Want to be a genius pie-maker? Come to Queensborough!

Pies at the St. Andrew's supper

The pie table at a community supper at St. Andrew’s United Church, Queensborough, is proof that the art of pie-making is alive and thriving here.

I have noticed that the world is divided into two kinds of people:

  • Those who can make pie.
  • Those who cannot.

By my unscientific calculation, the second group outnumbers the first by a factor of about 377 million per cent.

It wasn’t always like that – at least, not in the world I grew up in, which was North America in the middle part of the 20th century.

In that world, every woman – or at least, every woman I knew, here in Queensborough and elsewhere – and also some men, could make pie. And by “make pie” I do not mean “could pour a can of pie filling into a frozen pre-made pie crust.” No, I mean taking a basket of freshly picked apples, or strawberries, or peaches, and peeling or pitting or stemming or whatever you had to do to them, adding some magic ingredients such as maybe cinnamon and definitely a whole lot of sugar, and then putting it into a homemade pastry shell, covering it with another piece of homemade pastry (possibly in the form of fancy latticework), crimping the edges prettily, cutting a few artful slashes in the top, and after it spending a certain length of time in the oven, producing a mouth-watering dessert that needed only a scoop of vanilla ice cream, or a dollop of whipped fresh cream, or – if we’re talking apple pie, and if we’re in dairy-farm country like my own Hastings County – a slice of nicely aged cheddar to turn it into something that everyone at the table would adore and ask for seconds of.

That, people, is pie-making.

Pies at the church food tent

Homemade pies at the food tent that St. Andrew’s United Church, Queensborough, helped run at the Hastings County Plowing Match at the McKinnon farm just west of the village in the summer of 2016. We sold every piece!

But now that we’re well into the 21st century, it seems to be something of a lost, or at least disappearing, art. Can you make melt-in-your mouth flaky pie dough, dear reader? Can you make a raspberry pie that would have them coming back for seconds?

I know people – notably my mother, Lorna – who used to whip up homemade pies at the drop of a hat, but who for some reason have lost their pie-making mojo, or at least think they have. “I can’t make pie crust anymore,” my mum tells me quite frequently. I don’t think it’s true, but I do know that, unlike in the days of my childhood, she doesn’t make pie very often.

Then there’s the vast number of people – including me – who never had that mojo in the first place. For all of my life – until just a couple of weeks ago, and I’ll tell you that story in a bit – I’ve been unable to make pie, because I could not make pie crust. The few times I tried it, even under the watchful eye of an experienced pie-maker, the crust was an utter disaster, falling apart as I tried to roll it out, hard and unflaky when baked. It was a stressful, discouraging experience. I’ve always thought of people who could actually make great pie crust as being – well, kitchen magicians.

Ruth's pie vs. my pie

This is the time a couple of years ago that I tried to make a lemon meringue pie to contribute to a community event. The result – the pie on the left – was an appalling embarrassment, and went straight into the garbage. My pie-making neighbour Ruth, who just makes the best pies, saved the day with a lemon meringue pie of her own – the beauty on the right.

Carol's pie pastry recipe in my recipe box

Carol’s recipe for pie pastry, safely stored in my vintage recipe box.

(My recent modest conversion to the side of people who can produce a pie crust – if not necessarily yet a full pie – came about thanks to a conversation on the picket line, of all things. As many readers will know, faculty at all of Ontario’s community colleges were on strike for an agonizing five weeks this past fall. Since I’m a faculty member at Loyalist College in Belleville, that included me. As I walked the picket line with a colleague named Carol one day, we began talking about pie-making, and I referenced the same sad tale I’ve just told you about my lack of pie-making skills. Carol told me that if I had a food processor – which I do – I had no excuse, that she had a recipe that would never fail me. The next day, she produced it on one of those old-fashioned recipe cards. I tucked it away in my old-fashioned recipe box [of course you knew I’d have an old-fashioned recipe box] and promised Carol, and myself, that I’d try it one day. Well, that day came one late night two days before Christmas, when Raymond was making a fancy recipe for tourtière and the fancy recipe’s recipe for the dough failed utterly. Raymond was not happy, and I knew I had to step in if Christmas cheer was to be restored. “I have Carol’s recipe!” I told him, trying to sound more confident than I felt. I knew that if I messed up on the the pastry, and all those lovely tourtière ingredients – various meats, spices, vegetables, herbs, stock and so on – that Raymond had so painstakingly prepared couldn’t be baked in it, there’d be a whole lot of crankiness at the Manse. So I gathered my courage, followed Carol’s simple recipe to the letter – and voilà:

Tourtière saved by Carol

I like to call this “Carol saves Christmas.” The pastry isn’t perfect – you’ll spot the place where it had to be patched a bit – but it looked, and tasted, wonderful!

But just because I can now produce a pie crust doesn’t mean that I know anything about filling a pie, or doing that lattice-work thing with the top crust, or marking the edges look nice – Raymond did that with the tourtière – or actually baking it.)

I believe I’m safe in saying that those of us who can’t whip up a pie tend to be in awe of those who can. And that we would love to have that skill, would love to be able to proudly produce a delicious blueberry or lemon meringue pie, or a savoury chicken pot pie. In my case, I’d like to be able to be one of the women of Queensborough and area who, when a church supper or other community event involving food looms, turn out two or three delicious pies in a snap to contribute. My contributions always have to be something else, because of my pie-making shortcomings. Despite my recent start on the pastry front, I’m still out of the pie-making clubhouse.

Does my situation describe your own? Or are you maybe one of those people, like my mum, who thinks you’ve lost a knack you once had? Or are you maybe just in need of a bit of pie-making inspiration? Well, people, I am here to tell you that help is at hand! Right here! And soon! It’s your chance to learn about making pie from the best of the best: the women of Queensborough!

HQD QCC with Buddy Table

The Queensborough Community Centre, where the March 3 Master Pie-Making Class will take place. It’s at 1853 Queensborough Rd. But because of expected demand you’ll probably have to pre-register (rather than just showing up), so watch this space for details!

On Saturday, March 3,  at 1 p.m., there will be a Master Pie-Making Class at the Queensborough Community Centre – our village’s historic former one-room schoolhouse. At this session, you’ll have the opportunity to learn the art of pie-making from three of Queensborough’s best and most experienced pie-makers. And this won’t just be a watch-the-teacher-do-her-thing session; people, we are talking about hands-on learning! You will have flour on your hands, and you will be rolling out that pastry yourself, under the careful eye of a master of the craft.

Does it get any better than this? I think not.

Word of our Master Class has already gone out in some tourism and coming-events publications, and people are excited. Members of the community centre committee are being stopped in the aisles of the Madoc Foodland by people who want to come on March 3. It seems that even if the skill of pie-making has got a little bit lost these days, the interest in acquiring that skill has not.

We’re still working out some of the details of the pie-making session, like whether students will have to bring anything (probably not, aside maybe from an optional apron), and what kinds of pies we’ll make, and how much the fee for the session will be (small, but necessary to cover the cost of ingredients). So keep an eye on this space, on the Queensborough Community Centre Facebook page, and on the local media as we get closer to the date – or message me here if you have questions. Meanwhile, please feel free to tell your friends, family and neighbours – men and women! young and old! – about this amazing opportunity to learn pie-making from those who do it best.

I, by the way, will be the keener in the very front row.

New Year’s Days of yore – plus a bonus candy recipe!

LOSTRECIPES_Taffy

What do this delicious-looking fudge and long-ago New Year’s Day celebrations in Queensborough have in common? Read on! (Photo from the Lost Recipes page of myneworleans.com)

Well, the holidays are behind us, and a long and – to judge by how it’s been so far – very wintry winter lies ahead. Doubtless we’ll make it through to the other side, to those happy days when the streams start to run, the crocuses peek through the snow, and the scent of sun-warmed earth greets us when we go outdoors of a morning. But on this early-January evening, the end of a day when several inches of snow fell and fell and fell and fell on Queensborough and a great deal of shovelling, snowblowing and plowing was done by all, springtime seems a long way away.

So to cheer us all up before Christmas fades too far into the rear-view mirror, I’d like to share a wonderful Queensborough holiday memory from sometime around the early middle of the last century.

The memory is not my own (though I wish it were); it comes from Barbara Martin, a good friend of Meanwhile, at the Manse and of Queensborough generally. Barbara (née Sager) grew up in Queensborough, one of several children of the proprietors of Sager’s General Store, Bob and Elsie Sager. (In later years, the running of the store was taken over by Barbara’s older sister Bobbie, a woman who is legendary here for her community service, strength of spirit, terrific sense of humour and kind-heartedness, and for just generally being a force of nature. I’ve written about the late Bobbie Sager Ramsay and her store before, notably here, and my first-person account of Bobbie’s wedding – a surprise event that stunned the good folk of our hamlet – is here.) While Barbara and her husband, Don, have lived elsewhere for many years, she keeps Queensborough close to her heart and visits whenever she can. One reason she is important to this place is her vast store of memories of what it was like in the days of her youth.

Barb Martin at former Sager's General Store by Queensborough Beauty

Barbara Martin outside her family’s former general store (now a private home and the headquarters of the Pronk Canada Queensborough Machine Shop) on Historic Queensborough Day this past September. (Photo courtesy of Queensborough Beauty)

Jamie and Tory at LOL by Gary Pattison

Jamie Grant and Tory Byers, new owners of the former Orange Hall, are turning it into an arts space that can be used for community events such as the Black Fly Shuffle dance. (Photo courtesy of Gary Pattison)

In the comments section here a few days ago, Barbara shared one of those memories. Since many readers don’t see all the comments that are posted, and since this one was too good not to pass on to you, I decided to build this week’s post around it. And there’s an added bonus: you get a candy recipe out of it!

Here are Barbara’s words, sent in response to my New Year’s Day post a week ago. In it, I mentioned events planned for our village in 2018, one of the most fun of which is the return of the Black Fly Shuffle community dance in the former Orange Hall. (It’ll be on Saturday, May 26, and you won’t want to miss it. Stay tuned to this space for details as the time gets nearer.)

I think you’ll agree when you read this that Barbara conjures up a lovely, Christmas-card-type image of Queensborough in the – well, not quite the “olden days,” but let’s say in times past. Over to you, Barbara:

It is ironic that you mention a possible dance in the old Orange Hall, as I had just mentioned to Don last evening how on New Year’s Day we always went to Uncle Bruce and Aunt Carrie’s for a dinner at noon, sleigh riding and horse and cutter ride in the afternoon, back for supper in the evening and then to the dance in the hall that night. Also Aunt Carrie always made homemade ice cream and Russian toffee. I do make the toffee, but have not had homemade ice cream since Bobbie passed away. What wonderful memories.

Oh my goodness! Can’t you just picture yourself bundling up in your warmest coat, mittens, hat and scarf, after a big holiday noonday meal, and being taken for a horse-and-cutter ride in the snow and the sunshine, the clear, brisk air reawakening both you and your appetite? There are many farm fields around Queensborough – notably in behind the spot where the home of Barbara’s Uncle Bruce and Aunt Carrie Leslie stood – where one could go dashing through sparkling, pristine snow in the proverbial one-horse open sleigh. And then another meal, complete with homemade ice cream and that candy I hinted at earlier, and then gathering with all your friends and neighbours for a community dance in the Orange Hall, the old kerosene stove blazing as the music played, couples swung ’round, kids watched in delight, older folks chewed the fat, and a roaring good time was had by all. Now that’s what I call a New Year’s Day celebration!

Thanks to Barbara’s evocative description, I almost feel like I was there. I sure wish I had been.

Two Queensboro Cook Books

My two treasured copies of the Queensboro Cook Book, given to me my two wonderful Queensborough women: Barbara Martin and her cousin, the late Isabella (Sager) Shaw.

But on to the candy. I was intrigued by Barbara’s mention of Russian toffee, which I’d never heard of before, and so I asked her about it. In a followup email, she filled me in and steered me to the recipe – which I am delighted to report is in my two treasured copies (one of which, you won’t be surprised to hear, I got from Barbara) of the Queensboro Cook Book! Published in 1966, when I was a six-year-old living here at the Manse, it is one of those church cookbooks produced by the thousands across the country back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. As I’ve written before, leafing through its pages and seeing the names of the recipe contributors and the advertisers takes me right back to my happy minister’s-kid childhood in this house.

Ads in the Queensboro Cook Book

Advertisers in the Queensboro Cook Book. Wow, does this take me back.

So back to Russian toffee, or taffy as it seems to be more commonly called. Sure enough, just as Barabara told me, there it was on Page 37 of the Queensborough Cook Book, the first page of the Candy, Jelly and Preserves section:

Candy, Jelly and Preserves in the Queensboro Cook Book

And the recipe was contributed, it turns out, by Barbara’s niece, Sharon Cassidy! (Who is now Sharon Morgan, and who I was delighted to see again after all these years when she visited Queensborough on Historic Queensborough Day.)

In doing a bit of quick research on Russian taffy online, I discovered that it seems to be something of a specialty of the New Orleans area. I found mention of it here, in a blog called Louanne’s Kitchen, where it’s referenced as a New Orleans treat; here (where it is oddly spelled “Russin Tafffy”) on a site called Cajun Grocer (“Louisisana’s Best to Your Door’); and here, on the site of New Orleans’s venerable newspaper, the Times-Picayune.

And I thought to myself: Isn’t that odd? What could be the connection between Queensborough and Louisiana for a creamy fudge treat? Any thoughts, readers?

At any rate, here’s a closeup of Sharon’s recipe if you’d like to try it yourself, which I assure you I intend to do:

Russian Taffy recipe, Queensboro Cook Book

And here is some additional helpful advice from Barbara:

You really do have to stir it constantly or it will stick to the bottom of the pot.  Also you need to use a pot with a heavy bottom.  Be sure and time it as soon as it starts to boil, because if you boil a few minutes too long it will get hard.

It should be chewy and I put it in the fridge to cool and get a bit harder, take it out, cut it and wrap in pieces of wax paper. (The recipe) does not mention pan size, but an 8 by 8 is the perfect one to use.

So there you go, readers – one last holiday treat for you. Enjoy!

A new year, and many reasons to be thankful – and excited

Madoc Township Public School

Easily one of the things I am most grateful for when I look back on 2017 is the fact that our local elementary school, Madoc Township Public School, was saved from closure and will go on to educate our community’s children, and expand their skills and their horizons, for years to come. You can read all about the hard-fought battle by dedicated community members to save our school in many of my posts from the past year, notably this one.

Happy new year, dear readers! I hope that 2018 brings you much joy, interesting things to see and do, lots of opportunity to be with family and friends, good health – and perhaps most of all, the ability and the time to step back and appreciate all the gifts and blessings that life offers us.

That stepping-back-and-appreciating business is something I find myself doing as the old year merges into the new. In the days and weeks leading up to the start of 2018, I have been feeling thankful for so many things.

Lots of them are personal, and they’re the kind of things that I’m sure most of us are thankful for at one point (hopefully at many points) in our lifetime. I am, for instance, thankful for having a job (teaching student journalists) that allows me to do something useful to society, and that pays the bills. I am thankful for my five (yes, five) sweet, beautiful and friendly cats, all rescued from feral colonies and rough situations by good cat-loving people for whom I am also thankful. Would you like to see some photos of my cats? Gracious, I thought you’d never ask:

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I am thankful for the occasional chance to travel, though I’m generally even more thankful to get back home to Queensborough, the place I love the best. And most of all I’m thankful for my kind, smart, resourceful and (most of the time) patient husband, Raymond, who is (in my opinion) the best husband anyone could ever have.

Raymond outside the opera

Raymond looking handsome on a recent visit to a Canadian Opera Company performance in Toronto.

But those are things that are personal to me. What I’d mainly like to write about in this post are the things I’m thankful for that have to do with living here in Queensborough – things that I hope readers both from the GQA (that would be the Greater Queensborough Area) and from further afield can appreciate, either because they are part of their daily lives (the first group), or because they are something they could experience if they visited (or moved!) here. I’m excited to say that this list is growing longer by the year, as good new things happen in Queensborough.

In no particular order, it includes:

  • The beauty of this place, and the wildlife we see every day:
The woodpecker at our feeder

The woodpecker who has been enjoying the gooey feed we put out for him (her?) is one of many birds that we (and the five cats) enjoy watching from our kitchen windows every day.

  • The  smashing success of the second iteration of Historic Queensborough Day this past year (read all about it here) and our plans for an even bigger and better one in 2020:
Crowded King Street by Shelly Bonter

Crowds filled the streets of Queensborough on our second Historic Queensborough Day, held Sunday, Sept. 10. (Photo courtesy of Shelly Bonter)

  • The new owners, Jamie Grant and Tory Byers, of the historic former Loyal Orange Lodge building in Queensborough, who, with energy levels that I can only wonder at, have already transformed the place and are brimful of ideas for its future as a community arts space. While I am sworn to secrecy on some possible events there for 2018, I can tell you that they involve music, theatre and visual arts. Wow! And it’s no secret that the Orange Hall will – on Saturday, May 26 – return to its longstanding function as a place for community dances and socials by playing host to a newly revived springtime tradition: the Queensborough Black Fly Shuffle dance! You can check out Jamie and Tory’s Orange Hall plans and events on their lively Facebook page here. This couple is doing so much to bring new life to our hamlet – and I know I am far from alone in being thankful for that.
Jamie and Tory at LOL by Gary Pattison

Jamie and Tory having fun welcoming visitors to the former Orange Hall on Historic Queensborough Day in September. (Photo courtesy of Gary Pattison)

  • All the other good things that are happening in Queensborough. The annual spring visit of kayakers from all over Eastern North America who enjoy the whitewater trip down the Black River followed by a warm fire and welcome and good food by the river’s edge at the historic Thompson home and mill. Our hamlet’s continuing reputation as a place where artists (once upon a time including A.Y. Jackson of the Group of Seven) like to come and paint. And: a new event for 2018 that is already creating a lot of buzz: a master class in pie-making! Watch this space, local media and of course the Queensborough Community Centre’s Facebook page for details as the time (Saturday, March 3) gets closer, but long story short, some of the people whose talent for making homemade pies has turned Queensborough’s community suppers into a place of pilgrimage will be showing a new generation how it’s done, so that the tradition will live on. (You can bet that yours truly, who has never once successfully made pie crust, will be one of the eager students.) Things are happening in Queensborough!  We are making a name for ourselves!
Artist at work close up

Ottawa artist Nicole Amyot was in Queensborough this past fall for a day of plein air painting. For many years, artists at their easels in various corners of Queensborough have been a not-uncommon sight. Now, with the planned repurposing of the former Orange Hall as a space for the arts, perhaps there can be a showing of all that Queensborough art!

St. Andrew's choir

The reborn St. Andrew’s United Church choir performs Christmas music at a service this past December. The choir is led by Katherine Fleming (at the piano); members for the December performance were (from left) Joan Wilson, Jean Finlayson, Katherine Sedgwick (me), and Carol King, whose energy and infectious enthusiasm were the reason we got together. We have some additional members lined up for the new year – and if you’d like to join us, please let me know! (Photo by Raymond Brassard)

  • The people who volunteer their time and talent to keep Queensborough beautiful. I’m thinking here of the volunteers who work so hard on the Queensborough Beautification Committee (who this Christmas season launched a fun holiday-decorating competition) and the Queensborough Community Centre Committee, but also many other individuals and households who contribute in so many ways to our hamlet being the kind of place that visitors – rightly – call magical.
Flowers on the Methodist Church steps

Queensborough: the place where caring people turn old church steps into a lovely photo op.

  • Madoc Township Public School, a wonderful school and an important part of our community for many years, which we came close to losing this past year. We didn’t lose it, thanks to widespread support plus endless hours put in by a small, dedicated group of community activists. It is one of the honours of my life to have been a part of that group. Here we are on the day we found out that our efforts on behalf of our school had been successful:
The MTPS crew

Outside the headquarters of the Hastings and Prince Edward District School board in Belleville, happy supporters and activists after we learned that our school would be saved from closure: from left, recent Madoc Township Public School grad Brooklyn Gylyktiuk, Wendy Spence, Margaret Heard, Randy Gray, Denise Gray, Holly Korman, Amy Beaton – and (having been dragged into the photo by the others) me.

  • The neighbourliness and the friendlinesss. Recently I’ve been repeatedly struck by how often I’m on the receiving end of a warm greeting by people who know me by name, and know what I’ve been up to, as I push my cart around the aisles of the Madoc Foodland, or stand in line at the bank, or pop into many other places where people gather in Queensborough, Madoc and Tweed. I love getting a happy “Hi, Katherine – how are you?” when I walk into Kelly DeClair’s Kelly’s Flowers and Gifts or Tim and Penny Toms’s One Stop Butcher Shop or the Hidden Goldmine Bakery in Madoc, or the offices of the Tweed News or the Moira River Food Company in Tweed, or the Home Hardware in either town, or … well, you get the picture.

And then there have been the invitations over the holidays to all manner of get-togethers – Christmas and New Year’s gatherings, housewarmings, anniversary celebrations, sometimes let’s-just-get-together-and-open-a-bottle-of-wine events – mostly casual and sometimes a little on the fancy side.

And then there are the people who stop by to help when you’re shovelling out the driveway, or trying to heft a newly acquired piece of vintage furniture out of the back of the red truck and into the Manse. There are the people you know you can call and count on to help in an emergency, real or imagined: frozen pipes, a difficult-to-locate septic-tank opening, a staple gun when one is needed, a bit of reassuring information on a neighbour you haven’t seen for a while and are worried about.

I guess long story short, you could say that as I bid farewell to 2017 and welcome 2018, I am thankful for kindness and community. And for the chance to experience so much of both, simply by living in beautiful little Queensborough.

“We live in a Christmas card!”

Kincaid House, Dec. 24, 2017

The historic Kincaid House beside the Manse on Bosley Road, decorated for Christmas and wearing a pretty coat of white.

“We live in a Christmas card!” I exclaimed to Raymond one recent sparkling day as we drove along Queensborough Road, admiring the beauty of the pristine snow that covered the fields and the branches of the evergreens.

Raymond agreed.

Actually where we live is not really the inside of a Christmas card, but the front cover. You know those pretty scenes you see on so many of them, images of a small snow-covered village with church windows aglow, perhaps a skating rink with some children on it, and a cluster of cozy homes lit up for the season? Well, that’s Queensborough at this time of year.

Which is something I’ve said before, but that I think bears repeating, Especially on Christmas Day, when I want to wish you wonderful readers of Meanwhile, at the Manse all the very best of the holidays, and much happiness in the coming year.

And to put you in the mood for that happiness, let me take you on a little Christmas-card tour of Queensborough and area: scenes of Christmas 2017 in our lovely little corner of the world.

First, historic Hazzard’s Corners Church, where a beautiful candlelight service of lessons and carols drew the usual packed house two evenings ago:

Hazzard's Corners Church, Christmas 2017

Hazzard’s Corners Church, looking its best under a dazzling sun and bright-blue sky a few days before Christmas 2017.

And now on to another church – or more precisely, a former church – looking very pretty in the snow:

St. Henry's, Queensborough, Dec. 24, 2017

The former St. Henry’s Roman Catholic Church in Queensborough, now a private home.

A scene along the road to Queensborough:

Queensborough Road, Dec. 24, 2017

Coming into Queensborough from the east.

One of the sights Queensborough is most  known for:

Mill and Thompson House, Dec. 24, 2017

The landmark Thompson house and mill at the heart of Queensborough on the Black River.

A piece of the past, happily preserved:

Queensborough and Bosley Roads, Dec. 24, 2017

The former blacksmith’s shop at Queensborough and Bosley roads, Queensborough; street-sign Christmas decorations by the Queensborough Beautification Committee.

The scene from our back yard:

Kincaid House from the back yard, Christmas 2017

Outhouse and barn at the Kincaid House from the back yard of the Manse.

Hey, welcome to Queensborough!

Welcome to Queensborough, Dec. 24, 2017

Welcome to Queensborough!

And welcome to the Christmas Manse!

Welcome Santa, Dec. 24, 2017

Santa bids you welcome at the Manse.

Vintage Santa greets you:

Santa and bird feeder, Dec. 24, 2017

Santa and one of the bird feeders to which chickadees, blue jays, juncos and sparrows flock, much to our delight.

Here’s the Manse (looking its seasonal best, I think) on the day of Christmas Eve 2017:

Manse Dec. 24, 2017

The Manse, Dec. 24, 2017.

And here’s a closeup of one of our Christmas wreaths:

Front-door wreath, Dec. 24, 2017

The wreath on the front door.

And finally, here’s a special Christmas look inside the Manse:

Roscoe under the tree, Christmas 2017

It’s Roscoe the kitten, a little worn out from all the Christmas excitement,  snoozing among the gifts under the Christmas tree!

You’ll note that in this final photo is a DVD of the classic movie version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, starring the incomparable Alistair Sim as Scrooge. It’s one of our traditions here at the Manse to watch it every Christmas, and we did that again last night. As I bid a very happy Christmas to you all, I’ll close this post with the immortal words of Tiny Tim:

“God bless us, every one!”

Have we found a clue to the barn mystery?

Diamond cross on Vermilyea Road barn

Look up and left: an example – from Vermilyea Road, just north of Belleville, Ont., where I work – of the mysterious diamond crosses carved into some barns in our area. Why, people, why?

You know, I love solving mysteries, or at least seeing mysteries solved. As a rule the most mysterious mysteries in my day-to-day life are where I might have left my reading glasses, or my phone, or my keys – not super-exciting stuff, but one does get a nice surge of satisfaction when the mystery is solved and the missing object located. (My reading glasses, by the way, are quite frequently discovered perched atop my head.)

The most recent mystery I shared here at Meanwhile, at the Manse was one brought to my attention by reader Greg Polan. As you may recall, the mystery in question – which you can read all about here – is the phenomenon of diamond-cross cutouts on the upper levels of quite a few barns in Hastings County and some other parts of Ontario (as well as some places in the United States). As Greg put it, these barn crosses are “enigmatic in terms of original purpose and meaning.” People, enigma = mystery!

As was explained (more or less) in that earlier post, cutouts on barn walls are not uncommon, and probably have something to do with a combination of letting birds (owls, swallows) in or out of the barn, and providing ventilation and light inside the barn. But the diamond crosses that Greg drew to my attention are unusual, in that the pattern is a complex one to make, and has no apparent practical advantage over a plain old four-sided square or diamond. Whoever built the barns that have these unusual features went to a lot of trouble over them. Why?

Well, that’s the mystery.

I was pleased that when I uploaded that post and then shared it on Facebook, several readers indicated that they are now intrigued by the mystery too, and have already started looking closer at barns they pass in their travels to see if they bear the mysterious diamond crosses. Personally, I always look for them now, having been alerted to their existence by Greg, and I’ve spotted several.

The comments that came in (some from people having consulted their parents or other elders) also contained some suggestions about the purpose of the diamond-cross cutouts: ventilation, again (though why so decorative?); a tradition carried over from early Dutch builders in the U.S.; a symbol of Freemasonry or other such organizations; a church symbol of some sort; a Celtic cross; a Mennonite connection; a symbol to ward off witches – or the taxman! All god suggestions, in my view.

But something that two different readers dug up really intrigued me, and I think it might hold a clue to the mystery. Because many readers don’t see all the comments on my posts (whether here or on Facebook – the link showed up in both places), I thought I would share it here. It’s definitely food for thought.

The clue comes in an article published online in 2013 and (according to the online posting), written in 2008 as part of college project on research writing. The author is M. Custer, and I’m afraid I don’t know any more about M. Custer (including his or her first name, or geographical location) than that.

The full article is here, and I encourage anyone interested in this topic to read the whole thing; it’s fascinating! (Though the type is awfully small. Where are my reading glasses?)

But here’s the main gist of M. Custer’s piece: it’s possible that the crosses are a symbol intended to invoke protection against fire, whether caused by lightning strike or something else. The writer cites a couple of saints who are supposed to be able to intervene against the threat of fire, and who also happen to have interesting-looking crosses connected with them.

One of these is St. Florian, whose cross resembles a Maltese cross and is used as a symbol by fire departments pretty much everywhere; it looks like this:

Saint-Florian-Cross

And here’s what it looks like when worked into a fire-department logo:

St. Florian cross fire department

The other saint that M. Custer dug up is St. Brigid of Kildare, one of Ireland’s patron saints, who is sometimes thought to protect against fire. Her cross is quite an unusual one and, with a bit of imagination, one might be able to see it as a model for our Ontario barn crosses. Here are a couple of variations:

St. Brigid's cross

St. Brigid's cross 2

But after all this business about saints who are supposed to offer protection from fire, Custer also sensibly notes that Lutherans (associated with these barn cutouts in the U.S.) and many other Protestants do not adhere to a belief in protection by saints – so maybe this theory too flies out the window.

However: to quote M. Custer once again (and as someone who grew up in a rural area, I absolutely know this to be true): “Barns were the largest building and investment on a farmstead. It was considered normal and sensible to pay more for the barn than the farmhouse since a barn protected a farm family’s grain, tools, livestock, machinery, food and means for survival through winter.”

Back when these old barns were built, and in fact still today, a barn fire can be, and often is, a disaster, the destruction taking a farm family’s livestock and machinery and thus posing a very serious and immediate threat to the family’s livelihood.

Custer goes on: “Because barns represented success and survival, a cross-shaped [cutout] may have been a traditional symbol of protection and good luck.” And, I might add, if this diamond cross was seen as a good-luck symbol to ward off fires, I suspect the owners of the barn, Lutheran or whatever form of Protestant though they might have been, wouldn’t have cared a whit that the symbol had its origins in traditions surrounding Roman Catholic saints. Hey, if it protects your barn and thus your family from a disastrous fire – or even if it might protect them – who’s to question it? Whatever it takes…

ermilyea Road barn with diamond cross

Can you imagine a barn-builder carving that diamond cross as superstitious protection against fire? I believe I can.

Anyway, I think it’s an intriguing, and credible, theory, and I thank M. Custer for the research and for sharing the article, and my readers for finding it.

And now I shall sit back and await more clues and theories. Please feel free to share them, and let’s try to solve this mystery!

Partridge nostalgia: Where did all the happy people go?

Partridges on the bus

“So I’m on the ro-woah-oh-oh-oad, travellin’ free and easy… ” Admit it, people: that psychedelically painted school bus and the family inside it bring back some happy TV memories.

Hello, dear readers, from the far side of a worst-case head and chest cold that rendered me unfit for most human activity, including even sitting down to share Manse stories with you, for the better part of two weeks. Happily, the wheezles and sneezles (to quote A.A. Milne, from his sweet poem about wee Christopher Robin coming down with a cold) are finally fading. And as I sit in my comfortable rocking chair here at the Manse, awaiting tonight’s showing on CBS Television of a 50th-anniversary tribute to one of the great TV shows of my childhood in this very house, The Carol Burnett Show, I feel compelled – particularly given a recent sad event – to pay tribute in this post to another of those memorable TV shows from my 1970s youth.

That would, of course, be The Partridge Family; and the abovementioned sad event is, of course, the death a couple of weeks ago of its co-star, onetime teen idol David Cassidy.

I must tell you that I was never one of the hundreds of thousands of teenage girls rendered hysterical by the mere sight of David Cassidy. I thought he was cute enough, what with that great 1970s shag haircut and so on, but all in all he wasn’t my type. But I did love the TV sitcom featuring the Partridges and their adventures, musical and otherwise. Didn’t everybody?

Partridge Family performing

The Partridge Family in action (well, if you can call a lot of lip-synching and fake-instrument-playing “action”) , fronted by then-heartthrob David Cassidy.

(Okay, those of you who thought it was a dumb show with a bunch of lip-synching kids pretending to be musicians – just pipe down.)

Last weekend, seizing upon the fact that a) being sick is the classic excuse to bundle up in a blanket and watch favourite old movies and TV shows; and b) Raymond was away visiting family in New England for U.S. Thanksgiving, and thus wasn’t around to mock my selection from the dusty DVD shelf, I decided to honour that youthful love of The Partridge Family, and pay my own quiet tribute to David Cassidy (and his hair), by rewatching some episodes. While I do in fact own the entire Partridge canon on DVD, and while I got through probably close to 20 episodes, I’m afraid I didn’t make much of a dent. It’s amazing how many episodes per year were produced in those old sitcom days! But I saw most of the first season, which was probably the best; certainly it was the one that made so many of us fall in love with the Partridges and stay loyal through the four seasons (1970 to 1974) that it aired on ABC.

While I’m afraid my Partridge marathon didn’t kindle any long-forgotten romantic feelings for big-brother Keith (David Cassidy), it did a bang-up job of being comfort TV: the kind of shows that, though they may be goofy and corny and old, just make you feel better (especially if you’re sick) because they remind you of happy long-ago days. I was struck by several things as I went through episode after episode:

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  • Shirley’s jaunty early-1970s above-the-knee flippy-skirted dresses. For a mother of five kids, she showed a lot of leg – and more power to her. It’s a great midcentury look! It’s really hard to find an image online to show what I’m talking about, but here’s one that might give you an idea:
Shirley and family

Shirley in one of her many well-above-the-knee outfits. Love it!

  • For some odd reason (surely not budget-scrimping?), the shots featuring the audience bobbing their heads and applauding the Partridges’ performances, ostensibly in many different places across the U.S., is the very same one in almost every episode! Also, it’s the most middle-aged audience you’re ever likely to find for a supposed “rock” band. Here, take a look:
Partridge audience

Call me crazy, but I do not think this looks like your typical audience for a “rock” show. Also: the same audience shows up in many, many episodes!

There they sit along long tables bearing red tablecloths (in a room that looks suspiciously like a dingy hockey arena repurposed to try to resemble a fourth-rate Las Vegas nightclub), sipping highballs, smoking ciggies, and nodding and smiling as the red-velvet-and ruffle-costumed gang onstage bops out I Woke Up in Love This Morning.

  • The amazing shag haircuts: Shirley’s is almost as funky as Keith’s:David Cassidy and Shirley JonesAnd speaking of haircuts: the toupée (it has to be a toupée – no real hair moves like that) worn by Reuben Kincaid (Dave Madden) should have been given co-star billing:
    Dave Madden as Reuben Kincaid

    Dave Madden’s hair was oddly … mobile.

prtdg

Somehow it doesn’t ever seem to faze anyone in the six-member Partridge brood that dad has just recently kicked the bucket.

  • Dad? What dad? In the intro to the pilot episode, Shirley’s voiceover explains that she had been suddenly widowed six months previously, and thus was forced to work in a bank to support her five kids. (Which is what prompts the five kids to decide that forming a band is a better way to support the family.) That is the first, last and only time that Mr. Partridge is ever mentioned. These kids never utter a peep about missing dear departed dad. Reuben the manager, in fact, harried and neurotic though he is, seems to fill the dad role enough to keep the kids happy. Apparently it made sense to us at the time; in retrospect, almost 50 years later? Not so much.
  • A lot of future stars showed up, some of them probably for the first time on network TV, on The Partridge Family. In a couple of nights of viewing I spotted Farrah Fawcett, Harry Morgan, Jaclyn Smith (bit of a Charlie’s Angels theme here), Pat Harrington and Richard Pryor – and there were probably others whom I missed. There were a lot of “Hey, isn’t that … ?” moments. Here, for instance, is a very young Farrah Fawcett being talked into helping out with yet another of Danny Partridge’s hare-brained schemes:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNbtVZ_V-_Y

  • Easily the best part of the show is the relationship between Reuben Kincaid, the always-harried manager, and pint-sized Danny (Danny Bonaduce, and if you think for one second that as a kid growing up in Queensborough, Ont., I had any idea how to pronounce “Bonaduce,” you’ve got another think coming). Danny, smarter than his years and a master of comic timing, is brilliant at pushing Reuben’s buttons, and the repartee and chemistry between the two is hilarious:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=06xtl8hSXq8

But you know the main impression I came away with after all that Partridgeness? That this was a happy show about a happy family.

The so-called “situations” that they got themselves into, and that were the plot point for each episode, were so minor in the overall scheme of human existence: Laurie has to wear braces. The family dog chases a skunk into the bus, with predictable results. Danny makes a disastrous decision that he should add a comedy routine to the act. Keith has girl trouble. (Again, and again, and again.) Shirley’s dad has a mid-life crisis and tries to join the act. Every single time, the issues are easily worked out, generally thanks to Shirley’s kind, loving, common-sense mom-ness. Watching the show again after more than half a lifetime was a throwback to the days when we thought our own homes and families resembled those happy sitcom families on TV, right down to the gold-coloured shag carpet on the stairs and the avocado-green dishware and appliances in the kitchen. And you know what? Maybe, if we were lucky, they did.

And that nostalgic and slightly melancholy thought leads me to a Partridge Family song! Which in turn will allow me to introduce the highlight of this blog post: Katherine’s favourite Partridge Family hits!

The song in question – which, as it happens, has made it to my Top 13 Partridge Favourites – is called Only a Moment Ago. Like most of the early Partridge songs (not so much in the later seasons), it’s written by crack songwriters (in this case, Terry Cashman and Tommy West, but the stable also included names like Tony Romeo, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Wes Farrell, Mike Appel, Carole Bayer Sager and Neil Sedaka). I kind of think its lyrics sum up how watching those ancient episodes from a happier time made me feel, in light of the death of the lead singer who had (as fellow performer Jackie Ward says in this fantastic video about the people who really sang the Partridges’ songs) a “great twinkle in his voice”: “Why has the music stopped? Where did all the happy people go? I know they were there … only a moment ago.” Let’s have a listen, shall we?

Okay, melancholic moment over. Now I’m going to take you on a tour of some great upbeat hits from the Partridge Family. But first, I want to steer you to this excellent post on a blog called Comfort TV (great name!) that I found while doing my Partridge research. It’s another writer (David Hofstede) listing his favourite Partridge Family songs, with a helpful intro to each. Hofstede’s list doesn’t match mine, but it gave me lots of inspiration and is full of useful and cheery information. Please check it out!

Okay – are you ready? On to some of the best high-end bubblegum pop music you will ever hear: Katherine’s favourite Partridge Family songs. Enjoy! (And stay tuned for the David Cassidy bonus at the end):

Okay, so remember how I promised you a bonus? Just look at what I dug up by sheer accident: David Cassidy and Glen Campbell (and don’t even get me started on how great Glen Campbell was, though I touched on it here) duetting on a medley of Everly Brothers songs, presumably on Campbell’s terrific 1969-to-1972 TV variety show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. People: why has the music stopped? And where did all those happy TV people go?

Here, my rural friends, is a mystery for you to solve

Cooper Road - Madoc, ON

See the diamond-shaped opening not far below the roofline of this barn (which happens to be on Cooper Road not far from Queensborough)? What do you suppose it was put there for? Would you believe that apparently nobody knows for sure? And so we have a mystery for you to solve. (Photo courtesy of Greg Polan)

I’ve said it before and doubtless I will say it again: readers of Meanwhile, at the Manse come up with the most interesting things. This time, it’s a mystery that needs solving.

I’d like to say I’m putting on my Nancy Drew headscarf yet again, but actually I don’t think Nancy could solve this one. Not the Hardy Boys either. They’re all a little too urban for this one. This particular mystery has to do with an unusual design element in some 19th-century Hastings County barns, and why it might have been put there. The detectives we need are people knowledgeable about farming history and traditions in our part of the world. Detectives: I know who you are. And I want to hear from you!

As does reader Greg Polan, who got me going on this fascinating line of inquiry.

It began with a post I did earlier this year about the beautiful old barns that dot the landscape in the Queensborough area. A few months after it appeared, Greg posted a comment:

“Also very interesting are the diamond cross barn cutouts found on some barns in Hastings County. Are now enigmatic in terms of original purpose and meaning … seemingly forgotten over time.”

Well! The words “enigmatic” and “seemingly forgotten over time” are enough to grab my attention. Intrigued, I asked Greg to elaborate, and he steered me to a scholarly article on the barn mystery that was published back in 1981 by Thomas F. McIlwraith of the University of Toronto, who is now emeritus professor in U of T’s Department of Geography and Planning. I’ll tell you more about the interesting contents of that article in just a bit.

Greg also sent some more information of his own:

“This symbol is also found on barns in New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New York, and Ohio, to name a few U.S. states. Sometimes as singles, or in twos or threes. Likely a cultural transference element from early European settlers that some associate with a German influence (speculative). Characteristic of the earliest of barns in Ontario early- to mid-19th century until about 1900. Original meaning and purpose seemingly forgotten in our time but must have been more common than we realize now.”

And then he told me this:

“There are a couple of good examples along Cooper Road if you look for them.”

Wow – that’s close to home! Cooper Road is just a few miles west of Queensborough.

And then Greg was kind enough to email me some photos he’s taken of the diamond cutouts on barns in this area. The one at the top of this page is one of the Cooper Road barns he refers to; here are some more of his photos:

Sidney Township - Hastings (2) - April 2017

A barn in southwestern Hastings County’s Sidney Township that has three of the mysterious diamond cutouts. (Photo courtesy of Greg Polan)

Hastings County barn 2

Another Hastings County barn with the diamond cutouts. (Photo courtesy of Greg Polan)

Vermilyea Road - Sidney Twp - Hastings County - Nov 2017

A barn on Vermilyea Road, Sidney Township. (Photo courtesy of Greg Polan)

County Road 35 West of Campbellford - Nov 2017

A barn on Northumberland County Road 35 west of Campbellford. (Photo courtesy of Greg Polan)

Hastings County barn 1

It looks like the diamond cutouts have been filled in and painted on this Hastings County barn (Photo courtesy of Greg Polan)

Let me tell you a little bit about Greg – or actually, I’ll let him tell you a bit about himself – and then I’ll share some of the various theories that Thomas F. McIlwraith puts forward as to why these curious shapes were added to some 19th-century barns. I asked Greg if he had a connection to this area, and he sure does – one that goes way back:

“My connection to Hastings [County] goes back several generations as my mom was a Burris (as in “Burris School”) and my great-grandfather was Jackson Burris, who owned the 200 acres now bordered by Highway 62, Public School Road, Hazzards Road, and Cooper Road. [Note from Katherine: this is the site of our much-loved, and recently saved from closure, Madoc Township Public School!] I grew up in Belleville and now reside in Acton, Ont. I still have family in the Hastings area and I visit the area as often as I can.”

Pioneer America

Pioneer America, the journal in which the scholarly article on diamond crosses appeared.

Okay, let’s move on to Prof. McIlwraith’s 1981 article in the journal Pioneer America. It’s entitled The Diamond Cross: An Enigmatic Sign in the Rural Ontario Landscape. You can read the article in its entirety if you click here and register (it’s easy and free) for an account with JSTOR, which is an online repository of scholarly articles. But since I’ve already done that, I’ll try to bring you what I think are the highlights. I’ll start, however, by quoting most of Prof. McIlwraith’s first paragraph:

High up in the gabled ends of hundreds of century-old barns throughout Ontario appear, one or more at a time, small diamond-shaped openings with triangles on the corners, sawn through the board siding. The diamond cross first registered with me during fieldwork in Simcoe County, Ont., in September 1971. Since then, it has been an enduring blossom in my rural Ontario landscape, long defying interpretation, yet offering a path to deeper awareness of the cultural landscape of the province.

And then he provides these observations and reflections based on his extensive research:

  • The barns with the crosses were built between 1858 and 1904.
  • More than half of all the diamond crosses are single ones, but they also show up in pairs and “less commonly in groups of three, four and very occasionally five.”
  • Southern Ontario – the Grand River area and “an arc extending from the Lake Huron shore south of Goderich eastward through to the Kingston area” – is “the heartland” for the phenomenon, but the diamond crosses also appear in several U.S. states, as Greg noted – though not, interestingly, in New England.
  • Theories about a functional use for the diamond-cross cutouts include:
    • Allowing access for pigeons. (Unlikely, Prof. McIlwraith notes, since farmers consider pigeons pests.)
    • Allowing access for swallows and owls, more acceptable barn birds – but Prof. McIlwraith says there is no evidence that this is the reason for them.
    • Allowing light and ventilation – though Prof. McIlwraith says that the diamond crosses “are not really very useful for either purpose,” mainly because they are so small.

Overall, on the theory that the diamond crosses were installed to be useful in some way, Prof. McIlwraith concludes: “As far as admitting birds, air, or light is concerned, the chance of functional explanation for the design seems to be virtually nil.”

He then looks into non-functional (i.e. decorative or symbolic) explanations, and tells us that the “diamond cross is a design of great antiquity,” citing examples from a Chinese bowl from the fifth millennium B.C. and artifacts from Africa where it is believed to be a fertility symbol. But what’s the link (if any) between that symbolism and Ontario barns? That’s the mystery. The professor notes that plain diamonds are easy to cut into planks, and thus many barns have diamond shapes (as well as, occasionally, stars or squares). But “it takes an extra effort to extend the diagonals, punch out the side triangles, and notch the other triangles top and bottom. This effort makes the ordinary diamonds distinctive, creating a shape not generally encountered. It simply is not reasonable to suggest that so many farmers cut these openings in their barns to apply a nonfunctional embellishment without some common external influence.”

But what was that “external influence”? A now-forgotten decorative or even spiritual tradition brought to the New World from the Old by early settlers?

Neither Prof. McIlwraith nor, as far as I know, anyone else has the answer to that question. The good professor concludes his study eloquently:

The diamond cross seems to be as old as Ontario settlement, although it was widespread only about the middle of the 19th century. There are secrets yet to be discovered regarding its diffusion and acceptance; they could tell us a good deal about the mixture of social backgrounds in Ontario, and the degree of local mobility. Today, rural residents talk knowledgeably about rail fences and stone piles, but the diamond cross has left barely a trace in the consciousness or study of life in rural Ontario. The modesty of the diamond cross is so very characteristic of the unostentatious nature of the old Ontario landscape. Its decline is a matter of forgetting rather than of rejection, an expression of the progressive adjustment of immigrants from the Old World to living in the New.

The notion of a rural tradition that has now been utterly forgotten fascinates me – and makes me hope that maybe it’s not forgotten after all; that maybe someone out there can shed some light on why there are diamond crosses in the barns of Hastings County and elsewhere.

I’ll let Greg Polan have the last word, and remind you, dear reader, of your mission to help solve this mystery:

“I’m just fascinated about how something that was once relatively common in old rural Ontario (and as it turns out in many U.S. states as well) has simply been forgotten about. I would be very curious if your readers can share some insight into their purpose and meaning.”

Okay, folks: the ball is in your court!