A history of caretakers in Kawartha Lakes

Just in Time local history series

By Ian McKechnie

Whether a school, a municipal facility, a place of worship or a local business, a building’s appearance is likely to garner comment. We take notice of the clean carpets, the diligent dusting, and the immaculately polished floors.

Behind all of this are caretakers, a trade — no, an art — that  has a long and illustrious history here in Kawartha Lakes.

We begin with places of worship, which have employed caretakers for centuries. Depending on the denomination, they might have been called beadles or sextons, and had a variety of tasks ranging from keeping floors, pews and windows clean to digging graves and ringing the church bell. They also played various roles in the service, including keeping order and lighting candles.

While church caretakers are normally well-respected, in 1902 the one at Powles’ Corners, in Fenelon Township, was accused of neglecting his responsibilities. Parishioners complained about mud being tracked into the church basement on account of there being no sidewalks in the hamlet. The hapless caretaker had his supporters, however: “There is no person on the face of God’s earth who can keep a church perfectly clean under the circumstances,” wrote one correspondent in the Nov. 21, 1902, issue of the Fenelon Falls Gazette. “If those who are finding fault had come as near to doing their duty as the caretaker has, the basement of the church would not be in the condition that it is.”

Large municipally run buildings have always required caretakers to look after both their cavernous spaces and often expansive grounds. The caretaker of the Victoria County Courthouse received a salary of $500 a year in 1908 to take care of the building and the lawn surrounding it. He was given free accommodation and had both lighting and fuel costs covered by the County.

Coboconk’s William Simpson was about 55 when he was appointed to the position on June 11, 1908. Unfortunately for Simpson, he was deemed to be too old for the job and was apparently unfamiliar with the all-important knowledge associated with operating a steam plant and boiler system. Within a month, he had been let go (with a compensation package amounting to $100) and was replaced by James Ashwell. The latter, a former locomotive engineer on the Grand Trunk Railway, was selected from a list of 23 applicants and was soon busily occupied with tending the furnace, keeping the building tidy, cutting the grass and shoveling snow off the sidewalks.

For generations of students, the most familiar of caretakers —  more recently called custodians or janitors — were those men and women who dutifully kept local schools spick and span.

A school caretaker’s responsibilities are numerous, and a list of them was issued in 1897 to caretakers employed in Fenelon Falls-area schools. These included ensuring that the floors were carefully swept every evening; ensuring that the floors were well-scrubbed during each holiday term; ensuring that fires were kindled before 7 a.m. each day; and ensuring that snow was cleaned off all walks.

The art of school caretaking was diligently practiced at Lindsay Collegiate Institute under a long line of custodians, including a Mr. W. Walsh, who was held in high esteem by members of the school cadet corps. “Your interest in our undertakings of every kind and your desire to be of as much assistance as possible to us has been manifested on several occasions,” read a thank-you address to Walsh in the Watchman Warder on June 22, 1911. “Your willingness to help us make our functions and festivities successful and enjoyable has been ever apparent.”

Not all aspects of a caretaker’s job elicited praise — from either the caretakers themselves or from others. Salaries were always a contentious issue.  James Hall, caretaker of Central School in Lindsay, went before the school board in 1912 asking for a higher salary to help offset costs associated with renting a house.

Some caretakers were even thrown under the bus for doing their duty. In 1935, Hazel Robertson was fired from her Bobcaygeon-area caretaking position after pointing out that negligence on the part of trustees had resulted in a glass pane falling out of a school window and seriously injuring a student. Henry McCausland, secretary of the school board, told Robertson to “hand in your keys” after she gave strong evidence against the board in this case.

On the whole, however, caretakers were loved by those they served. Dave Seabrook worked as a caretaker at Parkview Public School from 1977 through 1993, and then went to King Albert Public School where he worked until his retirement in 2006. Moving to an older school brought its own challenges. Although the school could be unbearably hot, says Seabrook, “you couldn’t leave the windows open at night because bats would get in. Kids called me the ‘bat man’ because I would come in to the classroom with a net and a pair of gloves to remove the bats.”

Apart from regular caretaking duties, Seabrook also remembers cooking turkeys for King Albert students and dressing up in costume for Halloween. “I really loved King Albert,” he says. “I just loved the kids.”

1 Comment

  1. Brenda Moynes says:

    Very interesting Victoria County history. Thank you. Is the name of the court house caretaker known?

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