Class Act: Frontenac County Schools Museum

Written by: Kate MacEwen

When drafting your summer bucket list, visiting a classroom is not likely at the forefront of your mind. However, last month, I did just that after discovering the Frontenac County Schools Museum. This quaint non-profit offers a wealth of history with its thousands of artifacts certainly worth a trip out to Barriefield Village. Keep reading below to learn more about the treasures housed within this museum.

Amidst the final stages of school consolidation that would ultimately discontinue one-room schoolhouses, retired teachers, with the aspirations of both commemorating Kingston’s 1973 Tercentenary and preserving the heritage of rural education, founded the Frontenac County Schools Museum (FCSM). Six years after its inception, the museum formally opened its doors to the public in 1979. Nearly 30 years later, in 2006, the FCSM relocated to its current site at 414 Regent Street in Barriefield Village. Today, a group of volunteers—along with the museum’s staff—tirelessly lend their energy, care, and expertise towards this important piece of Kingston history. 

The museum consists of three major sections: a gallery, a replica one-room school, and an archive. Guided tours are centered around the first two while researchers access the latter via inquiries conducted online or by phone. 

The Gallery

FCSM’s gallery rotates exhibits showcasing hundreds of artifacts arranged around themes such as technology, art, poetry, and penmanship. Items include contemporary school supplies; children’s toys; photographs; musical instruments; and so much more! Bibliophiles will rejoice over shelves brimming with vintage books, notably the Ontario Readers, primers that taught numerous generations how to read. Although one could peruse the gallery independently, attending a guided tour helps contextualize artifacts and highlight their overall significance. 

Below are my top four gallery highlights, presented superlative-style:

Class Clown | Winner: “I am for Health” Art Poster

When reflecting on one-room schools’ daily operations, it is easy to become consumed by the bleak realities of rural Canadian life: children trudging for miles in the snow to attend class; shoddy building conditions resulting in poor ventilation and frigid temperatures; the dreaded strap lashing out corporeal punishment. However, the FCSM’s art display offers a welcome relief and a splash of colour to balance out this doom and gloom. My favourite artifact within this collection is a poster of a personified milk bottle, likely designed for a nutrition lesson. Sporting a goatee and engaged in a brisk walk, the character embodies the accompanying caption “I AM FOR HEALTH.” Its unique charm, equal parts amusing and eccentric, serves as a reminder of the joy and humour fostered within these schools.

Most Changed | Winner: Magic Lantern

The FCSM’s collection enables visitors to reflect on the dramatic changes classroom technologies have undergone over the years. One of the most intriguing examples is a 1914 Magic Lantern, a precursor to slide projectors and interactive whiteboards. Teachers projected images stored on wooden slides to deliver their lessons and, I imagine, enthrall their students with the unprecedented visuals. 

Best Dressed | Winner: Child’s Shoe

While providing important insight on children’s fashion, the magic behind this item comes from its origins rather than its appearance. Donors discovered the footwear hidden within the walls of a home on Earl Street! During the late Victorian era, some believed this practice warded off evil spirits. 

Unsung Hero | Winner: Spotlights on Female One-room School Teachers

In many cases, it was young women who taught in rural one room schoolhouses. These young women faced an array of challenges in addition to preparing lessons for eight different grade levels, such as financial strain and social criticism. Forced to abide by the Board of Trustees’ strict rules, community members placed high expectations for decorum and modesty onto these women. One common rule for female one-room schoolteachers across Canada discouraged them from loitering in ice cream parlours. Thus, I was thrilled to discover not only one, but two exhibits devoted entirely to female schoolteachers. The museum highlights the careers of two specific women: Lenna Alberta May Baker and Edna Funnell.

Replica One- Room School

After exploring these displays, the museum’s most alluring attraction awaits: its model classroom. Lined with rows of authentic school desks arranged by size—smaller towards the front, larger near the back—visitors can return to the mid-nineteenth century. Be sure to check out the initials former users carved into the desks – tangible evidence of the material object’s service over the years. The FCSM has developed multiple ways visitors can amplify their experience into an immersive one, beyond merely inspecting artifacts. Here are some helpful ways you can make the most out of your visit:

Walk to School

Your experience truly begins before even stepping foot inside the museum. Strolling down the quiet streets of Barriefield Village, lined with houses retaining their original designs, you get a brief impression of nineteenth-century rural life. The museum’s exterior stone complements its surroundings perfectly. Architect William Newlands, Jr. (1853-1926) designed the building in 1886. Prior to housing the FCSM, the site served as the Pittsburgh Township Hall and later a library. Sheltered away from commercial buildings, the site is a refuge from the busy city centre. 

Lead a Music Lesson

It may be music to your ears to know visitors can give both the pump organ and piano a whirl themselves. The organ, manufactured by the Boston-based Mason and Hamlin Organ Company in 1879, is embossed with designs depicting nature, including butterflies and a beehive. Alongside the images are badges the organ garnered for its beauty at international fairs.

Try Your Hand at Cursive Writing

The museum accommodates all levels of experience regarding cursive writing. Beginners can opt for a slate and chalk whereas the more ambitious can experiment with an ink well and dip pen. Although a little intimidating at first, the sounds of your pen gliding over your paper can be very satisfying. 

Dress the Part

Younger visitors can don vests or pinafores that resemble early-nineteenth century children’s attire. 

Test Your Knowledge

The museum organized various activities for all ages to engage oneself with its exhibits and history. For instance, visitors can embark on scavenger hunts; match and guess games; and memorization challenges. Try to memorize a poem line by line akin to students back in one room schools, where rote learning was the norm.

The Frontenac County Schools Museum is open to the public Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Browse the collection yourself or enjoy a free guided tour without any scheduled appointment. 

Learn more at the Frontenac County Schools Museum’s website: https://www.fcsmuseum.com/. Delve deeper and stay updated on the latest FCSM news via their social media accounts: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube.

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