"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Nova Scotia Connections: A Day in the Life of Great Village: Great Village School

“Me thinks that any person who was in Great Village last Saturday, would have said that the small boy, who wrote the essay on Great Village and said that the principal exports were school teachers, spoke truly.” So quipped an observer in January 1899, noting the names of a baker’s dozen of young people heading off to take up their posts at schools near and far.

Great Village has had a school since the early 1810s, and so good has been the pedagogy conducted in them that dozens and dozens of its students have gone into the teaching profession. It has been generally believed by villagers and many other folks that no township with the same population in Nova Scotia can boast sending out more well-qualified teachers than Great Village.

Every July a new crop of students write the license exam and go out among communities far and wide to teach another generation. In July 1899 the same observer noted, “We think that it is creditable to our Village that we can send out in the neighbourhood of twenty teachers every year.” Their quantity and quality has not diminished in recent years, though, of course, the war has taken away some of the lads who might embark on the teaching path; but the young ladies keep up the statistics.(1)

This year a number of young folks are trying for their licenses: Misses Marion Williams, Isabel Blaikie, Martha Peppard, Irma Geddes, Annie Starritt, Edna and Mamie Robinson, and one lad, Tom MacLachlan, son of Mr. and Mrs. Donald MacLachlan. At the moment, the students are preparing to write the Provincial High School exam. In July they go to Truro for the license exam. The success of the teachers in Great Village speaks to the excellence of the education which has been available to them for decades.

The school house in the village has been as mobile as the teachers themselves. In the early 1810s the first school house was built of logs and stood opposite where the Presbyterian manse now stands, on the land now owned by Isaac McKim, on the Old Cumberland Road. This spot became known as “School House Hollow.” Later on, this building was moved up the road a bit and became an ell on the house now owned by Mr. and Mrs. MacLachlan. As the village grew two schools were needed and in the 1830s one was placed on the hill near the present home of Mrs. James Corbett, and the other near the property now owned by Mrs. Henry Trott. In 1860 the hall now owned by the Iron Age Division Sons of Temperance was built, the lower part being used for a school of two departments, and the upper part used for a Town Hall and public meeting place. At one time, there was also a school at the end of the road leading to Spencer’s Point.

In 1874 a new school was built on Hustler Hill opposite the Baptist church, and students from the nearby communities came to the village for their lessons. This school was a lively, active place for decades, establishing the strong tradition of concerts, theatricals and pageants which continues in the new consolidated school, which was built in 1904. The Hustler Hill school became too small and inadequate, so in 1903 tenders were issued for the construction of the lovely, big building which now houses the students. The contract was given to John Adams, and the work employed many men in the area. Dr. J.L. Peppard was the Chairman of the District School Board and it was his indefatigable zeal which proved the key in Great Village getting such a fine school. This new school opened on November 8, 1904, with much pomp and ceremony. The festivities commenced early in the afternoon and concluded at 10 o’clock in the evening. Revs. Miller and Crawford participated as well as Dr. Peppard, F.A. Lawrence, M.P., Revs. G.A. Lawson and J.L. Dawson, Dr. A.H. MacKay, the Superintendent of Education, Mr. L.C. Harlow, Inspector Craig, Mr. Percy Shaw, R.C. Hill, and a host of others.

The New Great Village School and its students, circa 1905

In 1914 the students of the school produced their first High School Annual. Miss Mary Bulmer wrote a history of the school and it is only right that we let her describe the benefits of the current building: “The school-house is situated in the centre of the village and is a very pretty locality, being near Mr. Peppard’ mill pond, which in the winter affords good skating. From the upper windows there is a good view of the Great Village River and the marshes. The school-house is a square, two-storey building, painted white. It is well finished throughout, the floors being of oiled hardwood. It has four rooms, two on each floor. These are well lighted and well ventilated. On the second floor there is a small library and a chemical laboratory, three of the rooms are in use for class purposes, while the other is used for Manual Training and Basket Ball. The basement is concrete and is under the entire building. The heading is done by two large wood furnaces. At the front of the school-house is a large play-ground, while at the back is the school garden and tool-house.”(2)

This year the students are planning to have a new edition of the Annual ready for distribution at the Christmas concert.

Great Village High School Annual, 1916

The school has three excellent teachers this year. The principal and head of the Advanced Dept. is Mr. R.N. Bagnell. The Intermediate Dept. is overseen by Miss Ruth Peppard. The wee tots of the Primary Dept. are taught by the capable Miss Georgie Morash.(3) Nova Scotia teachers are kept up to date with Institutes, held regularly during the year. The Great Village school is the site of the Institute for West Colchester and Great Village teachers often are asked to give the lessons. This October Mr. Bagnell is going to conduct the chemistry class and Miss Peppard will give the lessons in arithmetic and commercial geography.

The Great Village teachers are enthusiastic and encouraging and keep their students busy with all sorts of activities besides the regular reading, writing and arithmetic. The students love to get up concerts. One of the most enjoyable is the spring concert with its drills. In March an especially good drill concert occurred. The Primary Dept. did a Doll Drill, the Intermediate Dept. did the Maple Leaf and Scarf Drills, and the young ladies of the Advanced Dept. performed a Flower Drill. There is also a public presentation by the school children on Empire Day in May. This presentation is part of a programme put on by other groups in the community. This year the students marched in costume to the Temperance Hall and gave recitations and songs. The big concert, however, is the one at Christmas, and it takes months to prepare and practice the tableaux, skits, readings and songs. The students are able to raise money for books for the library or equipment for the laboratory with this event.

At this time of year, school work is winding down as the students prepare for the Provincial and license exams. With the warm weather of late the students have been spending lots of time outside in their school garden and also at their physical education activities. There is not only a keenness for theatricals among the students, but also for sports. And one can always see some of the lads and lasses practicing track and field or playing baseball in the yard.

Great Village Graduation Class, 1906. Grace Bulmer, standing third from right. Una Layton, standing, second from right. Georgie Morash, seated, centre. Courtesy of Acadia University Archives

Mary Bulmer is one of the most popular young ladies in the school. Like her classmates, she is preparing for exams. Today is different though. It is a difficult day for Mary, upset and embarrassed about Gertie’s leaving for the hospital. She decides to take a day off school and study and go fishing. Just after the wagon with her father, Gertie and Grace leaves for Londonderry Station, an automobile drives up to the front of the Bulmer house and Mary hurries out with a basket of food and a fishing pole. She’s off with Wendell Anderson, Harold Firman and Leslie Geddes. They are heading to Isaac’s Lake to catch their maximum allotment of trout, if they can. It is a day’s outing for the young folks. Her friends know that it will help cheer Mary up to be casting her line in the calm waters of the lake. She competes with the lads for the most trout, and usually wins easily. After all, she has taken lessons from her brother, Arthur, who can find trout in any puddle.


1. The History of Great Village, printed in 1960, lists 115 Great Villagers who entered the teaching profession. The heyday of teachers in Great Village was from the 1890s to the 1920s. A good number of young women also went into nursing, the other principal profession for them in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The History of Great Village lists nearly 40 women from the village who become nurses, including five women from the Bulmer family: Gertrude, Grace and Mary, and their nieces Eleanor and Hazel.

2. In 1997 the Great Village School was designated a Provincial Heritage Property. It is still used as a school today, one of the only buildings of that era operating as such.

3. Georgie Morash, a contemporary of Elizabeth Bishop’s beloved Aunt Grace, was Bishop's Primary teacher in 1916-1917. Bishop’s memory of Georgie was vivid, as revealed in her memoir about this inaugural pedagogical experience, “Primer Class”: “That was our teacher’s name, Georgie Morash. To me she seemed very tall and stout, straight up and down, with a white starched shirtwaist, a dark straight skirt, and a tight, wide belt that she often pushed down, in front, with both hands. Everything, back and front, looked smooth and hard; maybe it was corsets. But close to, what I mostly remember abut Miss Morash, and mostly looked at, were her very white shoes, Oxford shoes, surprisingly white, white like flour, and large, with neatly tied white laces....Miss Morash always carried her pointer. As she walked up and down the aisles, looking over shoulders at the scribblers or slates, rapping heads, or occasionally boxing an ear, she talked steadily, in a loud, clear voice. This voice had a certain fame in the Village. At dinner my grandfather would quote what he said he had heard Miss Morash saying to us (or even to me) as he drove by that morning, even though the schoolhouse was set well back from the road” (Collected Prose, 7-8).

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