T.W. Paterson: Christmas concert at Bench School, part 1

“It was a big job for a young woman in a one-room school. Some of the boys, raised on farms, were big and not easy to discipline.”

“It was a big job for a young woman in a one-room school. Some of the boys, raised on farms, were big and not easy to discipline.”—Bob Dougan.

 

One of the joys of my moving to Cherry Point in 1974 was having Bob and Fred Dougan for neighbours. Descendants of the pioneering Cobble Hill family, they were a treasurehouse of firsthand reminiscences of life on the Cowichan Valley frontier. If I had a question all I had to do was ask and I’d receive…

Particularly in Bob’s case as he’d inherited the unofficial role of family historian from his father Nathan, a son of James and Annie Dougan who’d settled immediately south of today’s Dougan Lake, and who, for years, wrote a regular history column in the Cowichan Leader.

It was Bob who compiled many of these articles into what has become the most collectible Valley book of all, Cowichan My Valley.

But Bob — he of the Grade 3 education — also wrote a book of his own. A Story To Be Told is hard to find but well worth the read if you’re so fortunate as to have a copy. Among its treasures is a reminiscence of a Christmas concert at Bench School in the 1920s. So, without further ado, I’ll turn you over to Bob Dougan:

“…My first teacher was a young woman named Gwenny Williams. It was Miss Williams’ first teaching job after graduating from [Normal] school. She was to remain at Bench School for three years and, like previous teachers, she boarded with Mrs. William Lowries. For the teachers this was said to be like a home away from home…

It was a big job for a young woman in a one-room school. Some of the boys, raised on farms, were big and not easy to discipline. However, our young teacher managed to do a pretty good job of handling the children, big and small.

As Christmas approached, Miss Williams and some of the older boys started organizing the Christmas concert.

The boys thought it was a ‘girls’ thing’ to play in a concert, but our teacher would have no shirking from duty. In order to have a good concert, there must be lots of practice, and [she] saw to it that there was.

As the night set for the concert drew near, the excitement rose to quite a pitch, until both teacher and students were feeling the strain. About two days before the imposing event, two of the older boys went into the nearest patch of young fir trees and found a nice 10-foot-high tree. It was placed on a stand near the end of the stage, close to the back door. Then our teacher and some of the older girls did the decorating with paper streamers, and put a big paper bell atop the tree.

The tempo increased, and on the last day of school, Charles Essory led a group of students on an errand to the Rev. Sing’s. They were to pick up a pair of long woolen curtains to hang up before the stage. Mrs. Sing, a very kindly sort, did this for the Bench School students over the years. They walked, Charley told me, down Telegraph Road. Just past Sears Road they would turn left, go through an old skid road for about half a mile, and at Browne’s shack, as we called it, at the top of Palmer’s Hill, they would turn right. About 400 yards along Cherry Point Road, on the left, was the home of the Rev. Sing. Here, Mrs. Sing in her cool pleasant manner would give them the much-needed curtains.

We left school early on the eve of the concert in order to get our chores wound up and be back at the school ahead of time to prepare ourselves. The mothers would go all-out in preparing each of their children to look his or her best at this very special event…the children dressed up in their long, home-made pants and dresses, their boots shined, hair combed — in fact, just spick and span, the pride and joy of their respective families.

The interior of the old school house had been quickly revised, after most of the students had left for home, by some of the older students and the teacher. Room was made for the seating of our parents and interested guests. This was done by removing the desks and lining them up against the wall out in the cloak room, and even out in the woodshed. The chairs were set up in rows, and the home-made benches that some carpenters made for just such an occasion, were brought out of the woodshed to finish the seating arrangements.

As the parents and children came into the school, gathered in groups to greet old friends, and picked out where each thought was the best place for a good view of the performing students, one could feel a touch of nervous tension in the air. There would be our fathers and mothers, hoping that their child would be outstanding, and the students, no doubt worried about facing all those people, and not wanting to disappoint their teacher or parents.

With most of the audience in their seats, all of the students lined up close to the stage, ready to take their places in the show. Miss Williams would have one of the older students step out in front of the curtain to announce that the concert would commence with the first act, and the show was on. The curtain would rise and, usually, a very scared and nervous child would start his act…”

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