Category Archives: PEI History

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.

Moving Day

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.

Only one of two photos of my grandmother, Thelma Rose (Hutchinson) Hardy, taken on the Conway Sandhills, 1922.

Safe In The Past

I find great comfort in looking backwards at times like this when everything seems so scary. History is already written, so it is a safe place to spend some time; there could be surprises or new discoveries, but they have already happened and are, therefore, sterile, clean, orderly.

As a diversion from the overwhelming pandemic news, I spent time this morning nosing around for family news on UPEI’s digital newspaper archive, which has expanded in recent months. My ancestors were pretty humble people, mostly fishers and farmers, not the type of people who usually ended up in newspapers except maybe when they died. A couple of distant relatives were politicians – a great-great uncle was an MLA and my father’s first cousin was a Member of Parliament and later a Senator – but most appear only as entries in census records.

It was lovely, then, to find new items about long gone great-greats in the Examiner archives. I do not have any family stories about these people, so until today they have existed only as names and dates in a database. This evening I feel as though I have pulled them in a bit closer to me, that they are with me somehow, and that is soothing.

My GG Grandparent’s wedding announcement – August 25, 1862 Examiner. I have Robert’s will.
Report about GG Grandfather William Hardy’s lighthouse at Little Channel – March 10, 1879 Examiner
GG Grandfather William Hardy (and his unnamed wife, Ida) involved in saving some sailors – July 10, 1879 Examiner
GG Grandfather George Washington Sharp making big bucks selling pearls in New York – March 21, 1889 Examiner
GG Grandfather George Washington Sharp’s obituary – November 2, 1895 Examiner

Answered my own question

Since I sometimes digitally clip bits and pieces from old newspapers and then file them without good descriptions, I shouldn’t be surprised when I ask myself questions I could already answer.

Earlier this month I mused about my great-grandmother’s prize-winning entry to a contest in a fishing magazine. I wondered how she remembered the exact details of a fish caught by her sons long after the event and where she got the photo that accompanied the story.

Seems she had already alerted the media to this story in 1936, and I had already read it and filed it away with the very descriptive file name “Guardian_Aug24_1936_fish”. Thankfully I stumbled upon it this morning.

From page 9 of the August 24, 1936 Guardian.

Mola mola

News from the Atlantic Veterinary College of a necropsy recently performed on an ocean sunfish that washed ashore on PEI last November reminded me of a story my great-grandmother submitted to a Bluenose News contest and was published in their July 1948 edition. Bluenose News was a small free magazine published by the Drummondville Cotton Company of Montreal, makers of fishing twine.

July 1948 Bluenose News, Volume 3, Number 3

Cecil and Everett were two of her seven sons, five of whom were fishermen (the other two were my grandfather, Wilbur, who was prone to seasickness so became a farmer and box mill operator, and Elmer, who was a renowned market gardener and poultry keeper).

I’ve always had many questions about this piece. How did Cecil and Everett “give chase” in the slow boats they had pre-1948, and how fast is a sunfish? How did Eva get her hands on a copy of the December 1940 edition of Australian Wild Life in tiny Freeland, PEI? Did Eva have a diary where she recorded oddities like the exact measurements of strange fish caught by her sons and, if she did, where the heck is that diary now?

As I examine this story more closely, I realise that this is probably not a photo of the sunfish caught by my great-uncles, as Eva says “they gaffed a fish like the enclosed picture.” The fellow on the left doesn’t really look like any of my family, and cameras were still pretty rare in the 1940s and certainly not carried around while people were working by the ocean, so I guess this is just something she found somewhere.

Eva loved to read. My mother remembers that when the weekly Family Herald arrived, Eva put her work aside until she had read every word, then she would tell everyone the tales and tips she had learned. Beyond her family’s memories, I only met one woman about ten years ago who remembered going to the Hardy house as a little girl to hear Eva telling stories.

Having a story published must have been a big thrill for Eva and receiving the handsome sum of $10 would have been most welcome, too! I’m sure she told this story again and again.

Bluenose News

Aprons Without Strings

While sitting quietly before a yoga class this fall, I thought of the enormous privilege I had being in a warm sunny room with nothing to do but breathe and think only of myself. 

I looked down at my hands and realised that no matter how hard some days can be, I am at the easy end of a line of women who worked hard and had difficult lives, a line that reaches back and back beyond what I can imagine. I can name many of these women six or seven generations in the past, but beyond that, the women fade away. But they do exist in the lines and size and shape of my hands. 

When I hold my mother’s hand, I can reach back to 1848, when her great-grandmother Martha (Ellis) Sharpe was born. Here they are together, likely around 1927, a year before Martha died. My mother, Vivian, would be about five.

Four generations: Eva, Martha, Vivian, Wilbur, 1927

The woman standing on Martha’s right is my great-grandmother, Eva (Sharp) Hardy. Eva’s son, my grandfather Wilbur Hardy, is the fellow in the back. His wife, Thelma, died in 1927, and my mother and her younger brother went to live with Eva and her husband, Ernest.

Stories my mother tells of life with her grandparents are a big part of my story. Eva died in 1952, 14 years before I was born, but if she walked through my door right now, I know I would be able to start up a conversation with her as though we had been together forever.

She lived a simple and humble life and didn’t have many possessions. Eva and Ernest had a small house with tiny closets, really just a couple of hooks behind a door. Her two or three everyday dresses would always be covered by an apron. She cooked every day, of course, baked bread, fed hens, gathered eggs, kept a wood range filled, so an apron was necessary to keep those precious dresses clean.

Ella Oatway and Eva Hardy in their aprons on the cookhouse steps, Hardy’s Channel Sandhills, 1941.

In trying to live more lightly on this earth, I am really just trying to live more like Eva. It has been a long process. I do not live her simple and humble life, and have far too many possessions. I’ve never been hugely into fashion or having lots of clothes, but I once had many more than I do now. My goal is to only have what I really need, take better care of what I own, and buy clothing either used or, if new, produced ethically, sustainably and locally, and only when necessary to replace what is worn out.

I happened to be in Summerside before Christmas on a day when Emily and Amanda, the lovely women who are Ureshii, were having an open studio. I have gotten to know Amanda from another one of her ventures, and we have followed each other on various social media for years, but this was the first time I had looked at their beautiful clothing.

I bought a lovely t-shirt with a block printed strawberry on it, and a pair of their famous (and very comfortable!) underwear. Then I asked if they made aprons, describing what I wanted without using the actual word of what it is: a pinafore. Yes, they did, and after many measurements were taken and fabric options discussed, an apron was in the works.

As busy as they are, the apron was finished in just a couple of weeks. I popped by to pick it up a couple of weeks ago, and it fit beautifully, perfectly. Emily, who is the seamstress of the pair, noted that she had sewn and not serged the edges, thinking I would appreciate it. I certainly do.

After a bit of guidance on how to don the apron, I managed to pull it over my head and they stood back and checked that everything was just right. We all declared ourselves pleased, and off I went to run my weekly errands.

I put the apron on when I arrived home from town, and begrudged taking it off that night to put on my pjs to go to bed. I wore it while I made soup the next day and have worn it every day since. It has a beautiful big pocket ready to hold some eggs from the nesting boxes or a tomato or two from the garden, to shove my hands in when I’m pondering something, to hold some scissors or a little snack. It feels timeless, like I could be here in 2020 or back in 1820. It is perfect.

Unexpectedly, it wraps lovingly around my back. The apron hugs me, keeps me warm, and when I put flour-covered hands on my hips to consult a recipe, the apron is there to keep me clean. Unlike a chef’s apron, there is also no tie to cut me in half (and to be a tut-tutting gauge of how large or small I am at any time!).

My mother and I talk often about her grandmother. We wonder what she would make of this modern world that is so convenient, where laundry isn’t an all-day affair, where you are free to spend your time doing yoga if you feel like it.

Aprons aren’t really necessary now as fewer people cook at home, laundry is a daily occurrence for many, clothing is cheap and almost disposable. But maybe we need aprons, a practical costume to ground us to the tasks at hand, to help us make better decisions about the clothing we wear.

Eva wouldn’t recognize many things in our house if she did walk through the door right now (oh, how I wish she would!), but she would feel very comfortable with this beautiful apron. It connects me to her, and to the women of my past who allowed me to be here, wearing an apron just because it is beautiful and I want to. Thank you Emily and Amanda, and Eva and Martha, and on.

The apron, which deserves a vintage wooden hanger (even though it was likely stolen by my father from the Chateau Frontenac in the late 1960s…je m’excuse.)

Vina

My mother, Vivian, says her time serving in the RCAF Women’s Division during the Second World War was one of the happiest periods of her life. That might sound bizarre to us now, but even those veterans I knew who fought in Europe only told stories of the funny things that happened, both to keep buried as deeply as possible the horrible events they saw, and knowing those who hadn’t been there could never understand what they had been called upon to do and witness.

Before enlisting, my mother had never travelled more than a few miles from home, grew up without running water or electricity, had been keeping house for her father and brother, and working hard on their farm. She served in Canada and Newfoundland, far from the battlefields, so the war really gave her adventure and freedom from drudgery. There were dozens of other women in her group, and she made lifelong friends.

Amazingly, my mother is still in contact with one of the women she trained and served with, a lady named Vina Trowsdale who lives in North Bay, Ontario. They write to each other frequently, sending long letters and newspaper clippings on things the other might find interesting.

I was just searching to see if there was anything online about Vina and found this great interview from 2015. I just showed it to my mother, and she said this is basically her story, too. Thanks, Vina!

Vina Trowsdale, 2015
Vina and Mom
Vina Trowsdale and Vivian Phillips, Foxley River, 1971, 30 years after meeting in Rockcliffe, ON

Women Leaders of PEI

I maintain a blog for the Stewart Memorial Healthcare Auxiliary (we just turned 70 – read all about it!). Dawn Wilson, the Executive Director of the PEI Coalition for Women in Government, contacted our email address last summer looking for a contact for the family of Dr. Joyce Madigane.

Dr. Madigane was a family doctor, OB/GYN and medical director at Stewart Memorial Hospital for nearly 40 years until her death in 2014. She was also my doctor for much of my life and a family friend.

Dawn wanted to ask Dr. Madigane’s family if the Coalition could include her in a series of colouring pages they were developing of Island women leaders as part of their Commemorating Island Women’s Political History project. I was happy to be able to make that connection for her. Dawn also encouraged me to send along a favourite photo of Dr. Madigane that I might have.

My connection to Stewart Memorial goes back to my grandmother, who was the first cook when the hospital opened in 1951, and my father, who helped raise funds for the hospital’s construction and was later on the board of directors. As a volunteer myself since 2002, I became “that person” who collected information and artefacts about our hospital, especially after it closed in 2013.

With the help of my friend, Fran Sark, we nominated Dr. Madigane for the Order of Prince Edward Island, which she received only four months before she died after a brief illness. I had the privilege to introduce Dr. Madigane at Government House the night she received her honour, and I was then humbled to be asked to speak at her funeral. I am now on a committee of our Auxiliary that gives three scholarships each year to people from our area who are pursuing education in healthcare-related fields.

I found the photo of Dr. Madigane I sent to Dawn in an album at the hospital years ago. It shows Dr. Madigane in 1978, just four years after she arrived on PEI from England. I’m not sure where the photo was taken, though by the snow outside the window behind her and that big red bow on the box of Turtles, I guess it was taken around Christmas. She is wearing one of her beautiful trademark headscarves. Dr. Madigane was beautiful and smart and funny. You can see all of that and more in the photo.

Dr. Joyce Madigane, Tyne Valley, 1978

Dawn emailed yesterday to tell me that Dr. Madigane’s family were very supportive of the project and liked the photo I had sent. Island artist Renee Laprise created the colouring page of Dr. Madigane from the photo, and I love it so much: the added stethoscope (which Dr. Madigane did often have around her neck), the tree just like the beautiful mountain ash that stands outside the old hospital, the beautiful drapery, and the transformation of the box of chocolates to a weighty book. She joins other fantastic Island women in a learning resource that will help teach young people about the contributions women have made to Island life.

I’m happy they called her “beloved” in the description of her page, because she was. She was so full of life, so fearless and steadfast. We still miss her, and likely always will.

I think she’d be tickled to be included with these other great women, some of whom she knew well, like Catherine Callbeck, who was the provincial minister of health early in Dr. Madigane’s time on PEI, and who gave a beautiful tribute to Dr. Madigane in the Senate. Dr. Madigane was one in a million, a great Islander, and I’m glad a new generation of young people will get to know her, too.