Mackie Lake House Foundation

PRIVATE SCHOOLS IN THE OKANAGAN VALLEY

Hugh F. Mackie
(excerpted from The Twelfth Report of the Okanagan Historical Society, 1948)

While it has always been a debatable question as to just how far Private Schools are justifiable, or even necessary, in a Province like our own where the standards of education and teaching are admittedly high, yet the fact remains that such Private Schools have been in existence for many years, and must therefore be considered as meeting a need. It is only natural that such a state of affairs should prevail in British Columbia where the proportion of settlers from the so-called “leisured class” in the Old Country is higher than elsewhere; yet the curious fact remains that in Eastern Canada, where the impact of the United States is more powerful than in the West, and the admixture of races more pronounced, all the oldest and largest Private Schools are to be found.

     We may therefore take it for granted that there is a need, and room, for Private Schools in this country. >From our own personal experience we have found that many parents sent their boys to our school for one or other of the following reasons (on the correctness or otherwise of which I venture no opinion): lack of discipline either at home or in the local Public School; lack of religious education; lack of athletic facilities; over-sized classes; undesirable companions; too much teaching by females in the Public Schools; to which may be added an unavoidable feature of all day schools, namely, lack of personal supervision of pupils out of school hours.

     From the time when the Vernon Preparatory School was founded by my brother, Rev. A.C. Mackie, in 1914, until fairly recent years, a large proportion of our pupils came from the Coast, and comparatively few from the Interior. The cynic might explain this by saying that the parents at the Coast didn’t know the School so well as those who lived nearer. But the real reason undoubtedly was, and is, that Vernon is so admirably suited as an educational centre, both from the point of view of its wonderful climate and elevation, and the nature of its setting which favours every kind of outdoor activity. When my brother and I walked up Barnard Avenue for the first time in October, 1913, we were struck by the beauty of the countryside, but any enthusiasm of parents to send their boys to our School on the Coldstream was not so apparent. Mr. Price Ellison (to whom we had an introduction) was most kind and sympathetic: but these were the days of one of the pre-war slumps, and any new venture was an odds-against gamble.

     Both my brother and I were educated at St. John’s School, Leatherhead, near London, an institution chiefly for the education of the sons of the Clergy. My brother held the Classical Scholarship at Corpus Christi College, received his M.A., from Cambridge, and later his B.D. from Durham University. He was ordained in 1902. I had no idea of taking up teaching, originally, but drifted into it more or less by force of circumstances. I put in two years as a lawyer in Regina before deciding to change.

     When we came to the Valley, there was no private school for boys between Vancouver and the Rockies. There had been a very small private school run by Rev. St. John Mildmay on the Coldstream, but this had disappeared some years before we arrived. Chesterfield School at Kelowna was not yet in existence. St. Michael’s School for Girls in Vernon was in those days a healthy young institution about two years old under the guidance of Miss M. LeGallais. For many years it continued to expand until it became one of the best known girls’ schools in Western Canada with an enrolment of about 100 pupils. Then, as schools will, it fell on evil days and was finally closed in 1937.

     The land boom which had existed when we came to the Valley collapsed and was followed by depression. Little local support could be found for our project, but my brother opened the school on January 13, 1914, at the Shelton House on Aberdeen Road, with five boys: R.C. Henderson, J.B. and J.R. Kidston (day boys), D.S. Godwin and J.F. Bardolph. At first we all had a desperately hard struggle, especially Mrs. Mackie, who with two little children to look after, one of them chronically ill, somehow managed to cook for and feed the boys and us, keep the place spotless, and then lend a hand, often until after dark, with the Ranch. Much of the success of School resulted from her never-ceasing energy and care for the boys.

     In 1916 we leased the Howard Ranch of 20 acres. Our experiences there are described in the “V.P.S. Chronicle,” Vol XII, No.3, Christmas, 1929:

     “The Ranch had not been tended for two years and the task of getting it into shape was a man’s job, but we were full of the energy born of inexperience and reveled in the task, putting in every spare moment from dawn till it was too dark to distinguish weeds from young vegetables. We soon mastered the art of ploughing, discing, mowing, raking and performing the other tasks incidental to farming and considering that our team consisted of a superannuated steeple-chaser and a nervous pacer we got along quite well though narrowly escaping falling victims beneath our own implements; needless to say our harness was a maze of hay-wire with here and there a strip of leather. This saved our limbs on many occasions as our steeds soon divested themselves of their habiliments and left us and the wagon or mower behind while they catered untrammeled over the countryside.

     “We harvested our own fruit crop and packed it ourselves after the boys were safely abed. Many a night we stood shivering with cold in a semi-open shed till 1:30 a.m. sorting and packing our precious fruit by the light of a stable lantern. Those were the good old days when it was no disgrace not to belong to the Union and when fruit inspectors were neither so numerous nor inquisitorial as they are now. The statute of limitations enables me to make a clear breast of our iniquities. Any old thing was an apple: such things as culls did not exist; everything was a No.1. The problem of naming the varieties was one that baffled old-timers in the fruit business, for our orchard was one of the very first to be planted, and contained varieties whose very names had been forgotten, but we solved the problem by the simple expedient of inventing names, not, mark you, without some nice discrimination of a subtle appeal to the imagination or patriotism of the consumer. Thus the fruit of a tree near the kitchen door went to the Prairies under the inspiring cognomen of Kitchener, then at the zenith of his power. The thrifty housewife who converted our seedling crabs into jelly was in truth preserving wild apples which had sprung from a seedling, and believe me, were exceptionally rich in acids. We shipped pears so wizened and diminutive that we reluctantly wrapped them in sulphide paper to prevent their falling through the crack in the box. If there were any justice in the world we should now be picking oakum or swinging in a gibbet…”

     In the spring of 1917, the School was moved to the Hensman Ranch, which we had purchased, and where a building was put up by A.D. Heriot to accommodate 18 boarders. In 1918 there were 27 boys, and accommodation was added for 24 more boys. In 1920 room was made for 12 more boys, and a library was added. St. Nicholas’ Chapel was built and dedicated in 1921.

     The aim of Vernon Preparatory School was, and still is, to provide such a course of education as would enable the pupils to take up High School with the minimum of dislocation: and our experience has shewn that as a general rule our pupils, on leaving us, were qualified for a higher grade than boys of the same age at Public Schools.

     One of our first local pupils was the late “Johnny” Costerton, son of then Alderman and later Mayor C.F. Costerton, who stayed with us for several years: and it was he who was the first to provide us with a pupil-son-of-a-pupil: so that, like Mr. Chips, I found myself saying, “Ah! Now when I used to teach your father-!” Another mayor’s son we had was young McGeer, scion of the famous late “Gerry” McGeer of Vancouver. On one occasion we had quite a thrill when the Vancouver Chief of Police telephoned us not to let the youngster out of our sight for a minute as the Vancouver underworld against whom Gerry was then waging war, had announced their intention of kidnapping the boy.

     There is one more aspect of Private School which should be mentioned in such an article as this – I refer to the economic side of the question. An institution of this kind is undoubtedly of considerable financial benefit to the local community. Until our retirement in the year 1946, we educated 456 boys, and our school expenditures in Vernon alone well exceeded half a million dollars - at no cost whatever to the taxpayer. There were also other indirect benefits such as increased publicity which might be taken into consideration. In addition, every June there was held at the School a sale of the boys’ manual work, plants, etc., the net profits of which amounted to $5,783 to June, 1946, and the money was used for charitable purposes. Up until June, 1946, collections, almost all of which were given to religious or charitable institutions amounted to $8,229, making a total of $14,012.

     This beautiful Valley of ours has many advantages over other localities and it is pre-eminently ideal as a Residential School centre. The day may – and I hope will - come when it will be as famous for its Private Schools as it is today for its orchards – and its Ogopogo!

 

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Phone: 250-545-1019
March 4, 2006