Early in the 20th century, decades before the internet and Virtual High School existed, distance education was in its infancy. For those living in remote communities in the Great White North, there were often no local schools to attend and no educators to teach important life skills like literacy and basic math. To find a solution to the lack of available education, the Ontario Department of Education, in conjunction with the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways, began an experiment in 1926 involving a mobile school housed on a railcar. Teachers Fred and Cela Sloman, who grew up and lived just minutes from where our office is now located in Bayfield, jumped at the opportunity to teach at the new “school on wheels”. They began spending the majority of their time travelling northern Ontario to teach students who would not have access to organized education otherwise.
Each week during the school year, a Canadian National freight train moved the Sloman’s railcar to a different community between Sudbury and Timmins. It would spend about five days in the community before moving to its next destination. Students of all ages would board the school on wheels to learn all kinds of skills, including reading and writing, ordering from catalogues, childcare, and the basics of agriculture and creating food sources. After a five-day teaching stint, students would be left with enough homework to last them approximately one month until the school on wheels returned to them from a full tour of its 240 km northern Ontario schoolyard. More than 1,000 students graduated from this unique school, including the Slomans’ five children who were all raised on the railcar!
The Slomans taught at the school on wheels from 1926 until their retirement in 1965, two years before the end of the school car program in 1967 due to technological advances that made the north more accessible. Their unbridled passion for teaching underprivileged students made a major impact on so many lives and garnered the Slomans some well-deserved recognition. Fred Sloman was recognized by the Heroes of the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame in 2003, and Cela Sloman was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1984, eleven years after her husband Fred passed away.
This example of early innovation in Ontario education is the gold standard of what is possible when you think outside the box. Distance education is now primarily provided online in the form of schools like Virtual High School. We hope that we can make similar lasting impacts on the lives of our students in the way the school on wheels did.
If you’d like to visit the School on Wheels Museum to explore the railcar that the Slomans taught and lived in, you can do so beginning in May at Sloman Memorial Park in Clinton, Ontario. The museum is open from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Thursday through Sunday.
North Huron Publishing. (2019). A Very Special Story. Retrieved from http://www.northhuron.on.ca/clinton-a-very-special-story
Central Huron. (2019). CNR School on Wheels Museum. Retrieved from http://www.centralhuron.com/schoolcar