There some often lamented buildings in Grand Falls that fell to the wrecking ball over the years. Notably the fine government building that stood in the stadium parking lot, The old NDA building, the 1923 Memorial United Church and most recently GFA Elementary.
The latter was a mausoleum of chalk dust and oil paint. They say that smell is the sense that can trigger memories more than any other and that is what GFA Elementary smelled like. The old building must have had fifty layers of oil paint over most of its surfaces half an inch built up over all of the years. Likewise the gym floor had hundreds of coats of wax over its hardwood surface. Many layers of history. At least three generations of students passed through the doors of the building behind the Memorial Grounds on Lincoln/Station Road.
Grand Falls Academy had a tendency to outgrow its buildings. This was a result of Grand Falls being a young town full of young families. The first school, though very small was outgrown in five years. In 1911 GFA first became located on High street near the present day post office. By 1929 Grand Falls Academy consisted of three buildings on High Street: A small wooden Kindergarten, a larger wooden primary/elementary school and a brand new brick high school. This red brick building was outgrown in a very short period of time.[i] In the mid-1930s, in the middle of the Great Depression the people of Grand Falls and the Anglo Newfoundland Development Company decided that the town needed a new high school.
Time has shrouded when GFA on Lincoln road was built and was opened. All of my life the year that was commonly accepted was 1935. On further examination it appears that it was built in 1935 but students may not have attended it until 1936, though I may be wrong. One source states that it construction was started in the fall of 1935 so the most likely scenario was that it opened some time in 1936. Like all the previous GFA buildings the Station Road School was paid for entirely by the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company. The cost was $150,000.00 (about 2.6 million today).
On an Island where most schools consisted of one room heated by a pot bellied stove and without indoor plumbing GFA High School was something out of the future. The relatively huge building boasted a fully equipped physics and chemistry laboratory and a first class gymnasium decked out with a hardwood floor and with attached washrooms and changing rooms. The gym was in the center of the complex with wings each with three classrooms. In those early years boys and girls entered though separate entrances one on either side of the school.
Not only did the school have first class facilities it also had first class teachers. In Newfoundland during this period of time a school in Newfoundland was lucky if the teacher had completed any post-secondary schooling, In fact in some areas you were lucky to have a teacher that had completed Grade 11! In Grand Falls the AND Co supplemented the income of teachers in the town. So many of the teachers not only had there obligatory “Summer school” from Memorial college but many had actual degrees from Universities[ii] some even having graduate degrees.
The first principal of the new GFA high school was Mr. Reginald Ripley who had taken over as headmaster of GFA after the retirement of longtime incumbent Mr. Balleney in 1932. Ripley was a Canadian and a veteran of the First World War. He was reportedly quite progressive in his teaching methods having been influenced by new teaching philosophies coming out of the United States. Ripley’s tenure as principal came to an end in 1940 when he rejoined the Royal Canadian Navy. He was replaced by Mr. G.A Hickman. To anybody that attended Memorial University that is the same G.A Hickman that the education building is named after. Hickman was succeeded by Mr. H Cramm 1944-48, followed by Abe Gillett 1948-60.
In January of 1960 Grades 7-11 moved to the new high school on Maple Street at the other end of the big grassy field. Mr. Gillett stayed on as Principal at the elementary school and Mr. Vernon Hiscock became the Principal of the new state of the art GFA High School.[iii]Gillett was succeeded in 1973 after twenty odd years by Art Bull. Bull was followed by Mervin Baker, who was followed by George White. The last principal of GFA Elementary was Beve Butler.
At the time of its construction the school was on the outskirts of town and boasted a large flat playing field in the back. In the front the school was framed by the park like setting of the Memorial grounds with the cenotaph directly in the center.
After the Second World War the area started to be developed for housing with the building of Memorial Avenue and surrounding area. Around the same time the armory was built next door. Today it may seem strange for a military armory to be located next to a school but the roots in the why the armory is located where it is can be traced back to World War Two. According to pictures, anecdotal evidence and the fact that a box containing related materials was found in the school, GFA on Station road was the headquarters of the Newfoundland Home Guard (later the Militia). In 1950 when a military building was moved from Gander Base it seemed natural to put it next to the old headquarters. It was also a great location for the fledgling cadet organizations as the members were high school students.
GFA Elementary was expanded a number of times to keep up with the number of students that were attending. Initially the building consisted of the gym and the first floor. In the 1950’s a second story and an addition on the back was completed. Another rear addition was put on in the 1960’s I believe.
Despite the fact that so many people have lamented its destruction, GFA Elementary was at the end of its lifespan in the last decade of its operation as a school. I know, because I went there and my mother taught there. I saw somewhere somebody asking if it was true if some of the floor collapsed or if a wing was condemned. This is partially true. I don’t recall the floor collapsing but there was an entire section of the school that was closed off for a number of years before the whole school was closed. This was the second floor on the side closest to the Armory. It was closed off sometime around 1994 or 1995. Prior to this the school had operated as a Grade 4 to 8 facility. Because so much of the building was deemed to be unsuitable some restructuring had to take place in the Exploits Valley Integrated School system. This was done by sending high school kids from the former town of Windsor to Grand Falls Academy High School[iv] and all protestant kids from both former towns were sent to Windsor Collegiate.
At that point a referendum had occurred that ended denominational schooling in Newfoundland. It would just take some time to implement it. As I recall it took about three years, the same amount of time that I went to Windsor Collegiate. We were the only group of Junior High School students from the old town of Grand Falls to attend Windsor Collegiate for three years. Windsor Collegiate, which was a perfectly good school was closed in 1998 as the new fully integrated school board found itself with more buildings than they needed. This was a bit of a godsend in regards to GFA Elementary. The Building was 60 odd years old at that point and as mentioned parts of it were certainly showing their age. In June of 1998 what was once the modern school in Newfoundland was closed for good. All elementary students from the Grand Falls side of town were to attend the former NDA building which was renamed Millcrest Academy.
I had the pleasure of being in that building a few times LEGALLY after it was closed. I believe Maxine Stanley was still able to use the gym for things into that summer and at some point I helped mom move her stuff from the school she had worked at for some 23 years. Not long after the school board offloaded the building for something like $15,000.00.
What happened next was the real crime. When people lamented for the building to be saved a few years ago-they probably didn’t know how far gone the building was. I lived in the neighborhood so I regularly walked past the school. I saw the first post school owners strip the place out. The gym floor came out of it as did anything of much value. At some point I remember looking in and seeing how the copper pipe had been stripped from inside the walls. After stripping the school of everything of any value the school was sold to an eccentric American academic. This guy actually lived in the school for a while. Strangely enough he lived in the part of the school that had been condemned some ten years before. It is said he wanted to preserve the building and its history. He eventually skipped town while still owning the building. The building continued to deteriorate and through the jigs and the reals and a tax auction the town acquired the old school, which had become a dangerous eyesore.[v] In fact it had been subjected to two fires, the biggest in 2008 took out the rear addition.before that, for a number of years the middle hall that linked the front to the real addition looked like something out of 1945 Berlin. The town bought the property so they could tear it down.
It is ironic that the parts of the building that were falling down were the new additions. They, unlike the original 1935 structure were made largely of wood. The original block was the hardest to tear town. The whole works of it was leveled in January of 2012. The land was sold and apartments put up on the site.
[i] The lifespan of the “Brick Building was about 5 or six years, 1929/30-1935/36 after which it became the elementary school and later the primary school.
[ii] You could not get a University degree in Newfoundland until the 1950’s because Memorial College was not yet a university, you could do work towards degrees at other institutions and I think you may have been able to get an associate degree but not a full fledge bachelor’s degree.
[iii] I am not sure about Mr. Gillett, who did have family in Grand Falls but I am inclined to believe that Vernon Hiscock was the first person born in Grand Falls to become principal.
[iv] Which had been done a number of times in the past including the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.