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One warm summer day, I rode shot gun while my grandfather, then in his mid sixties espoused wisdom to me, his 11 year old grandson. We were driving toward Wallaceburg, which is a small town at the heart of the Great Lakes in southwestern Ontario, Canada, with the windows open in his mint Buick. The wind flooded into the car and through our hair as we both surveyed the trees and buildings that emerged above the green canvas of maple, oak, and ash leaves. My grandfather said to me, “Ben, do you know what the tallest building is in Wallaceburg?” And before I could respond, he answered his own question, “it’s the catholic church.” Sure enough, we both spotted the steeple to the catholic church well above the trees. I remember seeing the steeple, and noticing that at this moment in the 1980s, it wasn’t the tallest anymore but that a larger structure had grown up. My grandfather wanted the tallest structure to be the church, and it had been, but it wasn’t anymore.
I was recalling this memory recently, and thinking of how the tallest structure in town may be a reflection of what a community values. Might the addition or removal of ‘tallest’ structures reflect changes in society? In Wallaceburg during the early 1900s the tallest structure in town was Our Lady of Help Catholic Church. This certainly reflected the importance of the church’s role within the community and its importance. I wonder what the schools were like in this time period, how did they reflect the values in this community with a tall steeple presiding over the trees.
As the 1900s progressed, industry came to Wallaceburg including the brass and glass factories. The tower of glass factory eventually rose up, in prominence, importance and was higher than the church. Economic expansion changed the shape of the skyline, how they perceived themselves, and their town. Education did not lead to these changes, instead it reflected these changes and supported them. A secondary school was build and started to develop workers for these factories, tool and die shops, and related industries. The steeple from the church was still tall, but was reminder to its past prominence. The tall structures from the factories were reflected in the machine shop classrooms, summer jobs, and future ambitions of the students.
Wallaceburg is no longer a small but mighty industrial power. The glass factory has left, its tall tower dismantled. The tool and die factories have been reduced in size and number. The brass factory, which spawned locally famous musical groups, has gone. However the school still has the machine shops, retired glass blowers sell pottery and these relics, like the tall steeple remind us of the import role each played in years past. However, now as I drive toward Wallaceburg, now with my own son riding beside me, I point out the towers. I point out the steeple of the Catholic church. I show him where the glass factory used to rise above the canopy of maple, oak, and ash leaves. However, neither of us can miss the new towers in town. Cell towers showing the new prominence of communication, data, and connection. We check on wikipedia for information about the glass factory, using data from the cell towers, and I wonder how schools will adapt to reflect the new values that these towers reflect in this community.