs. My thanks to Dianne (Pigden) Brick for trusting me with this wonderful artifact.

And speaking of treasures, let me share with you some recollections of Charlie Pigden’s garage that Gurney Barker, who grew up near Eldorado in the early-middle part of the 20th century, includes in his Memories of Country Life 1939-1957. Gurney very generously sent me a copy of his memoirs a while back, and they are an amazing glimpse into rural life in this area during that period. I promise this excerpt will take you straight back to a simpler time :

Memories of Country Life by Gurney Barker

Gurney Barker’s memoir is full of tales about growing up “north of 7,” and it’s a wonderful read. I am so thrilled that he sent me a copy.

When I was in public school, Charlie Pigden sold Chrysler cars and Ferguson tractors from [his garage]. In the 1940s his gasoline was dispensed from  one of those old double glass pumps right out in front of the garage and next to the road. When you drove up, the attendant used a hand lever to pump the glass full. The gasoline was then fed by gravity into your car’s fuel tank. Graduations on the glass indicated how much fuel (in gallons) you had received. Pigden’s was also the place where we had our radio “A” batteries recharged. Those were lead-acid wet cells, sometimes special two-volt assembles, but more often just car batteries. When the radio faded out and if the tube filaments were no longer glowing, you took the battery down to the garage and left it there. After a couple of days you could pick it up fully charged. I think the price for the service was around 75 cents.

Honee Orange

Honee Orange, sold at Pigden’s Garage back in the day, was made by the Pure Spring company of Ottawa.

Like so many of those places, there was always a soft drink dispenser out in front of Pigden’s garage. It was a horizontal chilled-water tank about the size and shape of a small modern chest freezer. You put your nickel into a slot, opened the lid and slid your selection along some metal rails and through a one-way gate. Bottled Orange Crush, Honee Orange and Cream Soda were popular choices. I almost never selected Coca-Cola because it was available only in those famous little 10-ounce green-tinted bottles. All other brands including Pepsi came in 12-ounce bottles and at the same price

Wow. As someone who remembers those same freezer-chest-type soft-drink dispensers (in the general stores of my Queensborough childhood), all I can say is: Take me back there. Right now.

Reader Lisa, who herself writes a blog on genealogy and history, found and sent this – census information from 1921 that lists Charles Pigden as a “garage man.” Yes, I (and Lisa) know it’s kind of hard to read. Click on the photo to get an enlarged version, and then click again (on the lower right of your screen) on “View full size,” and then you still may have to zoom in a bit; but the info about Charlie, Keitha and family is in the third section down:

Here are a couple of artifacts from the Pigden garage that were also included in the package that Dianne lent me. Remember when businesses gave our rulers?

Pigden ruler
Pigden pencil

The information about the Pigden garage and car dealership that is contained in Reta Pitts’s Roses in December: Memories of a Life of Change focuses on the later years when the business had moved to Madoc. And it’s led to a question I have for you. Mrs. Pitts writes:

In 1949, the more than 10,000 square foot Russell Street building was erected with the full Chrysler line (Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth, Valiant). Business was booming and by this time Charlie had a large staff, including salesmen. Madoc boasted five car dealers by the time and, although competitors, they were first and foremost good friends.”

That, people, is seriously good small-town stuff. Now here’s my problem (and question): I can name four of those five car dealers – or at least I think I can. Pigden’s was the Chrysler dealership; Derry’s was General Motors; Brett’s was Ford; Armstrong’s was – help! And who was the fifth?

Now: one last stop on this journey through the past before we move on to the question of whether that Eldorado building really is (or was) “Canada’s oldest gas station.” And that stop is the small town of Watrous, Sask., which you can learn more about on the town’s website here.

In the package of family history that Dianne Brick loaned to me, there are pages photocopied from a book on that prairie town’s history. Charlie Pigden gets a mention in a section devoted to the memories of Watrous resident Cora Fargey, aged 92 at the time of the book’s publication. Cora and her husband, Peter, left their native Ontario in about 1910 to homestead in Saskatchewan. They may well have been from this area; Cora recalls that she and her small son (Peter had gone on ahead) boarded the train for the West in Ivanhoe, a hamlet a bit south of Madoc. “Little did I know what lay ahead of me,” she says, with some understatement.

Cora and Peter Fargey

Cora and Peter Fargey, Saskatchewan homesteaders.

Charlie Pigden is mentioned very briefly; Cora recalls him being in Watrous to help her husband dig the well for the family home. (Those were the days when, I gather, it was quite common for folks from this part of the world to travel west for short or longer periods, seeking jobs and opportunities. My own paternal grandfather, J.B. Sedgwick, did the same thing in the early 20th century before returning to his native Haliburton County.) But I was knocked sideways by other parts of Cora’s story, namely the hardships she and her family endured. The endless, lonely prairie with no roads, only tracks filled with gopher and badger holes. Mosquitoes so thick that you had to have a “smudge” (smoke, not the best for one’s pulmonary health) going indoors at all times to try to keep them away. Frequent prairie fires. And this:

The first winter, we lived in just one room, which was heated with a cookstove. We slept three in a bed to keep warm. The bedclothes would often freeze to the wall. We had no storm doors or windows the first year. It was cold!

People, from now on, whenever I am tempted to think that I have some hardship in my life, I’m going to call to mind Cora, Peter, their young son, and the bedclothes frozen to the wall. And I will realize that I have nothing to complain about.

Okay, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Or at least, the moment that you may possibly have been waiting for. Could the building that once housed Pigden’s Garage in tiny Eldorado really have been “Canada’s oldest gas station”?

The answer seems to be: almost certainly not.

I am obligated to some readers who did this research for me. Here’s this from Tamara:

“My hunch told me that the sign must be hyperbole, so that led me to check the Imperial Oil company website and I’m afraid to say, it doesn’t seem like Eldorado makes the cut: http://www.imperialoil.ca/en-ca/company/about/history/our-history.

And this from my friend Gary, who I think discovered the same website as Tamara did. He found and sent this photo showing supposedly the world’s first gas station, considerably earlier than 1920 and a long way west of Eldorado:

First Esso gas station

However, Gary also hopefully suggests that maybe the Eldorado operation was the oldest surviving gas station – that is, when it was still surviving, which it no longer is: “Perhaps all the others from the 1920s or earlier might be gone, or replaced. Who knows?!”

Who knows, indeed? People, I am still open to new information and any light you can shed on this question.

But in the meantime, I’m gearing up to share with you a next-generation chapter of Pigden history. You see, the garage operation in Eldorado and Madoc was quite a thing, and is still fondly remembered by many; but Charlie and Keitha’s son Gordon went in a whole different direction in his own Eldorado-and-then-Madoc business – and that’s a whole other story, (Remember how I told you it would take at least two posts for me to tell you the whole thing?)

I’m going to whet your appetite with this great story from Grant Ketcheson – husband of my first-grade teacher Gayle, and son-in-law of Reta Pitts – which links the Charlie Pigden story to the generation that followed Charlie, and especially the interesting pursuits of Gordon:

In early November 1946, my parents decided to go to the Royal Winter Fair [in Toronto] and take [Grant’s sister] Betty and me. [Youngest sister] Bev was just a baby, so she stayed with Grandma and Grandpa Ketcheson. As it was a looong way to Toronto in a 1935 Dodge, we were leaving early, long before daylight. A problem arose when the windshield wipers did not work. Dad phoned Harold Pigden and we drove to Pigden’s Garage in Eldorado. Harold, the middle son, could fix anything that looked even slightly mechanical. He bragged that he could weld anything except the crack of dawn or a broken heart! But I digress. Harold promptly fixed the windshield wiper and one of my lasting memories is of my dad telling us when he got back into the car, “Harold says that Gordon got his TV working last night and he got a signal from the States.” Also, my parents told me about hearing Gordon’s clandestine radio broadcast, from the “shores of beautiful Mud Lake.” Mike Quinn, who worked at Blue’s Hotel, told me he used to call Gord whenever the government communications guys checked in for the night, planning the next day to check on this illegal radio station that they had heard about. Mike said he would call Pigden’s Garage and by the time they went there the next day, there was no radio station to be found!

Is that good or what? “He could weld anything except the crack of dawn or a broken heart!” A local rogue radio station dodging the G-men! (Okay, the Canadian version of G-men.) Again: wow!

Obviously there is more of this story to be told. In the immediate future I need to use this space to fill you in on fantastic events that are coming soon to Queensborough: a real, honest-to-God old-fashioned square dance at the Orange Hall; the Ham Supper and a second annual Music Night at St. Andrew’s United Church; the kayakers coming for their annual plunge over the Black River dam; and a social evening to talk about new directions for our community.

But you can be sure I will share the story of Gordon Pigden and his amazing life and work before too much longer. And for that, of course, I again owe my thanks to all the readers who have shared stories about Gord, and especially to the Pigden family.

On the front of that folder full of family history that Dianne (Pigden) Brick lent to me, she had affixed a clipped-out quote:

Pericles quote

Thanks to the memories and research that Dianne and so many others have shared with me, I think – at least I hope – that I’ve been able to show how true that is: how the legacy of one family – and by extension, of all families – is woven into our lives, and has become part of who and what we are. Including selling Desotos, drinking Honee Orange, surviving bedclothes frozen to the wall, and broadcasting “from the shores of beautiful Mud Lake.”

Canada’s oldest gas station? We’re getting closer to the story

Canada's oldest gas station by cjaremk

Today as I sought out more information about “Canada’s oldest gas station” in the local hamlet of Eldorado, I found this nice photo on the photo-sharing site Flickr. The photographer is cjaremk, and you can check out his/her/their other great photos here.

Thank you so much to all of you who responded to my recent post seeking information on a building in our neck of the woods that proclaims itself “Canada’s oldest gas station.” I haven’t – yet, at least – got the proof I’m seeking that this claim is true, but I sure know a lot more about that gas station, and the history of Eldorado, the hamlet where it’s located, than I used to. I feel confident that the full story behind the oldest-in-Canada claim will come out before much longer.

From several readers I learned that the gas station – which I should say right here is no longer operational as a gas station – was built and opened by Charlie and Keitha Pigden. (My thanks to Charlie and Keitha’s granddaughter, Dianne Brick, for being the first to share that information.) Precisely what year the Pigden garage and gas station began operating I do not yet know, though it seems to have been in or about 1920. But thanks to another reader, Gurney Barker, I do know that for building materials, Charlie Pigden used reclaimed stuff from a former copper mine in the Eldorado area. Gurney helpfully sent me the appropriate section from the book Eldorado: Ontario’s First Gold Rush by my friend Gerry Boyce, Hastings County historian extraordinaire. (Raymond and I have a lot of Gerry’s books of local history, but unfortunately not that one. Yet.) Here’s the passage in question:

“The mines remained a fact of life for Eldorado’s people. When Charlie Pigden arrived soon after World War I, his family first lived in what had been the mine’s first boarding house; his children played in and around the shaft and pits. Pigden dismantled the old copper mine buildings and used the materials to build an Imperial Oil garage. He provided economical power packs (motors on car frames) for miners who continued to work the Richardson and other sites.” [Note from Katherine: The Richardson mine was the site of the gold rush for which Gerry’s book is named.]

Here’s more, this time from Gurney himself, who grew up in Eldorado:

“I remember the old boarding house. But also when I was in public school during the late 1940s, a local gent by the name of Bob Blakely owned a portable homemade sawing machine which was built on an old car frame and running gear. The engine was from a 1928 Chevrolet car (my dad said). Blakely towed it around with a team of horses from farm to farm each fall sawing firewood from the trees which the farmers had cut months before. I understood that this was one of the so-called “power packs” which Charlie Pigden built.”

And here’s more from Gurney, this time on Charlie and Keitha’s remarkable son Gordon Pigden (and I should note that Gurney was not my only correspondent who pointed out Gord Pigden’s accomplishments):

“Charlie’s son Gordon was an electronic legend around there when I was young, with his clandestine radio transmitter, etc. What really impressed my brother and myself was that he hand built the very first television set anywhere in that country at a time when the closest TV station was in Syracuse, N.Y. He displayed it in the window of his Madoc shop and it always seemed to attract a cluster of curious watchers on Saturday evenings. Gordon was in part the inspiration which led my brother and me to become electrical engineers.”

Wow!

I’ve made mention of Gord Pigden before, in the context of the cable television station he established in Madoc and that filmed footage of many, many important (and not-so-important) events in this area’s history – work that is carried on today by that Gord’s son, Terry, and daughter-in-law, Eileen. And I’ve mentioned my memories of Gord’s store in Madoc that Gurney refers to, selling and repairing TVs, stereos and records; I used to love looking through those racks of records (Quadrophenia! Planet Waves!) in my early teen years in Queensborough, and I am certain that the stereo we had at the Manse back then – one of those great big wooden ones with the turntable inside – came from Pigden’s. But I hadn’t realized quite what a trailblazer Gord was. Reader Mark Godfrey noted that Gord was “also a pioneer and innovator in the field of radar during the war.” Let me say it again: Wow! Who knew there’d be so many stories dug up just by asking about an old gas-station sign.

But speaking of that gas station, let’s get back to it.

Readers also shared the information that Jerry Morrison bought the gas station when the Pigdens sold it and moved their operation into Madoc. I remember the large Pigden garage and car dealership on Russell Street in Madoc from my childhood; a while back we got to see again, for the first time in many years, what the front of that operation looked like, when it was briefly uncovered during renovations by the building’s current owner, Bush Furniture. Here’s my photo:

Pigden Motor Sales sign at Bush Furniture

Two or three other owners followed Jerry Morrison, readers told me. At one point (not long before it closed down, according to one reader) it was operating under the name Eldorado Emporium and Gas Bar, and the owners were seeking to shore the business up by adding a Liquor Control Board of Ontario outlet and the post office for the hamlet. Here’s an article about that (helpfully sent by a reader!) by Diane Sherman in the Community Press weekly newspaper in October 2008 (click here to read the full story):

Community Press story on Eldorado gas bar

I wasn’t around this area back then, but I’m guessing that the owners’ efforts were rejected by the LCBO and /or Canada Post, which may have led to the business closing down not too long after the story appeared. And that’s really sad, because the closure ended almost 90 years of the building being a bustling hot spot in Eldorado. This recollection from the 1940s from Gurney Barker paints the picture really well:

“I recall Charlie Pigden’s garage and my dad filling his Model A Ford from those old fashioned ‘sight glass’ gas pumps out front. From an early age I understood that Charlie built the building using lumber from an old gold mine. I remember Wilfred Thomson who worked there as a mechanic. I recall getting our radio wet cell batteries charged at Charlie’s place. Charlie also sold Ferguson tractors from the premises. When I was in high school the Morrisons ran a small restaurant in the old Pigden building building adjacent to their body shop. It was called the Squat and Gobble, and an overhead sign proclaimed it as such. I also remember the weatherbeaten gold-rush-era boarding house which stood across the street, and I remember the old Conlin hotel which stood at the junction of Highway 62 and the Rimington Road. Both were torn down in the 1940s. My parents patronized the two general stores in the village: Strebe’s (later Anglin’s) store and grist mill, which both burned down in the 1940s, and Mrs. Arkell’s store, which still stands and is featured in at least two ‘ghost town’ books. And my dad ran the old Fox blacksmith shop for a while in the late late 1940s.”

That, Gurney, is seriously good stuff. (Wouldn’t it be terrific if Eldorado still had all that activity going on?) Thank you to you, to Dianne Brick, and to all the other readers who have been kind enough to share what they know about “Canada’s oldest gas station.”

But, my friends, the full story remains to be told. As my friends Gary and Lillian Pattison – who operate the marvellous Old Hastings Mercantile gift shop in tiny Ormsby, up Coe Hill way, and so pass (and wonder about) the sign proclaiming the Eldorado building’s history whenever they travel south on Highway 62 – said in an email of appreciation for all the information that has come out so far: “ I don’t think I’ve seen yet in the replies why this was considered the oldest gas station. We’ve wondered about that forever!

So, people, let’s carry on with this inquiry. We know that Charlie and Keitha Pigden opened the gas bar in the early 1920s – according to this photo captured from Google Street View in 2013 (though the photo is probably older than that) and kindly sent to me by the Pattisons, in 1920 precisely:

Eldorado 1

We know that Charlie Pigden repurposed materials from an old copper mine to build it. That’s all good stuff.

But what do we know about the claim to it being “Canada’s oldest gas station?” There the mystery remains. Diane Sherman’s 2008 news story says the owner at that time claimed that “the couple’s gas bar is the oldest gas station in Canada – ‘until otherwise proven.’ ”

Hmmm… What’s the story, people? Was Charlie Pigden’s gas bar really the first in Canada? If so – how come? Where were service-station entrepreneurs in, say, Toronto, or Montreal, or Halifax, or Winnipeg, when Charlie and Keitha were getting those gas pumps into operation?

But let me leave you with this final word from Gurney Barker, which pretty much sums up how I feel about the great response I’ve had to my query:

“Who knew that a mention of this little backwater hamlet would arouse so much interest?”

Gurney, I’m going to take mild exception to your characterization of Eldorado as a “backwater” (though, since you grew up there, you’re allowed to say it), but yes: who knew? Please keep that information coming, people!

This time it’s your turn to tell ME a story.

Lounge: Gas and Food

The vintage sign suggests comfort: a place to stop, get warm and get both your vehicle and yourself refuelled. Unfortunately, these days it’s an empty promise because the food, fuel, groceries and ice cream still proclaimed on signs at “Canada’s Oldest Gas Station” in the hamlet of Eldorado are no longer available, the operation having closed down an undetermined number of years ago.

My friends, I’ve told you a lot of stories over a thousand-odd posts since Meanwhile, at the Manse began in January 2012. This time, I want you to tell me a story.

Here’s what has prompted my request.

A couple of weekends ago, I was driving south down Highway 62 toward Madoc, having returned some borrowed books about old-home restoration to a friend in the hamlet of Bannockburn.

As I zipped through the next hamlet south of Bannockburn, which is Eldorado – a tiny but historic place, being the site of Ontario’s first gold mine and all, and as close as rural Madoc Township gets to having a township seat – something that I’d vaguely noticed many times before suddenly stopped me in my tire tracks. As I reversed up the highway so as to get a closer look and some photos, I said to myself, “Self, what on Earth is the deal with that ‘Canada’s Oldest Gas Station’ sign?” Here, take a look at what I mean:

Canada's Oldest Gas Station

Canada’s Oldest Gas Station? In Eldorado? Really? I need to know the story behind this.

People, why would tiny North-of-7 Eldorado be the home of Canada’s oldest gas station?

Or at least, what maybe once was Canada’s oldest gas station. Since this gas station is no longer a gas station, perhaps another one still in operation somewhere else across the length and breadth of our vast nation has usurped its claim.

“Canada’s Oldest Gas Station” still has gas pumps, but they’ve clearly not been used for some time:

Gas tanks at Canada's Oldest Gas Station

The gas pumps at the onetime gas station are definitely not the pay-with-your-card type that you see most of the time these days. It looks like Canada’s Oldest Gas Station was a full-serve operation.

And it still has signage proclaiming all the things that one could once have purchased there when stopping for gas, including “Great Food,” “Ice Cream,” “Takeout” and “Groceries”:

Groceries and ice cream at Canada's Oldest Gas Station

But clearly none of this is any longer on offer to the travelling public. This place that must once have been the hot spot of Eldorado looks long-shuttered, sadly.

So I’d like anyone who knows about this to tell me the story of what it once was. And mainly I’d like to know whether it’s true that this place in tiny Eldorado is (or was) Canada’s Oldest Gas Station, and how that came to be.

And here’s another thing I’d like to know, about myself and, perhaps, all of you: I’d like to know how many times in our days, our weeks and our lives we pass by interesting and/or odd things – such as a sign in Eldorado proclaiming “Canada’s Oldest Gas Station” – and pay them little or no mind. How many stories, how many pieces of our collective and community history, do we miss learning about and passing on to future generations because we – like me, every time I drove south through Eldorado except this one last time – don’t stop to wonder about, and maybe look into, what’s right before our eyes?

Lesson learned for me. Now, Eldorado, Bannockburn and Madoc Township people: please tell me the story of Canada’s Oldest Gas Station!

A new year, and many reasons to be thankful – and excited

Madoc Township Public School

Easily one of the things I am most grateful for when I look back on 2017 is the fact that our local elementary school, Madoc Township Public School, was saved from closure and will go on to educate our community’s children, and expand their skills and their horizons, for years to come. You can read all about the hard-fought battle by dedicated community members to save our school in many of my posts from the past year, notably this one.

Happy new year, dear readers! I hope that 2018 brings you much joy, interesting things to see and do, lots of opportunity to be with family and friends, good health – and perhaps most of all, the ability and the time to step back and appreciate all the gifts and blessings that life offers us.

That stepping-back-and-appreciating business is something I find myself doing as the old year merges into the new. In the days and weeks leading up to the start of 2018, I have been feeling thankful for so many things.

Lots of them are personal, and they’re the kind of things that I’m sure most of us are thankful for at one point (hopefully at many points) in our lifetime. I am, for instance, thankful for having a job (teaching student journalists) that allows me to do something useful to society, and that pays the bills. I am thankful for my five (yes, five) sweet, beautiful and friendly cats, all rescued from feral colonies and rough situations by good cat-loving people for whom I am also thankful. Would you like to see some photos of my cats? Gracious, I thought you’d never ask:

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I am thankful for the occasional chance to travel, though I’m generally even more thankful to get back home to Queensborough, the place I love the best. And most of all I’m thankful for my kind, smart, resourceful and (most of the time) patient husband, Raymond, who is (in my opinion) the best husband anyone could ever have.

Raymond outside the opera

Raymond looking handsome on a recent visit to a Canadian Opera Company performance in Toronto.

But those are things that are personal to me. What I’d mainly like to write about in this post are the things I’m thankful for that have to do with living here in Queensborough – things that I hope readers both from the GQA (that would be the Greater Queensborough Area) and from further afield can appreciate, either because they are part of their daily lives (the first group), or because they are something they could experience if they visited (or moved!) here. I’m excited to say that this list is growing longer by the year, as good new things happen in Queensborough.

In no particular order, it includes:

  • The beauty of this place, and the wildlife we see every day:
The woodpecker at our feeder

The woodpecker who has been enjoying the gooey feed we put out for him (her?) is one of many birds that we (and the five cats) enjoy watching from our kitchen windows every day.

  • The  smashing success of the second iteration of Historic Queensborough Day this past year (read all about it here) and our plans for an even bigger and better one in 2020:
Crowded King Street by Shelly Bonter

Crowds filled the streets of Queensborough on our second Historic Queensborough Day, held Sunday, Sept. 10. (Photo courtesy of Shelly Bonter)

  • The new owners, Jamie Grant and Tory Byers, of the historic former Loyal Orange Lodge building in Queensborough, who, with energy levels that I can only wonder at, have already transformed the place and are brimful of ideas for its future as a community arts space. While I am sworn to secrecy on some possible events there for 2018, I can tell you that they involve music, theatre and visual arts. Wow! And it’s no secret that the Orange Hall will – on Saturday, May 26 – return to its longstanding function as a place for community dances and socials by playing host to a newly revived springtime tradition: the Queensborough Black Fly Shuffle dance! You can check out Jamie and Tory’s Orange Hall plans and events on their lively Facebook page here. This couple is doing so much to bring new life to our hamlet – and I know I am far from alone in being thankful for that.
Jamie and Tory at LOL by Gary Pattison

Jamie and Tory having fun welcoming visitors to the former Orange Hall on Historic Queensborough Day in September. (Photo courtesy of Gary Pattison)

  • All the other good things that are happening in Queensborough. The annual spring visit of kayakers from all over Eastern North America who enjoy the whitewater trip down the Black River followed by a warm fire and welcome and good food by the river’s edge at the historic Thompson home and mill. Our hamlet’s continuing reputation as a place where artists (once upon a time including A.Y. Jackson of the Group of Seven) like to come and paint. And: a new event for 2018 that is already creating a lot of buzz: a master class in pie-making! Watch this space, local media and of course the Queensborough Community Centre’s Facebook page for details as the time (Saturday, March 3) gets closer, but long story short, some of the people whose talent for making homemade pies has turned Queensborough’s community suppers into a place of pilgrimage will be showing a new generation how it’s done, so that the tradition will live on. (You can bet that yours truly, who has never once successfully made pie crust, will be one of the eager students.) Things are happening in Queensborough!  We are making a name for ourselves!
Artist at work close up

Ottawa artist Nicole Amyot was in Queensborough this past fall for a day of plein air painting. For many years, artists at their easels in various corners of Queensborough have been a not-uncommon sight. Now, with the planned repurposing of the former Orange Hall as a space for the arts, perhaps there can be a showing of all that Queensborough art!

St. Andrew's choir

The reborn St. Andrew’s United Church choir performs Christmas music at a service this past December. The choir is led by Katherine Fleming (at the piano); members for the December performance were (from left) Joan Wilson, Jean Finlayson, Katherine Sedgwick (me), and Carol King, whose energy and infectious enthusiasm were the reason we got together. We have some additional members lined up for the new year – and if you’d like to join us, please let me know! (Photo by Raymond Brassard)

  • The people who volunteer their time and talent to keep Queensborough beautiful. I’m thinking here of the volunteers who work so hard on the Queensborough Beautification Committee (who this Christmas season launched a fun holiday-decorating competition) and the Queensborough Community Centre Committee, but also many other individuals and households who contribute in so many ways to our hamlet being the kind of place that visitors – rightly – call magical.
Flowers on the Methodist Church steps

Queensborough: the place where caring people turn old church steps into a lovely photo op.

  • Madoc Township Public School, a wonderful school and an important part of our community for many years, which we came close to losing this past year. We didn’t lose it, thanks to widespread support plus endless hours put in by a small, dedicated group of community activists. It is one of the honours of my life to have been a part of that group. Here we are on the day we found out that our efforts on behalf of our school had been successful:
The MTPS crew

Outside the headquarters of the Hastings and Prince Edward District School board in Belleville, happy supporters and activists after we learned that our school would be saved from closure: from left, recent Madoc Township Public School grad Brooklyn Gylyktiuk, Wendy Spence, Margaret Heard, Randy Gray, Denise Gray, Holly Korman, Amy Beaton – and (having been dragged into the photo by the others) me.

  • The neighbourliness and the friendlinesss. Recently I’ve been repeatedly struck by how often I’m on the receiving end of a warm greeting by people who know me by name, and know what I’ve been up to, as I push my cart around the aisles of the Madoc Foodland, or stand in line at the bank, or pop into many other places where people gather in Queensborough, Madoc and Tweed. I love getting a happy “Hi, Katherine – how are you?” when I walk into Kelly DeClair’s Kelly’s Flowers and Gifts or Tim and Penny Toms’s One Stop Butcher Shop or the Hidden Goldmine Bakery in Madoc, or the offices of the Tweed News or the Moira River Food Company in Tweed, or the Home Hardware in either town, or … well, you get the picture.

And then there have been the invitations over the holidays to all manner of get-togethers – Christmas and New Year’s gatherings, housewarmings, anniversary celebrations, sometimes let’s-just-get-together-and-open-a-bottle-of-wine events – mostly casual and sometimes a little on the fancy side.

And then there are the people who stop by to help when you’re shovelling out the driveway, or trying to heft a newly acquired piece of vintage furniture out of the back of the red truck and into the Manse. There are the people you know you can call and count on to help in an emergency, real or imagined: frozen pipes, a difficult-to-locate septic-tank opening, a staple gun when one is needed, a bit of reassuring information on a neighbour you haven’t seen for a while and are worried about.

I guess long story short, you could say that as I bid farewell to 2017 and welcome 2018, I am thankful for kindness and community. And for the chance to experience so much of both, simply by living in beautiful little Queensborough.

Getting to the other side should not be this risky

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving, everyone! If you happened to be travelling this holiday weekend, I hope you made it there and back again safely, and in between enjoyed a happy time over good food with family and/or friends.

But speaking of getting there and back again safely, I’ve decided to take this opportunity to point out a dangerous spot on the route that I and many of my fellow Queensborough-area residents drive every single day, often more than once a day. In doing so, I’m hoping to raise some awareness and give the people who might be able to do something about the situation – which includes me and my fellow Queensborough-area residents – a bit of a push to do just that: do something about it.

The dangerous spot in question is the intersection of busy Highway 7 – part of the southern Ontario route of the Trans-Canada Highway – and Cooper Road, which runs north from 7 to the hamlets of Cooper and – when you turn east off it at Hazzard’s Corners – to Queensborough. (On the south side of 7, Cooper Road becomes Wellington Street in the village of Madoc.) For us residents of Queensborough and Cooper and surrounding rural areas, “town” – the place where you buy your groceries, do you banking, etc. – is generally Madoc, which lies directly across that busy intersection. We also use the intersection to get from home to points further south via Highway 62, which runs into Madoc; I take that route to Belleville every weekday to get to work, and many others do the same.

The problem is that there is no traffic control at the intersection aside from a stop sign with a flashing red light above it on the north and south sides – in other words, nothing to stop or slow down the fast-moving traffic on Highway 7 to allow us north- or southbounders through.

Heading south into Madoc, or north on the way home, it’s rare that we don’t have to wait for one or more cars or transport trucks to pass on Highway 7 so that we can safely cross. Everybody’s used to that.

But there are many times in the year – notably during the summer months, when Highway 7 is crammed with vacationers pulling camper vans heading both east and west, and also on holiday weekends like this one just ended – when the traffic comes in a steady, speedy stream. You have to be so patient and so careful, constantly looking in both directions, for a space between vehicles that’s sufficient for you to zip across. On really busy days the wait can be five minutes or more. To get an idea of what we’re up against, click on my video at the top of this post: I took it early this afternoon. I didn’t wait for the Highway 7 traffic to get crazy – just pulled over to the side of Cooper Road and filmed the first minute’s worth of traffic that came by. What you see is utterly typical of the highway under summer and holiday-weekend conditions.

The danger, of course, is that people, being people, get impatient waiting to get across. They may be late, or in a hurry to get somewhere, or just have a very low tolerance for waiting. Impatience and frustration can lead to risk-taking: darting through the fast-moving east-west traffic when there isn’t enough between-car space to make it across safely. I’ve seen the aftermath of one very nasty accident at that intersection, and I have no doubt that there have been quite a few more.

Wellington Street and Highway 7

The sign on the south side of the busy intersection: Highway 7 and Wellington Street in the village of Madoc. On the north side, Wellington Street becomes Cooper Road, Hastings County Road 12.

I’ve been thinking about this problem for some time, doubtless because, as mentioned, I use that intersection at least twice every weekday and several times on weekends too. But I got prompted to write this post because of a story a Queensborough neighbour told me a couple of weeks ago. His wife had been driving east on Highway 7, signalled and stopped to turn left (north) onto Cooper Road toward Queensborough, and was struck by a tractor-trailer. Mercifully the truck driver saw his error in time to swerve a bit and hit primarily the passenger side (she was driving alone) rather than crashing straight into the back of the car. She did not suffer any major injuries, though her car of course did; and my lord, what an absolutely terrifying experience. You see, in addition to there being no lights to control Highway 7 traffic at the intersection, there are also no turn lanes for the many vehicles that turn north off it toward Queensborough or Cooper, or south into Madoc. Yikes.

In contrast, just a short way west on 7, at another busy intersection – in this case, where Highway 7 meets Highway 62 – a set of traffic lights controls things and keeps everybody safe. Yes, impatient people, you do have to wait for the light to change from green to red – but isn’t that 45 seconds or so a heck of a lot better than waiting indefinitely for a gap in traffic at an uncontrolled intersection, and maybe taking a big risk when that gap doesn’t come soon enough for your liking? Here’s another video from today to show you how everything’s under control there, even on a super-busy traffic day:

I haven’t looked into this situation enough to know why there are lights at one busy Madoc intersection and not at another; perhaps the Ontario Ministry of Transportation (which I assume makes the decisions on traffic lights on provincial highways) gives priority to an intersection of two highways – in this case, 7 and 62 – over a one-highway/one county road – Highway 7 and Hastings County Road 12 (Cooper Road) – intersection.

But shouldn’t safety come before ministry priorities?

Highway 7 is pretty much the dividing line between two municipalities: Madoc Township to the north and Centre Hastings (which includes the village of Madoc) to the south. Not long ago I asked a member of Centre Hastings council about this situation; the council member told me that the transportation ministry is the body that has to take action. The advice I got was to gather people’s voices and ask the ministry to do something. Which I suppose is what I’m doing here, although I think it would be appropriate for the councils of Centre Hastings and Madoc Township to weigh in with the ministry as well. Horrible highway accidents are not in anyone’s best interest; safe roads are good news for everyone.

I spent some time this evening poking around the transportation ministry’s website, and you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I could find no obvious link for “I want to report a dangerous intersection where your ministry should install traffic lights.” I suspect that the best way to start on this one is to contact our elected representative at Queen’s Park. Members of Provincial Parliament have staff and contacts and know-how about government affairs that we ordinary people do not; plus what they’re paid to do is represent us on matters that concern us. Our MPP is Todd Smith, and he’s a friendly guy who was right here in Queensborough just recently, for our wildly successful Historic Queensborough Day. If you agree that this intersection needs a look and some action by the ministry, you can ask Todd to speak on our behalf by calling his constituency office in Belleville (613-962-1144; toll-free 1-877-536-6248), emailing him at todd.smithco@pc.ola.org, or writing to him at P.O. Box 575, Belleville, Ont., K8N 5B2.

Sir John A. speaks, Historic Queensborough Day

See that chap in the blue polo shirt standing behind Sir John A. Macdonald (I am not making this up) on Historic Queensborough Day last month? That’s Prince Edward-Hastings MPP Todd Smith, and he’s the guy to contact if you agree with me that the Highway 7 intersection that many of us use every day could be made safer by the provincial transportation ministry.

And while you’re at it, why not contact some or all of the members of Centre Hastings council (click here for contact info) and Madoc Township council (members here, though contact information is a little skimpy; the township office’s number is 613-473-2677, and you can contact the township clerk by email at clerk@madoc.ca) to ask them to make the case to both Todd Smith and the transportation ministry?

Elmer the Safety ElephantAs we saw with the successful battle to save Madoc Township Public School, it is possible to make rural voices, issues and concerns heard. But that won’t happen unless we take it upon ourselves to speak up.

And hey, let’s hark back for a moment to my midcentury Queensborough childhood and ask: what would Elmer the Safety Elephant do?

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.

Will our local school matter when our elected trustees vote?

Cooper Road sign 2“Our Local Schools Matter,” proclaim the signs that have sprung up throughout the Madoc Township area, including all over Queensborough.

While the signs are being distributed throughout the province – because rural schools all over Ontario are being threatened with closure in a steamroller disaster that, so far, the provincial government has declined to stop or even slow – in our area they are an expression of people’s deep concern about the future of our local school: Madoc Township Public School.

That would be the school with a tremendous local heritage, a top rating for student achievement, an outdoor play and exploration area of more than five acres, a reputation for individual attention to students, a pastoral rural setting – and a place firmly fixed in the hearts of all local community members, many of whom attended it, sent their children there, and now watch proudly as their grandchildren grow to be accomplished, kind and well-rounded young people inside its classrooms.

If all that doesn’t add up to a recipe for shutting down a school, I don’t know what does.

(I assume you detected the extreme sarcasm in my voice just now.)

But, yes, shutting down Madoc Township Public School continues to be what the bureaucrats who work for the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board are recommending.

Their recommendation – presented at a meeting last week, which I’ll tell you about presently – comes despite a public consultation process that saw the board officials’ own chosen review committee reject the plan and come up with not one but two alternatives. I can tell you right now that if you asked anyone – anyone – in our area whether he or she feels the alternate proposals would be better for our communities, and most importantly for our children, than the original one from the board staff, you would get an answer in the affirmative.

For those who haven’t been following my posts on this critical local issue for the past months (you can see them all if you click on “Madoc Township Public School” in the categories list on the right side of this blog’s home page), I’ll try to sum up quickly the series of recommendations.

Here is what the board employees initially proposed back in November:

  • Close rural Madoc Township Public, currently a kindergarten-to-Grade 6 school, in June 2017.
  • Bus MTPS students into the village of Madoc and put them in Madoc Public School (which is an aging building with extremely limited playground space).
  • Move students in Grades 7 and 8 from both schools’ catchment areas – students in those grades currently attend Madoc Public – into the local high school, Centre Hastings Secondary in Madoc, thus turning CHSS into a Grade-7-to-12 school.

Here are the two alternate proposals that the school, parent and community representatives on the board’s clunkily named “accommodation review committee” recommended instead, having given the matter a lot of study and spent a lot of time listening to the community:

  • Return Madoc Township-area students in Grades 7 and 8 to MTPS, thus filling the school and allowing the community’s children to be educated in their community – and in an outstanding rural school. Consolidate Madoc Public School and CHSS.
  • Build a brand-new kindergarten-to-Grade 12 school serving all area students. While it’s still in the planning and construction stages (probably three years or so), leave the three schools alone.

And here, verbatim, is the final recommendation presented by the board’s employees last week:

  • Effective September 2017, consolidate Madoc Township Public and Madoc Public School at the Madoc Public School site;
  • Effective September 2017, relocate Grade 7 and 8 students from Madoc Public School to Centre Hastings Secondary School, creating a Grade 7-12 school;
  • Centre Hastings Secondary School and Madoc Public School be consolidated pending
    submission of a business case to the Ministry of Education and approval of funding to build a new K-12 school located in the Madoc area and with consultation with the municipality regarding location options and plans to enhance greenspace for the K-12 school;
  • Should a business case for a new K-12 school not be approved by the Ministry of Education, Madoc Public School be consolidated with Centre Hastings Secondary School as K-12 school, pending Ministry of Education approval for an addition and/or renovations at Centre Hastings Secondary School and then demolish Madoc Public School to create green space for the K-12 school; and
  • Continue to explore opportunities for community partnerships for the consolidated school that are aligned with the 2015-2020 Strategic Plan priorities.

As you can see, nothing has changed from the board’s administration when it comes to immediate actions. The recommendation remains this: close MTPS and move the middle-school kids into the high school, as of this coming September.

The new stuff is vaguer than vague. Leaving aside the “continue to explore opportunities for community partnerships” final point, which absent specifics means exactly nothing, we have a plan to, at some unspecified future date, consolidate all kids at the high school; then at some unspecified future date ask the provincial government for money to build a new kindergarten-to-Grade 12 school; then, if the government says no to that, just leave the kids at the high school and tear down the old Madoc Public School to create some more green space. (Which would still be a small fraction of the green space at Madoc Township Public School. But too bad – MTPS has to go. Because – well, just because.)

The recommendation was presented last Wednesday at a meeting of the school board’s student enrolment/school capacity committee, and I was one of the concerned MTPS supporters who attended to observe.

One thing I want to stress before I tell you about what took place during that brief (half an hour or so) meeting is that the trustees who sat around the table that day are not the people who wrote this recommendation. The 10 elected trustees are the board, and they make the decisions on behalf of us, the citizens who elected them and whom they represent. But the people who prepare almost all the reports and recommendations on which the elected trustees vote are the staff who work for the board. They are public servants whose salaries are paid by you and me; but they are not “the board.” These staffers have recommended that our school be closed. But it is the 10 trustees – ordinary people like you and me, elected by you and me to represent you and me and, most importantly, our schoolchildren – who will decide whether to accept or reject that recommendation.

Student enrolment/school capacity meeting

The top end of the table at the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board’s student enrolment/school capacity meeting last Wednesday. Central Hastings trustee Bonnie Danes is in foreground at left; southeast Hastings trustee Justin Bray is sixth from right on the other side of the table, while Belleville/Thurlow trustee Mary Hall is fourth from right. Director of education Mandy Savery-Whiteway, the board’s top administrator, is at the head of the table at left.

The trustees didn’t say a lot at last Wednesday’s meeting; they were told by administration that the purpose of the meeting was to receive the staffers’ recommendation. (As a longtime observer of school boards, I can tell you that it is quite common for administration to tell trustees what they can and can’t do. In some ways this is understandable; the administrators are professionals who are paid well to understand and implement the rules of the Ontario education system in all its arcane minutiae. They are smart and good at what they do; they wouldn’t be in those well-paid positions if they weren’t. It’s only natural that trustees – who are doubtless also smart, but in general are not trained education bureaucrats – tend to look to their staff for guidance on most matters.)

But what was said was encouraging. Our local trustees, Bonnie Danes (who represents central Hastings County) and Justin Bray (who represents southeast Hastings), were outstanding.

Bonnie Danes

Central Hastings public-school trustee Bonnie Danes, who is doing a great job standing up for Madoc Township Public School.

Bonnie Danes asked about enrolment projections for our three local schools that the board’s top administrator, director of education Mandy Savery-Whiteway, had tossed out in her oral introduction to her staff’s final recommendation. “Are these numbers in the report?” asked Mrs. Danes. (Despite the final recommendation being fairly brief, the report in which it was included contained more than 150 pages of related information.) After a fair bit of preamble about how these were new numbers that staff is just now working on, that it’s all “in process this spring,” Ms. Savery-Whiteway said that no, they were not in the report.

But if they’re the numbers on which the administrators are basing their final recommendation, shouldn’t they be something more concrete than “in process”? (That’s me talking.)

Mrs. Danes’s next question: Are they somewhere where we can see them?

Long answer short: Eventually they will be.

Hmmm. (That’s me again.)

Justin Bray

Justin Bray, trustee for southeast Hastings, who asked some pointed questions about the lack of specifics (notably dates) in the board administration’s recommendation last week.

Justin Bray asked about the lack of any date on the new-school part of the final recommendation. He made the excellent point that there will be a provincial election next year, and that its outcome can and probably will have a huge outcome on funding for things like hoped-for new schools.

Bonnie Danes joined in on this lack of any date in the recommendation, noting that the recommendation by the accommodation review committee for a new school was that it be ready for the 2021-22 school year. “There is no way we could be assured that would happen,” was what Ms. Savery-Whiteway told her, having already talked about how long it can take to get a response to an application to the government for new-school funding, and how one can’t be sure that the request will even be considered.

The director of education also said something in response to Mrs. Danes’s question that caught my attention, and that I added to my notes with several question marks beside it.

“We want to go after those consolidation dollars,” she said. “We want to be strategic.” What does that mean?

Well, one possible interpretation (courtesy of the lobby group Ontario Alliance Against School Closures) is this: under provincial funding rules, school boards have a better chance of getting money from the provincial government (under its School Consolidation Capital Allocation program, for example) if the buildings still open after schools have been consolidated are in bad physical condition. In this scenario, it makes sense (in a crazy sort of way) to close schools that are in relatively good shape (like Madoc Township Public School), plunk the kids into an inferior building (hello, Madoc Public School and Centre Hastings Secondary) and then plead for cash because those schools are deteriorating.

Do you feel like you’ve wandered into the Twilight Zone? Yeah, me too. I would like to think this is not what the director of education was referring to when she talked about being strategic and going after “consolidation dollars” – and I am sure she wouldn’t frame the way the program (and the strategy) works in the same blunt terms as the anti-school-closing group does. But still, it makes one wonder. And question. Which is a good thing.

Anyway. I was encouraged by a trustee from outside our area, Mary Hall (who represents Belleville/Thurlow) questioning the school maintenance costs contained in the administrators’ report. Mrs. Hall is one of the seven board trustees who came to the second and final public meeting held last month on the local school plan, and it was clear from her comments last week, even though they were brief, that she had paid attention to the concerns expressed at that meeting about inaccuracies and inconsistencies in information prepared by board administrators.

As the meeting moved to its swift close, Bonnie Danes managed to get in one final, powerful statement.

She pointed out that if students in Grades 7 and 8 from Madoc Township and environs were returned to MTPS (which was what it was built for in the first place, and which the board-established accommodation review committee has recommended), the school would be at or near capacity. Enrolment problem solved, just like that.

She also expressed concern about a proposal that would close the one and only school in a rural municipality (Madoc Township) and the impact the closure would have on the community.

“I have grave concerns about closing the only school in a municipality and piggybacking onto another municipality (Madoc) for a new build (the K-to-12 school) that may or may not happen,” she said. “In the meantime, Madoc Township Public School is lost.

“And that’s problematic.”

Well said, Trustee Danes! I hope you and Trustee Bray can and will influence at least four other board members to vote against this recommendation which is, to quote you: problematic.

Readers, take note: Here’s what happens next in this process.

On Wednesday, April 26, at 6:30 p.m., at the board’s headquarters at 156 Ann St. in Belleville, the student enrolment/school capacity committee will hear delegations from the public about the administrators’ final proposal. If you want to have your say, you have to register as a delegation at least five business days in advance of the meeting – so to be safe, before the close of business on Wednesday, April 19. That is this coming Wednesday. The registration form is on the board’s website; here is a direct link. Even if you don’t want to speak, you may attend; the meeting is public.

On Tuesday, May 23, the same committee meets again to prepare a recommendation to the full board (all 10 trustees). This too is a public meeting. As far as I can tell from the school-board website, a time has not yet been set for the meeting. It will probably take place at board headquarters in Belleville. I will keep you posted.

And then the final vote by the trustees is to take place Monday, June 19. If you don’t want to see Madoc Township Public School, our outstanding rural school, closed, please call, write and email all the trustees, preferably many times, between now and then. Their contact information is here. All that’s needed is six of the 10 to vote against this flawed recommendation and the devastating impact it will have on our community.

Because, you know: Our local schools matter!

I can tell that the voters – you know, the ones who pay the freight for school boards and so on – think so too. Here’s a gallery showing all the “Local schools matter” signs that I’ve spotted in Queensborough and adjacent Madoc Township in recent days. Yes, the photos all look very much the same; but I can assure you that they are all of different signs in different places.

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One hopes that if the message is repeated often enough, everyone will get it – and most especially, at least six of our elected public school trustees. Because they hold the fate of our school in their hands.