Friday, May 15, 2015

The Lansdowne Letters: Northern Teacher ~ Problem-Solving Skills Necessary

Fifty years ago, teaching in the northern wilds of Ontario required
solving problems that most teachers on the "Outside" never faced.  

When you taught in a tiny and remote fly-in community, 
you were on your own.  

Fortunately in communities such as Lansdowne House, 
people pulled together and helped each other when the need arose.

For my father and his friends, problem-solving 
often included drinking lots of strong, black, hot coffee.

Canoeing Through Thin Ice

On Thursday, October 20, 1960 
My father wrote:

Hi there:
It was very cold when we got up this morning.  
The Father’s thermometer registered five degrees 
above zero at eight o’clock when we went to breakfast, 
and it had begun to warm up by then.  

The confounded stove went out during the night, 
and the front door blew open, 
so it was just as cold in the house as it was outside.

Fortunately, for me that is, it was Uno’s turn 
to get up and get things going, 
so I didn’t have to suffer the full brunt of the cold – 
at least not until I started across in the canoe.  
Boy, but it was cold!!!!!

When I went down to the shore to launch the canoe this morning, 
there was ice about three quarters of an inch thick along the shore.  
This extended out for about four or five feet from shore.
I had to get a long pole and break a path for the canoe, 
because this type of craft is not the best type for ice breaking.  
Ice this thickness would just cut the canoe to ribbons. 

I was wondering how I was going to beach her 
on the mainland when I got across, 
but some of my children saw me coming 
and had a docking place all broken out for me when I arrived.
They are awfully nice children 
and are familiar enough with canoes to know 
that I couldn’t land unless I had a path broken out for me.  

However, I did have one bit of difficulty landing.  
The place they broke for me 
was ample for an Indian to beach a canoe, 
but as I have said on several occasions, I’m no Indian. 

A blind man wearing boxing gloves 
could have made a better job of threading a needle 
than I made of trying to get that darned canoe 
in that narrow break in the ice. 

Finally, one of the children 
who happened to be wearing hip rubber boots 
waded out and got the end of the canoe 
and pulled me through the ice to the shore.  
They laughed about this and teased me 
about it for the rest of the day.

Some more trouble awaited me when I got to school.  
Because the stoves weren’t working too well, 
I couldn’t leave them on all night, 
and so the school was very cold during the night.
The building is a Steelox building constructed of metal sections.  
It couldn’t have been put together too well, 
because when I entered the classroom, 
I discovered that several of the ceiling panels 
and some of the moulding had fallen from the ceiling 
and was lying on the floor.  
Apparently the metal had contracted with the cold, 
and the faulty joints had let go.  
Several more panels were just ready to fall.

  My Father's School
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario
Photo by Don MacBeath,  October 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

It was impossible to hear in school now, 
because the classroom was opened to the unheated attic, 
and besides, it wasn’t safe to have the children 
running around with the ceiling ready to fall in at any minute.  
I just sent them home for the morning.

Mike and Duncan happened to see me dismissing the children 
and came over to see what trouble I had gotten into today.  
They couldn’t believe their eyes 
when they saw the inside of the new school.  

Well, we went over to Mike’s, had a cup of coffee, 
rounded up all the wrenches and screwdrivers we could find, 
and went back and put the school together.  
We spent the morning crawling about in the attic 
tightening bolts and nuts and making sure 
that the ceiling wouldn’t fall in again.  

Duncan and Maureen's Home
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario
Photo by Don MacBeath,  October 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Every hour or so 
we went to Mike’s or Duncan’s 
for some coffee and to get warm. 

It was very cold up in the attic, and everything 
that we were sitting on, crawling on, or handling was metal, 
and you know how cold metal can get when the temperature 
is about five above zero.  (5º F = -15º C) 


I have started to wear my long underwear, 
and I was very thankful that I had it on
this morning up in the attic.  

How I wished that I had some of the heat 
that I suffered from this summer 
when I was insulating the attic of Mac’s house.

We got the school reassembled, the fires lit, 
and I was able to hold classes this afternoon, 
although it was about three o’clock before the school 
was really warm enough to be comfortable.  
It was later than that before I was warm enough to be comfortable.

This winds it up for the night and the week.  
Hope I can produce a more interesting edition next week.

Bye now,

I taught for twenty-five years, and guaranteed, 
I never had to crack my way through ice 
in a canoe to get to school;
although it would have been an adventure 
to experience once or twice!

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue


Father:     Father Maurice Ouimet, OMI, priest
                 Roman Catholic Mission, Lansdowne House

Mike:        Mike Flaherty, nurse at the nursing station

Duncan:   Duncan McRae, Department of Transport

Mac:         Dad's mother-in-law, Ella MacDonald,
                 whose house was in Smith's Cove, Nova Scotia
Steelox:    A Steelox building is constructed of lightweight, interlocking steel panels.
                 The building materials are prefabricated, shipped, and erected on site (floors, walls, roofs).

The building material was first used in Chicago, where its inventor James Swank used it to make concrete forms that were better, cheaper, and less labor-intensive.

The first Steelox building, a goat barn,
was exhibited during the 1933 Chicago World's Fair.

During World War II, the military used Steelox
combat hangers and storage warehouses,
and the potential for other uses was realized.

After the Korean War, Steelox built the first
rigid frame building and focused on simplifying production, erection, and adaptability of its buildings.

Such prefabricated buildings could be transported
into isolated places like Lansdowne House and assembled on site cheaper and easier than traditional buildings.


  1. Another challenge for your father. It seems that many obstacles were put in his way and yet he never gave up. His commitment to his job was strong. He was not only a teacher but the trials he had to endure was the test of the man. Your father had such heart.

    1. Thanks, Peggy! I wish my father could read your comment. It would mean the world to him. Have a lovely, Friday!

  2. nice

  3. Your poor Dad earned his teacher's salary!!

    1. Did he ever, Debra! I think that canoe trip got old fast! As for all the issues with the new school, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Happy Friday!

  4. "Problem solving included drinking lots of strong..."
    I wasn't expecting coffee. :)

    1. LOL! The nearest liquor was about 1 1/2 hours away by bush plane. And very expensive. Sometimes the Indians broke into the Hudson Bay to steal vanilla to drink. I forgot to say in my comment on your post, that we had hawks build a nest in a tree near the front door of our school. Those parents did dive bomb people coming from the parking lot into the school. We had four people taken to the emergency room! People started walking around with umbrellas to protect themselves. the hawks were an endangers species, so we just had to wait until the baby fledged and the school could remove the nest!

  5. WOW!
    These letters with you publishing them are such witness to is kind of life.
    Yyou make the past come alive again.
    I can't agree more with Peggy, your father had an iron will.
    Funny how the Archaeopteryx has fascinated me too not only because it is was a dinosaur but also because it was (one of) the ancestor of birds.
    It always makes me thinks our planet is a living lab for someone's pleasure to experiment with.... fine but cruel job for species to have to feed on one another to survive... food........ for thought!!!
    Keep well Fundy and many thanks for your kind and interesting comments on my blog :)
    Enjoy the end of the week!

    1. Hi Noushka! When I volunteered in the fossil lab at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, we had a student who was fascinated with the idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs. He went on to do his doctorate in bird evolution from dinosaurs. At that time the hypothesis was hotly debated, but I think it's largely accepted now. btw, this was the latest on the honeybee situation in the USA: Happy weekend, Noushka!
      I think humans are experimenting with the planet! If only we all could photosynthesize!

    2. Many thanks for your reply Fundy :)
      A quick word to tell you I'll be away again for a few days...
      Keep well, I'll go visit that link when I am back ;-)

  6. lol at the canoe, I'd have no idea how I would have got in at the other end either. Nice of the kids to help out indeed

    1. The Indians in LH got quite a kick out of Dad and his misadventures with his canoe. The Indian children were wonderful kids and were friends with my siblings and me when we joined Dad in Lansdowne House.Happy Friday, Pat!

  7. Hi Fundy, Happy Friday :) I love these letters - I learn more about Dad as a young man with every letter. Hugs Barb

    1. Hey, Sis! It's awesome, isn't it? I'm trying to get ahead for when I'm traveling this summer! But sometimes I feel like it's impossible. Onward and upward. Keep kicking! Rae and Jerry come this weekend, don't they? Terry (through me) suggested that you sell some of your jewelry on her new etsy account and pay her a commission. Always scheming, he is! Hugs!

  8. Determined, brave, kind-hearted, caring, a thinker! These are just a few descriptors of your dad that are shown in his letters home. I would have loved to have had some of his experiences for, maybe, a day or two at the most! (I'm especially intrigued by the canoe and ice adversity because of my own canoeing experiences.) It takes a strong person like your dad to endure the kind of hardships for the length of time he was living and teaching under such rugged conditions you so brilliantly describe in this blog!

    1. Thanks Susan! You are always so supportive! Canoeing is fun on a lovely, warm autumn day! When I was up north, my brother and I mostly fought over who was to steer the canoe, and so we went around in circles! Have a lovely weekend! Hugs!

  9. Wow and I thought I sometimes had it tough in my classrooms! Can't even imagine canoeing in frozen waters - I'd have trouble staying upright in the summer! Your Dad writes wonderful stories! How lucky you are to have them. PS I saw 2 people walking black and yellow Labs in the neighborhood yesterday - I was wondering if they were the friends you sometimes visit? I think they came out of New England but I was farther down the road walking.

    1. Thanks, Barb! My sister-in-law is in London right now, so you probably saw the dog watchers who are staying at her place. Gracie is the yellow lab, and rufus is the black one. Surely it was them that you saw. My SIL gets back in Breck about the time we head for Alaska (around June 20th).

  10. I just love your posts, and your father went through so much! Looking at the long underwear in the photo here reminds me of my own beloved father, as he wore those in the winter as well. He had both white and blue ones, and he also had white undershirts he would wear during the cold winter months. Thank you so much for sharing your father's letters and experiences!

    1. Hi, Linda! When our family joined Dad in Lansdowne House, we came with lots of thermal wear long johns, tops and bottoms. all five of us slept in bunk beds in one bedroom. I would wear those long johns to bed in my Arctic proof sleeping bag. Fun times. It's so hard to be without our dads, isn't it? Moms too! At least they fill our hearts. Have a happy evening! Hugs!

  11. My goodness! This letter is especially interesting. Such trials and tribulations. I can't imagine how cold it would have been when the door blew open during the night. We once lived in a government subsidized townhouse. I was grateful for it, but maintenance wasn't always of the highest quality. One cold night our front door, which was locked, blew open. Fortunately, our dog alerted us to the problem.


    1. Hi, JJ! Good dog! You don't want to be sleeping in the house with the door wide open! Dad's "cottage" was basically a two room shack that he and Uno (the teacher in the RC school) rented from the RC mission. It wasn't that bad by northern standards, but it did have a cantankerous wood stove for heat, and Dad and Uno kept trying to outsmart it and make it work. My dad enjoyed the challenges of living in isolation in the north, especially when they were behind him! Have a great weekend!

  12. Your dad was definitely one of the hardest-working teachers! I don't know what I enjoy more. The writing or the old photos. Hmm...probably both!

    1. Thanks, Martha! I sure wish that I had more old photos, but I only have a few. I have to keep scouring the internet for images that have the right feel and look and are okay to use. Oh well, we all need a purpose in life, LOL! Have a good one!

  13. Your father was a kind and determined man, a dedicated teacher. I learn by reading about him and reading his letters here, so I guess he is still teaching. Thank you, Fundy Blue.

    1. Hey Geo! Thanks for your kind comment! Dad was a wonderful teacher ~ I know because I had him as a teacher and principal a number of years. It was his passion. He would be thrilled to know that people are still learning from his letters. Have a great day!

  14. I'm sure the water froze over several times and he needed help with the canoe. At least everyone was helpful. And very resourceful!

    1. Happy Sunday, Alex! You're right ~ Freeze-up and break-up took place over a number of weeks, with lots of back and forth conditions with the ice. Places like Lansdowne House had such a feeling of community. I still remember what it felt like, and miss it. Take care!

  15. Well, I think I've caught up with, and heartily enjoyed, all of the posts I had missed. Several times, I've started comments, but in spite of being deeply touched by your father's "nuts and bolts" relationship with the people and life around him, nothing seemed to come out quite as I felt and several times, I deleted half-written comments. So, my apologies for only the one comment here. And no, my many years of teaching never did entail breaking through ice with a canoe, though I did tip in white-water once (before I learned to swim) on a staff canoe trip. But like your dad, there were many things my students did better than I did (they taught me to ride a bike, running around beside me in the parking lot, though they failed miserably at their attempt to teach me to play frisbee), and it was perhaps a strength of mine that I recognized that. As for sending the kids home and spending the day making sure they had a safe building to learn in, my hat is off to your dad and to the fine people who worked with him. Thanks, Louise, for keeping your father's stories alive so beautifully!

    1. Hi Carol! It's great to see you! I'm glad that you survived the white-water spill. The one comment is wonderful, and thank you for reading my posts and being so encouraging! My students taught me every day too! I found myself doing things like letting "Rosie, the tarantula" walk on my open hand to demonstrate that it was a-okay to hold one ~ something I would otherwise never do! We had teacher-grade 5 baseball games every year, and my kiddos always begged to run for me ~ something other teachers did. I'd say o-kay, and the moment my bat hit that ball, I was off and running. Sometimes my runner would run beside me yelling, "I'm supposed to run for you!" I couldn't help instinctive running. Lots of wonderful memories of teaching, eh?

  16. Louise,
    I can just feel the cold from your Dad's letter! Wow! What a story and what a great way your father had with words. Really love that you are sharing these letters here, they are just fascinating. xx

    1. Thank you, Kay! We all looked forward to his letters when he was in the Wild North living a life so different from us in our grandmother's house in Nova Scotia. Have a lovely day! xx

  17. I know i read this 'letter'....where is my reply?! Oh well.....
    You know Louise, I think every education student ought to read your father's letters. I think it may help them put things into perspective as far as teaching goes in North America. What an eye-opener it would be for them.
    What would we do without our long underwear?
    Another great letter, thanks for sharing it.

    1. I hate it when google or the internet eats my comments, Jim! My father did write a handbook for northern teachers for his Master's in Education, but it was never published, and he planned to write articles for teaching and other magazines, but life got in the way. So he entrusted them to me because I wanted to write a memoir. I think he would be surprised to see how interested people are from different places around the world. And pleased!

      I may have told you this before, Jim, but one time I came across my lawyer sister Donnie downtown in Calgary. She was drinking hot chocolate and waiting for a bus at -40º F&C ~ in her lawyer's skirted suit, powder blue long johns, and Ugg type boots. Too funny! Have a good one!

  18. Hello, very interesting letter. It is an eye opener for us how our parents lived, what difficulties they had to face and how they met each challenge by coming together,

    Life has become easy and comfortable now. But we have to face problems of different nature and we solve them one way or the other. Needless to say we have more leisure time.

    Even then natural calamities are still daunting for us such as Nepal earthquake where thousands of people died and many lost their entire property in a few seconds.

    Very interesting post.

    Best wishes

  19. Oh man, and I thought my commute to work was bad!!! Ha ha. I love all of these letters ~ your Dad was a true adventurer!!!

    1. LOL, Audrey! I might have been thrilled with the novelty of it when I was his age ~ for the first few days, but it would have gotten old fast! This last snowstorm I took photos of from within the house! I can't imagine hacking my way through ice in a snowstorm in a canoe where I can't see either shore. But, you do what you have to do, I guess. Have a great day!


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