A Visit with Irma Coulson
Don’t learn to milk a cow and you’ll never have to do it. That was the advice Howard Coulson gave Irma Rochefort when they were married in 1946. She may never have milked a cow but her experiences have been diverse and extensive. Born in Bronte, Ont. she started kindergarten in Detroit where her family lived for a short time. Left on her own, Irma’s mother brought her two daughters back to Bronte to live in a household full of women. Perhaps that is where Irma absorbed the lesson that she could do anything in life she set her mind to and where also she acquired the tenacity to do it. Growing up with her mother, sister, grandmother, aunt and for a time her great grandmother who became ill and needed care, Irma was surrounded by self sufficient and strong females. It was bound to have an effect.
Not only did she live with women but there were many female visitors who spent the summer with them or camped at the beach and visited the house regularly. These are friendships that have lasted through the years. During that time Irma’s mother had tuberculosis and spent 15 months in the sanatorium, such strong friendships and the support of family must have held the young daughters through a trying time. Irma’s sister still lives in Brampton and when they reminisce together they each may recall different events or different interpretations of the same event from those memorable days!
The girls attended Centriller School in Bronte and Oakville High School. At the 75th reunion of the high school in 1983 Irma met many of her old classmates. After high school she attended Hamilton Normal School taking the Greyhound bus to the city every day, occasionally staying over with friends or an aunt in Westdale. Of course when she was teaching she boarded out with a willing family. In 1939 Irma graduated from Normal School and got her first job. There was a war going on and many classmates went into the service; some never had a chance to test their teaching skills.
Limestone School on Derry Road, the location of Irma’s first teaching position, is now the home of a former student from Frontenac School. Her starting salary in 1939 was $850 a year and she paid $25 a month for room and board staying at three different homes in the area, two years with George and Marion Coulson, two year at the Burness Coulson home. There were eight students to start the year and as the year went on several families moved in giving a grand total near 25, grades one to eight. There was no playground supervision, the kids played outside on their own and invented their own games. The teacher was judged by the Christmas Concert which had to include something sacred, a drill and something periodic. With eight students to take all the parts it became quite a challenge.
The inspector was a dreaded visitor in most schools. Irma, however, was not one to knuckle under to anyone exercising their authority in an inappropriate way. When criticized, unduly she thought, she handed in her resignation. The local trustees rejected the resignation saying, don’t pay any attention to him, we don’t. Oh, for a return to community power!
Because transportation was not as available as it is now most of one’s social life revolved around the community, especially the church. Groups assembled to put on plays and from small musical ensembles. The latter would play for the local dances held regularly in different surrounding communities. Those lucky enough to have a car would accommodate friends and they all made the rounds of dances at Milton, Palermo and Hornby. Young Peoples’ groups were very active in the churches and Irma belonged to one at Lowville United Church and one at the Anglican church. Her community interest and involvement was well on its way and continues to this day.
The roads and lack of transportation made visiting any distance an arduous process. Guelph Line was a single lane gravel road, with much less traffic than today! In order to visit her family in Bronte Irma had to hitch a ride with someone going to Burlington or Hamilton and from there catch the bus to Bronte. Coming back to Burlington on the bus often meant a walk up to the Clans Restaurant or farther before she could get a ride the rest of the way to Lowville. One night she was stopped by a police officer who upon hearing her reason for being out walking alone at night promptly gave her a ride.
While teaching at Limestone School Irma met Howard Coulson, her future husband. After they married they moved into Irma’s present home on Guelph Line. This house was built in 1872 by Howard’s great grandfather, Thomas Colling. For several years they shared the home with Howard’s parents, Ella and Edwin Coulson, brother Arn and friend Roland Musick. This living arrangement meant that Howard’s mother was able to help out with meals for threshers and chores unfamiliar to a new bride with no farming background.
When her first son, Lee, was about two years old, the trustees for Lowville School couldn’t find a teacher and so Irma took over at a salary of $1850. With a farm, a small child and a large house to look after she needed help. There was no organizing child care so neighbours came to the rescue as they usually did in small farming communities. Marian Gates cared for Lee and Faye Coverdale helped out with house cleaning. In later years Irma’s mother came to live at the farm and took over some of the housework and child care. Irma taught at Lowville for a year, then Jerry White was hired.
Fairview School was built in the 1950s amid much controversy with families disagreeing about its merits. However it made facilities previously available only to the town schools now part of the county child’s life. Irma was secretary of Nelson Education Association, a committee which worked hard politically to ensure a better education for country children.
Irma taught at Fairview for several years, taking some time off when her second son Tim was young. She went on to Kilbride with Florence Meares as principal, then on to Frontenac when it opened. She became the first woman administrative assistant in Halton Board of Education and went on to become vice principle of J.M. Denyes and then Frontenac. She returned to Kilbride as principle and retired in 1983. At a time when only five women attended the principals’ conferences, a special bond developed among those five and they still meet occasionally for lunch.
Perhaps the first local Federation of Women Teachers stated with Irma, Florence Meares and Herma Bailey meeting together to discuss conditions and problems as women teachers and to support each other in their profession. Later Irma worked in the Federation at the local as well as the provincial level, serving as a Director of the Federation of Women Teachers of Ontario (FWTAO) from 1970-1975 and as a representative on the Board of Governors for the Ontario Federation of Teachers part of that time. She is an Honorary member of FWTAO.
During a career full of teaching achievements she also obtained her B.A. degree in 1969 and went on to graduate from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) with an M.Ed. degree.
After the death of Irma’s husband, Florence Meares arranged a trip to Russia for the two of them in the spring break. Irma felt she needed sunshine and so they went to Jamaica instead. From then on she travelled regularly in school breaks and more extensively in retirement, once going around the world.
Retirement meant not only travel but continued service to her community with years of voluntary work at Maplehurst where she became involved with an Anger Management course and was recruited to run a similar course at Recovery House. She is secretary of her Church Council and an active member of Lowville Area Ratepayers Association. For recreation Irma takes ballroom dancing lessons, is part of a scrabble and euchre group and last summer took up canoeing, an activity she thoroughly enjoys and is eagerly awaiting this year’s summer season on the water.
So when would Irma have found time to milk the cows?
Contributing Author: Jean Burbidge
Source: Kilbride Chronicles, Issue 12, page 16
Transcribed by: Lyndsey Innes