Category Archives: Family

December 1875

My great-great-grandparents were Martha (Ellis) and George Washington Sharp. They had 10 children, including one set of twins, my great-grandmother Eva and her sister, Florence.

It was only this evening that I realised Martha and George had three little girls who died within a few days of each other. They also had two boys aged 7 and 2 who survived. They went on to have five more children.

I had no idea what the girls died from, but I just found a death notice for the three little girls in the December 20, 1875 The Examiner newspaper out of Charlottetown. What unbearable pain.

The Examiner December 20, 1875 p3
Martha Sharp (1848-1928) circa 1927

Freeland WI

My mother attended her Women’s Institute’s annual meeting last evening, and they decided to disband after 99 years of continuous service. My mother joined in 1942 when she was 20, right before she enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division for service during the Second World War. She has loved being a WI member.

I think at one time almost every school district on PEI had a Women’s Institute to support the school and community, and pretty much every rural community had a one-room school, so that was a lot of WI groups. They were both a fundraising group and a social outing at a time when most rural woman were working at home. They would fundraise to keep their school in tip-top shape, and when consolidation in the 1960s and 70s closed small rural schools, many WIs bought the buildings from the government for a dollar and turned them into community halls. There were at least 22 WIs in our area, but that number has slowly dwindled and now 2 remain, Poplar Grove/McNeills Mills and Port Hill.

I never joined the WI. I was too young when I left for university, and when I moved back 20 years ago, there were no members my age, so I just didn’t join. I now feel like I have missed out on something important.

But I fondly remember the WI meetings that were held in our home when I was a child. I would sit in the corner and watch and listen to it all, the reports from the different committees, the education program on different topics of interest to country women, the discussions on what fundraiser they would hold next: a goose supper, a variety concert, make a quilt and sell raffle tickets on it, a bake sale. There was always tea and sandwiches and sweets and lots of chitchat after the meeting ended. It was up to the hostess to make “the lunch”, and my mother was a generous and excellent cook, so it was always a good feed! I would pass the plates of sandwiches from great aunt to great aunt to neighbour to cousin, all of them calling me “Thelma dear”, smiling, laughing. They would discuss who was sick and who had died and who was taking a trip, the price of things nowadays, wasn’t it hot/cold/mild/windy/dry/rainy.

The WIs in our district banded together to prepare and serve the suppers at the Tyne Valley Oyster Festival for many years, working out of a less-than-ideal kitchen attached to the old rink. They turned out beautiful lobster suppers, complete with salads, rolls, pies and sweets. It was thrilling to be in the midst of this cyclone of competence and energy, each woman knowing exactly what to do, working quickly as if they were line cooks every day of their life (which in some cases, with the large families that were once the norm here, they were), but almost always in good cheer and with a buzzing sense of unity and camaraderie. I feel fortunate to have learned so much from these resourceful, powerful women.

I texted a friend who is a member of one of the two remaining WIs in our area and asked if my mother could join them, even if just in an honorary way. “In a heartbeat,” she texted back.

Report on a WI meeting held at my great-grandparents’ lobster cannery from The Charlottetown Guardian, September 3, 1927. My mother went to live with her grandparents in the spring of 1927, and would have turned 5 that August, so she was likely present for this meeting, lurking at the edge of it like I used to do.

Hog Wild

The Steven Mayoff Film Festival opened with Steven’s second film, Happy Birthday to Me, so it had to end with his first and only other film appearance to date, Hog Wild. It stars Tony Rosato of SCTV fame. It is a terrible movie. And although he appears in the credits as “Chubby Cadet”, Steven was actually nowhere to be seen! It could have been him in a bathrobe in a hallway near the beginning, but he can’t remember, and it was such a brief shot it was difficult to tell. I watched the whole thing to see if he would appear, but no Steven.

Real Professional Actor Matt Craven was also in both of those illustrious movies, so that’s something, I guess. Craven was also in the single-season TV series L.A. Doctors with my NTS classmate, Rick Roberts. I wouldn’t have dreamed that I had at least two tenuous connections to Matt Craven.

Life is precious, so do not watch Hog Wild.

Pituamkek

A beautiful new video from L’neuy about plans to create a National Park Reserve on Pituamkek/Hog Island and the Sandhills that are just a couple of miles from my house. This initiative is important for the Miꞌkmaq and all Epekwitkewaq, because the Miꞌkmaq have lived and gathered food there for millennia and deserve the right to determine their future use. The Sandhills protect the shoreline and are important resting spots for migrating birds and nesting areas for the endangered piping plover.

Those sand dunes are the wildest place I’ve ever been on PEI, raw, stunningly gorgeous and powerful. I was lucky to visit with my parents many times as a child, and rarely would you see another person, miles and miles of beach and dunes and pounding surf. Such vivid memories of long summer days over there having picnics, playing in the cold water, beachcombing to find shells and starfish. I would always fall asleep on the boat ride home, through Cascumpec Bay and Foxley Bay, right up to the shore in front of our house, cradled on the waves, epekwitk.

My father and I in the water on the Sandhills, 1968
My father and I beachcombing on the Sandhills, 1968
Heading home with Toronto visitors after a long day on the Sandhills, 1970
Asleep in the speedboat, 1969

Happy Birthday to Happy Birthday to Me

The made-in-Canada-but-starring-Americans slasher movie Happy Birthday to Me was released 40 years ago today. Even through I’m not a horror movie fan, we watched the whole darn thing tonight, wall-to-wall gore, buckets of blood, screaming teens. I did the classic wimpy thing of covering my eyes when the yucky bits came on.

So why watch a scary movie when you don’t like them? Because my husband is in it, that’s why! Yes, now that I’ve mentioned it, you’ll remember his pivotal role as “Police Officer.” He has an entry in IMDb and everything, even though he’s called Stephen there and not Steven. I needn’t make fun as I don’t have any movie credits, and he has two (he was “Chubby Cadet” in another Canadian classic, Hog Wild).

Happy Birthday to Me starred Melissa Sue Anderson, who played the older sister Mary Ingalls on Little House On The Prairies, and Glenn Ford, who was in tons of classic Hollywood movies including Gilda, The Big Heat and Blackboard Jungle. Ford was born in Quebec, so must have gotten a kick out of being in Montreal for the shoot. (Or he just needed the money. I bet he probably just needed the money.) If Wikipedia is to be believed, Anderson later moved to Montreal with her family and they all became Canadian citizens, so she must have had fun, too.

The rest of the cast is filled with names and faces you’ll recognize if you watched Canadian TV in the 70s and 80s. Most of them probably did at least one episode of Street Legal or King of Kensington. And a lot of them were theatre actors who welcomed small parts in dumb American movies shot in Canada, because that’s what pays the bills. Frances Hyland was a much-beloved Canadian theatre star. Lenore Zann had at least one season at the Charlottetown Festival right after this movie before eventually entering provincial and now federal politics in Nova Scotia. Ron Lea had been at the National Theatre School with Steven, and I worked with the lovely Lesleh Donaldson on the play How Could You, Mrs. Dick? David Eisner, Matt Craven, and Louis Del Grande are all in there. Even Maurice Podbrey, who founded and led the Cenatur Theatre in Montreal, had a role in this goofy film.

I tried to interview Mr. Mayoff about his experience on set, but he didn’t have much to report, no gossip except that Mr. Ford didn’t want anyone watching him film his scenes, so the set would be cleared. Steven said Frances Hyland said something nice to him, but he doesn’t remember what it was. No reports of fist fights or how good craft services was or anything. Oh well.

Beyond Steven’s star turn, there weren’t any really outstanding performances. Hyland gave it her all, and managed somehow to retain her dignity. I actually enjoyed the movie much more than I thought I would. It’s a pretty terrible script, but it was so ridiculous that it was funny.

I’ll leave you with photos of Steven delivering his one line, in both Spanish and Japanese subtitles. He was hired as an extra, given a line, and the rest is Canadian movie history. There are no small parts, only small actors with big hats that hide their faces.

Spanish subtitle of “Sir, you better come outside.”
Japanese subtitle of “Sir, you better come outside.”

Retention Rate

My father, Harold, served on the regional school board for western Prince Edward Island from 1975 to 1987, and was chair for seven of those years. He and my mother sold their general store in 1971, so both had ample time for volunteer pursuits. For a few years, my father was in meetings nearly every day as the school board worked on the creation of a new amalgamated high school.

That school, Westisle, was created to achieve many goals, both educational and fiscal, but one my father often cited was to improve student retention rates. I had never known exactly what those rates had been, but he gave an idea in a speech he made at the fourth Westisle graduation in 1983:

I would like to very briefly outline some of our achievements since the completion of the MacDonald “Drop Out Study” in 1974. 10 years ago, this study showed our retention rate to be only 31% (for every 3 children who entered grade 2, only 1 completed grade 12), whereas most recent figures show it now to be the reverse, which is very close to the national average.

Westisle Composite High was built to accommodate 810 pupils. However, due to the great flexibility of this facility in being able to offer a fairly comprehensive program to our young people, our high school enrolment reached 872 this past year, compared to 610 [at the three separate high schools] one year before Westisle opened.

Of all the things my father accomplished as a school board trustee, keeping young people in school for as long as possible was the most personal and made him most proud. He had to leave school at grade eight and always regretted not having been able to further his education, so he was happy to have helped others achieve that dream.

Hon. George Henderson, Unit One School Board Chair Harold Phillips, and Hon. Robert Campbell (aka The Great West Wind) turning the sod for what became Westisle Composite High School circa 1978.

Marie

Alice Marie Bramfitt was born on this day in 1886 in China, where her English parents were working as Christian missionaries. The family had returned to England by the 1891 census.

Marie served in England as a nurse in the First World War, met and married a Canadian soldier, and travelled with him back to his home province of Prince Edward Island in September, 1919. They settled with his parents in Harmony, a community a couple of miles from Tyne Valley.

Marie never celebrated her birthday with her new PEI relatives as she died on January 7, 1920. The official cause of death was suicide, but her husband, Thomas Corbett Ellis, was later tried for her murder. He was found not guilty.

I learned about this story last summer when I noticed the name of Dr. John Stewart in an article about the Ellis trial on the front page of the June 21, 1920 issue of The Charlottetown Guardian. I collect articles mentioning Dr. Stewart as part of my interest in the history of the Tyne Valley hospital that was named in his memory, so it was he who led me to this sad tale.

It was probably the family connection that drew me in further as I worked out that Thomas Corbett Ellis would have been my maternal great-grandmother Eva Hardy’s second cousin. Eva probably knew him, and certainly would have known about Marie’s death, but my mother hadn’t heard this story before, and she was raised by Eva and often talks about Eva’s talent for storytelling and sharp comments about others. This would have been both a compelling story to tell and pass judgement on, but because my mother, who was born in 1922, would have been so young when this story was ripe, other current events might have knocked this gruesome story off Eva’s setlist as the 1920s passed. Or it could have been just too terrible and shameful a tale to retell.

As soon as I read about Marie last June, I was compelled to go to the Presbyterian cemetery in Tyne Valley to visit her grave and pay my respects. I walked up and down the rows of headstones, saying hello to lots of my long-gone ancestors as I went, but her grave seems to be unmarked (a fact I confirmed with a friend who is working on a history of Tyne Valley and also knew Marie’s tale). I was disappointed, but not surprised, as I’m sure the Ellis family wanted both the memory of Marie and this story to disappear, just as they themselves did to other parts of PEI and the United States not long after Marie’s death.

There’s a lot more to this tragedy, but today I’m only thinking of Marie, married late in life for the era and probably looking forward to a great adventure in Canada. What she found instead seems to have been a sad existence living with Thomas’s parents and sisters in the back woods of PEI, cut off from all she knew. My heart aches for her.

I have lit a candle tonight for Marie.

I’m not the only one who thinks there is more to this story. From the RCMP case file via Guy Bramfitt.

Relapsed Presbyterian

By coincidence, today finds me being more Presbyterian than I have been in, well, forever. I was baptised and confirmed in that denomination, and my mother remains a steadfast adherent, but I stopped going to church in my teens when I received unsatisfactory answers to good theological questions. That was an upsetting decision for my parents, and I’m sure my mother hopes I will return someday. I can’t see that happening, but I learned, probably too late in life, to never say never.

In my ongoing whittling down of the stuff in our basement, I decided to send some copies of The Presbyterian Record from the 1950s and 60s to a better home. The national church archives had a complete set, but a church museum in Toronto said they could use them. These sat in the basement of our old house for four decades and in this house for nearly twenty years, and no one has even looked at them. It has taken all my willpower to not start reading them as I box them up as I’m afraid I will find some reason to keep them.

In other Presbyterian activity today, my mother’s church forwarded their annual report to her via my email. My mother has happily been the treasurer of one of her church groups since 1947, and her short report tidily sums up her long memory, the quiet deeds done by people of faith, and the once-in-a-generation-or-two impact of this pandemic.

Weather or Not

I was surprised to see the precipitation observations I report every day as a CoCoRaHS volunteer being taken as gospel by Environment Canada, as per this info box in an article about the latest snowstorm in The Guardian:

The Guardian, February 9, 2021

Later I read that CoCoRaHS volunteers are “Environment Canada-trained” (we aren’t, or at least I’m not) in this CBC PEI article:

It seems the source for all this officialness is an Environment Canada daily weather summary for PEI, and there’s my 12cm in Foxley River once again:

Environment Canada does not operate CoCoRaHS, though they are able to access the data, which is free and open to all. They do say at the bottom of the report that it “may contain preliminary or unofficial information”, and that would be me, the Foxley River unofficial official.

I know that at least a couple of the PEI CoCoRaHS volunteers are highly trained, one a former military meteorologist and another a NAV Canada air traffic controller. I suspect the rest of us are just weather nerds with a little time on our hands.

The CoCoRaHS volunteer training is self-directed, a handbook, articles and videos all available on their website. To be a volunteer, you have to commit to submitting observations every day, ideally at the same time each morning, and you need to purchase a rain gauge from them. If you are going to measure snow, you need a ruler and a snow board to take the measurements from. That’s it.

I have a couple of diaries my great-grandfather Ernest Hardy used as the keeper of the Little Channel Lighthouse. He had to record the time he extinguished and lit the light each day, and he also recorded the weather. He was sort of unofficially-official, too, like me.

1960+60

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.

Remnent of tree burned in 1960 fire.
History is well hidden, almost gone.

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.