Hannah Thibedeau takes in her surroundings and is flooded with memories. It’s then that the realization sets in about the very spot she is standing in.
“I’m standing right where we used to go into the school,” she says. “I feel like I’m five again.”
The former Yarmouth resident – who now lives and works in Ottawa as a journalist with CBC – was visiting the site where Milton Elementary School once stood and where the Doug Melanson Memorial Park is now taking shape.
The doors she once walked through during her years of attending the elementary school are still a vivid memory – and what great memories they open, particularly of Melanson, whom this park is honouring.
“With Mr. Melanson, you would come in and he was always jolly. I can envision him in my head. I was just a little kid, but you always felt safe in this school and he was a big part of that.”
Melanson worked for two decades as custodian at the former Milton school from 1969 to 1989. But his contribution went beyond that, Thibedeau says.
“With Mr. Melanson, you would come in and he was always jolly. I can envision him in my head. I was just a little kid, but you always felt safe in this school and he was a big part of that,” she says.
“He was so pleasant and always so happy, it made the school a happy place to come to, having someone like him here looking over you,” says Thibedeau.
“It doesn’t matter that I’ve lived in Ottawa for so many years. This is my home and it makes me feel really good just being here on the space where I was in elementary school. I have so many good memories.”
Melanson passed away in 2009. Thibedeau is pleased to see a park being created on a large section of the property in his memory, where her former elementary school once stood.
A BIG EFFORT
A Doug Melanson Park Committee and the Milton Improvement Society have been working diligently for years to see this park become reality. They’ve also been supported by the Town of Yarmouth, which committed up to $50,000 towards the project.
A lot of work took place last year at the site that borders Brunswick, Huntington and Elm streets. Accessible walking paths have taken shape, pads were installed, soil was prepared, trees have been planted, benches in memory and in honour of former Milton school students, or of the school itself – contributed by local families – have been installed. Grassy mounds for children to play on have been added.
“We just feel it’s a big part of the community, keeping the green space,” says park committee member David Sollows. “You want a place where kids can come and laugh because that’s what it was all about. The playground, it was always a happy place. You can even see the kids sometimes going down the hills. And I’m seeing numbers of people, when it’s warm out, sitting on the benches, maybe reading a book, or putting a call out to somebody.”
Sollows, who was a principal at Milton Elementary School for five years – including during the time that Thibedeau attended as a student – says work on the park will continue this year.
The goal of the committee during the first year of work was to raise $30,000 for components of the park, which it met. Sollows says they’re probably looking at needing to raise another $30,000 to complete the work. Some of this includes the installation of ground cover, shrubbery, the planting of more trees and other landscaping. There are play components for children to be installed. The committee is looking at adding an accessible picnic table, games tables (such as chess and checkers), interpretive signage, bird houses, etc.
Donations for the park continue to be accepted through the town’s Community Assets Donation Program. People can also visit the www.dougmelansonpark.ca website for more information about the park and ways to support it. All donations are tax deductible.
BACK IN THE DAY
Sollows notes the Milton school did not have a lot of fancy amenities, but says the school still thrived.
“The staff could have said ‘we don’t have the facilities so there’s stuff we’re not going to do,’ but instead it was ‘We’re going to find ways to do it in spite of what we don’t have,’” he says. “And so they created all of these neat opportunities for the kids.”
Thibedeau agrees as she listens to what ‘Mr. Sollows’ says.
“You still call him Mr. Sollows?” she’s asked.
“She does and I don’t know why she can’t use my name, I tell her it’s David,” Sollows laughs.
But Thibedeau says she can’t bring herself to call her former teachers by their first name. Besides, when you’re a student in elementary school, isn’t everyone’s first name Mr. or Mrs.?
In her defence, Sollows admits when he sees former students who are now adults – including Thibedeau – he still thinks of them as kids.
“I have thousands of kids out there somewhere,” he says, “and it’s a really good feeling.”
ABOUT THE MILTON SCHOOLS
The site on which the new Doug Melanson Park is being constructed can trace its community history back to 1864, when the first school was constructed. But in December 1864, before its completion, the building burned to the ground. Arson was suspected.
In 1864 the House of Assembly passed a law allowing residents to be taxed for school purposes. In 1865 a replacement building of four rooms was constructed. Another wing was added later and the building became two-and-one-half storeys, with a large hall at the top.
By 1959 the original school was in very bad repair and a new Milton Elementary School was constructed in front of the old building. Students moved into it in November 1959. The new school was a one-storey, flat-roofed, wooden building with eight classrooms and was painted yellow with blue trim. There were lots windows and movable desks. Everyone thought it was wonderful.
Time moved on and the new became old. The school was eventually closed and Milton students joined the children from the former Hebron Consolidated School at Meadowfields Community School, which opened in 2000.
The Milton school building was used for a number of other purposes for several more years before eventually being demolished.
Part of the property has housing on it now.
The other half is being used for the park.
READ ALSO: PREVIOUS STORIES ABOUT THE DOUG MELANSON MEMORIAL PARK: