Split-rail fences, and the story they tell

Along the road between Queensborough and Hazzards Corners. I wonder how old this fence is.

I know I’d promised to post a photo of the remains of the historic house that burned down in Queensborough recently, and I will, but that seemed like a sad way to end the week. Instead I thought I’d post something beautiful: the equally historic split-rail fences that you can see in the area, notably along many sections of the road between Queensborough and Hazzards Corners.

The fences are even more weathered now than when I used to watch them go by out the window of the school bus taking us to and from Madoc Township Public School and, later, Centre Hastings Secondary School. When the bus turned east off what is now called Cooper Road – the road that runs north from Madoc to the hamlet of Cooper – you were only a few minutes from home and freedom from the school day, which of course was a happy feeling. On a sunny spring or fall afternoon, it was a pleasure to watch the landscape go by, and those old fences were a big part of it.

I don’t think I ever saw anyone replacing any sections of those fences – at least, not replacing them with new cedar rails. If they were replaced, it was with wire fencing. So I imagine that many of the fences are the originals, or at least date from a long-ago time when old split-rail fence was replaced with new split-rail fence. Wouldn’t it be something to have a glimpse into the minds of the farmers who first built them, what they were thinking as they laboured away closing off their land from the road and demarcating their fields from those of their neighbours? What were their hopes for the future, for the livelihood that their farms would produce for their children and grandchildren? Did they know as they built their fences how hard they’d have to work to bring life and growth out of that thin soil atop the Canadian Shield? “Bush land scrub land,” as poet Al Purdy called it:

” … this is the country of defeat
where Sisyphus rolls a big stone
year after year up the ancient hills
picknicking glaciers have left strewn
with centuries’ rubble … ”

Between Hazzards and Queensborough (closer to Hazzards than Queensborough) there are still some good farms, still operating, as I’ve noted in an earlier post. As you approach the village, though, the Shield takes over. There are no farms now. But the fences are still there. People tried.

And as Purdy says, it is a place

” … where a man might have some
opinion of what beauty
is and none deny him … ”

I think these old fences speak to that.

Excerpts from Al Purdy’s The Country North of Belleville copyright (c) Al Purdy. From Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy, Harbour Publishing www.harbourpublishing.com. Used with permission.

To learn more about the campaign to save Al and Eurithe Purdy’s A-frame house in Prince Edward County: purdyhouse.ca

A second home, in a quiet place

I am back in the Land of Internet Connectivity! Not that Queensborough doesn’t have same; it’s just that I don’t have a setup there, and while the area’s 3G signal is quite respectable, blogging on mobile devices is not as easy (for me, at least) as it should be. But yes, home from the renovation wars; though now “home” can mean two places, Queensborough as much as Montreal. Raymond and I spent the past four days making the Manse as comfortable as possible for when we (and visitors) spend time there. So our stay was less about renovation/restoration and much more about cleaning the bathroom and kitchen, setting up the bedrooms, airing out the house, and getting the lay of the land.

Raymond doing battle with the ladybugs and cluster flies. He showed them who's boss. (We think.)

I have to say the St. Andrew’s United Church people really left the Manse in good shape when they sold it, and we are grateful for that. They cleaned it up very well and left some furniture and appliances behind that have been helpful to us in that they have allowed us to stay there without going out and buying absolutely everything. (At some point we hope to do a yard sale – maybe a community yard sale – and sell off those things, with all proceeds going to the church; that is, if the church people don’t want the stuff directly.) But still, the house had been empty for more than a year, and that takes its toll. I would say primarily in the expansion of the ladybug and cluster-fly and wasp population. Raymond spent a lot of time vacuuming up insects and showing them who’s boss. And it seemed to work! Each morning there were fewer new flies and ladybugs floating around, until this morning there were hardly any.

We came back today with insights gathered and stories to tell, and tell them I will. But I thought for now I’d leave you with the short video that’s at the top of this post, showing the view from the front porch of the Manse on the crystal-clear, warm day that greeted us on our first morning there. You will see how peaceful our little village is; the audio is on, but you’ll have to turn it up to hear the only sound we could: birdsong.

Queensborough is a quiet place.

The fruit of my labour.

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It’s been a busy few days here at the Manse – have I mentioned that? Raymond and I have both worked really, really hard. And as a result, we are tired and sore – but satisfied. We accomplished a lot. Here’s what I have to show (among other things) for the past couple of days: 14 (count ’em) bags of lawn clippings and leaves and twigs and sundry other compostable stuff, from the day and a half it took to rake the front and side lawns. And I didn’t even get to the back lawn! And the total of 14 bags doesn’t even include the two huge bags of pine cones I picked up! Raymond wishes the property with the house were bigger. Raymond hasn’t raked it. Yet.

Fixing up a house is hard work. And it’s only just begun.

Raymond and I are weary and sore this evening after two days of scrubbing, vacuuming, raking, and otherwise trying to make the Manse ready to receive visitors and also as prep work for the big renovations to come. My mum and my sister, Melanie, drove in from Port Hope and Mel scraped glued-on carpet underlay from the floor in my brothers’ old bedroom while my mum very helpfully washed the inside of the fridge and all its racks and drawers. Thanks, guys! My mother found it a strange experience, though, to be back in the house where so much of her life as a young mother and teacher and minister’s wife had unspooled. I think she found it more disconcerting than nostalgic, but I could be wrong. She had some good memories, though – like the time Melanie as a little kid tumbled down the “back” stairs that ended up in the kitchen, where my father happened to be sitting at the end of the table and just calmly reached out and caught her at the bottom. I must try to pry more stuff out of her.

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How many Sedgwicks and Brassards does it take to screw in a lightbulb? My sister, Melanie, shoulders the job in the Manse's old dining room, while Raymond supervises.

A place to sleep at the Manse

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It’s been a long day, but Raymond and I are ensconced at the Manse (him reading the Boston Globe sports section, of course – must keep up with the Red Sox/Bruins/Patriots/Celtics), and have without too many tears put together our new Ikea bed, crispy new sheets and pillows and duvet and all. Now for our first sleep in this friendly and familiar old house – and much work tomorrow!

A loss in our community

The nice new electrical panel at the Manse. It may be that faulty (or old, or rodent-chewed) wiring could have been the cause of the terrible house fire in Queensborough this week, but I'm happy to report that the wiring/electricity setup at the Manse is, while basic, pretty smart and tidy.

I’m still kind of in shock over the fire that destroyed a heritage house in Queensborough very early Friday morning. I used the phrase “like a death in the family” in the title of my post yesterday about the fire, and really, that is what it feels like. A sudden, completely unexpected death.

That house – which I call the Green house, for Jessie Green, who lived in it for many years – must have been about the same vintage as the Manse, so about 125 or 130 years old. It was part of the landscape of my childhood in Queensborough, though I was never inside it when we lived there. (Jessie was a very private person.) In the intervening years, I always would admire it as one of the more handsome houses in the village when I would go back through Queensborough periodically on what my sister, Melanie, calls a “sentimental journey.” (She makes them regularly.)

On the sunny June day last year that Raymond and I went through the Manse when it had just gone on the market, our realtor, Shelley, also took us through the Green house – also for sale. Raymond was quite taken with it, partly because, unlike the Manse, it was lived-in and fully liveable; one wouldn’t have had to do any renovations initially. But I didn’t particularly like the very dark woodwork everywhere, on mouldings and the stairs and so on; and besides, it wasn’t the house I grew up in.

But it was a nice house, and one of Queenborough’s gems, no doubt about it. And suddenly – it’s just gone.

I spoke this evening with Ed Couperus, who keeps a close eye on the Manse for us. He told me that – as I fully expected – the whole village was gathered around as the volunteer firefighters tried unsuccessfully to save the place in the middle of the night. In a small community, an event like that involves everyone, and everyone comes out. And perhaps in some odd way that’s a comfort. There is community there. The loss of a home to fire is not just the homeowner’s loss, as it would be in a city like Montreal or Toronto; it is an entire community’s loss.

It’s all about community. Queensborough has always been like that. I so look forward to being able to spend more time there, doing what I can to contribute to the community.

And along those lines: the next post you read will come live from the Manse, or thereabouts – wherever I can find wi-fi or a Rogers signal. Raymond and I are going to spend a few days at the house, absorbing it, puttering about, and thinking about what to do and what order to do it in.

And I will sleep under the Manse’s roof for the first time since my family moved away, in 1975. A half-lifetime ago. That will be something.

It’s nice (and helpful) to remind oneself that life does go on, and can take one in surprising directions. Like back to the Manse. But it is sad that the landscape of Queensborough has suddenly, and irrevocably, changed.

A fire in the village, like a death in the family

A beautiful house in Queensborough, and you've seen this photo on this blog before. Last night, the unthinkable: it burned to the ground. Photo by Elaine Kapusta.

Absolutely shocking news today: one of the most beautiful old houses in Queensborough, the one I call the Green house for Jessie Green, the woman who lived there when we did, burned to the ground last night. Elaine Kapusta sent the word this morning: “It is a very sad day in Queensborough; this heritage house burnt down last night.”

It was just two days ago that I posted a photo of that house here (not for the first time), because I was writing about the question of shutters on old houses (which the Green house had). And now it’s gone, so suddenly, out of the blue.

One of my nephews, Daniel Wisnicki, is an engineering student at Carleton University in Ottawa, and often passes through Queensborough on his way between Ottawa and his family’s (my sister Melanie’s) home in Port Hope. He’s taken quite a shine to the place, which is great. He went through today, and was stunned to see this house a smouldering ruin; he phoned to let me know the awful news. He too had thought it was a beautiful house, and he was so upset and sad.

We Queensborough people are all sad today.

I will have a garden. Maybe with garlic in it.

Snow-covered now (okay, in February), but come summer – that is, some summer; perhaps not this coming one – the garden will be full of vegetables. And I will weed it, I promise, Dad.

Funny how things happen. This evening I was thinking (especially as it got closer to supper time and I got hungrier) about growing vegetables in the big garden at the Manse, and had decided that would be the subject of tonight’s post. And then I discovered a most interesting comment from a reader, Liz, to yesterday’s post about shutters, and Liz has a blog called – ta-da! – Digital Gardener. It is a beautiful blog about, you guessed it, gardening, but somewhat unusual gardening; in addition to vegetables and things, Liz grows fibre and dye plants. Imagine: in Eastern Ontario, she is growing cotton! Now that is cool. I encourage you to check our her progress: digitalgardener.wordpress.com.

Across the street from the Manse is the property where Will and Isabelle (Bella) Holmes's little house once stood, and beside it was their large garden, which became ours. Much weeding ensued.

So yes, it’s about a garden. When my family lived at the Manse we had a huge garden: the side yard of the house (the photo atop this post) plus, eventually – when Will and Isabelle Holmes across the street (Will being the gent who warned us “Don’t drink the water!” on our very first day at the Manse in July 1964) were too elderly to keep up their garden – another large plot. So while in summertime we kids were spared the “Wood!” (I’m quoting my dad, being imperative) chore (that would be filling up the woodbox for the wood stove in the Manse’s kitchen), we instead had the weeding chore. Which I loathed, but I think in my approaching dotage I can get quite into it. Very zen, it seems to me.

What also makes it appealing is that we can’t really grow stuff where we live in Montreal. Our house has many charms, but a sunny balcony is not one of them. Our back deck gets some nice morning sun, but not enough to keep plants happy. Every year I try to grow a collection of herbs (the most important thing in the garden, as far as I’m concerned; there is nothing like cutting some fresh rosemary or sage or parsley to use in dinner), and every year it’s pretty much a failure. Herbs are so undemanding, but the one thing they do want is full sun, and we just can’t give them that.

So the first thing I will plant at the Manse will be a herb garden. Maybe at the front of the house, on either side of the steps down from the front porch. Chives, parsley (Italian and curly), chervil, oregano, thyme, basil (though basil always reminds me of the ’80s, when we all ate more pesto than enough), marjoram, sage, tarragon, rosemary. But no coriander! It is loathesome. (Raymond does not agree. I read an article a few years ago [it’s here] that said people have a genetic predisposition to find the taste of coriander – or cilantro, if you want to get all fancy about it – either delightful or disgusting. I fall into the latter group. As, I am proud to say, did one of my very greatest heroes, Julia Child. You can watch Julia making an omelette here. Do so, and bon appétit!)

And in the garden proper I will have:

Tomatoes (it will be fun to research the various heirloom varieties), corn (old-fashioned yellow, not peaches and cream), green beans, peas, beets, lettuce, onions, cucumbers, rutabagas, squashes summer and winter, maybe spinach (is spinach hard to grow?), carrots, and most important of all: potatoes! (That’s the Northern Irish in me.)

And Raymond says garlic. Can one actually grow garlic successfully in a home garden?

More to the point: has a Sedgwick ever had garlic in his or her garden in all of recorded history? (We are Protestants, after all.)

I feel there are seed catalogues in my future. And garlic adventures.

Does this house need shutters?

Would there have been shutters on these windows originally? And if so: does anybody in Queensborough know where they are?

I don’t know as much as I should about shutters, save that in the Olden Days houses had them and now, not so much. Also that in the Olden Days they were actually used, that is, that windows were “shuttered” against bad weather and probably summer heat.

This house in Queensborough looks very handsome with shutters. Photo courtesy of Elaine Kapusta

Were they shuttered at night the way we now close blinds or curtains, I wonder? In my lifetime I don’t think I’ve ever seen a window of an actual lived-in house in Canada shuttered. Though it’s a much different story in Europe. When I lived and studied in France one year in the mid-1990s, I was continually struck by how pretty much everybody shuttered up their windows at night. (And of course when they were away; if you went to a seaside resort town out of season, for instance, all the houses would be completely shuttered up. A bit spooky.) Sometimes I would spend a weekend at the family home of one of the friends I made at school there, and it was always terribly disorienting to wake up in the morning in a shuttered room to utter pitch darkness – far darker than if a North American curtain had been pulled – and then open the shutters to blazing sunlight. I find that artificial darkness unpleasant, actually.

Anyhow: would the shutterless Manse originally have had shutters, do you think? And if so, should Raymond and I make it a project – or even a priority – to replace them? And should they work? (That is, should the windows be “shutterable”?) And where the heck does a person buy shutters, anyway?