As I returned my books to the Library this week, I took a few moments to watch the squirrels at work in the parking lot of the building that the Library shares with the Town of Prescott…formerly Prescott High School.
At least two dozen squirrels were rooting around the fallen leaves and feasting on the fallen, pungent fruit of numerous Black Walnut trees. Squirrels, I’m told, can chew through the green husk and extract the nut in as little as 15 seconds!
Each Fall, generations of students attending Prescott’s first high school must have accidentally stepped on Black Walnuts, stained their footwear, and tracked black dye into the school. By the early 1900s, however, the tradition of storing sacks of nuts had probably ended, families hadn’t dyed wool or made Black Walnut ink at home for at least 100 years, and the easier-to-crack Persian or English walnuts could be purchased from most dry goods merchants.
I like thinking about school days gone by, and how quickly education flourished in Prescott during the 19th century. By 1866, a Common School and a Grammar School existed on Dibble Street, and the Roman Catholic Separate School could be found on James Street.
Thanks to the 1861 Canada Census, we have an interesting record for the Prescott Grammar School. Twenty-five pupils were counted that year between the ages of 12 and 21, and among the 5 women listed were Orena Glasgow, 17 (Samuel Glasgow, Storekeeper), Charlotte Jones, 16 (Alpheus Jones, Postmaster), and Margaret Willard, 14 (Charles Willard, Storekeeper). Increasingly in the Canadas, young women and their families sought access to secondary education.
Official sanction was received with the passing of The Ontario School Act of 1871. High schools and collegiates offering English and Commercial programs were created with separate classrooms – in many cases – for male and female students. The Act also took steps toward establishing compulsory schooling in Ontario. Children were to attend school at least four months a year, between the ages of 7 and 12.
In Morrises’ History of Prescott, 1810-1967, John Morris tells us that Prescott Academy was an eight room brick school with one room serving as the Secondary School, and Prescott Public School was considered one of the best, being chosen by the government as a Provincial Model School for teacher training. The building we use today, as our Library and Town Hall, was built in 1931. The original high school on that site dates back to 1894 when it housed 80 students, including some country pupils who paid a fee of 25 cents each.
Black Walnut trees are native to Ontario, but few people here harvest the nuts. In some US states, like Missouri, Black Walnut harvesting is a $5 billion annual business. For many, of course, the tree is coveted for its hardwood.
According to Black Walnut experts, trees seem to bear more fruit every other year. Those that are good for picking are the ones whose leaves fall early, a sign that the tree has put all its energy into the nut.
Here are a few important foraging tips: wear gloves, dump the green-husked nuts on a floor mat, use steel-toed boots to stomp and separate the husks from the nut, wash the walnuts and discard the ones that float, spread the nuts over a screen or drying rack, turn them regularly for 5-8 weeks until they’re ready for cracking, and don’t water the garden with the leftover water from washing the nuts.
Black Walnut trees secrete juglone, which is toxic to other plants. It’s what helps the tree stake its claim “in the forest” and with a little help from the squirrels, Black Walnut trees will be around for years!
Prescott High School Photos: https://www.facebook.com/VintageSt.LawrenceSeawayregion/