When I read past issues of the Charlottetown Guardianonline, I almost always start on the back page, where the western PEI news is given. I love the old gossip of who went to Summerside on the train, or who has a horse for sale. We were and remain a snoopy bunch.
Next to the western news on this date in 1921 was a big ad from Prowse Brothers Ltd. advertising a white wear sale, the perfect time to get new undergarments. I read and then reread the bottom of the ad, and while I think it was a joke to fool everyone on the first day of April, you can never be sure with some parts of history.
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.
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 had to wash my “barn” jacket after I put an egg in the pocket and then managed to squish it before I got it into the basket. I know better, but it was going to be there just for a second. A handful of slimy egg and broken shell is an unpleasant discovery, and it was -12C at the time, so it started to freeze on my hand. Yuck.
I told my mother what I had done, and said my first thought was what her grandmother, Eva, would have said if she had witnessed my folly. My mother said I would have been scolded, for an egg in February was a rare thing. Eggs were preserved in a solution called water glass in the fall, and were only used for baking over the winter. I don’t remember people preserving eggs, as by the time I was born in the mid-60s, most people had electricity and refrigerators, and mostly bought their eggs from a store.
I once visited a Second World War exhibition at a museum in Ipswich, England, and they had a section on food on the home front. Unfortunately, the egg preservation experiment hadn’t worked properly and we arrived just after they made that discovery, and the smell of rotten eggs was certainly evocative of another time.
I asked my mother if gathering the eggs was one of her chores as a child, and she said it wasn’t. The hens were Eva’s domain and she probably didn’t trust my mother to not drop the basket. Stuffing eggs in your pocket would have been bad form.
My mother said her chores were looking after her own bedroom, keeping her little brother out of trouble, and sometimes doing the dishes. On the day when The Family Herald arrived, Eva would read all afternoon so that when my mother came home from school, the dishes from the noon meal (called dinner, never lunch – lunch was a meal before bedtime!) would still be on the table waiting for her to wash them.
And how did you wash dishes in rural PEI in the 1920s? In an enamel dishpan at the kitchen table. You took the dishpan off a nail in the pantry, took it to the woodstove, and decanted hot water from the tank on the side of the stove. You would swish a bar of homemade soap in the water to make suds, wash and dry the dishes, and put most of the dishes back on the table for the next meal. The dirty dishwater would be poured down the sink in the pantry in winter, or perhaps out the back door onto a plant at other times. Nothing wasted, ever. Water was pumped by hand from a hand-dug well, so it was precious.
Those water conservation methods have passed down to me through my mother. I don’t use a dishpan every day, but have used a dishpan during very dry summers and poured the dishwater on flower beds. I will throw water from washing floors on the front porch to clean it off, or onto a flowerbed. I don’t have a dishwasher, so when running water to do dishes, I usually collect the cold water that comes first in a watering can for plants, a kettle, or in a jug.
And I moved from using liquid dish detergent back to swishing a bar of soap in the water a few years ago. I don’t see much difference, except for the lack of bubbles, which I have read come from chemicals added to make you feel like the cleaning part of the soap is working. I use a vegetable glycerine soap from Bulk Barn that has no wrapping and almost no scent, and my dishes seem clean enough. I sometimes add slivers of soap from the shower or sink to the glycerine soap in soap shaker I have.
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.
As our home internet is through a Bell Aliant wired connection, location services on websites can be either scarily accurate (right over our house) or humourously wonky (Kensington, Summerside, Tignish, all dozens of kilometres away).
Today the weather widget on my iPad shows me as being in Halifax Parish, which is true, but I would guess 99% of Halifax Parish residents would not know that’s where they live. Samuel Holland divided Epekwitk into counties and parishes on his 1765 map, and Lots 8-12 were Halifax Parish.
My guess is you would have to go back to the 1800s to find this term being commonly used for this area, so how did the bots grab onto it and thrust it into today?
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.
I woke before sunrise this morning. As I write this, it is calm and cool as the sky begins to glow in the east. Sometimes on such a morning, when I step out on the back step to smell the fresh air, I can hear the roar of the ocean a couple of miles away, but today it was silent.
My mother, Vivian, told me yesterday that April 15 was the day her grandparents, Eva and Ernest Hardy, would move from their home in Freeland to their lobster cannery on the sand dunes that run along part of PEI’s north shore. My mother and her younger brother, Edgar, lived with their grandparents from 1927 until 1938, after their mother, Thelma, died of tuberculosis in March 1927. Their father, Wilbur, was unable to care for two small children and operate his farm and sawmill, so his parents took them in.
My mother’s description of the “moving to the Sandhills” day is like something out of a history book. It began with a horse and wagon drive a couple of miles out the Murray Road from their Freeland home, probably through lots of mud, down the Mickie Allen Shore Road to the water. They would row across the Conway Narrows in a dory, then walk down the beach of the Sandhills to the cannery, or perhaps take another horse and wagon that would already be over there.
You can walk across the Narrows at low tide at a couple of places, so the dairy cow would be walked and, where it was deeper and her legs couldn’t touch bottom, floated across . A pig would somehow be maneuvered into a dory, and Eva’s hens would be crated up and rowed over to spend the summer pecking at the sand. Their few articles of clothes would be in steamer trunks along with bedding, everything stinking of mothballs.
I’m thinking of my mother as a tiny four year old on that first cold April morning 93 years ago, waking up next to her 20-month-old baby brother. They would hear Eva making breakfast: oatmeal porridge, beans, bread and butter, tea. Hear their grandfather and uncles in other shanties or perhaps heading out in their boats to fish for bait that would be salted and used for fishing lobster over the following months.
Less than a month after her mother had disappeared slowly and painfully and she had to leave her father and home, my little mother was waking up on a straw-filled mattress basically right on the ocean, at sea in more ways than one.
As I remember it, Minard’s Liniment was used to relieve aching muscles and sore joints. It also apparently did something for the Spanish Flu. Even though it is, amazingly, still being produced, I think I’ll pass on it for COVID-19.