My parents were married in Summerside on September 7, 1944 . No big celebration, not even one photo of the day, just my parents, their two witnesses, and the minister for a simple service in the church office. A couple of days later, my parents, who were both still serving in the RCAF, went back to their wartime posts.
Their 16th wedding anniversary in 1960 would have been on a Wednesday, the day when all country general stores like theirs, and many stores in the bigger communities on PEI, closed in the afternoon. Why Wednesday? Who knows, but it was a different time, a slower time, and everyone agreed Wednesday afternoons and Sundays were not for commerce.
September 7, 1960 would have been an exception to that Wednesday closure rule because a huge forest fire was tearing through western PEI, burning thousands of acres of forest and destroying homes and businesses. My father probably spent the day evacuating neighbours with his one-ton flatbed propane delivery truck, and my mother would have kept their store open the entire day, even as they were running out of basic supplies.
10 years ago, I published the digital version of a scrapbook of newspaper articles my mother saved during the 1960 West Prince Forest Fire. If anyone has looked at my website, it has probably been to look at this resource, and I’ve heard from hundreds of people who wanted to share their memories of that time.
I was born in 1966, but heard so many stories about The Fire for my entire life that it seems impossible that I wasn’t actually there! The physical marks of the fire were all around me when I was a child, burned stumps and tales of lost buildings.
I took a walk around our property yesterday looking for the remnants of that fire, and there are very few left. If I didn’t know what I was looking for, I wouldn’t have given the few things I found any special meaning, for they don’t look important in any way.
Here’s a bit of burned tree stump that has yet to be totally absorbed into the spongy forest floor. Most of our land had been in grain or hay in the dry summer of 1960, but some trees stood along the riverbank, and many of those were lost. When I was a child in the 1970s, there were dozens of stumps like this in our woods, but today I only found this one tiny bit.
Here is the firebreak created by an unknown bulldozer operator to try to save the house that belonged to our neighbour, Ida Skerry. It’s difficult to see this little mound of dirt in a photo, so I doffed my rubber boots to give some perspective! Ida’s house was saved, but her small outbuildings were lost, and bits of melted glass and metal are all that remain of those little sheds. Those fragments of history emerge from the soil every so often, but each year’s cascade of dead spruce needles and birch leaves is burying them a bit deeper, and soon they will stay hidden.
Here are burn marks on our log cabin, a tinderbox that survived only because a bucket brigade hauled water from the river after the electricity poles burned, killing the water pump that had just been installed the previous year when electricity had finally arrived in our community.
When I’m gone, the history of the enormous fire that raged over this small plot of land will will be erased, absorbed into the ground to moulder and disappear, but yesterday we remembered. My mother and I talked about her wedding day 76 years ago when she had just turned 22, and the fire 16 years later that threatened everyone she knew and everything she and my father had worked so hard to build. We felt grateful to be together.