Tales from Olive French

In the 1960s, a woman named Olive French began researching and writing a history of Oshawa’s early education, educators, and schools.  This manuscript was never published but was later donated to the archives.  In the early 2010s, Visitor Experience Coordinator Jill Passmore set out to transcribe the manuscript, which was made available to researchers through the blog olivefrench.wordpress.com.  During her transcription process, Jill shared some of her favourite ‘tidbits’ on the Museum’s Facebook page, which bear repeating here on our blog.  Be sure to check out the Olive French site and discover a little more about education and early life in Oshawa.


An anecdote about Beaton’s store: For some reason best known to them, Beaton’s had a display of chamber pots in the window of their china shop. A lady went by with two small children, around the age of four or five years old. When they saw what was in the window, they let it be known in good clear voices – “Oh, look at the jims,” “see all the jim’s”! Their mother decided that she would take the children by, on the other side of the street until Beaton’s changed their window decorations!
Jim’s is possibly a derivative of “Jimmy” and “Jimmy Riddle”, which is British slang for “urinating”


The birch rod, so popular in the early days was gradually ruled out of the schools. Some of the older scholars, on a few occasions had received broken fingers through its injudicious use. The strap became a popular way to emphasize obedience and to stimulate the lazy ones. As a rule the parents did not come to the school and complain about Johnny’s or Mary’s punishment. If a child deserved it he got no sympathy from “ma or pa.” Most children were told, “if you get a lickin’ in school you’re git another when you git home.”


One could scarcely imagine the health authorities of today tolerating a smelly place like Dick Hobb’s fish store (Simcoe Street South).


For the most part the common schoolteachers had only a common school education and no professional training. They were usually discharged soldiers or new comers who were ill equipped to take a more lucrative position. The teacher’s qualifications were his ability to keep order while his pupils memorized their lessons that he assigned to them from their textbooks and recited them to him.


Scholars [at DeMill Ladies’ College] were requested to bring with them, to the college, their own towels, table napkins and ring, one pillow and pillow cases, one pair of sheets and bed covers suitable for the season. They also had to bring a knife, a fork and a spoon, all these articles was to be marked with the owner’s name. They must provide themselves with clothing suitable for the season and were requested to wear inexpensive, neat and plain clothing. More thought was to be given to schoolwork than to dress.


Another escapade took place in Centre Street Public School in 1888 or 1889; this one was not serious but it emptied one of the rooms for a half of a day. One of the pupils, Maisie, aged ten years, whose father kept bees, thought she would see what could be done about a half holiday on a one nice day in the spring. She had no fear of bees whatever and could go out among the bee hives at her home and pick out the drones and the other bees did not attack her. It is believed that those insects are aware of it, when anyone is afraid of them. Drones are male bees and do not sting. At lunch time that day, she put a few drones in her pocket before she left to go back to school. After the bell rang and things got settled down in her room, she let the bees go. There was a near panic of course; no one else knew that the bees were drones. There was no need to dismiss the room; the room dismissed itself, teacher and all. How she ever dared to do a thing like that when Mr. Smith was principal was a question. She must have been brave. No doubt she was punished at school; the teachers wouldn’t have seen any joke about it like her father did. She happened to be my cousin, he was C.S. French.

Centre Street School in the 1920s; A004.14.3

In the earliest years when the High School was in the new building, report cards were not given to the pupils. Marks obtained on the exams were posted on the bulletin boards and the papers were handed back to the pupils. A record was kept in the office of each student’s marks, during the year. Before the final exams in the higher grades, the scholars were called individually to the office for an interview with the principal. He gave his opinion on the advisability of trying or not. A fee was charged for the departmental exams.


An amusing report was printed in the Vindicator April 7th 1876. It was the day of the trustee meeting and not one of them was present. “A number of the members had joined an elocution class and it had met on the same evening. Some very brilliant oration at the meetings was to be expected now. A new pump was needed at the school and it would be an excellent chance for brilliant elocutionary effect for the property committee.”

Also the following; at one time when there was no quorum and no meeting of the school board all of the trustees were attending an oyster supper. Someone suggested that it might be a good idea, on the night of the trustee meetings to give oyster suppers and invite the members of the board to attend. Perhaps they might be induced to transact the school business afterwards.

What I Did This Summer

By Jill Passmore, Visitor Experience Co-ordinator

This summer, I learned that I would be saying goodbye to my childhood home. I’m sure most of you have experienced this at some point. While I am excited for my parents to be starting a new chapter in their lives, this means the end of one for my sister, brother, and me. Thankfully, I’ve had more time to process the announcement because I was the one who showed them their new house. In an unexpected turn of events, my parents are moving into the home of family friends on my husband’s side of the family, which is five minutes away from my in-laws! The world works in mysterious ways, doesn’t it?

My family moved to Oshawa in 1986 from Port Credit, Ontario – now a suburb of Mississauga. We upgraded from a townhouse to a semi-detached. I remember my first thought upon seeing the house was, “Wow! It has two doors and two garages!” Our ‘new to us’ home was chosen in part because of its proximity to so many amenities, such as St. Michael’s Catholic School (pre-1987/1988 renovation), the Civic Auditorium, the Ministry of Transportation, and a Scotiabank. For a number of years, we didn’t have backyard neighbours as our home looked onto greenspace, a Ryder Truck rental, and Sheridan Nurseries.

Since then, the area has seen many changes. We watched the building of the plaza behind the Scotiabank and frequented the St. Hubert’s, the anchor store for a while. We attended City of Oshawa meetings when developers proposed the building of a bingo parlour directly behind us. This turned into the plaza that was originally home to Don Cherry’s Sports Bar and the Oshawa Funeral Home. My Dad and sister even met Mr. Cherry one day when he was out inspecting the new restaurant. This was much more exciting 25 years ago than it would be today! Nevertheless, to the other extent, some things don’t change. I’ve been going to the same dentist and same veterinary clinic for almost 35 years – both chosen, of course, because they were close by and within walking distance.

So how do you say goodbye to decade’s worth of trick or treating, birthday parties, proms, breakups, wedding photos, and baby visits? I’m still working through that. When we moved in, there was a maple tree in the centre of the yard and a cedar hedge surrounding it, which was very inconvenient for three kids playing back there. I remember looking down into the basement (which had drawings on the wall from the previous owner’s kids – something my parents never allowed us to do!) to see a sea of boxes everywhere. As the boxes for the move began to pile up in the last few weeks, this memory grew stronger.

Thinking in terms of how technology has changed over the years, we moved in with a small, yellow, 12 or 13-inch television and VCR. An answering machine eventually came, as did cassette tape players that we bought at the nearby K-Mart or Woolco. Through the years, TVs were upgraded and we moved through CD players and DVD players; the landline is now outdated and the grandkids keep asking for the Wi-Fi password.

My brother and I had these great custom shelves in our bedrooms, left by the previous owners. They were perfect for storing our toys, stuffed animals, and games. When my parents let us paint our rooms to suit our taste, the walls were one colour and trim and accents were another colour. This must have been a trend in the ’80s as a lot of the house was like this! My brother and I spent a lot of time playing together, combining our toys to make epic playsets, using Construx to make houses for my Barbies, who dated the WWF (now WWE) wrestlers or He-Man figures.

We kids have long since been given all of our toys and stuffed animals, memorabilia, and mementos to keep at our own homes. All that is left is 35 years of my parent’s lives, rediscovering photos and ephemera from their own early days together and figuring out what to do with the collection of camping gear and tools – how do you pack a garage?

At the time of writing this, there are less than two weeks to process not visiting my childhood home on an (at least) weekly basis. I get nostalgic driving past my grandparents’ house, which can be seen from Rossland Road, and I wonder if my kids, nieces, and nephews will feel the same way driving past my own parents’ home. Years ago, my grandparents’ home was up for sale, and we were fortunate enough to go to the open house. Will I want to revisit my own childhood home? I imagine only time will tell.

Addendum: The big move has happened, and everything went well. This is a big adjustment period for everyone. My husband drove past the old house last night on his way home from the dentist we’ve had all these years. His report back to me: “It looks the same.”

Volunteering in the Times of COVID

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

The COVID crisis hit Ontario in early March, and by March 13, the Oshawa Museum made the decision to close our doors to the public. Staff continued to work from home remotely, but essentially all volunteering came to a halt at that time. Museums benefit from volunteers in so many ways, from the volunteers who help at events, being wonderful ambassadors for the site, helping behind the scenes, and being just a wonderful complement to the staff.  To say we miss our volunteers is an understatement; their presence is missed every day.

Not all volunteering stopped, for as restrictions began to lift, we were able to safely accommodate and welcome back our garden volunteers, who have worked throughout the summer to keep the gardens around the museum looking their very best.

But, due to space constraints currently at the Museum, we cannot safely have volunteers on site because social distancing would not be achievable.  So, we started thinking about ways that we can have volunteer engagement and participation, but in a remote capacity. Enter the Audio Transcription Project.

Our archival collection is vast and varied: legal documents, photographs, diaries, newspapers, and a large collection of audio cassettes. Yes, that’s right. Audio Cassettes. In case this technology is a little before your time, we’re talking about these:

This collection features historical talks, oral interviews, and the like.  We saw this collection as a great starting point for creating at-home volunteer opportunities.

Staff began the project, digitizing the cassettes using a handy devise that turns the audio into an MP3. However, what is of great benefit is having a written transcript of the audio file.  This transcript not only is makes searching the content of the audio file simple and quick, it also makes an audio file accessible to those who are hearing impaired, thereby increasing accessibility to the collection.

The project is being facilitated over our Google Drive – volunteers can sign up for which audio file they want to work on, and the MP3s are accessible from that same online folder. In the month of August, when we launched the project, volunteers contributed over fifty hours to this project, and we are so very thankful for the work they are doing!

If you are interested in helping with this project, please email Lisa at membership@oshawamuseum.org


What we’ve learned!

In the 1980s, there was an interview with a Mrs. Mechin, and one of our volunteers has transcribed the audio. Within the interview, Mrs. Mechin, a Robinson descendant, talked about her history of employment:

MRS MECHIN: And, when Burt and I were sleigh riding, I was six and he was seven. And I was fitted the night before, and it was across the fields, there was a hill, a pastor field. And, halfway down the hill, there was a, a wooden fence. A rail fence. And, so we took a notion, we would take our sleigh and go to the top of this hill down. And, of course it went pretty fast, it’s just, just like ice, right? I see, I can see the sun shining on it now, just like diamonds you know. And, I-I sat down, I had long coat on, at the back, and he sat down at the front, he was gonna steer. Of course he sat on my coat, I guess my feet were around him, I don’t know, I can’t remember that but, I ran into the fence, and hurt my hand. So, then I was operated on, had the bone removed and diseased in 1917. That’s why I left Fittings, because my health wasn’t good… So, then I was home three months, or at least I was away three months. And, then I went to Hallett’s store and George [Hazelwood] interviewed me, and I got in the [General] Motors’ office. But, that was before the carriage business was settled up… And, I worked for the manager there… Ms.Keddy, was sick at the time, so I took over her, she used to write letters about the liens on the cars around the carriages… So, I took that job over as well. I did, that was in 1914, and I worked there for three years.

INTERVIEWER: You worked there during the war years?

MRS MECHIN: Well, I worked their four, four years, yeah. Mhmm. 1918

Percy Ibbotson, another Robinson descendant, shares his memories of Robinson House:

INTERVIEWER: We are now in the large north room on the main floor. Percy is going to tell us how he remembers this room.

PERCY: I remember, readily, that when this room was a barber shop, the poles were out in the front, we used to sit in the front steps, and I suppose catering to the traffic down to the beach, people coming and going, especially on the weekend. But, this room was used for some time, for some years, as a barber shop.

INTERVIEWER: And the entrance to the barber shop would be the door on the north side, which we are not using today.

PERCY: Double doors

In 1983, Rev. E. Frazer Lacey gave a presentation about the 150 year history of the congregation of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian, where he shared a story about Rev. Thornton during the 1837 Rebellion:

1837 was the year of the Mackenzie rebel, and Thornton was sympathetic to the cause, to the issue, he was for representative democracy, as he was also for free and open education, he was certainly against the family compact. And so here he was torn, loyalist in terms of British connection, but reformist in his social concern. The rebellion was put down, but Thornton received a real setback, troops of the loyalist cause, took a shot at him one night as he came home from a meeting.

The Month That Was – September 1864

All articles originally appeared in the Oshawa Vindicator

September 7, 1864
Page 2

Library, or Reading Room
As will be seen from a sketch of the proceedings at the several meetings held, a Mechanics’ Institute and Library Association has been organized for a second time in Oshawa.  It is to be hoped that the institution will be more successful this time than it was the first, and there is no reason why it should not.  The first one was a miserable affair and a large amount of property was sunk in it, in one way and another, but not by anybody looking after its affairs very closely or endeavouring to keep the institution up.  Nobody seemed to take any ordinary degree of interest in it, even as a library association, and it never was anything more.  Few meetings were held in connection with it, and in the course of time its library was neglected, suffered to go to ruin by want of usage as well as bad usage, and eventually sold for ‘a raere song.’ With this experience before then, no doubt the Directors of the newly organized association will pursue a very different course from that which resulted so disastrously to its predecessor.  Our village is tolerably well supplied with library works thro’ our Common School library that was, and which now is our ‘United Grammar and Common School’ library.  If there is any deficiency of reading matter in that library, it can be supplied by the United Board of Grammar and Common School Trustees in such a way as to give us one complete village library, all under one management. And now that the Grammar School has an interest in the School Library, there ought to be an additional sum of money voted towards procuring new and interesting works for the replenishment of its shelves every year. By doing this, there will be no need of the funds of the Mechanics’ Institute being used up, as those of the former one were, in purchasing a library, leaving an insufficient sum for other purposes of more importance. Let the whole of the funds be devoted to procuring a superior course of lectures, and other entertainments for the winter evenings, and providing a Reading Room containing a number of the leaving English, American, and Canadian papers, and the institution cannot fail to prosper.  But let its funds be used up in purchasing needless and expensive books, and it can hardly avoid, except by taxing somebody’s time and labor quite too severely, meeting with the fate of its predecessor.

Steam up – On Monday last steam was introduced for the first time into the new engine at E. Miall and Co’s cabinet factory, and the boiler and engine, etc. tested. The shafting is not yet all in position and consequently the machinery was not moved.  The engine is a fine piece of mechanism, for a first attempt, and is a good illustration of the capacity of Joseph Hall’s Mill and Job department.

September 7, 1864, page 1

Raft Ashore – On Monday morning last a large raft of square timber towed by the Steamer Hercules, went ashore and broke up near Port Oshawa.  The wind blowing from the lake at the time, the greater part of the timber was washed ashore.

September 7, 1864, page 3; for more on Mrs. PA Henry, read HERE

September 21, 1864
Page 2

The School House
The work of making the addition of 40 feet to the west end of the Union School House is rapidly approaching completion.  The mason work was completed some two weeks ago, and the roof has been put on and the floors laid.  Two small gables have been erected over each doorway in addition to the original plan as given out to contract, which will add considerably to the appearance of the structure, which otherwise would have had an exceedingly unpleasant look in an architectural point of view.  The new rooms will be very airy ones, the floor of the under story being two feet lower than that of the old portion, and the ceiling of the upper room being attached to the roof, giving it somewhat the appearance, overhead, of the Presbyterian Church.

Conviction Quashed – We find the following in the Chronicle’s report of the last Quarter Sessions: – “Conviction of John Stokes for selling liquor on Sunday. – In this case Mr. J. Stokes, hotel keeper, of Oshawa, appealed against the conviction of G.H. Grierson, the convicting magistrate, by which a fine of $20 was imposed for selling liquor on Sunday. There was no respondent’s name in the papers. Conviction quashed. Mr. Lyman English appeared for the appellant.”

Where was our Reeve when the case was called?

A New Grocery Store – A new grocery, provision and crockery store is to be opened out in a few days, in the store in Gibbs’ block, formerly occupied by L. Vancamp, and lately by Gibbs & Bro. The Proprietors are Messrs. Bremner & Urquhart.  Their advertisement will appear next week.

September 21, 1864, page 3

September 28, 1864
Page 2

Excelsior Machines – Two splendid pieces of mechanism left Joseph Hall’s establishment on Monday last for Hamilton. One was the Reaper and Mower to be awarded at the Provincial Plowing Match to the best plowman, as mentioned in our last, and the other a Thresher and Horse Power for competition at the Provincial Exhibition. – They are, doubtless, the two best machines of the kind ever manufactured in any part of the world.

Birth – At Whitby, on the 19th inst., the wife of William Laing Esq., Mayor of Whitby, of twin sons.

Died – At Whitby, on the morning of the 19th inst., deeply and deservedly regretted, Louisa Amelia, the beloved wife of William Laing Esq., Mayor of the Town of Whitby, aged 40 years and six months.

September 28, 1864, page 3

Oshawa and Electric Rail

By Adam A., Summer Student

Hello once again! While working of the Discover Historic Oshawa website I learned many new details about the city. One particularly surprising detail being that the City of Oshawa has a surprisingly long history with electric rail.

The Oshawa Railway, incorporated in 1887, used electricity to power its street cars and the “shunters” which pulled freight around between factories and the major rail systems. For most of its history, the OR was entirely electric. The only exceptions being early on when some, as of yet unelectrified, sections were handled by small steam engines and after June of 1964 when all electrified operations of the OR ceased.

A998.13.10

Oshawa’s next flirtation with electric rail came in 1923, when the Toronto Eastern Railway came to town and promptly died. The Toronto Eastern Railway was a subsidiary of by the industrialist William Mackenzie’s Canadian Northern Railway. It was to be a “high speed” electric railway intended by Mackenzie to better connect Ontario’s urban centres. It was incorporated in 1910, but the outbreak of the First World War delayed construction, a fact not helped by the parent company defaulting on its debts and being acquired by the federal government in 1917. The line would only be built out to Oshawa in 1923 and was abandoned the following year due to lack of funding.

Oshawa Railway Line Map, 1920

Oshawa had another near brush with an electric line in the 1980s. The Government of Ontario set its hopes on expanding GO service out to Oshawa by means of an express light rail between downtown Oshawa and the Pickering GO Station. These were to be electric vehicles travelling at an average of 70km/h. In the mid-1980s, changes in federally legislated rail right of way and difficulties developing the ALRT vehicle, prompted the Government of Ontario to abandon the project in favour of extending conventional GO service out to Oshawa.

Will electric rail come to Oshawa again? Will it even be proposed again? Well, there’s no way to know for sure, but some sort of zero carbon emission mass transit system is probably going to be proposed at some point, perhaps as a new transportation project, or perhaps as a modification of the existing passenger rail infrastructure.