T.W. Paterson: Christmas concert at Bench School, part 2

The late Bob Dougan of the pioneering Cobble Hill family completes his tale of a Christmas concert in a one-room schoolhouse in the 1920s.

The late Bob Dougan of the pioneering Cobble Hill family completes his tale of a Christmas concert in a one-room schoolhouse in the 1920s.

“There would be reciting of poetry and singing of Christmas carols, sung in solo and by chorus. There were also plays, taken from Charles Dickens’s novels, such as the famous A Christmas Carol. After which there was always some [comic] relief but in spite of the best of directing and arranging, and some of our young teacher’s attempts at regaining control, a comedy of errors would inevitably occur, initiating quiet giggling, which soon turned into the biggest outburst of good healthy laughter of the evening.

The show would last about one and one-half hours, followed by much hand clapping and smiles of encouragement from the parents. When the show was over, it was time for Santa Claus, who was played by Mr. Fred Bomford. A recent arrival in the district, Mr. Bomford had a 50-acre block of land on the east side of Telegraph Road, just across the road from our farm…

Mr. and Mrs. Bomford had a son, Wilfred, and they soon became at home in the area and active in school affairs. Fred Bomford became our Santa Claus, and a very good one.

When all the children were in place, he would make his entrance, coming in the back door carrying a big gunny sack of toys. His arrival would be preceded by the ringing of sleigh bells and the brushing of snow off his Santa Claus suit. Walking up to Miss Williams, he would give her a hearty handshake, ask her where all the children were, and tell her that he had to hurry as he had other schools to visit this night.

Our teacher and Santa would get close to the tree and start whispering as he pulled toys out of the bag and she put them on the tree.

He would ask in a voice that we could hear, ‘Now, Miss Williams, you will have to tell me about the ones that have been bad, I need to know.’

Santa Claus, after being assured by our teacher that the children had been well-behaved, at least most of the time, would pick a gift from a well-arranged pile of parcels under the Christmas tree. With just the right amount of clowning, he would call out the girl’s or boy’s name (written on the wrapper) and, as the child approached him, he would be looking around and asking, ‘Where has that child got to?’ Then, ‘Oh, there you are. Oh, my, my, I almost gave it to another little girl.’

Fred Bomford had a different story for each child and he always tried to fool his own son, Wilfred, who would stand, with his red hair and freckled face, looking up at his father in a questioning manner.

His job as Santa Claus completed, Fred Bomford would depart with a ‘Merry Christmas to all and a Happy New Year!’ accompanied by ringing sleigh bells.

The night’s entertainment was not yet over, for on one of the iron heaters was a copper boiler filled with water, and suspended within this bubbling cauldron was a small flour bag containing a rather large amount of coffee. The old heater, well-stoked with rather pitchy looking firewood, kept the well water bubbling and gurgling through the bag of coffee for some time, until the brew became rich indeed. No one seemed to complain as they consumed this rather potent beverage, and partook of the other refreshments. These consisted of sandwiches, filled with quite a varied assortment of meat[s], and home-made cakes, which were as varied as the sandwiches.

When the repast was over, still more excitement was heralded by the redistribution of chairs and benches to the side of the room by some of the males in attendance, and the sweeping of the sand carried onto the floor from the earth outside. Then talcum powder was sprinkled over the floor, making it slippery for the dancers who would glide and circle about the room. Violin music was supplied by Charley and Dick Ryan along with Billy Mearns and, on at least one occasion, Miss Williams helping out on the piano.

Soon, one could hear the fiddlers tuning up their violins. When all was ready, someone would call out, “Take your partners for the waltz,” and the old school house floor would be covered with gliding couples moving smoothly around the room.

First was a dance number, quite new to the district, called the Fox Trot (somewhat similar to the two-step). The fiddlers moved into a faster tempo with the music for the schottiche and the old school house floor rose and fell slightly with the rhythm of the dancers. The pace quickened again as the men with the fiddles started playing music for a square dance. Harry Parker, one of the local residents, was the caller, and in a voice that seemed garbled to my young ears, I could hear him calling out, “Ladies to the right, gents to the left and ladies do-si-do.” The violins whined in time with the piano and the fiddlers kept time with their feet while the locals had their night out. Along with the occasional yell from one of the more exuberant dancers, upon the completion of each dance there would be much hand clapping and cries of, “More, more!”

This would continue until about 2 o’clock in the morning, when the tired dancers would be ready for the home waltz. This would be to the tune of ‘Home Sweet Home,’ played in three-quarter time, and would be followed by the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ The participants formed a circle while holding hands across their breasts as they sang the lyrics of this beautiful old song. Robert Browne, one of the local loggers, usually led the singers as they gave their all in the true spirit of Christmas.

When the singing had come to the end, the owners of automobiles went out into the night to warm up their Model T Fords, Chevs, Overlands, Maxwells, or whatever. In the days before anti-freeze, this had to be done often during the entertainment in order to keep the block from freezing (a major disaster).

It was quite customary to see cars with their radiators covered by old blankets or overcoats in an effort to keep out the frost.

Our family was a long way from owning a car and I can remember walking to the concert with our parents on a very cold night, well bundled up against the cold. After the concert, we would get a ride home with family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Jack Churchill, in their Model T. What a thrill it was as we chugged down Telegraph Road, the cold winter wind blowing around our ears and the car lights, which drew energy from the magneto, growing dim as the car slowed…”

Such, according to Bob Dougan, was a Christmas concert at Bench School, Cobble Hill in the 1920s.