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Remembering the little school that could

The story of Searchmont Central Public School and the 'Good morning' sign for the tour train

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

The tiny community of Searchmont was carved out of the wilderness and its close vicinity to the great outdoors seemed to infuse the school, which is often the centre of any community, with its own unique character.

In the case of Searchmont Central Public School, optimism and hard work helped to keep the school open through decades of uncertainty.

On the first day of school in September of 1961, so many students showed up that some had to be transported to the little school in nearby Glendale. The headline in the Sault Star stated Crowd of Pupils Create Problem and the accompanying article stated that the “crowd of children that turned out for school Tuesday morning had the teachers scratching their heads at the little school.”

The influx of new students was probably due to Weldwood of Canada setting up business in Searchmont and drawing new residents.

With so many children it was clear that a larger school was needed rapidly. The small school was bursting at the seams, so work began immediately to fix the problem.

A new three-room school was certainly a welcome addition to the community. The new school celebrated its official opening on Saturday, April 21, 1962, and housed 92 pupils. By the summer of 1963, another addition was added to the school bringing it to a total of four rooms.

This abundance of students was not to last, however, and by March of 1966, there was concern about the number of students attending all of the small schools located north of the city leading to the idea of amalgamating all rural schools in the area from Heyden to Montreal River.

A meeting was held for taxpayers and parents to hear from a school inspector. Due to a large Finnish population living in this area, a translator was also provided for the Finnish parents who were not fluent in English. By this point, there were 102 students attending the Searchmont Public School and the school was able to survive the threat of closure at that time.

However, the student population continued to fluctuate for many years, as people moved in and out of Searchmont.

By December of 1978, the Searchmont Public School was considered “non-viable” by the school board. To be within the “viable” category, schools were required to have 160 or more students, but Searchmont had only 77 students attending. This would begin a decades-long struggle to keep the school open.

The year 1981 saw the initiation of a tradition profoundly unique to the Searchmont Public School.

The ACR Tour Train went right by the school each day as they carried tourists up to the Agawa Canyon for a full-day excursion. Teacher Glen Atkinson, and his grade 5 and 6 class started waving at the ACR train and holding up a large “Good Morning” sign.

The Sault Star reported that “Mr. Atkinson says it’s a great way to begin the day, a fun thing that puts everyone in a good mood.”

It didn’t take long for this gesture to be recognized enthusiastically by tourists aboard the train. The first letter of thanks came from Michigan, followed by thousands of others over the years. They also received books, chocolate alligators from Florida, Christmas cards, cookies, and money, such as $10 for soft drinks for their year-end class party.

The class even ended up with some pen pals in Michigan and Niagara Falls to whom they would send class photos and crafts.

The kids soon became a highlight of the tour, as the train hostesses would alert the passengers as they were approaching the school and the train would slow down as it went through Searchmont.

The Sault Star acknowledged in an article written in 1983 that “Glen Atkinson’s Grade 5 and 6 classes at Searchmont Public School have probably done more to promote tourism in Algoma than they or most people realize.”

The Algoma Central Railway was appreciative of the added attraction on the route. Engineers sent the class a note and photos of the train and the advertising department came to the school to make a film presentation.

Best of all, thanks to the ACR and a very generous anonymous donor, the students were treated to their own Agawa Canyon tour ride and reportedly received the “Royal Treatment” on their excursion as they enjoyed donuts and a soda during the trip.

Their friendly daily greeting to tourists caught the attention of one very notable passenger. Pierre Trudeau, the Prime Minister at the time, visited the area with his sons (Justin, Sacha, and Michael) in September of 1983 and sent a personalized thank you letter to the students for their “warm and special” welcome on their fall colour tour.

Teacher Mr. Atkinson was particularly impressed that the letter was personalized and not a form letter. The Prime Minister also mentioned in the letter that his sons had enjoyed the stories and “smelly” stickers from the students – especially the ones that were pizza, licorice, and banana cream pie scent. So, not only did the Searchmont students give a warm welcome to the reigning Prime Minister, but it also unwittingly was greeting a future Prime Minister as well.

The proximity to nature and outdoor activities became a big part of the curriculum at the school.

The school may have lacked a gymnasium but the students would get to use the Searchmont Ski resort which was essentially in their back yard. There were also nature trails to hike, birds to feed, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, ice fishing, trees to adopt and name for those in kindergarten (some former students may still have some distant memories of “Woody” the (high bush Cranberry tree).

Music was also emphasized at the school. There were often noon hour guitar lessons and a school theme song was written. During the days leading up to the Quebec Referendum, teacher Walter Senko and his students penned a Canadian unity song called, Canada Don’t Leave Me Now which was published and played on CBC.

The tiny school at Searchmont seemed to be persistently under the threat of closure including the year 1991/92.

Ski Searchmont President, Jim Hilsinger was especially interested in seeing the school stay open. He feared losing the school would threaten future development potential. The need to consolidate students into fewer schools had become a pressing issue due to financial constraints.

The failure of Algoma Steel to pay its 1991 taxes, and a successful appeal regarding their taxes from 1984 to 1990 had led the school board to consider every conceivable cost savings.

Parents in Searchmont were primarily concerned by the distance to the next school in Aweres. Junior kindergarten students could be on the bus for two hours to spend only two and a half hours in class and days of bad weather made the distance even more problematic.

When it was decided in February of 1994 that the school would remain open despite low enrollment, the Sault Star reported that one parent stated, “You’re not just keeping the school open, you’re keeping the community open.”

However, by 2002 enrollment had diminished drastically. There were only 13 students at the Searchmont Public School – all at different grade levels. So it was decided that Wednesday, June 25, 2003, would be the last day of classes at the little school, and it was appropriate that the children went outside to make one final farewell wave to the tour train!

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at www.ssmpl.ca and look for more Remember This? columns here