(Rev. Andrew Murdoch, M.A., LL.D.)
The building in which we met was not much to look at. During the week it was used as a public school. It was built of cedar logs, the chinks between filled with splits of the same wood and plastered. It stood on a high bank overlooking one of the smaller streams that forms a tributary to the Canadian Mississippi. The furniture was of the rudest description. The desks were placed round the walls, which the scholars faced. This gave an unfair advantage to the teacher when he caught us whispering; for he could make a rear attack without our being aware of his stealthy advance.
One of our teachers was a little, lame Scotchman. He was a good man, a Presbyterian and a high Calvinist; but the boys said his taws were specially nippy. I remember the tops of the desks were made of butternut, one of our softest woods, and easily carved with our knives. By the time I was big enough to go to school there was scarce room for my initials. There were two windows, one to the east and the other to the west. The sun at certain seasons of the year peeped in at the west window about the noon hour. The first time I noticed this I drew a line just where the sun reached as the school was dismissed at twelve. I thought I had a sure tab on the noon hour; but, to my disgust, next day either the sun or the master’s watch was wrong. I could never get the shadow to come to time again.
We all thought it wrong that the builder had not put a window to the south. Then we could have varied our lessons by looking out to see the black bass in their nests scooped out of the gravel, or a water snake go swimming by, or now and then a duck or muskrat. It was a great day for the boys when a raft of square timber, the only one that ever came down the creek, was reported to be near at hand. The dam was only a short distance away, and we could see the great white sticks, some of them sixty feet long, enter the narrow slide, pause for a moment balancing on the brink, and then go plunging down, tossing the spray high in the air. That old dam, and the mill driven by a ponderous breast-wheel, were unfailing sources of delight to the boys as they burst away for the noon hour recess. Were ever hours so short? Once in a while the dusty miller would open for us the door and show us the wheel in motion, slowly revolving as the water pressed against its broad buckets. The wheel was thickly moss-grown. A peculiar, damp smell, not unpleasant, arose from the spray of the falling water. But our courage did not suffice to enable us to look long at a time into the gloomy depths of the wheelhouse; and we were glad to scamper away to enjoy our noon day plunge into the “Deep Hole,” as we called it. Here the current below the dam struck a projecting rock and formed an eddy. It was a picturesque spot at the foot of a towering cliff, where the white birch and wild pear trees struck their roots into the crevices and trailed their drooping branches in the rushing water. The rapid that ran into the deep hole was used by the boys as a sort of water-toboggan slide, and successive generations of boys here learned to swim. We threw ourselves on the swift current; then, striking out, we were carried down into the quite waters of the pool. The little fellows often used a small piece of board to keep themselves from going under.
The hamlet was a busy place during the week. The great water-wheel revolved incessantly, and the grists came and went. Alongside the grist mill was a sawmill, where a single saw in a ponderous frame, and driven by a primitive contrivance called a “flutter wheel,” ate its way slowly through the logs. Sometimes our friend the sawyer let us have a ride on the carriage as it gigged back.
But on the Sabbath a great peace fell upon the scene.
How still the morning of the hallowed day!
Mute is the voice of rural labor. . . . .
The dizzying mill-wheel rests; the anvil’s din
Hath ceased; around is quietness all.
The rushing rapid below the mill became “a lulling brook, murmuring more softly down the deep-worn glen, lingering in little pools, falling from stone with gentle motion.” Then we hied away to our Sunday School.
Our superintendent was a little man in stature, and was known far and near as “Little John,” so named because there happened to be in the neighborhood another John of the same family name, of a Saul-like stature. He was a Methodist local preacher. As a youth in England he had been hail fellow well met with everybody, and a ringleader among his gay companions. But the Master had met him, and from henceforth he threw himself with all his heart and mind into the Master’s service. Happy, cheerful, and out and out optimist, he had a good word and a word in season for saint and sinner. He was a fluent speaker and a good singer. The order of exercises was simple. The old-fashioned Sunday School had no frills. It opened with a hymn, one of Watt’s or Charles Wesley’s usually; sometimes a paraphrase, sung to the tune of “Dundee” or “Mear,” or “Devises,” or “Ornonville;” if long metre then “Duke Street” or “Hebron.” A prayer followed, then the lesson or lessons, for each class usually followed out its own line of study. We had no lesson leaves consequently each scholar had his Bible. The teacher did very little so-called teaching. We were there not to learn about the Bible, but to learn the Bible itself, the very word of God. Each scholar was expected and encouraged to commit to memory a portion of the Word. Sometimes a hymn was selected, or a paraphrase, such as:
O God our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come.
As when the Hebrew Prophet raised
The Brazen Serpent high.
The first duty of the teacher was to hear these recitations, and mark the number of verses to the credit of the scholar. At the approaching anniversary the names were read out with the verses standing to their credit. I remember that one boy had committed to memory and recited perfectly, more than three thousand verses of Scripture and stanzas of hymns. Of course the adult Bible Class, taught by the Superintendent, had got beyond recitations.
When the recitations were finished, the superintendent gave a short address, which was always looked forward to with interest. He had a habit of placing in front of him the chair on which he had been seated, and resting his left hand upon the back. He took as a sort of text some verse of the lesson, often some thought from the hymn we had sung; but anyway it was always bright, cheerful, devout, evangelical. Another hymn and prayer closed the session; and then our superintendent, whom we all loved as a personal friend, standing at the door (I remember the door was unpainted and opened with a ponderous iron latch) shook hands with each of us, calling each by name, and had a good word for each as we passed out.
And now as to the results: We knew our Bibles as I fear few scholars in our modern Sunday Schools know them. The Psalms, whose Psalms were ours. Many chapters of Isaiah (we had not heard at that time of two Isaiahs) especially chapters 1, 35, 52, 53, 55 and 63; the sermon on the Mount, the Parables, the Miracles, the stirring chapters of the Acts, the gorgeous imagery of the closing chapters of Revelation, all were ours “to have and to hold.” We knew the historical personages of the Old Testament as we knew the neighbors among whom we lived. Often I have heard their characters commented upon and their motives discussed by the older scholars. Moses was a prime favorite, and we all felt sorry that he did not get into the Promised Land. Abraham stood well, but the girls were somewhat given to sympathize with Hagar and her son. Joseph met with unqualified approbation especially with his filial love and forgiving spirit. Among the prophets Elijah was our hero. He could do things. Eusha did not stand anywhere near his great predecessor. The incident about the two she bears hurt him with some. David as a young man was well thought of, but later on he was sharply criticized. I have heard the opinion expressed that Nathan let him off too easily after his double crime. Anyway he was not liked. His use upon his enemies of saws and harrows of iron and axes of iron was a stumbling block. And so all these historical characters were discussed, not in any irreverent spirit, but with perfect candor. I have often thought that in that old-fashioned Sunday school there must have been some incipient higher critics. Personally I can say this: I have thanked God all my life for the knowledge of God’s Word I gained in this school. The schoolhouse is still standing. When I last revisited it I found myself repeating the old song:
I’ve wandered in the village, Tom,
And sat beneath the tree,
Upon the schoolhouse playing ground,
That sheltered you and me.
But none were there to greet me Tom,
And few are left to know,
Who played with us upon the green
Just twenty years ago.
Few, indeed, of those who met in the log schoolhouse are still on the shores of time. “Little John” sleeps under the prairie sod in Manitoba. His assistant, a gentle, godly soul, has crossed the bar. Those who were the older scholars when I first attended have all passed away. A few of the younger remain. One is a physician, a specialist of national repute in Pittsburgh. One is a school inspector in Ontario. One a Methodist minister in Montreal. I do not know of one trained in that school who has made a shipwreck.
All whose names I can recall made a profession of their faith in Jesus and why not? Does not faith come by hearing, had hearing by the Word of God? Are we not assured that we are “Born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever.” Much of the superficial profession we deplore may be traced to the absence of a knowledge of the Scriptures, which alone “are capable to make us wise unto salvation.”
The moss-covered dam is still there. The mill is gone. The “dizzying mill-wheel” has long since made its last revolution. The stream has dwindled. The pine forests at its head waters have been destroyed. The thick carpet of “duff” that held the water like a sponge has been burned off. The swamps that held back the spring flood have disappeared. There is a foaming torrent for a few weeks in the spring, and then a diminished flow. But I saw that the birches still trailed their branches in the Deep Hole, and as the summer wind moved them it was pleasant to see the shadows come and go as of yore.
[ED. NOTE. — The characters in the above are known to many of our older inhabitants. “Little John” was John Playfair, nephew and son-in-law of Col. Playfair. He had a blacksmith’s shop at Playfairville and afterwards for a time ran the sawmill at the foot of Bennett’s Lake. His assistant was G.C. Mills, who kept a small store and post office at Playfairville. The late Wm. Lees was also for many years a faithful attendant and helper. Also, the late John Ward who lived on the Perth road near the 9th line. He afterwards moved west to Chesley. The scholars who survive are: Frank H. Murdoch, M.D., Pittsburgh, Pa.; Rev. Alexander Hardy, Methodist minister, Montreal; Wm. Clendinning, school inspector, Walkerton. His father’s home stood on a most romantic spot not far from the “Deep Hole.” The grist mill, as well as the sawmill, belonged to the late Sandy Bain, and the sawyer who used to let the boys ride on the log carrier was the late Jake Boulton. “Big John” was John Playfair, son of Col. A.W. Playfair, a very estimable man who had a sawmill just a short distance above the bridge at Playfairville on the Mississippi. He, too attended the old-fashioned Sunday school and frequently led the services in the absence of his smaller namesake. The log schoolhouse referred to is on Bolton’s Creek, just below the present school building.]
As noted on Page 12 in an item in “Local Matters”, this article was first published in the Canadian Baptist. Presumably, the identification of the students in the last paragraph of the article, is unique to the Courier.