Central Elementary School
The shockingly true history of Brantford’s first public school.
Tim Ford, January 27, 2023 // Brantford, OntarioHistorical photo of the original Central School in Brantford, Ontario. Stock photo.
By 1840, our city limits were beginning to swell. More people every year were choosing to strike an X over Brantford on the map and migrate to our town. By 1847, our population had tripled and many of those new Brantfordians were starting families. Homes and estates were built at a blistering speed in the area surrounding the central core (what is known today as Market Square). A centrally located educational institute was a priority for the new town as the only schools available were one-room grammar schools on the outskirts of town.
A plot of land was chosen at the edge of Greenwood Cemetery on George Street, just east of Market Street, and building began on Brantford’s first public school. Even though they had no inherent need to encroach on the graveyard’s boarder, they scooched the blueprints northwards a touch and placed the new plans over the southern tip of the graveyard.
Before moving forward, the Board of Health demanded the removal of several “nuisances.” The so- called nuisances they were referring to were in fact buried bodies, that would need to be moved and re-buried before the school board would allow plans to proceed. When the city assured that all exhumation had been implemented, the cornerstone was laid, and Central School opened for classes in 1850.
As education took on more precedence in 19th century society, expansions were built in 1852 and 1871, making Central School the grandest building in the downtown core. However, by 1890, years of underfunding caused the school to fall into ruin and repairs were in desperate need. In a curious move, the school board rejected any recommendations of improvements or refurbishments, instead ignoring the problem until the school was nearly condemned.
Historical photo of Central School 2.0. Stock photo.
On February 6th, 1890, a small fire began in a closet under the main stairway of Central School, engulfing the timbers of the front foyer immediately. By the time the volunteer fire department showed up to extinguish the flames, the building was too decimated to be saved and was demolished soon after. Who or whatever started the mysterious fire was strangely never determined. The school board immediately began to build a new Central school over the ruins of the original.
This new building would be bigger and more modern than anything Brantford had ever seen and was even said to be the biggest in the province. For a century, Central Elementary School 2.0 stood on top of its predecessor and became a prominent institute for the community. Beyond teaching the kiddos, it was the first organization to offer night school in town, and hosted drama classes, cooking tutorials, and public meetings.
By 1980 it looked like a building that was built a hundred years prior and it was suffering the same fate as the original. Constant neglect caused it to be on the brink of being condemned, and little was being done about it. Talk of demolishing the school again and erecting version 3.0 began in early 1981 but the idea was quickly shut down by the local branch of the Architectural Conservatory of Ontario, who was championing it to be a heritage building.
In the early hours of March in 1982, a peculiar fire not unlike the one that occurred a hundred years earlier, began in a closet of the old school. It engulfed a large portion of the facility within minutes leaving significant damage. Despite the devastation, the ACO kept their insistence to designate the building a heritage site and maintained it would be against regulation to demolish the building. Their case was so justifiable that they were given an injunction to halt all demolition on that site and even held a 24-hour vigil to ensure it was implemented.
Controversially, city council ultimately voted 6 to 4 not to designate it a historical site, giving the school board opportunity to commence with tearing it down. Mere months after the fire, they began to demolish and remove the rubble of Central School 2.0. Construction would stutter once again when a macabre discovery was made in the soil where the school once stood.
The ruins of the second variation of Brantford's Central School. Stock photo.
During initial excavations, a worker picked up what he though was a smooth, round, hollow rock. After brushing the dirt out of what seemed like holes in the stone, he flinched in terror as soon as he realized what it was and dropped it to the ground. It rolled to the feet of the man working beside him and stopped at his boot. It was a skull. They dropped to their knees and began to brush soil away with their gloves. Bones from an arm emerged. Then a spine, a torso, and legs. They ran and told their boss, who contacted the proper authorities. When they arrived, they confirmed the approximate age of the bones and that it was the body of a man who had been buried there in the early 1800’s.
They began to excavate around the bones and shockingly discovered another skull. Then another. Soon femur bones, jaws, ribs, and teeth began to be pulled out of the schoolyard at an alarming rate. At the end of a very exhaustive excavation, 28 bodies (!!!) were found under the structure of Central School and in its playgrounds.
After an inquisition, it was determined that the bodies were from some of the first early settlers buried in Greenwood Cemetery. Apparently, the city lied to the Board of Health about removing and reburying the graves all those years ago when they first built Central Elementary in 1850. In a promise over a hundred years ghastly overdue, the city gathered and reburied the 28 bodies they found on the grounds and then building promptly commenced on the new school.
Central Elementary 3.0 was unveiled during a cold, damp ceremony in October of 1983. The audience feigned applause while softly shrugging their shoulders at the structure. The “stack bricks into a cube” architecture compared little to the grand masonry of its predecessors. The looming awkwardness of cutting the ceremonial ribbon in the exact spot where 28 bodies were found didn’t help with the general ambience of the occasion either.
Brantford's Central Public School as seen today. Stock photo.
With little being said about the now two (2) eerie and unsolved fires in the previous Central School buildings, Central 3.0 would begin to distance itself from its gruesome past and focus on educating once more. It still sits unassumingly at the corner of George and Sheridan Street. Every school day, kiddos gather there to learn and play, as they did 173 years ago. But the legacy of Brantford’s first public school will always be obscured by the skeletons in its closet. A closet that mysteriously seems to keep catching on fire.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Ford is freelance hobbyist who lives in his twelfth home in Brantford, Ontario…so…yeah, he knows a thing or two about aluminum siding.