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Article posted: November 5, 1999
An Often Ignored Resource
By: Ryan Taylor, Biography and Archived Articles
An interesting and unusual book came across my desk last week. It set me thinking about the contribution that school records can make in family history.
School records come in a number of forms. There may be actual classroom ledgers, with attendance or marks in them. There are a great many school histories. There are booklets which commemorate reunions of classes or schools.
The book I had was none of these. It was the autobiography of Alvin Hart, a native of Wingham who later taught in three locales in Saskatchewan. On the cover, his book is called Simply Memories, but the title page says List of His Former Pupils and the Autobiography of Alvin Hart.
Hart grew up in Wingham, where his Grandfather Rush ran a grocery store. It also sold his grandmother's home-made ice cream. Hart says Wingham only had one main street in those days.
Hart later served in World War I after a time working at the big Eaton's store in downtown Toronto. When he returned to Canada, he had a choice of four jobs, but his parents advised him to go into teaching because it was easier and lighter work.
Hart taught near Yorkton, Saskatchewan. After a time he moved to Coderre, near Prince Albert, because he and a friend were going to try farming as well.
Hart kept track of all his pupils and the list he publishes with his autobiography covers almost seventy pages. He gives addresses and short biographies if he knows them. His unusual book is a handy research tool for those who had families in these three Saskatchewan communities.
Information in a school history may not mention your family, but it still may be useful for your genealogy. There may be a description of the building where your grandparents sat to learn, or biographies of the teachers. There may even be some detail which will give you an insight into classroom life in the past.
When my father was chairman of the school board for the tiny one-room school where our family went in the late 1940s, he tried to convince the other trustees that putting electricity into the building might be a good idea. One of the men (later a mayor of Oshawa) was emphatically against the idea. "We didn't have electricity in the school when I went there, and it didn't do me any harm!" Fortunately, Dad was able to convince the others it would be good to have electric lights on dark winter afternoons.
Locating actual school records in which your relations will appear might be difficult. In Kitchener-Waterloo (Ontario), the regional board of education has an archives which includes many records for local schools, so you might start there. In other places, try the community archives or ask at the school itself if it still exists. Records for the thousands of rural schools across Canada have largely vanished. The earlier the records, the less likely they have survived.
For larger schools, the possibility of school reunions are good. The class of 1936 may have had a 50th anniversary shindig and from the commemorative booklet of that night, you may be able to locate relatives (they often have lists of addresses). You might also find classmates of your parents or grandparents who would be willing to talk about their memories.
Old yearbooks are also treasure troves of photographs and perhaps even an autograph or funny saying from your relatives. One that I saw this week had a photograph of a boy with his hand in his mouth. The caption said, "Here's George with his hand where his foot usually is." Even if it wasn't true, George now has that reputation forever.
Ryan's Heritage Notebook...
Every once in a while we find a book published in Britain or Europe which is a kind of dream resource for some researcher. It gives details about people in the homeland and links them with Canada. One such book is Rousay Roots, by Robert C. Marwick.
Rousay is an island in Orkney off the north shore of Scotland. Marwick has gathered church and other records of natives from Rousay and its neighbours Egilsay and Wyre and arranged them in family groupings. It is hard to follow but if you have family from these islands, worth the effort.
As I flipped through it I saw 'died in Saskatchewan', 'Hamilton, Canada,' 'Windsor, Ontario' and similar notes. Very useful. Marwick has published two other books about schools and school records on Rousay. Rousay Roots is available directly from him at 10 Graystones, Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland KA13 7DT for US$24 (via banker's draft, specified by him!).
Books By Ryan Taylor
Across The Waters, Ontario Immigrants Experiences 1820 - 1850 - by Frances Hoffman & Ryan Taylor, 1999. Riveting first-hand accounts of the immigration and settlement experience, taken from the diaries and letters of 150 immigrants.
Routes To Roots, The Best of Ryan Taylor's columns from the Kitchener Waterloo Record, by Ryan Taylor 1997
More Family History Research Resources