Connecting Lake Simcoe's Community

On Feb. 15,1859, a small group of local residents met at Heard Tavern to plan for the erection of a local school along the banks of Lake Simcoe, in the little hamlet of Shanty Bay.

The school was completed and ready for student learning the following Dec. 1,1859.

Before that, citizens such as Mary O’Brien (who had founded Shanty Bay in 1832 with her husband Col. Edward George O’Brien), taught children in her home.

The school at Shanty Bay was one room, with one teacher who earned 45 pounds a year and taught all grades. The school was heated by a wood stove, and during the winter months, wet mittens hanging around the stove provided humidity! In 1862, the school was valued at $400. By 1880 an assistant teacher was hired to help with the growing number of students.

Major changes weren’t made to the school until 1949 and then in 1957 the “new school” was built. One former student recalls that in 1961 an additional room was added and that during construction, 25 students, (grades six, seven, and eight), were taught in the school hallway!

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There were numerous highlights to look forward to during the school year. In those early years they included Arbour Day, the first Friday in May when the children would arrive at school wearing work clothes and armed with rakes, brooms and the like to help maintain their school. Christmas concerts were another event that entailed many rehearsals but were a source of pride for parents, students and teachers alike. And speaking of pride, the Oro Fair brought together all the local schools every fall. For weeks leading up to it, students practiced marching in unison to enter the fairgrounds under their school flag singing their school song, (many in the neighbourhood still remember doing this). The Fair served as an opportunity to hone and celebrate skills in animal husbandry, horticulture, crop growing, home economics, penmanship, and arts and crafts.

In 1979, the Shanty Bay community, the Simcoe County District School Board, and the Township of Oro worked together on the construction of a large addition which included a stage, changerooms, kitchen and community room. It was to be a combined school and community centre, but sadly, the community is now excluded from the use of the facility. Most recently, a beautiful cathedral ceilinged kindergarten room was added in 1991, with views across the expansive lawns of the school playground and the old growth forest beyond.

That view today is the same, and twice a day it also includes around 140 students enjoying delightful childhood pursuits at recess! During the winter months, wet mittens still dry along heaters and provide, well, a certain unforgettable smell of wet and sweat. So, what makes the Shanty Bay Public School of today worth noting? Amazingly, some of the same events that excited the children from years ago still mark the school calendar. 

Every fall on the second weekend of September the students of Shanty Bay still parade into the old fairgrounds with their “rivals” and friends from other Oro public schools -- celebrating the official opening of the Oro World’s Fair. The school song has changed to a rollicking chant: “Way down deep in the Shanty Bay Jungle, you can hear the Buccaneers Rumble...”

Still today, families spend the days preceding digging up gardens for five beets, table size (leave tops 15mm ONLY), raiding neighbours’ ditches to make a coffee table arrangement of wildflowers (not exceeding 30 cm high), baking and comparing batches to find three uniform shortbread cookies, constructing birdhouses from recycled materials, keeping their ducks out of the muddy wallows, and practicing their penmanship. The Oro Fair will be celebrating 167 Years this fall! It is still a part of our rural heritage and fosters a tactile sense of community and generational knowledge.

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In addition, the Annual Holiday Luncheon, a full sit-down turkey dinner, happens every December and is the only one of its kind in Simcoe County. The students begin making festive decorations days before. The food, donated and prepared by Shanty Bay families and community volunteers, and accompanying entertainment, is thoroughly enjoyed by all. 

In fact, Shanty Bay enjoys the roll-up-your-sleeves mindset of many volunteers who give their time to read with students, work in the library and kitchen, help with displays and class setups, mentor, fundraise, garden and craft with students in all grades.

One of the best things about going to school in a small community is getting to know the community! Periodically teachers take their students on “Village Walkabouts” to enjoy some fresh air, meet some friends in the community, and learn about the village’s rich history. These walks typically include a school neighbour’s long driveway, visiting the historic St. Thomas Church (and ringing the bell if you’re lucky), adventuring in “The Church Woods”, playing in “The Village Green” and probably some hearty singing! Recently the kindergarten students from Ms. Gray’s class walked to the home of Aaron and Mel Smith to visit the ducks that laid the eggs that hatched later in their classroom!

Many children can walk (and in fair weather ride their bicycles) the short distance to the school. On the way to school, local children often take the opportunity to float sticks down the ditch in the spring run-off, chat with neighbours and lean in the door of the “Village Milk” convenience store to say good morning to Paul the proprietor. For some children the trip to school is a short ride on one of two school buses. 

But it’s not just a case of sitting around in the country and keeping your head down. Shanty Bay is the proud home of the Change Agents movement which is a unique and widely recognized program (by WE schools, the David Suzuki Foundation, Ashoka Canada and others). Facilitated by teachers Julie Johnson, Heather Czarnota and Kera Potts, students are encouraged to “choose an issue you care about from the UN Global Goals! Take positive action!” Some of the issues students are addressing this year are mental health, plastic waste, coral reef destruction, saving pollinators, increasing the love of reading, food insecurity, and protecting Lake Simcoe. The movement is spreading across Simcoe County schools and beyond but it all started here at Shanty Bay Public School.

See their Sparks page:, follow them on twitter @BeChangeAgents and keep your eyes open for evidence of positive change around you!

Most families move to the area because of the small-community way of life and the close proximity of an excellent school, Shanty Bay Public. There are children attending the school who are the 5th generation in their family to do so! For almost 160 years, a public school has been situated on the same site -- a place of excellent student learning and the heart of our rural community.

Judith Dingman Latimer Durban, one of the winners of the 1957 J.A. MacKellar Memorial Scholarship, Shanty Bay Public School’s prestigious graduating award, writes:

“Shanty Bay School is an enduring and dear-to-my-heart memory: my first eight years of school, from Grade 1 with Mrs. Robins in 1949, to the first graduating class with Mr. Wiseman in the ‘brand new school’ in 1957. My experiences in Shanty Bay showed me respect for both education and community spirit. The old school was made of wood, and probably some straw. The new one was made of bricks. I hope like in the story, the brick building stands for years to come.”

Article By Judy Smith, With Ted Bigelow and Jennica Hwang

Photos courtesy of Jennica Hwang

  1. Old picture of SBPS... No date on it.

2. Front of the current school

3. Principal Ian Strath giving instructions for the annual Shanty Bay Showcase Scavenger Hunt. Permission given to use photo.

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