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7
Canada’s School on Wheels
1929 – 1967
“We will have to revise our idea of education. Two boys, who could
not write the word ‘cat’ when they came, wrote social letters after only
seventeen days of schooling.”
--Fred Sloman, Teacher, CN School Car #1
January, 1928
Mama! Petunia’s in my bed!”
Maggie shivered and hugged the ornery pet skunk
close to her face. The snuggly black and white
creature’s warm softness felt good on her cold nose.
“You kicked your covers off in the night again, didn’t you?” Mama
chuckled as she moved about the room, folding blankets and straightening pillows.

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“It’s a good thing you made me these warm wool socks for
Christmas.”
Maggie put toasty feet on the cold linoleum floor. She made her
bed with one hand, while holding on to Petunia with the other.
“Put the skunk out, Maggie--that clever little varmint. I don’t
know how she learned to open the kitchen door.”
Maggie heard Mama put wood into the ugly wood stove on the
other side of a swinging door that separated the tiny kitchen from the
living room.
Her papa, Mr. Sloman, moved about the train car, checking the
heating pipes beside the bunks lining the walls.
“I’ve seen how the little skunk does it. She flops over onto her
back and kicks the door until it swings open wide enough for her to flip
over and run through.”
Mama came through the door and looked at Papa, with both hands
on her hips.
“Well, I’ll be snickered! Maggie, wake your sisters. The sun will
be up and before you know it, the students will have arrived.”
“Where are we now? Did we move?”
Maggie looked out the living room window in the train car where
she slept with her parents, brother, and three sisters. The frost on the
window blocked her view.
Papa moved from the back of the living room at the end of the rail
car to the storage area, where the coal was kept, and pulled out a shovel.

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“Yes, the locomotive hooked up our car late last night, and we’re at
the Nandair siding now.”
“It’s a good thing I put the plants in the bathtub,” Mama checked
her hair in the mirror over the couch and tucked in a few strays. Her
braided, golden tresses wound around her head like a halo and sat atop a
set of blue eyes that twinkled with energy and good humor.
Mama folded Papa’s bed and made it into a small couch.
“Hurry, girls. You don’t want Jeremiah Putin catching you in your
pajamas.”
Billy, Maggie’s little brother, barreled past Maggie’s bunk and into
his mother’s skirt.
“Mama, where’s Rudy?”
“He’s where he’s supposed to be, in the box in the classroom. That
little fox must be starved by now. You need to hurry and feed him and the
other animals.”
“Caw!” Jack, hearing his name, cried and flapped his wings. The
crow was nearly as smart as the skunk.
“And don’t forget to feed Sandy and Cricket.” Papa bundled up in a
jacket, boots and a hat to shovel the frozen walkway beside the train car steps.
“But it’s Margaret’s turn to feed the dogs!” Billy pouted and stuck
out his bottom lip.
Mama chuckled, “No, remember, you traded Margaret for carrying
in wood last night. She said she’d do it if you fed the animals this
morning.”

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“Oh, yeah.” Billy ran to care for the family pets.
“Tuck in your shirt, Billy. Girls, hurry up! You still need to
do your chores. Elizabeth, raise the Union Jack; Joan, help Fredda get
dressed; Maggie, help me with breakfast.”
Mama was a skilled, efficient leader and knew exactly what needed
to be done and how to assign the jobs.
The Sloman sisters dressed quickly in the cold bedroom, now
transformed into a living room by their mother’s swift hands. They
combed their dark brown hair and dressed in wool, plaid skirts and long,
warm socks.
When all the chores were done, everyone gathered at the tiny table
where Mama served a hot breakfast of eggs, potatoes, and biscuits she’d
made in the enormous oven of the ugly railcar stove. The black range
wasn’t much to look at, but Mama loved the giant, old stove because “it
made the best bread.” She poured Mr. Sloman a cup of strong, black
coffee, and the children feasted on extra biscuits slathered with creamy
butter and Mama’s homemade jam, along with a thick slab of back bacon.
After breakfast Elizabeth bundled up to venture out into the frigid
cold and hoist the flag at the end of the railroad car. The raised flag
signaled to the families of the Canadian wilderness that the little car was
open for school.
As Maggie helped Mama clear the dishes, she heard boisterous
barking.
“Donna Jean’s here!” Maggie shouted when she looked out the

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window and saw Donna Jean riding on a sled behind six large, fluffy dogs.
Not far behind was Little Arrow in snow shoes, climbing across a snow
bank. Beyond the bank came a mother with more children than Maggie
could count.
“Papa! I think we have visitors again.”
Papa gulped his coffee, pulled on his coat and boots, and ran to
greet the mother and her large passel of children.
Mama looked out the window and clucked her tongue, “There’s no
telling how far they’ve walked to get here. I better put on more coffee and
warm up some biscuits. Who knows if they have had anything to eat.”
Mama never allowed anyone to go hungry and played the
unofficial roles of mentor and caretaker to the isolated, lonely women of
the backwoods. By this time in her husband’s teaching career, she had
baked a million cookies, delivered dozens of babies, and taught hundreds
of women to read, sew and care for children. She busied herself in the
primitive kitchen and stoked her woodstove to heat the oven, while
Maggie helped her little sisters finish dressing themselves and organizing
their homework.
Students arrived at the back of the schoolroom section of the little
train car, politely removed their boots and scuttled into the narrow room
in stocking feet. The new woman’s children had never seen a school or
a desk before. They sat backwards on top of the desks with their feet
on the attached chair. Billy showed one of the boys the proper way to
sit in the desk, and they all followed his example. They were quiet and

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polite, whispering to one another in Italian as none of them spoke English.
Elizabeth counted heads: twenty-two.
Mr. Sloman motioned to Maggie.
“Take Mrs. Lombardi and the babies to see Mama, while I get the
children settled and enrolled in school.”
Maggie took two toddlers by the hands and showed the pale,
exhausted woman holding a tiny baby, to Mama’s kitchen. The
bedraggled mother tripped over two runny-nosed preschoolers hanging
onto her tattered coat.
Mama held up the coffee kettle and offered, “Coffee?”
The dark-eyed woman nodded quickly and Maggie pointed to
a chair. The weary mother focused with hungry eyes on Mama as she
poured a steaming cup of coffee. Maggie motioned to the sleeping baby
and the woman handed her to Maggie.
“School? My kids?” the woman asked in halting English. Maggie
recognized the Italian accent right away. Another student attending school
in the train car was also from Italy.
“Yes.” Mama offered the shivering mother a hot biscuit and honey.
“No railroadman husband--lumberman.” The woman frowned
and shook her head. Her dark eyebrows slanted together above a sturdy,
upturned nose.
“Oh, this school isn’t only for railroad children. It’s for all children
of Canada,” reassured Mama as she motioned her arms in a big circle, as if
she was embracing all the children of the great commonwealth.

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“Si? All?”
Mama nodded, “Yes, all–everybody.”
Mama was well-educated and understood Italian, but she always
used English to help the new families assimilate. Maggie admired her
mother’s warm hospitality. She looked lovely, framed in the sunbeam of
light streaming in from the narrow cabin window, where they sat at the
tiny kitchen table.
The woman’s face lit up with a crooked smile that revealed two
missing teeth behind a set of chapped, curved lips. A tear slid down her
cheek.
Mama patted her hand, “You can stay today and watch. If you
want, you can come back on Thursday for the mother’s meeting, and I
can help you learn to read English, too.” Mama spoke as if the woman
understood, but pulled a notebook out of a drawer and drew pictures of a
calendar, illustrating what she was trying to explain.
The baby in Maggie’s arms seemed terribly still. Maggie felt her
tiny forehead. She was burning up!
“Mama, this baby is sick!”
a
Elizabeth helped her father settle his pupils into their seats.
Fortunately, some of the new family’s children were small, and they were
able to sit two to a seat. The little classroom only held twelve desks: six
along each wall of the railroad car. Mr. Sloman put a small chair beside

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each desk to accommodate as many students as he could.
Joan turned to her father and held her nose. He smiled back at her.
The smell of garlic, wet boots and goose grease rubbed on the children’s
chests to protect against illness, grew stronger as little bodies warmed up.
There was no running water for baths in the Canadian outback, and some
children never changed their clothes or their underwear the entire winter,
which only added to the startling aroma.
Finally, every child was enrolled and had a pencil and some paper.
Elizabeth watched out the window as the dog team that brought Donna
Jean to school ran towards her father’s hunting cabin, where she lived with
her mother. Without being prompted, they would return for her on their
own at four o’clock.
“Okay, children, write whatever you wish,” encouraged Fred
Sloman, who had to learn what each child knew. “You may draw a
picture, if you like.”
Without prompting, English-speaking children helped the new
students understand what the teacher meant. Before long, Mr. Sloman
knew with a glance at what learning level each student belonged. For the
first part of the day, most of his students would start with the alphabet,
several would gather around a science text, and a smaller group would
continue their study of geography. Only four of his students’ primary
language, aside from his own children’s, was English.
Elizabeth’s group studied the geography of the Mediterranean, and
Mr. Sloman saw one of the older Lombardi twins’ eyes light up at the sight

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of the little boot-shape on the map tacked to the wall.
“Italia! La mia casa!” The boy waved at Mr. Sloman and pointed
his pencil in the air towards the map.
Si. Italy was your home, but now your home is Canada.” Fred
Sloman picked up the globe and showed the fifteen-year-old boy where he
lived in Canada, then slid his finger towards Italy.
“I am Mr. Sloman. What is your nome—name?”
“Il mio nome è Antonio.”
“Pleased to meet you, Antonio.” Mr. Sloman pointed to Elizabeth.
“Her name is Elizabeth.”
“Name,” sounded Antonio as he drew out the sound of the ‘a.’
“Name, Antonio.”
“Name?” Elizabeth pointed to each of his siblings.
“Maria, Zita, Mimi, Belinda, Dino, Bianca, Viviana, Guido,
Vittoria, Carla, Sienna, Dante, Pino, Orlando, Enrico, Giacamo, Luigi,
Santo, Sergio, Vincentio, e bambino e Gina.” rattled Antonio so quickly,
Elizabeth couldn’t catch them all. But Mr. Sloman’s keen ears caught
each one, and he wrote them on his class diagram. He quickly went to
each child, called them by name, and introduced himself.
The two family dogs made themselves known, tails wagging as
they sniffed the goose lard rubbed on each child’s chest. The children read
or talked to the dogs, and showed them the pictures in books. Elizabeth
finished her geography lesson, and Joan helped her father teach the little
ones the alphabet, using the name of an animal for each letter.

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Out of nowhere five-year-old Carla wailed soulfully in Italian.
Some of her siblings giggled uncomfortably while the older sister, Bianca,
comforted her little sister.
“What’s wrong?” begged Fredda, filled with concern. .
Mr. Sloman was familiar with several languages, but the language
of a hungry child was not that difficult to understand.
“She’s starving. Go tell Mama we need biscuits.”
Before Elizabeth could open the kitchen door, Maggie entered the
little classroom carrying a tray of biscuits and small glasses of fresh milk.
The children ate them so ravenously, the Sloman girls were afraid they
would choke.
“No one can learn on an empty stomach. After they eat, we’ll go
outside for a spell.” Papa took a swig of coffee and reached for his hat and
coat.
“But Papa, it’s 42-degrees-below outside,” cried Maggie as she
pointed to the thermometer at the window.
“It’s okay. Tell your Mama we’ll take the little ones, too, if she
wishes.”
Maggie shook her head, “I don’t think that’d be a good idea. The
baby is awfully sick. Mama will probably want the other little ones to stay
indoors.”
“What’s wrong with the baby?”
“Mama thinks it’s the croup. She’s fixing a poultice and showing
Mrs. Lombardi how to make it herself. I’ve been keeping the baby cool

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with a washcloth. She has a terrible fever, Papa. I’m awfully worried.”
Mr. Sloman checked the baby and headed outdoors to be with the
other children.
“I believe in plenty airing out time. It makes for the best
learning.”
After a quick recess, the children returned inside and Mama
met them with steaming cups of hot cocoa and gingersnaps. While the
children snacked, Mr. Sloman read aloud from Alice in Wonderland. He
acted out the story with such expression that the students could easily
comprehend the story, even with a limited understanding of English.
After more studies it was time for lunch, but Mrs. Lombardi hadn’t
brought any food. Mama quickly made butter and egg sandwiches, and
every child had another biscuit with honey. With every tummy full, every
mind was primed for learning. When it was finally time to go home, no
one wanted to leave.
The baby’s temperature had significantly reduced, and Mama
helped Mrs. Lombardi bundle up her brood and walk them home. She
packed a basket of food and home-supplies to take with her.
“I’m going to go see what else she needs. Later, I’ll send a
message with the passing train and get more supplies here before we move
on. Joan, you and Maggie get dinner ready and don’t wait for me. Go
ahead and eat when it’s ready.”
Mama walked five miles in the bitter cold to the shanty where
Mrs. Lombardi lived with her husband and their twenty-two children. It

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seemed remarkably smaller than the school train. Along the inside walls
of the rickety structure and upon a rough-hewn floor lay piles of blankets
used for beds. There was not a stove, only a fireplace and hearth for
cooking food in a large pot. The only food in the house was a can of beans
sitting on the homemade table. The linens – what there were of them –
were clean. No closets or armoires could be seen. Mama assumed that the
only clothes the family owned were those they wore.
“How does she live?” Mama talked to herself as she trudged
the five miles back to the railroad car in the deep snow and bitter cold.
She never felt afraid. Her body was strong from years in the Canadian
wilderness, washing clothes by hand and walking for miles to visit her
husband’s students and their families. And tonight, as she walked in the
light of a quarter-full moon, she had a companion. A lonely dog nuzzled
next to her, searching for her hand.
“Hello there, old boy, what are you doing out here by yourself in
the cold?” Mama patted the canine on the head and continued to trudge
through the snow toward the coal lights, beaming from the welcoming
windows of the train car. She hoped Maggie and Joan remembered to
make supper.
When she finally reached home, Mr. Sloman greeted her with a
sweater warmed by the blazing stove in the kitchen.
“Brrr, it’s a cold one–thank-you.” She removed her coat and
wrapped the warm sweater around her shoulders, hugging herself. “That
poor dog outside walked me home and kept a close eye on me all the way.

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He has to be hungry and freezing. Let’s get him something to eat.”
Mr. Sloman peeked out the window and peered down at the dog
pacing back and forth beside the train car.
“Mama, that’s not a dog.”
Mama looked down at the poor beast running beneath the window.
“What do you mean? He’s right there.”
“Mama, that’s no dog; that’s a wolf.”
“Well, if I had known he was a wolf I wouldn’t have patted him on
the head!”
a
The next day all the children returned. With the children, Mrs.
Lombardi sent lunches made from the supply of staples Mama had taken
to her shanty the night before. This time, only eighteen of the children
came.
Antonio smiled at Mr. Sloman.
“Baby-okay.”
“That’s good news, very good news!” Mr. Sloman returned the
boy’s smile and motioned for him to take a seat.
Danny rushed in from the back of the school car.
“Help! Molly’s stuck in a snow bank and can’t get out!”
Mr. Sloman grabbed his coat and ran to the snow bank where little
Molly lay with her skis sticking straight up out of the snow. With the help
of two of the boys, Mr. Sloman pulled Molly out of the bank. Her bright

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red face shimmered with frozen tears.
“You’re okay, Molly. We’ve got you.” Mr. Sloman brushed the
snow off the little girl’s rabbit-fur coat.
“I know I’m okay. I’m not hurt. I’m mad!” Molly hiccupped with
willful sobs.
“Why are you angry?” Mr. Sloman bent down to Molly’s level.
“Because I wanted to be the first one to school today.”
As always, the school day brimmed with individual studies for
each child. Everyone recited multiplication tables and labelled the towns
on a map of Ontario. They painted a watercolour of their favourite forest
animal and made a spelling list from words they could use when writing
a letter. Because the school car only came to each site one week each
month, Mr. Sloman assigned each child a poem to memorize and recite
upon his return.
When it was time to go home, the children did not want to leave.
They were fascinated with practising their new skills. Most of them
had learned to write their names, and the older boys could sound out a
few words in English and solve two-digit sums. Mr. Sloman sent home
enough homework to keep each child busy for more than an hour each
night. He also sent with them paper, pencils and books.
“I leave on Friday. That means we only have four days of school
here before we break for one month. On Thursday I will leave you with
homework to do each day while I’m gone. Understood?”
Mr. Sloman’s passion was reaching out to the isolated children of

256
Canada and making the most of his time with them.
The children were eager to learn and at the end of the day when it
was time to say good-bye, a few cried.
“Don’t worry. We’ll be here tomorrow,” Billy reassured them and
the Sloman girls hugged them all good-bye.
It took a lot of work getting supper ready each evening and helping
their own children with their homework each night, but Papa and Mama
were not afraid of hard work. They laboured together like a well-oiled set
of gears: Mama kept the stove warm and Mr. Sloman kept the water pipes
from freezing; Mama cooked and Papa helped with dishes.
Finally, after the younger children were asleep, Maggie and her
parents enjoyed a hot cup of coffee in the schoolroom before going to bed.
“Another cup, Papa?” Maggie picked up her father’s empty cup.
“Yes, Maggie, thank-you.”
“Mama?”
“If you please. Just bring the pot out here.”
Mama smiled but her eyes looked tired.
Maggie went into the kitchen to get the coffee pot, but as she
reached for the pot she heard something move inside the stove. She
opened the oven door and screamed, “Papa! There’s a man in the oven!”
a
“He’s probably cold.”
Papa and Mama pulled the man out of the oven and sat him at their

257
kitchen table. He had broken into the train car and crawled inside the oven
to get warm. Mama heated up a pan of soup, and Maggie made another
pot of coffee. The man’s hands shook so badly that Mama had to hold the
cup to his mouth. He drank cup after cup of coffee and soup.
“It’s 60-degrees-below out there tonight.” Papa pointed to the
thermometer by the window.
The man didn’t speak English, but words weren’t needed.
Someone was cold, hungry, and in need of shelter and food. The school-
car shined the only light around for miles in the wilderness. And though
the Slomans were warned by the Canadian National Railroad to pull their
blinds at night to reduce the risk of break-ins, Mr. Sloman refused.
“Let there be light! Mrs. Pasquale told me she sat up all night to
watch our lights. Ever since then, I don’t have the heart to pull the blinds.
We’re the only light in this bleak wilderness some folks ever see.”
The two gasoline lamps in the school car ceiling sent out much
brighter light than the coal oil lamps along the side of the car.
“More than one lonely woman sits up at night with a sick child and
watches our lights,” Mama agreed with Papa. The lights would stay on
and the blinds would stay up.
Mr. Sloman helped the cold man settle in to sleep on the floor with
some of Mama’s warm quilts. They felt no fear of him and their kindness
was repaid in the morning with a simple thank-you as the man again
ventured out into the snow.
“I wonder how he’ll survive out there.” Mama shook her head.

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But she didn’t have time to worry about the lone man as children arrived
for school. Today would be a long day. She had plenty to do to get ready
for the evening, when Mr. Sloman would teach the men of Nandair how
to write their names and speak English. There were cookies to bake and
warm soup to get started, along with bread for her family.
“Mama, look at Fredda’s dress. There’s soot all over it!” Joan
pushed little Fredda towards Mama.
Fredda pointed to the smudge on her dress.
“Soot! Soot, Mama!”
Mama sighed. She’d grown used to the smell of grease, coal
and steam, but the constant soot from the railroad was still a bone of
contention with her.
“It’ll have to do. Wipe it off as best as you can for now, Joan.
Thank-you.”
“Yes, Mama.” Joan ushered little Fredda to the kitchen sink and
cleaned the dress.
Mama never wasted time complaining and her hands were always
moving. As much as she would like to wash the railroad soot off her
curtains, deep cleaning would have to wait until spring. It was too cold
to wash them now. Her city friends wouldn’t abide by the hardships she
endured, but compared with what the lonely families of the wilderness
lived, she recognized hers as a life of luxury.
The school-car’s small classroom sheltered children from different
countries at different levels of learning. The bigger boys seemed

259
embarrassed that they could not write as well as the younger children, but
Mr. Sloman put them at ease right away. He balanced phonics, writing
and arithmetic with hands-on projects. The wilderness children may not
have been good at academics at first, but they all excelled at using their
hands.
Image: Wikimedia / Public Domain / Photo of inside of school-car taken by Wintershom
“Let’s draw a train today and count the cars,” Mr. Sloman pulled
out a roll of adding-machine tape and laid it out the length of the car. The
children went straight to work drawing their own train.
“Where do you think the trains go?” Mr. Sloman walked behind
the children, watching each one as they worked, picking up on their
strengths, and recognizing their weaknesses.
“Italia!” cried a grinning Dino.

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“Ireland!” answered Molly as she raised her hand.
“Toronto!” guessed Gerald, who had never been there though he
had heard of it.
“One of you is correct. Trains do go to Toronto, but they don’t go
all the way from Canada to Italy or Ireland. Who can tell me why?”
“They run out of coal?” Billy stuck out his tongue in concentration
as he decorated his train car.
“Clever answer. They could indeed run out of coal, but that’s not
why.”
“Trains can’t swim!” yelled Donna Jean, not looking up from her
drawing of a purple freight car.
“Very good, Donna Jean. They can’t! Why does this matter?”
“Because they must cross the big water.” Little Arrow walked to
the map and pointed to the Atlantic Ocean.
“Excellent, Little Arrow! Between Canada and Italy and Ireland,
there is a large body of water called the Atlantic Ocean. So, how do you
think people travel there instead?”
“A big canoe!” Little Arrow held up his finger in revelation.
Donna Jean giggled, “Big ship. I had to go on one when my Papa
brought us here.”
“That’s right! A passenger ship that…”
A steam locomotive pulling a long line of freight cars flew past
the little school-car parked on the side of the tracks, drowning out Mr.
Sloman’s lecture. The windows rattled and the books danced on the

261
shelves. The children ran to the window to watch it fly by. Mr. Sloman
shook his head and put his hands in his pockets. Many teachable moments
were interrupted by the blasting of a freight train on its way to somewhere else.
That evening, railroadmen, lumbermen, and others gathered at the
little school to learn how to write their names and to speak English.
“They hold their pens so tight the blood runs out of their hands,”
Mama said.
While Mr. Sloman taught the men, the women gathered with
Mama in her cramped living-quarters to learn sewing and dressmaking.
She also taught them hygiene, Canadian history and how to speak and
write in English.
The Sloman family spent one week with the children and families
who lived along the Nandair stop, before moving on to the next stop for
their school on wheels.
On Thursday nights, Mr. Sloman turned down the gas lights and
checked the pipes before going to bed.
“The hard part, Mama, is wondering if I’ll ever get to see those
children again.”
a
The Slomans never knew when the locomotive would hook up to
their little school-car and take them to the next wilderness area, parking
them on a siding where they would stay for five or six days until they
moved again to the next location. Once school let out on Thursday, the

262
family secured all their belongings in case they were hooked up in the
middle of the night. Sometimes the dishes broke anyway because the
locomotive slammed into the coupling with a jolt.
Maggie took down the flagpole hanging on the end of the school
car, then they gathered in all the outdoor toys: toboggans, skis, and sleds.
They took down the clothesline and packed all of Mama’s pretty tea-
servings.
Papa put anchors on the gas lamps so they wouldn’t fall off the
hooks on the ceiling. The girls cleared the countertops of dishes, and all
the cupboard and refrigerator doors were firmly shut. Mama filled the
portable bathtub with her treasured plants. The locomotive could come
during the next day or during the night while they slept, but it always came
and took the little car and the teacher’s family to the next wilderness site
where children eagerly awaited its arrival.
During the weekend, Papa planned lessons, and Mama organized
and cleaned their tiny home. On Monday, Papa asked Margaret to raise
the flag on the school-car, signifying a cheerful welcome to the students in
the area of Foleyet.
Earlier that morning, more than ten miles away, the Dingee
children, ages nine, eleven and twelve, began their journey to school on
their eight-foot toboggan, pulled by five energetic, barking dogs.
“Don’t forget to pick up Kitchi and Moki!” Betty reminded her
older brother, Francois. They liked to meet up with their native friends
along the way to school.

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“I won’t! You don’t need to remind me. They’ll be waiting on the
trail.”
The dogs ran eagerly and needed little reminding of the route.
Betty snuggled into her warm fox-coat and hid her nose in the
fur. Her father was a trapper, and she was thankful for the warm furs he
brought home. She hugged herself and wiggled her frozen toes inside the
buckskin moccasins her mother had made. Nothing would stop her from
going to school. Not even frigid temperatures or snow and ice.
They arrived at the banks of the frozen lake where they met Kitchi
and Moki. Nearby stood an old trapper’s cabin. The wind and snow blew
through the slats in the log walls, but it would be home for the children for
the week they were at school. The girls helped Francois unpack the food
and blankets. They repacked the bag with their books and homework and
headed out and into the cold for another two-mile trek.
“Help me to tie the dogs, Alice.”
The girls and native boys tied up the dogs while their big brother
repositioned the pack upon his back. Everyone attached their snow shoes
and set out across the frozen lake. Every thirty feet, they marked the trail
with an evergreen branch in case the wind covered their tracks.
When Mr. Sloman saw the children approach, he bounded out the
door to greet them. He was impressed with their commitment and that
night shared his awe with Mama, “I’m amazed how far they travel to
school. They’re starving for knowledge!”
Nine-year-old George and twelve-year-old Nicholas travelled

264
forty-two miles to get to school. They worked beside the school-car,
pitching a canvas tent against a snow bank. They found an old wood stove
and installed it with the pipe sticking out of the canvas roof. Before going
inside to warm themselves, Kitchi and Moki helped George and Nicolas
thatch the fragile tent with evergreen boughs. This fortified tent would be
home to George and Nicholas for a week in frigid weather. It was too far
to travel back and forth for each visit.
On Mondays, children trickled into school during the morning
because travel for some was hard. Not everyone arrived on time, but,
remarkably, no one arrived more than a few minutes late. Mr. Sloman had
given them enough homework for a month, and they eagerly shared their
hard work with him.
Finally, everyone settled into a gentle hum of industry. Younger
students rehearsed phonics, and the older children who needed the
practice, joined in. Mr. Sloman’s daughters learned Shakespeare, while
others their age studied sentence structure. Everyone learned at different
rates and every child received individual attention by their astute teacher.
He customized the lessons, loaned out books, and created learning plans
for each student, including his own children.
While one group recited multiplication tables, another looked
up words in the dictionary. While some studied medieval history, others
labeled towns on the map, and still others chanted rules of grammar. They
all memorized poetry. There was never an empty moment. Everyone
learned.

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On Tuesday, while everyone listened to a chapter in Alice in
Wonderland, a woman stumbled into the school car.
“Help me.”
“Mama!” cried Davey Pacelli as he ran to his mother who
collapsed on the floor.
“Maggie, go get your mother. Joan, help me get Mrs. Pacelli to the
living room.” Mr. Sloman’s gruff voice and stern face sprung Maggie into
action.
Joan and Mr. Sloman helped Mrs.Pacelli into the little cookery, but
she was too weak to make it to the living room and collapsed in their arms.
“My…baby…”
“Put her down here, Joan.”
They helped the frail mother-to-be to the floor, while Mama rushed
to their aid.
“Mr. Sloman, leave the girls here with me. I will help her. Keep
the children calm. Joan, boil a big pot of water and, Maggie, you know
the old sheets I keep under the bed? Bring me two of them. I’m also
going to need a thick blanket. And find every clean towel you can and
bring it here.”
“Yes, Mama,” chimed both girls as they set to work, immediately
obeying their mother.
“My…I’m so tired…” Mrs. Pacelli whispered.
Mama felt her pulse.
“When was the last time you ate something?”

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“Yesterday.”
Maggie brought the blanket and sheets and helped her mother tuck
them under Mrs. Pacelli, who was too weak to move. The woman moaned
and held onto her stomach.
“Where is your husband, Mrs. Pacelli?” Mama asked loudly.
The ashen woman writhing on the floor did not answer.
“Mrs. Pacelli, where is Mr. Pacelli?” begged Mama as she knelt
beside the woman and spoke into her face, framing it with her hands.
“He’s out hunting. I haven’t seen him…in days…I…Ohhh!” Mrs.
Pacelli rolled on to her side and clutched her stomach, crying out in pain.
“Joan, tell your father to take the children outside or begin an
activity to distract them.”
“Yes, Mama.”
“Mrs. Pacelli, try not to cry out. I know it’s hard, but we don’t
want to frighten the children.” Mama made a knot in a towel and gave it
to the woman. “Bite on this when you want to scream. It might help; it
might not.”
The woman could not hold onto the cloth. Mr. Sloman entered the
room and stood over his wife and the sick woman.
“Do you need me in here, Mama?”
Mama nodded, “I think so. Do you think it would be okay for
Maggie and Joan to take the children outside and for you to help me in
here instead?”
Mr. Sloman nodded and turned to the girls, “Joan, Maggie, tell the

267
children school is dismissed for the day. Then, take your siblings outdoors
until I tell you to come back inside.”
The girls nodded and scooted out the kitchen door. Mr. Sloman
rolled up his sleeves and set to work boiling water and helping his wife.
“Ohhhh! It’s not time! It’s too early…” groaned Mrs. Pacelli,
whose face contorted with pain.
“Babies don’t read calendars. They have their own ideas of when
it’s time to come.” Mr. Sloman handed Mama a cold cloth for Mrs.
Pacelli’s head and turned to add wood to the stove.
With the kind help of Mr. Sloman and Mama, a tiny baby boy
was born on the kitchen floor of the school-car. Tiny and weak, he could
hardly breathe. Mama wrapped the baby gently in a clean towel and
handed him to his mother, who lay on the floor sobbing. She looked at Mr.
Slocum with tears in her eyes. The baby was not well.
“Will you baptize him, Mr. Sloman?”
Mr. Sloman gathered the sick baby in his arms. “He’s a handsome
little man.”
“What is his name?” asked Mama, brushing a tear from her cheek.
Mrs. Pacelli looked into Mama’s eyes and whispered, “Emmanuele
Alberto.”
Mr. Sloman nodded and christened the tiny baby according to his
mother’s wishes. Shortly after the christening, little Emmanuele drew his
last breath.
In one short day a tiny soul tasted life on both sides of heaven.

268
a
December, 1928
Sandy and Cricket barked in encouragement as Mr. Sloman and
Billy dragged a little cedar tree through the snow towards the school-car.
This was Billy’s favourite time of the year. Most boys and girls celebrated
Christmas once each year, but the Sloman family celebrated it for the
entire month of December. As the school-car stopped in each wilderness
area, their family celebrated the holiday with each community.
There were no churches in those remote areas. There were no
stores or nativity scenes. The only kind of Christmas the children in the
Canadian wilderness enjoyed was what the Sloman family provided.
All through the year, the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the
Empire collected clothing, toys, and household utensils as gifts and prizes
for the school children of the remote areas of Canada. Each Christmas,
every family received a gift box.
On the chalkboard Joan wrote “Merry Christmas” in all the
languages of the school children: Buone Feste Natalizie (Italian);
Srozhdestvom Kristovym (Ukrainian); Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia
(Polish); Feliz Navidad (Spanish); Gledelig Jul (Norwegian); Fröhliche
Weihnachten (German).
Families from these nations came to the wilderness to log, mine,
trap, and maintain sections of the railroad. The only Native language
Mr. Sloman knew how to write was Iroquois. Joan wrote in small

269
letters across the top of the chalk board: Ojenyunyat Sungwiyadeson
honungradon nagwutut.
Billy and the girls helped Mr. Sloman pull the tree into the
school-room, while Mama baked cookies and cinnamon rolls in the oven.
Elizabeth stood on a desk and held the tree upright, while Mr. Sloman
fastened a laundry line to the tip and secured it to the top of the window
sill.
“Sandy, stop eating the popcorn!”
The golden retriever looked up at Joan with a string of popcorn
hanging out of his mouth.
“He’s going to choke, Papa! Get him!”
Maggie laughed and helped her father pin the playful dog, who
rolled over onto his back asking for a belly rub and willingly giving up his
prize. But as soon as they secured the popcorn, Cricket jumped on a desk
and nosed into the tree.
“He thinks something is in there.”
Billy put his head in the tree right beside Cricket’s.
“There probably is. Animals live in trees. Can you name some?”
Mr. Sloman never ceased teaching.
“Birds live in trees,” peeped Little Fredda from the floor where she
sat making a gingerbread paper-chain.
“Yes they do. Can you think of anything else?”
Papa hung ornaments on the trees.
“Koalas live in trees,” Billy giggled from inside the tree.

270
“They do, don’t they, Billy. Why is that funny?”
“There aren’t koalas in Canada, Papa.” Billy backed out of the
tree. “I don’t see anything.”
“You didn’t, but Cricket did.” Maggie pointed to the big shaggy
dog holding a bird’s nest in his mouth.
Mr. Sloman rescued the frail nest from the dog’s jaws.
“Can you tell what kind of bird lived in this nest?”
The children peered at the nest cradled in their father’s hands,
a tiny grass and pine needle cup, lined with feathers like the ones on
Mama’s favourite hat. A rubber band, a piece of yarn and birch bark were
also part of the little bird’s home design.
“Well, it’s quite small, and by the way it’s shaped, I think it’s
probably a tree swallow, Papa.”
Joan loved nature studies.
Mr. Sloman beamed, “You’re right! This is a little tree swallow
nest. Let’s add it to our collection.”
He put the nest on a shelf along with all the other treasures from
nature studies of the past.
“Cricket’s got a good nose, Papa!” Fredda patted the dog’s head.
“Dogs have more olfactory receptors in their noses,” shared Mr.
Sloman, stepping back to admire the tree.
Mama stood in the door of the kitchen, holding it open with her foot.
“Well done, children. The tree looks very festive.” Mama wiped
her hands on her apron.

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“Are the cookies done yet?” asked a hopeful Mr. Sloman, who
loved Mama’s cookies, especially with a hot cup of coffee.
Mama laughed, “I didn’t think you’d last long. After we finish
decorating the rest of the car, we’ll enjoy cookies and warm milk. How
does that sound?”
Everyone cheered and finished decorating the railcar with
evergreen boughs and the popcorn and cranberries they had strung days
before. It smelled altogether like Christmas.
“I don’t know how we’ll keep Cricket and Sandy from eating the
popcorn,” Joan groaned.
“What about Jack?” Bobby pointed to the crow preening outside
the door of his cage.
Mama laughed, “He’ll probably eat it too. Joan, when you were a little
sprout, I’d find you hiding behind the tree, eating popcorn hand over fist.”
Everyone laughed and Joan blushed.
“Can I help it if I have more taste buds than you?”
“And how do you know that?” Mama grinned.
“Because, when one’s young, one has more taste buds than when
one’s older,” Joan giggled. Like her father, she enjoyed surprising her
family with random facts.
“I assure you, my taste buds are all in working order,” teased Papa
as he patted his flat tummy. He took pride in being fit, but liked to pretend
that he looked fat. “Your mother’s cooking is not to be missed. Now, let’s
get to those cookies!”

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During the entire month of December, the little train-car, with its
cheery Christmas decorations and Mama’s cookies, travelled from site
to site, spreading Christmas joy and cheer with each stop. Every class
put on its own Christmas pageant and held its own parties. The children
made paper chains and stars with glitter, and the time spent at each site
culminated with a Christmas pageant, complete with live animals for the
nativity.
At the Kakatush site, the families went an extra mile for their
Christmas party: all the children wore homemade costumes. Gerald Buck
dressed as a shepherd and brought a baby lamb with him, for an authentic
Christmas scene in the stable. Little did anyone know how much the little
lamb enjoyed Christmas carols.
All the inhabitants of the train-car sat in silent awe as the climax
of the nativity ended with Sarah Brown, with a voice as clear as Mama’s
crystal, singing “O Holy Night.” No one dared stir as she sang with a
voice so pure. It brought tears to reverent eyes.
“Faaaaall on your kneeees…O heeeeear the angel voiiiiices…Oh
niiiiiiight diviiiiine…”
“BAAAAAAAA.” The little lamb joined in the chorus.
The intense, sacred moment shattered as the inhabitants of the
train-car stifled giggles.
With every strain, little Sarah sang louder.
And with every note, the little lamb turned up the volume of its
bleating.

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Before the end of the song, the entire train-car filled with laughter.
Sarah finished the song, holding the musical lamb in her arms.
“Perhaps this also happened on the first Christmas,” Mr. Sloman
laughed.
After the program, Mr. Sloman took his gramophone to the river,
and while some skated to the music, others picked teams and played a
quick game of hockey.
At the end of each party, the Slomans gave gifts of clothing,
food, and household items. In exchange, they received chickens, rabbits,
home-baked goods, and fresh cream. During the gift exchange, Pasquale
Deciccio walked down the aisle and planted a bottle of whisky on the
teacher’s desk.
“Why on earth did he do that?” Mama clucked after the party.
“Perhaps in his land it’s a custom.” smiled Papa as he scratched his
head.
When Christmas Eve arrived, the Sloman family had spent an
exhausting month celebrating Christmas, and that was the night when the
pipes in the school-car froze and their cozy home had to be towed back to
Caperol, to the roundhouse, to thaw out. The family spent Christmas day
singing carols with the men of the roundhouse and celebrating Christ’s
birth with strangers.
Much the same as Mary and Joseph did the day baby Jesus was
born.

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Spring 1929
“Bring more water from the river, Maggie. Joan, bring me that
other basket of clothes, then boil the water Maggie brings and check the
bread in the oven.”
“Yes, Mama.”
Mama’s oldest girls were an invaluable blessing. Life on the
railroad-car was often hard. The chores never ended, but Mrs. Sloman
kept a tidy car and neat children and never complained. Her cooking was
unmatched by other women in the wilderness. By her example, women
learned how to be good housewives and mothers.
Mama wiped her brow and looked at the murky water in the
washtub.
“Getting this soot out of the curtains is an impossible job. The
water turns black as soon as I put them in the tub, and it takes a lot of
water to rinse it out.”
The only running water on the train was cold water. Washing the
soot out of curtains took hot water boiled on the stove. But Mrs. Sloman
was thankful for spring time. She wanted to finish the washing so she
could plant red geraniums, paperwhites, and begonias in the boxes on the
school-car window ledges.
Inside, Mr. Sloman bent over a spreadsheet organizing a Coinuckle
tournament for the monthly community game-night. Bingo was another
favorite and, while it bored Mr. Sloman, the game allowed all ages and
languages to play.

275
“Elizabeth, are the prizes organized?”
Mr. Sloman looked toward his daughter at the far end of the school
room, organizing the prize table, brimming with baby bottles, nipples,
talcum powder, and chocolate – rare finds in the Canadian wilderness.
“Yes, Papa. I’m almost done.”
Mr. Sloman stood, stretched, and poked his head outside the rail-
car door.
“Billy! I’m ready to put the projector together! Do you want to
help?”
Billy came running from behind the rail-car, out of breath, his face
reddened and shining with tears.
“Papa! He’s gone! He’s gone!”
“Who’s gone, son?” Mr. Sloman ran down the stairs and knelt in
front of his son.
“Rudy! Rudy’s gone! He ran off and I can’t find him,” Billy
sobbed, his little shoulders heaving up and down.
Mr. Sloman tilted a sympathetic head and wrapped the boy in his
arms.
“Aw, Billy, that’s what foxes do. We knew we’d only keep him
long enough for his leg to heal. You did such a good job getting him well,
he felt strong enough to go home to the woods again.”
“But he’s my good ol’ fox, Papa, and I’m gonna miss him.”
“I know. I’ll miss him too. He’s a pretty nice fox, indeed.”
Fredda ran towards the school-car with Petunia in her arms.

276
“What’s wrong, Billy?”
“Rudy ran away. I can’t find him,” Billy sniffed.
“Petunia wanted to run away too, but I caught her.” Fredda kissed
the wiggly skunk.
“Petunia wants to go home, too, Fredda. Don’t you think she
probably misses her skunk friends and family?”
Papa, still kneeling down, reached over and scratched the little
skunk on the head.
“But I will miss her.”
“And she misses her friends the same way you will miss her. You
need to think about it, okay?”
Fredda nodded, “Okay.”
Mr. Sloman stood. “Now. Who wants to help me get the movie
projector put together for tonight?”
“I do! I do!” sang the twins as they jumped up and down and ran
to the school-car.
Inside, Mr. Sloman hooked the old film projector to a battery from
a Model A Ford automobile. It gave power to the light bulb, but he had
to turn the film by hand. Tonight, he would show a movie a friend sent
him of his recent trip to Europe. He knew some of the families were
homesick, and he was excited to surprise them with these pictures from
their homeland.
Now that the snow had melted, some of the families arrived by
canoe and others by hand-car. The hand-car was powered by a seesaw-

277
like arm that people pumped up and down to move it along the railroad
tracks. The Sloman children enjoyed playing with the car, but, for the
people who had to pump the car for miles, it was exhausting work.
The evening was a success, and Mr. Sloman grew to know his
families better through the games. Families wept when they watched
the movie of his friend’s European vacation, recognizing some of their
hometowns. They pointed things out to their children and were excited to
share with them the lands of their birth. Mr. Sloman’s arm grew tired from
winding the film backwards and forwards until everyone had seen their fill.
The next day was the last day of school for the year. Some of the
families camped out beside the train or stayed with other families closer
to the school-car. No one was late, even though the festivities of the night
before had lasted well beyond bedtime.
The day was spent with Mr. Sloman assigning summer homework
and loaning out lots of books. He never worried about them being
returned. The families took exceptionally good care of the books, and
he’d never had one unreturned.
Mr. Sloman was proud of his students. They had come to him
speaking many languages other than English, and now most of the older
students could already read from the Third Reader. At the end of the day,
he wanted them to read something they would remember.
“Students, turn to page 137.” Mr. Sloman opened his book without
lifting his gaze.
“Everybody?” Joan usually didn’t read out of the Third Reader.

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“Yes, everyone. Today, on our last day of school and before saying
good-bye, I want us to read something together.”
A soft hush came over the school-car. The last day of school was
sad for the children of the wilderness. Each month the school-car was the
highlight of their lives. They didn’t want to say good-bye.
They turned to their books and read:
A Song of Canada
Sing me a song of the great Dominion,
Soul felt words for a patriot’s ear!
Ring out boldly the well-turned measure,
Voicing your notes that the world may hear:
Here is no starvalling—Heaven forsaken—
Shrinking aside where the nations throng.
Proud as the proudest moves she among them.
Worthy is she of a noble song.
A tear glimmered on Mr. Sloman’s weathered cheek as he looked
into the eyes of the children of the wilderness. These were the children
of the very souls who were the backbone of Canada. Their families had
sacrificed all to build in unchartered lands. He would miss them.
“Caw!” Jack broke the serious tone, flapping his wings.
Mr. Sloman laughed, “I think Jack agrees: Canada is indeed a
noble land.”

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Author’s Notes:
Before school-cars came to the wilderness, hundreds of children in
Canada’s isolated areas went without any formal education. They lived in
remote areas where roads were few, and lakes, rivers, and streams were the
main routes of transportation.
Mr. Fred Sloman, known as the “Dean of School Car Teachers,”
spent forty years on a little school-car between the years 1926-1965. He
and his wife, Cela, raised five children and “train-car schooled” them.
Between 1926-1967, seven different school-cars served the
wilderness children of Ontario. The Sloman school-car is now a museum
in Clinton, Ontario, Canada.