Monday 5 August 2013

School on Wheels

Canadian Fred Slocum found himself on the battlefield in France recovering from a war wound.  Beside him lay a fellow soldier, missing one arm and one leg.  Fred would tell stories to his comrade to keep his spirits up and write letters on his behalf to his wife back home.  Surprised to learn that his fellow Canadian couldn't read or write, Fred found out that he hailed from Northern Ontario where there were no schools.  Finding it hard to believe that Canada would send its citizens to fight, but would not educate them, he decided that when he returned to Canada, he would teach the children of the North.

Once he recovered, Fred returned to his hometown of Clinton, Ontario.  He attended Normal School and started teaching.  Soon he met a fellow teacher named Cela and they married in 1923.  Three years later, with a baby in tow, the Slocums set out on their adventure.  With a 52-foot long railcar (#15071) they headed north to Capreol to teach the children of the bush.

School Car circa 1930

Mr. Slocum poses with his students courtesy

Mr. Slocum met his first class that September composed of children of woodsmen, hunters, trappers and Natives.  Without roads to travel on, the students arrived by foot, by canoe or by handcar (when winter arrived they would travel by dogsled or snowshoes).  For a week, Mr. Slocum would teach these children, ages 5 to 19.  He would not just cover the three R's, but also subjects like geography (a giant map hung from the wall), history (books sat in shelves on the walls), math and more.  Immigrant children Theresa and Antonia Spano remember Mr. Slocum teaching them English and showing them their hometown in Italy on his classroom map.  Children and parents were often homesick and so their teacher arranged to get a copy of a film taken in Italy which was rolled so many times it wore out.  Once the seven days expired, the children said goodbye and the railcar travelled to its next stop.  This cycle went on for five weeks as the school car made its way from Capreol to Foleyet.

In 1940, the Slocum's were grateful to receive a new school car (#15089).  The second one was much larger at 80 feet long, which made it easier to incorporate their growing family.  By now, the Slocums had five children, four girls and one boy.  Mrs. Slocum played a vital role on the school car.  She would start her day baking a fresh loaf of bread.  Laundry needed to be done with a scrub board and a metal wash tub.  River water had to be fetched and heated.  Mrs. Slocum cooked the day's dinner on a primitive woodstove. Her evenings were often spent entertaining the immigrant mothers of her husband's students, teaching them how to sew and care for their children (fathers would come for English lessons taught by Mr. Slocum).  On frigid nights, she would make thousands of cups of coffee to warm up her guests, served with freshly baked cookies.  When the weather was inclement, Mr. Slocum's students would spend the night in the school car and Mrs. Slocum would feed them supper.  During the Depression-plagued 1930's, hobos would show up at the school car door, and Mrs. Slocum would serve them a meal.

While Mr. Slocum worked his students hard, he also made room for fun.  Occasionally the students would go on a field trip to North Bay.  If they were really lucky, they travelled all the way to Toronto.  Mr. Slocum financed these trips with money he made from his short stories, which he would type on those frigid nights when he got up to put more coal in the furnace.  Probably the most exciting event for the schoolchildren was the royal visit by King George and Queen Elizabeth in July of 1939.

Joyce Evans, daughter of the City Clerk of Port Arthur, presents a bouquet to Queen Elizabeth, watched by Rt. Hon. Mackenzie King, Hon. C.D. Howe and Mayor C.W. Cox, 1939

Port Arthur, Ontario visit on royal tour of 1939 courtesy

The 1960's saw a declining enrolment in the school cars.  Mr. Slocum retired in 1965 and he and his family returned to the family home in Clinton to live.  The program was discontinued two years later.  Railcar #15089 was slated to become a museum stationed at North Bay.  However, those plans fell through.  And the railcar was abandonned.  Mr. Slocum passed away in 1973.  In the meantime, his daughter Cela and Margaret discovered their old home sitting in a Toronto salvage yard, in a state of disrepair.  The daughters convinced the Clinton Town Council to buy the car and restore it as a museum.

Mr. Slocum's former students will never forget how he went above and beyond the call of duty to educate them (and sometimes their parents).  An idea that formed on the battlefields of France helped generations of children in the backwoods of Ontario.  Thank you, Mr. Slocum!

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