TANTRAMAR REGIONAL HIGH SCHOOL (1971-1979) – AND NEW DIRECTIONS IN LOCAL ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY

In 1970, before I had even concluded my Bachelor of Education degree at Mount Allison, I was offered the position of School Librarian and Audio-Visual Technician at the new regional high school that was being built on the edge of the great Tantramar Marsh. It was controversial because it would bus in students from as far north as Little Shemogue, Murray Corner, Port Elgin, down to the Nova Scotia border and on through Sackville, Dorchester, east to Midgic and Jolicure and back to Centre Village – a vast area. Never had students been bused in from so far away and doom was predicted. The concept of a modern regional high school was a fairly new one, and often included a theatre, facilities for music, and in our case, a Resource Centre, staffed by a full-time person. A brilliant biology teacher at the Sackville High School, Richard Moreau, was the mastermind in the planning process, and, as much as possible he hand-picked his staff from existing rosters and hired new personnel with a vengeance. He was the best boss I ever had in my entire life.

Tantramar was a huge school, and as well as the usual curriculum also had a music department, an adjacent theatre, home economics facilities and large shops for training in house building and motor mechanics.

I was given a vast area to turn into a library, filled with tables and study carrels – and acres of empty high-grade steel book shelves. In 8 years, I was able to fill many of those shelves with about 6,000 books through purchase and donations. There was a room for processing books and two small seminar rooms. Unique to the province was the audio-visual section which met the needs of the whole school for overhead projectors, film projectors, tape recorders, record players, slide projectors, video-taping equipment and other pieces of equipment.

At that time, I was particularly keen on the possibilities of custom-made colour slides for enhancing the teaching of a whole range of subjects, but especially Social Studies. We acquired a fine camera with a copying lens, and the necessary copy stand with tungsten lamps. Our history teachers adopted this technology quickly and soon the school had a growing colour slide collection. For years, Marjorie Fisher, the mother of a former student I had taught in Grade 6 while waiting for construction of the new high school to be finished, helped enormously, day after day, in creating from scratch a card catalogue for our growing book collection, which I had classified using the Dewey Decimal System. (It was Marjorie who made it possible, by donating the use of her mare and giving me lessons, for me to learn horseback riding.)

I have always said – and still maintain – that TRHS, with its high percentage of very fine teachers in all the disciplines, and the facilities provided for those teachers, was as good as a school could possibly be.

I had studied to become a teacher, not a librarian and audio-visual specialist, and it was with great joy that my request for one class to teach was granted. In those days students were streamed – something now looked upon with horror – and subjects areas had 01, 02 and 03 levels, depending on the judgement of teachers and the school administration. I was given a small group of Grade 10-01 history students to which I was to teach a souped-up course that covered the period from Antiquity to the Renaissance. I taught the course completely with colour slides prepared or purchased at my own expense. The students were required to write a brief essay each week, and in the course of the year, teach one of the classes on a subject of their own choice. They worked very hard and were wonderful! Here is my first 01 class for 1971-72, at a Christmas party they arranged, with the older sister of one of the students as chaperone, at my house.

Other Social Studies instructors teaching a similar curriculum asked me to give illustrated talks to their students from time to time and I would do that in our small theatre. It was a wonderful experience.

The event I am about to describe is where my future role as an amateur historian of Maritime architecture was born. It is a very special moment that changed my life, and was probably ultimately responsible for my move back to PEI in 1982 to work at the Heritage Foundation.

Tantramar High School had very fine facilities for technical education and a large numbers of boys learned to be carpenters and house-builders from Rod Smith while others had their initial training as mechanics from Ed Cook. Both of these men were superb teachers. Shop boys, isolated in a large area at the back of the school, tended not to mix with the academic students except perhaps in the school cafeteria. Even there they stuck together. Either Rod or Ed asked if it would be possible to give their boys a taste of what other students were getting by way of illustrated talks in the theatre. We decided that I would talk about something close to their personal experiences: the houses they lived in and those they saw in their communities. In a frenzy, I drove hundreds of kilometres to take photos of houses from nearly all the communities served by our school district. The day of the lecture arrived and as I filled the big screen of the theatre with house after house, there would be bursts of agitated talk and I would hear “That’s my house!!!” I would stop the lecture and we would talk about “that house” and what living in it was like. I still have all the slides of that first-ever local architecture lecture given in September of 1974. Here are scans of a few of them.

That was one of the most intensely rewarding moments in my teaching career.

There was an uproar among my 01’s who did not know about this lecture, and immediately demanded that I share it with them. I refused because I was in the middle of teaching Ancient Greek history. In the end I relented. With them, one always tended to relent. One of my students, Laurie Stanley, told her father all about it. Dr. George Stanley was a highly prominent Canadian historian and the designer of the Canadian flag that now flies over us.

He held the Chair of Canadian History at the Centre for Canadian Studies at Mount Allison. One day, to my horror, he visited me at school, and I thought I was in for a tongue-lashing for sins committed or about to be committed. It turned out that he wanted me to come and talk to the Sackville Art Association at their next public event. The talk was to be The Domestic Architecture of the Sackville Area and would be held in the posh little theatre with rear projection mechanisms in the Ralph Pickard Bell Library at Mount A. I was wildly gratified by this honour and rushed out to take even more slides to enrich the Sackville content. Finally, in October of 1974 I had my baptism of blood. Dr. Stanley himself introduced me and then, because by now there was standing room only in that tiny lecture room, he sat on the platform near my feet. For the whole lecture I was in terror of inadvertently stepping on this august Canadian Icon.

This single thoughtful act by a great man helped to launch me in a direction I had never foreseen. Before long I received invitations to lecture on the subject at the University Women’s Club in May 1975, at the Moncton Art Society in May 1977, and in July of 1978 I spent a week with the Atlantic Canada Institute at the University of Prince Edward Island giving five lectures on Maritime Architecture. Invitations continued to pour in. In October 1978 I spoke about Developing Awareness of our Architectural Past for the New Brunswick Association of Museum Directors in Saint John. That was followed by Domestic Architecture of New Brunswick given to the Albert County Historical Society at Hopewell Cape in November of 1978.

In May-June of 1979, as Chairman of the Committee of the Sackville Art Association Spring Theme Exhibit, I prepared an exhibition of over 100 images in various kinds of media at the Owens Art Gallery called Local Architecture. In this I was assisted by the Director, Keillor Bently and his preparator. The show was very popular in the community. I prepared a small catalogue which was locally designed and printed.

In June 1980 I talked about New Brunswick Architectural Styles at an international week-end conference of the St. Andrews Heritage Trust in St. Andrews, N.B. At this conference I met some of the real American architectural historians whose books I had been avidly collecting and reading.

A month later, as a change from domestic architecture, I spent the week of 28 July-1 August, 1980 yet again at the Atlantic Canada Institute giving five lectures on Island Folklore.

The Goddess of Island Heritage, Catherine Hennessey, whose wonderful vision caused the Heritage Foundation to come into being – rather like Athena springing fully-formed from the head of Zeus – attended both weeks of my lectures at the Atlantic Canada Institute at UPEI and I believe it was then that she formulated the idea of approaching me to move to the Island to become her successor at the Heritage Foundation. Indeed, a year later we met at an anonymous pie shop just outside Crapaud – just like something out of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – and she revealed her plans for my future.

I continued to lecture on architecture and folklore subjects, and when the time came to leave Tantramar Regional High School after eight years of service – the longest period of employment with the same employer in my life – the Dean of Arts invited me to become a part of the Mount Allison Faculty as Research Associate at the Centre for Canadian Studies and Lecturer in Education. I accepted with alacrity. I was teaching as well courses in Fine Arts History in both Moncton and Amherst N.S for the Department of Continuing Education.

I now had a horse, and flew at a gallop across the archaeologically-rich slopes of the Tantramar Marshes, first created by the Acadians in the late Seventeenth Century and further developed by Yorkshire settlers after the Expulsion of 1755. I flew also with joy through my various duties at the University and in the surrounding communities. It was the golden years – the best years of my life.

 

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