By Laurel Wilson
Growing up in the rural logging communities of Central Almaguin taught me a lot about being resourceful. Using every bit of what you have is a learned habit that is deeply ingrained in the culture of rural communities. As a by-product of this “reuse culture,” the built environment of Almaguin is nearly perfectly preserved. From the banks on the main streets to the private residences, and even the original schoolhouses, reuse culture has created a way to preserve historical structures that are important to the heritage of these communities without needing to rely on heritage conservation laws.
Due to the lack of infrastructure needed to transport materials, thick forests, and a short construction season due to the winter, building in this region is a tough job. Whatever is existing is used and altered just enough to keep up with the changing times. This unfortunate factor of rural life is a blessing in disguise when it comes to preserving heritage. If alterations need to be done, it is only what is necessary to keep the building standing or to improve the quality of life of the people living there. Nowhere is this method of building and preservation more evident than in the original one-room schoolhouses that were one of the foundations of these communities.
Originally built in the late 1800s, there are about a dozen one-room schoolhouses in Almaguin that have been preserved in near-identical conditions due to reuse culture. Although precious to the community’s heritage, these schoolhouses now function as homes, hotels, storage, and churches, or merely sit empty and are collectively taken care of by the community.
The Uplands schoolhouse was the first of 7 one-room schoolhouses built in Machar Township in Central Almaguin. It was built in 1902 and has remained mostly unchanged. Many of the descendants of the teachers and students are still a part of the local communities 200 years later. Many happy memories are stored in this building which was purchased in the early-mid 1900s. It was turned into a private summer residence called “Porcupine Lodge.” Despite now being privately owned, the original character of the building is the same. The original form, brick, and windows are all still there. The only big change that has been made is the addition of hydro and plumbing.
Two views of Porcupine lodge show the detailed stonework of the exterior from 1970. In image 2 you can see the side entrance added when the school became a house on the left side of the photo. Unfortunately, there are no photos showing the building in full. Photo from the South River Library Archives.
Brennan schoolhouse is located in the area surrounding the village of South River. This schoolhouse was built in 1913 and functioned as a tiny classroom before being bought by the Dyke family. The Dyke family used it as a ski lodge for a few years before shutting down due to safety concerns about the hill’s proximity to the road. It was later repurchased and turned into a residence. Today, it sits empty in a grassy field in near pristine condition. Despite its chipped paint and slanted floors, it is well-loved and taken care of. The windows are still intact, and the bell tower is still there. Many residents like to drive out to see it and reminisce. My Grandfather is one of these people. He still likes to retell the stories of the walk he and his siblings would take from their homestead (which is still being lived in) down the road to attend school at Brennan.
Since the need to alter existing structures is so high in this region, many residents are distrustful and even fully against the heritage designation of local buildings. Although extremely important in protecting our heritage in Ontario, these laws can do more harm than good in these small communities. If any of these schoolhouses were to receive heritage designation, it would be detrimental to the local economy and only add to the growing housing crisis. There would be no economical way to source the materials needed according to heritage laws. It would be even more difficult to find someone who would be willing to drive up into the communities to deliver or install these specialty materials. It would be wasteful to turn a much-needed structure that has been essential to the heritage of our communities into a “trophy.” We would not be able to make new memories alongside the old ones and we would be losing a part of our culture as a community.
With all of this in mind, how should we go about preserving heritage in the North?
While in the hands of the generations of citizens that have had friends and family attend school in them, these schoolhouses will not be harmed. To Almaguin and many other rural communities, heritage is not about a plaque or preservation it is an active culture surrounding making do with what you have and respecting the work of those who came before you. We do what we need to keep our heritage alive while also making sure that we can grow and evolve as a community. This is something that has worked for us and will continue to work for us for generations to come. Perhaps it could work for other communities too.