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Former Newmarket students keep alive memories of first Poplar Banks schoolhouse

In this week's Remember This, History Hound Richard MacLeod takes you to the former one-room country school that has a special place in the area's history

Let’s visit the one-room schoolhouse that once sat on the southwest corner of Yonge Street and Polar Bank Sideroad, which is now Green Lane.

Doreen Needler, the mother on one of my childhood friends, was involved both in the anniversary festivities and the placing of the cairn to commemorate the school, and in tribute to her and others who worked so hard, I offer this account of the school to our collective history story.

When I was young, this school was still going strong, a relic of the country school system that prevailed in our area. Then in June 1965, the school was closed, and it sat deserted and looking forlorn for over 30 years until September 1998 when it was no more.

This schoolhouse was the third such building to grace the site. The first school was built in 1802, a log structure before it was replaced in 1862 with a more substantial wooden structure in 1862. This building was destroyed by fire on March 18, 1885.  In 1888 the building had been replaced at a cost of $1,220 under tender by local builder Nelson Botsford.

Like many country schools of the time, it drew its student population from a wide geographic region.  Poplar Bank drew youngsters from northwest Newmarket, a portion of King Township and from East Gwillimbury.  One of those youngsters was Doreen (Morning) Needler, to whom I owe my sincere gratitude for much of the information in this article.  She attended the school from 1936 to 1944.

On Sundays between the years 1891 and 1916, a ‘Sabbath School” was held on the premises with as many as 35 children attending.

She recalls that the school was heated by coal. In 1940 it received two modified water systems (indoor plumbing) on premises. Electricity arrived at the school in 1941 and an oil-burning stove arrived in January 1953. The last day of classes at the school were held on June 29, 1965, a sad day for many.

Needler and her group held a student reunion Aug. 21, 1994, with over 200 former students in attendance. I think everyone knew that the school’s very existence was in jeopardy when it was announced that Poplar Bank Sideroad and Green Lane were to be widened to make way for a new connecting corridor between highways 404 and 400.  

Initially there had been some hope that the historic structure could be relocated to another location or perhaps repurposed as a museum or a community facility.  

Needler and her group certainly did their due diligence in trying to secure the existence of the school.  They attended East Gwillimbury council meetings to make their pleas to preserve this piece of heritage. They also met with regional representatives in January 1997, who in turn called in appraisers to determine what the cost would be to either leave the building in place, suitably protected from the growth happening around it or to dismantle it and relocate it. 

The outcome of the appraisal was a determination that the building could not remain in place and that a hefty price tag of $314,000 was needed to dismantle it and move it, even if they could find a home.  Unlike places like Markham’s historic park where historic buildings can be relocated, Newmarket and East Gwillimbury do not have such a luxury. 

Sadly, a suitable location and funding did not materialize, and the vacant schoolhouse was demolished in September 1998.

Now turning their attention to how they could keep the old school’s memory alive, Needler and a committee turned their attention to the task of erecting a small cairn south of the former location, made up of old bricks from the school that were collected like gold. Over $6,500 was collected for the construction and installation of the cairn.

The cairn was to be eight feet long, three feet deep and five feet high. The bricks that were rescued, many with former students’ names carved into them, along with a former school’s nameplate reading, ‘S.S. #1, King Township, 1885’ and a picture of the school all constituted the cairn constructed by Dave Thompkins at Luesby Memorial. The cairn was placed on the west side of Yonge Street between London and Bristol roads. The cairn also was accompanied by a flagpole donated by Harrison Procter, a former student.  

Sadly, the cairn did not last long at its new location and was soon removed from that spot due to vandalism and moved to the new Poplar Banks Public School at 400 Woodspring Ave.,  off Bonshaw Avenue in the Woodland Hills area. The school's old bell was rescued and now resides at the new school as well. 

This sad story is reminiscent of many such losses we have endured regarding our heritage buildings. The loss of old schools is particularly sad.  Progress ensures that the land on which these structures sit is in high demand and so moving the structure is quite often the only option.

The concept of heritage parks, places where older buildings can be relocated to preserve them and to afford the public the opportunity to enjoy them may be a solution. Ideally, it would be great to re-purpose the structure, blend the old with the new. The problem is cost of course. If it is more expensive to repurpose a building rather than build new, then the old structure is sure to disappear. 

As I have confessed throughout my series of articles on Newmarket Today, I am more a ‘person history buff’ rather than a ‘buildings buff,’ so I tend to look at the connection that the people had with the building rather than the significance of the building.

I think that we need to be particularly mindful of the people associated with the Poplar Bank School, S.S. #1.  So many local historic figures figured in the school’s existence. Nelson Botsford built the school, John Millard built the first fence and Cornelius Willis supplied the wood for construction.  

The first caretaker on record was Mrs. L. Willis. The first teacher that we have record of was a Miss Robinson in 1865, who along with teaching the class was also expected to build and tend the fires and sweep the floor, all for $230.00 per year. 

We know that two teachers followed her, John Simpson and Mr. G. Gregory. The first bell was supplied by Alan Cody and the first oil burning furnace was installed by Jeff Smith Heating. The first trustees to be appointed were Reuben Powell, Stephen Howard and Ebenezer Lewis.

Prominent local names are to be found in the roster of students who attended the school. Names like Lewis, Dawson, Bogart, Rogers, Lundy, Proctor, Phillips, McClure, Heman, Smalley, Belfry, Brodie, Cleland, Travis, Barker, Morning, Faris, Cooper, King, Boyd, Mills, Dunham, Ballard, Toth and Watson to name but a few. 

If you have read my past articles, you will recognize these family names as part of the bedrock of our Town. I must also remind those who had Ms. Denne as a teacher that Poplar Bank school is where she first attended school and where she held her first teaching position. 

Think back to your school days.  If you could, would you wish to return that one last time to walk the halls and relive those childhood memories?  If the answer is yes then we need to find a way to save these buildings, not for the sake of some old building but for the memories that it contains and the people who attended the school over the years.  

My heartfelt thanks go out to Mrs. Needler for her memories and dedication to the preservation of the memories of Poplar Bank.  Many of the photos that I have included with this article come from Mrs. Needler’s collection.

I am forever in the debt of all those wonderful people out there that share their stories, photos, and memories with me so that I can in turn share them with all of you.  

Sources: Oral interviews, Doreen (Morning) Needler; Cairn to Commemorate School – Town Crier by Dick Illingworth; Transcript of the Presentation by Mrs. Needler at the Newmarket Historical Society Meeting October 1997; Transcript of the Presentation by Mrs. Needler at the Founders Day Picnic – July 21, 1996


Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.