Author: Tanya Wright

Publication Date: 2007

Edited:  2022



Since 1980, the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre has played host to a range of contemporary and historical art collection, from around the world. The MSAC is a public gallery situated at a main thoroughfare in central Guelph and in close proximity to the University of Guelph's most historic buildings. The three-storey, red-brick building that showcases works of art, did not however begin life as an art gallery.


At the turn of the nineteenth century, educational reformers in various parts of Canada were engaged in dialogue about the declining quality of education in rural locations. The renowned Montreal-based tobacco manufacturer, Sir William C. Macdonald, with his ardent belief in the primacy of education and his concern for the rural school system, set about to create Ontario's first consolidated school in Guelph.


The move to consolidate small, rural schools into one larger school located in a more densely populated community was fuelled by the desire to provide rural students with a facility that was staffed by better qualified teachers and offered a more practical and enriched curriculum. Domestic science, manual training, and nature study were featured in the array of subjects offered to students. The new emphasis on teaching such practical disciplines reflected many educators' belief that such learning would enhance the rural students' commitment to rural trades and, in the process, equip them to become better citizens of the Dominion.1 Macdonald himself stated that the primary aim of the consolidated school was to enable, "Rural children to enter life with the same advantages as their urban friends and to further encourage the rural communities to take a greater interest in education."William Macdonald also provided the impetus and financial backing for the establishment of consolidated schools in Middleton, Nova Scotia (which became Macdonald Museum in 1979); Mount Hebert, Prince Edward Island; and Kingston, New Brunswick, as well as extensive support for a model school in his own province of Quebec.


In 1904, with financing to the tune of 38,000 dollars, which included three years worth of operational costs for the school, Macdonald commissioned Toronto architect, George M. Miller to design the Guelph building. Situated on a 2.5-acre piece of Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) property - close to the Macdonald Institute that was built a year earlier with funding from the same William Macdonald - the Consolidated School was not as architecturally interesting as the Macdonald Institute with its Classic Revival features and terra cotta decorations. Photographs from the era show the Macdonald Consolidated School (MCS) as a large, functional red-brick building with a plain façade and simple peaked-roof porch. Indeed, in a minor, but well-documented footnote to events surrounding the opening of the school in November 1904, it is reported that Macdonald expressed outrage on his first glimpse of the building and promptly departed in his carriage never to return to Guelph.3 The school's trustees had called for some revisions to Miller's design without consulting the school's benefactor. Several years later, the trustees were able to raise sufficient funds to furnish the school with, "A Neo-classical wooden porch that boasted Doric columns," with the school's name prominently inscribed on it.4


Historic Guelph V46P36

Macdonald Consolidated School, circa 1910. 

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums).


The third floor of the building housed the auditorium or assembly hall, with a seating capacity of 200, as well as dressing rooms and stage. Annual Christmas productions were staged there. In a far cry from modern standards of school safety, a single doorway served as both entrance and exit to the auditorium.5 Mr. Allan Walker, who began his schooling at (MCS) in 1920 at the age of six, recalls that the auditorium eventually became off-limits as questions of its structural integrity arose. A vivid illustration of the building's deficiency is captured in the recollection of a World War II era student who recalls being told that when the auditorium was filled to capacity, the front doors of the school would not open. Subsequently, assemblies were occasionally held at War Memorial Hall, which opened in 1924.


Classrooms were located on the first and second floors of the new structure. The second floor also featured the manual training room (where, for example, woodworking was taught), and a laboratory for the study of chemistry and nature. Another room was equipped for teaching the practical aspects of domestic science (or home economics as it was called after 1911). The intention of the hands-on lessons taught in domestic science classes was for students to apply scientific principles to the many tasks involved in managing a home.


Agricultural concerns were represented on the walls with pictures portraying various cow, horse, and chicken breeds. In the basement, large rooms for group play and eating lunch were situated. Appearing on the front page of The Evening Mercury on Monday, November 14, 1904 - the opening day for MCS - the reporter wrote: "The heating and ventilating system is a combination of hot air and steam, the only one of its kind on the continent, and very comfortable results it gave this morning."6 It has been suggested also that the school was the first in the area to have indoor washrooms.7


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The Consolidated School with school van in front, circa 1920.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums).


Located on the grounds of the school were individual and collective gardening plots as well as plots designated for various experimental studies. The playground featured swings, baseball diamond, and enough open space for rugby football games and challenging games of tag. In the winter, garden space was readily converted to an ice rink.


Rural students from six districts were transported aboard horse-drawn wagons to attend MCS. In the first years, six of these conveyances were in operation. While not completely closed, the vans did provide students with protection from the elements, a bonus for those who had formerly walked to their rural schoolhouses. On the first day of operation, it was reported that, "All the vans were well on time this morning, except the one from the south which had the longest run, and the high wind against it delayed it somewhat."8


Students who lived in town or around the periphery of Guelph relied on streetcars to transport them to school. Former students recalled routes to Silvercreek Road and to the York Road area. Another route went out Woolwich Street past Suffolk, and a fourth line traveled along Waterloo Avenue as far as the Sleeman residence (now the Manor Hotel).


Mrs. Gordon Cleghorn recalled that on blustery winter days, her farming father rigged up the horse and sleigh to transport them to the streetcar that would take them to the school. She said, "By the time he'd be going up Gordon Street (it was Dundas Road back in those days), there would be crowds (of children) hanging onto that sleigh."9


Situated on a 42-acre farm at the corner of what is presently known as Victoria Road and Stone Road, a former student recalled that he was out of range of the streetcar but was able to catch a ride to MCS with his farming grandfather who went into town every morning to pick up the mail for his mail route.10


Conceived with the primary intention of providing practical education for rural students, the Macdonald School curriculum included school gardening programs in which each student assumed responsibility for the care and maintenance of an individual garden plot. It was believed that this hands-on approach fostered a spirit of self-sufficiency and initiative which was highly valued by educational reformers.


Memories of the gardening program are vivid in the minds of those who participated. More than 80 years later, one former student rhymed off the list of seeds planted: "Lettuce, onions, carrots, beets, beans, radishes", recalling that this was required memory work.11 Indeed, Mr. Walker recalls that garden plots measured eight feet in length, four feet in width and were laid out in rows to allow passage between plots. 


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Macdonald Consolidated School gardening class, circa 1910. The curriculum included school gardening programs wherein each student assumed responsibility for the care and maintenance of an individual garden plot.


One student from the World War I era of the school's history recalls that the gardening activities fostered quite intense competition to produce the best results.12 Indeed, annual prizes were awarded to those who applied themselves diligently to learning the principles and practice of agriculture. Produce from the school gardens was canned and bottled in the domestic science classes and, in a program unique to the school, provided the ingredients for hot lunches, which for a period of time, were served at the school from November to March. By the 1930s, it appears that the gardening curriculum had acquired an elective status. As Lloyd Swackhammer recalled, "I had enough of vegetables at home on the farm. By my time, I guess it wasn't mandatory."13 Mrs. Winnifred Leather says that the digging, hoeing, and planting were enjoyable activities for her as a young person, but she recalled that some students were less enthusiastic than others.14


Woodworking projects in the manual training program included items such as birdhouses and kitchen cutting-boards.15 Mr. Lloyd Swackhammer, who started his eight-year educational career at MCS in 1927, still possesses the wooden plant stand that he fashioned in one of the upper grades. Meanwhile, the domestic science room provided female students with state-of-the-art equipment for learning the finer points of cooking, sewing, and other domestic arts.


With an initial enrollment of 175 students, the staff was comprised of Principal Hotson and three teachers. Some of these carefully selected teachers (and those who came to the school later) benefited from short courses taken at the neighbouring Macdonald Institute, while others traveled to Columbia and Cornell universities for special training. As well, it was not unusual for older female students from the Macdonald Institute to assist with some of the domestic science programs at MCS. 


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Macdonald Institute with grounds, circa 1910, The Macdonald Institute was built a year earlier than the Consolidated School. Older female students from the Macdonald Institute often assisted with some of the domestic science programs at MCS.


Former student Allan Walker recalls from the 1920s a strict principal by the name of Mr. Cosgrove who, with ever-present strap by his side, administered a strapping to the young Mr. Walker on at least one occasion. Mr. Walker could not recollect the precise nature of his offence but suspects that it had something to do with telling a lie. Other students from the 1920s recall that the grades five and six teacher, Miss Grieve, was strict but effective in inspiring her students to strive for excellence. This teacher was also actively involved in preparing buckets of soup for student lunches as well as desserts.


One familiar name of an individual who attended Macdonald Consolidated in its early years is Harry Worton, a Guelph baker who became a city alderman, and then Mayor. From 1955 to 1985, Mr. Worton served as the much-loved Liberal M.P.P. for Guelph and Wellington South. A fellow classmate of Harry's from MCS days recalled that Harry was known even then as, "One of the nicest fellows around," and the people who knew him gave him their unqualified support when he entered politics.16 Indeed, his first victory as a provincial member occurred in the context of a landslide victory for the Progressive Conservatives. As a Liberal, Worton won largely on the merit of who he was as a person. Another attendee of MCS, whose name is well-known in the community, was Alfred Hales. From 1957 to 1974, he served as the Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament for Wellington South, and later for Wellington.


The Mason children arrived at MCS in the 1920s from Tytler School when 'Swat' Mason (a noted local baseball coach and hockey player) bought the store located directly across the street from the school. Swat's wife Annie (nee MacLeod) had another connection with the school: her father looked after the horses that pulled the school's van. The sheds where the animals were housed were located nearby. Not too far away from the school lived the Hammond family, including sons Fred, Ken, Roy, and Gordon. The Hammonds have played a key role in the manufacturing history of Guelph from 1917 to the present day. The family home was known to be a place of great hospitality and was the scene of many gatherings of young people with diverse interests - Fred's involvement with Ham radio was international in scope.


MCS was as a pioneer in separating students into classrooms according to grade. As one student remarked many years later, this represented quite an advance in learning, "Because if you wanted to be at the top of the class, you had to exert yourself far more."17 From grades one to 'First Form' high school (there was no kindergarten-level class), graduation from the school implied that one was ready for collegiate-level education. Another student from the 1920s era recalls that first and second grades were combined.18 Further evidence of the school's progressive nature comes from Winnifred Leather who recalled that she attended Macdonald Consolidated in August 1926 for a couple of days of orientation prior to formally beginning in September.19 This preview of MCS helped to ameliorate the nervousness that she and other new students experienced at the prospect of starting at the big, red-brick building.


Throughout the school's history, normal school teacher trainees came to Macdonald Consolidated to obtain practice teaching experience. Interaction between MCS students and the older female students of the Macdonald Institute provided another source of enrichment, both in the domestic science classroom and through extracurricular activities, such as tug-of-war on the sprawling grounds between the two institutions.20


In a 1906 edition of The Teachers' World publication, principal E. A. Howes confidently asserted that consolidated schools had secured higher attendance figures than the traditional rural schools. As the school trustees knew only too well, however, this noteworthy benefit came at a cost that was unsustainable for that time period.


Sir William Macdonald was praised in numerous quarters for his active role in securing more technical training for Canada's youth. However, many of the students that transferred to Macdonald Consolidated in 1904 had returned to their rural schools by 1907. It had become evident that the costs of the consolidated system were approximately 30 percent higher than the costs of each school section operating independently. The promised three years of financing from Macdonald had been fulfilled and the school trustees simply could not raise the funds to support the transportation costs associated with the school's operation. With this kind of attrition, the school struggled on with its two remaining sections but was eventually brought under the umbrella of the Guelph Township School Board.21


In the mid 1940s, an initiative to bus senior students from a variety of rural schools to MCS for a half day of household science classes and various types of manual training suffered a similar lack of momentum. A student from the period has vivid memories of those Friday afternoon when the rural kids would arrive by bus for their special programs.22


Aside from the prohibitive costs involved in sustaining the consolidated model, researchers have observed that the practical nature of the consolidated schools' curriculum lacked enthusiastic support from rural parents who came to favour a strictly academic focus in their children's education.23


Over 100 years ago, the MCS embarked on an experiment that, in many ways, was decades ahead of its time. The horse-drawn vans bringing children from a number of resource-poor areas to a strategically located, well-equipped building are early images of educational reform that would blossom in the 1960s.


It is significant that many of the personal recollections of students from those early days revolve around the hands-on activities that made their learning experience unique. The experience of simply traveling to the big schoolhouse with all its amenities was a memorable one for an early generation of Guelph and area youngsters, many of whom would move onto Guelph Collegiate for secondary education.


The Macdonald Consolidated School officially closed in 1972. As the former school building prospers in its incarnation as the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, its legacy as Ontario's first consolidated school continues to be a key historic reminder of this province's dramatic educational development in the twentieth century.



  1. Alexander M. Ross, The College on the Hill: A History of the Ontario Agricultural College, 1874-1974. (Toronto: Copp Clark Publishing, 1974), p. 56.
  2. The Guelph Mercury, January 6, 1972.
  3. This account of Macdonald's response to the building is prominently displayed on the historical plaque located outside the Art Centre. It is difficult to ascribe the original report to any particular individual. Text for the historical plaque is available at: http://www.uoguelph.calhistoricaltous/pl_ms_art_centre.html.
  4. Judith Nasby, "Macdonald Consolidated School," Wellington County History, 1 (1995): p. 62.
  5. A. D. Hales, "Public School," Wellington County History, 8 (1995): p. 66.
  6. The Evening Mercury, November 14, 1904, p. 1.
  7. Mrs. Shirley Reynolds, Guelph resident, former MCS student, and assistant organizer of MCS Reunion, telephone interview by author, January 26, 2007, Guelph, Ontario.
  8. The Evening Mercury, November 14, 1904, p. 1.
  9. Alvin & Sheila Koop, Older Voices Among Us, (Erin, Ontario: Boston Mills Press, 1981), p. 37.
  10. Mr. Lloyd Swackhammer, Drayton resident and former MCS student, telephone interview by author, January 29, 2007, Guelph, Ontario.
  11. lbid.
  12. Hales, "Public School," p. 65.
  13. Swackhammer, 2007.
  14. Mrs. Winnifred Leather, Fergus resident and former MCS student, telephone interview by author, January 30, 2007, Guelph, Ontario.
  15. Mr. Allan Walker, Guelph resident and former MCS student, telephone interview by author, January 27, 2007, Guelph, Ontario.
  16. Swackhammer, 2007.
  17. Mrs. Gordon Cleghorn, The Guelph Mercury, July 4, 1975. A feature article about Macdonald Consolidated School appeared in this edition.
  18. Swackhammer, 2007.
  19. Leaiher, 2007.
  20. James G. Snell, Macdonald Institute: Remembering the Past - Embracing the Future, (Toronto: The Dundurn Group, 2003), p. 46.
  21. 'Sections' refers to Guelph township school sections; there were five original sections feeding the school, however, the number was reduced to two as some rural students returned to more local schools.
  22. Reynolds, 2007.
  23. Moura Quayle, "Canadian Community Garden: A Sustainable Landscape Legacy". Landscape Architectural Review vol. 10, no. 1 (March 1989): p. 17-20.



"A Noble Experiment," The Guelph Mercury, July 4, 1975.

Archival and Special Collections, University of Guelph Library. RE1 MAC A0057. Photographs and correspondence regarding Macdonald Institute and Macdonald Consolidated School, 1904 to 1940s.

Archival and Special Collections, University of Guelph Library. XR1 MS A075. Information letter about MCS from Florence Partridge, September 1980.

Bloomfield, Elizabeth and Gilbert A Stelter. Guelph and Wellington County: A Bibliography of Settlement and Development Since 1800. (Guelph, Ontario: Guelph Regional Project, University of Guelph, 1988).

Coulman, Donald E. Guelph: Take A Look At Us! (Cheltenham, Ont.: Boston Mills Press, 1976).

The Guelph Evening Mercury (Newspaper on microfiche), July to December, 1904.

Goggin, D. J. "Technical Education: In The Empire Club of Canada Speeches, 1905-1906." Edited by J. Castell Hopkins. Toronto, Canada: The Empire Club of Canada, 1906, p. 167-183.

Hales, A.D. "Public School". Wellington County History, 8, 1995.

Historical Atlas of Wellington County, (Toronto: Historical Atlas Publishing Company, 1906).

Koop, Alvin and Sheila. Older voices Among Us. (Erin, Ontario: Boston Mills Press, 1981).

Leather, Winnifred, Fergus resident and former MCS student. Telephone interview by author, January 30, 2007.

Macdonald, J. A. "Practical features of the Course of Study at the Macdonald Consolidated School," OAC Review, 31, no. 3, (November 1918), p. 95-97.

Matheson, Dawn and Anderson, Rosemary (eds.) Guelph: Perspectives on a Century of Change: 1900-2000. (Guelph, Ontario: Guelph Historical Society, 2000).

Nasby, Judith. "Macdonald Consolidated School" Wellington County History, 8, 1995.

Quayle, Moura. "Canadian Community Garden: A Sustainable Landscape Legacy."' Landscape Architectural Review, 10, no. 1 (March 1989): p. 17-20.

Reynolds, Shirley, Guelph resident, former MCS student and assistant organizer of MCS Reunion. Telephone interview by author, January 26, 2007, Guelph, Ontario.

Ross, Alexander M. The College on the Hill: A History of the Ontario Agricultural College: 1874-1974. (Toronto: Copp Clark Publishing, 1974).

Sherwood, Herbert Francis. Children of the Land: The Story of the Macdonald. Movement in Canada. (New York: The Outlook, 1910). Available at Library and Archives Canada. "Cultivating Canadian Gardens: A History of Gardening," in Canada."

Snell, James G. Macdonald Institute: Remembering the Past-Embracing the Future. (Toronto: The Dundurn Group, 2003).

Swackhamrner, Lloyd, Drayton resident and former MCS student. Telephone interview by author, January 29, 2007.

Walker, Alan, Guelph resident and former MCS student. Telephorie interview by author, January 27, 2007, Guelph, Ontario.

Wellington County Museum and Archives. Guelph Mercury file for Guelph schools, Macdonald Consolidated School articles, 1972 and 1975.