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Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre​

33 Victoria Street North (in the town of Saugeen Shores)
Southampton, ON Canada N0H 2L0

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Bruce County Folk Schools

Home | Stories & Artefacts | Bruce County Folk Schools

If you wish to use or purchase any of these images, please contact archives@brucecounty.on.ca

The history of Bruce County is rich with agricultural organizations focused on building community and improving the life of the County’s rural communities. The Folk Schools that took place from 1939 to the 1980s were no exception. Home to Canada’s first Folk School, Bruce County played an active role in this branch of adult education which brought together individuals from several agricultural groups and institutions to enrich the lives of those living on farms.

 

The Folk School movement is an adult education philosophy, which began in Denmark in the 1800s by pastor Nikolai Grundtvig. He first set up a school in 1844 in Rødding, often referred to as the residential adult college. Grundtvig believed that teenage years, between ages 14-18, are better spent learning practical matters including trades or domestic duties. It was then in adulthood—when individuals already had experience working in the world—that those who wished to seek further education could do so for their own enjoyment and interest. He believed that education should not further one’s occupation but should rather be for pleasure and to better their country, community, and culture. Grundtvig’s school prioritized the teaching of oral tradition and folklore through a focus on history, literature, language, singing, religion, and popular culture. With little emphasis on book learning, most of the teachings were in the form of practical experiences through workshops and farm work, and no exams or certificates were ever administered. Though Grundtvig had much support for his teachings in the beginning, the high cost of tuition limited those who could attend his school and political changes in Denmark at the time put an end to his plans.

 

Another like-minded individual around this time was able to further build on Grundtvig’s foundation. Christen Kold (sometimes spelled Kristen) established a school in 1851. Kold’s school gained popularity Denmark because it was more economically accessible to farmers, and it had less emphasis on religion. By 1861 women were able to access Folk School education and typically attended in the summer, while men attended in the winter. By the 1860s Folk Schools had spread throughout Scandinavia and by 1910 there were over 100 schools throughout Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway. In 1878, the Folk High School Association was officially created with more than 3,000 registered students. The height of the Danish Folk School occurred during the late 1800s, however several Folk high schools based on Grundtvig’s philosophies still exist today.

 

 

Pamphlet for Ontario Folk Schools.The Folk School movement came to Canada in the depression years of the 1930s through D.M. Solandt, Herb H. Hannam, and John Madsen. The goal was to improve the quality of life, build community, and introduce Folk School teachings for those living in rural communities. The introduction shouldered on the popularity of Farm Forums which demonstrated an interest in adult education. To promote the Folk School philosophy John and Betty Madsen who lived on Cherry Hill Farm in Unionville, Ontario hosted a three-week pilot course in 1948 introducing the Danish Folk School movement to forty individuals. Marjorie Ribey and James Powers from Bruce County attended the course.  The Madsens remained influential figures of Folk Schools in Ontario and hosted an annual Folk Festival at their Cherry Hill Farm each spring.

 

 

 

 

Cover of Ontario Folk School newsletterBy 1950, the Ontario Folk School Council was established with support from the United Cooperative of Ontario and the Community Programmes branch of the Department of Education. The council was made up of county delegates, county planning committee members, individuals from related agricultural organizations and departments, and community members. The council was supported by the Canadian and Ontario Farm Radio Forums, Federation of Agriculture, Junior Farmers, Women’s Institutes, and religious groups. Though Canada never saw the creation of a permanent, year-round Folk School in Canada, the council oversaw the organization and implementation of short, multi-day Folk Schools in twenty-six communities throughout Ontario. The Ontario Folk School Council eventually merged with the Ontario Farm Forum and Rural leadership Forum in June 1965 to form the Rural Learning Association (RLA). The main goal of the RLA was to “provide leadership training to meet needs of rural organization and initiates programs for personal and community development” and assumed the organization of Folk Schools from 1965 on. By the 1970s, an average of 700-800 students participated in Folk Schools with half held within Indigenous communities. At this time Folk Schools were generally only 1-2 day events but they maintained the same principles and goals, focusing on co-operative action and movement.

 

 

Publication with theme ideas for folk school classesBruce County Folk Schools pre-date the Ontario Folk School Council and typically consisted of 3-4 day courses. County Folk Schools were organized by county residents and organizations, and the themes were pertinent to the interests and concerns of each community. They were hosted at local farms which could accommodate 12-20 people between the ages of 18 and 80. Folk School hosts, leaders, and students lived together on the same farm, sharing responsibilities, and learning as a group. Representatives from the Ontario Folk School Council and other agriculture organizations would also attend and sometimes deliver special sessions. A general theme was selected for each course, and sessions generally covered family values, religion, farm organizations and policies, and creative workshops. Bruce County Delegates who sat on or were recommended for the Ontario Folk School Council over the years include Jim Powers, Harvey Needham, Irene Boyle, Mrs. Mel White, Tom S. Ribey, Mrs. Donald McCosh [Anne McCosh?], Murray Ribey, Gladys Arnold, Esther Blackwell, Don Fenton, Wilson Gregg, and Duncan Convay.

 

 

 

Multiple pictures from Owen Sound Sun Times newspaper featuring folk schools

 

 

The first Folk School in Canada was hosted at the home of Mr. and Mrs. A.B. Sammells in Park Head, during the week of January 14, 1939. Eleven students were taught by Violet and H.H. Harmen and the theme was  “Farm Organizations.” Two years later in 1941, Mr. and Mrs. Howard Burgess of Burgoyne hosted another Folk School, which was led by Art Haas and attended by thirteen students.

 

The 1949 Bruce County Folk School was held at the home of Gerald and Vickie Zettel in Chepstow from January 30 to February 5, with around fifteen students in attendance. Representatives from several agricultural organizations and local institutions were listed on the agenda. The school included folk dancing instruction by Betty and John Madsen and a banquet on the last day. In 1953, Ray Hergott and Art Haas lead a Folk School reunion in Sauble Beach.

Section of Folk School annual report featuring Bruce County class.

The 1954 Bruce County Folk School was held from February 18 to February 21 at the home of Irene and Francis Boyle on Concession 10, Lot 4, Huron Township. The theme of the school was “Enriched Living”. The Boyles also hosted a Folk School from February 10 to February 13, 1955, with the theme of “Is There a Place in Agriculture for You?”. In 1956 it was held at the home of Mr. & Mrs. Jack Ribey in Paisley, Ontario from March 1 to March 4, and in 1959, it was held at Duncan Convay’s farm in Kincardine Township. In 1960, it was hosted at the Underwood Motel in Underwood, Ontario from March 3 to March 6 with theme “You in Your Community”. The following year it was held at Lowe’s Motel in Underwood, Ontario from March 2 to March 5, 1961, with the theme of “Evaluation of Adult Education.”

 

 

Class syllabus of Bruce County folk school.In 1962, Bruce County co-hosted a Folk School with Lambton and Grey County. Gladys Arnold planned the multi-day program which hosted thirty-six students at the Lime Kiln Lodge in Inverhuron from June 22-24, 1962. In 1963, it was once again held at the home of Jessie and Duncan Convay in Kincardine from March 28 to March 31, 1963, with the theme “What are Your Attitudes?” The Bruce County Folk School was then hosted at the Bruce Motel, Wiarton, Ontario from March 5 to March 8, 1964 with the theme “The Challenge of Change”.

 

 

 

 

In 1966 it was a regional effort that brought twenty-nine students from Bruce, Grey, Huron, and Wellington County to the Lime Kiln Lodge in Inverhuron to discuss topics surrounding the theme “Understanding of Responsibility.” In 1967, Grey and Bruce County co-hosted a Folk School at the Cardinal Motel in Varney, in which twenty-six students attended and the theme was, “Expo and Progress.”

 

Bruce County and First Nations residents also attended a Folk School held in Georgian Bay from January 15 – 20, 1967 in Parry Sound, Ontario. Another regional Folk School was held on Manitoulin Island in 1970, which had students from Bruce, Grey, Wellington, and Waterloo County in attendance. In 1971, Grey and Bruce County once again co-hosted a Folk School Cardinal Motel in Varney, with twenty-two participants. In later years, there is evidence that Folk Schools in Bruce County continued intermittently throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

 

Bruce County Folk Schools were deeply intertwined with the activities, mandates, and members of other rural groups including the United Co-operatives of Ontario, Farm Radio Forums, the Federation of Agriculture, Junior Farmers, Women’s Institutes, and religious groups. These agricultural organizations helped fund, plan, implement, and consistently made up the demographic of those who attended, hosted, and lead these schools for over four decades. Though the Folk School movement never fully took root within Ontario, it undeniably played a significant role within the co-operative attitudes and actions of rural communities throughout Bruce County.

 

If you or any of your relatives attended Folks Schools in Bruce County and have any additional information or would like to donate any materials about Bruce County Folk Schools please email archives@brucecounty.on.ca

 

Sources

 

“Canada’s First Folk School Now in Session.” The Canadian Echo, 19 January 1939, p. 1.

Folk School : The Farmers’ College. Toronto : Ontario Folk School Council, [195-?].

Hodgins, Elva. “First Folk School in Canada Held in Bruce.” The Bruce County Historical Society Yearbook, 1981, p. 28-29.

Powers, James W.  A Record of Achievement:  Bruce County’s Leadership in Farm Organizations.  Guelph:  Bruce County Federation of Agriculture and Gunbyfield Publishing, 1994.  Print.

Vos, Adrian. “A Rural Ontario Institution.” Village Squire, February 1979. p. 15-17.

Waite, Clifford. “The Creation of a Folk School Movement” Ontario Folk School Newsletter, July 1953.

What are Folk Schools? Toronto : Ontario Folk School Council, [195-?].

To discover more about Bruce County Folk Schools in the online collection, Click Here

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