A little while back I did a post about an afternoon drive that Raymond and I took up the Old Hastings Road, which runs north up the spine of long, narrow Hastings County from the so-called (even on the map) “ghost town” of Millbridge (note to mapmakers: people do still live in Millbridge!) to just south of Bancroft. If you read the post, you’ll learn how our drive turned a bit hair-rising, in that the Old Hastings Road is very old indeed, and gets little in the way of maintenance. (You can read more about the road and its history in an excellent article here.)
But what really sticks with me about that drive is the sense of loneliness and loss one gets along the road. It really is the proverbial trail of broken dreams. In the later 19th century, people – many of them from the “old country” – came to the still-forested, untamed northern parts of Hastings County. (The southern parts, from Belleville up to Madoc/Tweed/Marmora or so were already developed and, thanks to decent farmland, doing quite well). They were seeking a place of their own, land they could clear so they could have a farm and a livelihood for their family. And while at first the land looked promising, it wasn’t long before harsh reality sank in: the soil was thin because it was atop the Canadian Shield. Except for rare fertile patches, there was no good farming. And while through the years there were hopes that various local mining efforts might turn into something – the fact that it’s Canadian Shield country means that there are all sorts of interesting mineral deposits scattered around – they never did amount to much. The rough homesteads in the wilderness were abandoned; farmland that had only existed thanks to unbelievable amounts of sweat and labour – cutting down trees, picking stones – was left to let nature take its course once again. When you drive along the Old Hastings Road today you can see traces of what once was – old cemeteries here and there; fencelines among the forest – but the life that people once hoped and worked for is gone. And with it, their long-ago dreams.
In response to that post, some Hastings County friends recommended a book that details the life of just such a family in that very place. It is called Your Loving Anna, and was published in 1972 by the University of Toronto Press. Though long out of print, it’s quite findable; I got my copy through ever-reliable abebooks.com, an awesome Canadian-based network of sellers of used and antiquarian books all over the world.
It is the true story of Anna Leveridge, an Englishwoman who was living an ordinary working-class life with her husband and six children in the early 1880s when their finances took a turn for the worse thanks to an unfortunate loan guarantee made by her husband, David. He took it badly, started talking about emigrating to one of the colonies, and one day just up and disappeared, leaving no word behind and without saying goodbye. A week or so later, Anna got a message from him saying that he was embarking for Canada and would send word when he could. So there she was, alone with six children (and pregnant with a seventh) and no income. Imagine!
Long story short, she did eventually join David in Canada, and more on that anon. She scraped together the money (with some help from him) to make the voyage with the children. They crossed the ocean, one young woman and all those children (seven by then), and after landing (probably in Montreal), they made the long overland trip by train to Belleville and then north to Madoc. And there David, who was living and working in the area of Millbridge, met them, and their new life began.
(Now, I just want to pause here to say that if my husband had left me with six kids and not even a word of goodbye, I too would rejoin him across the ocean in Canada. But only to seek him out and chop his head off with a hatchet, ideally a dull one.)
The book consists largely of letters that Anna faithfully wrote to her parents and other family back home in England. They are strung together with an explanatory narrative written by her grandson, a teacher, writer and amateur historian named Louis Tivy who was born in 1902 in the farmhouse that David and Anna eventually were able to build near the village of Coe Hill in North Hastings. (Tivy died the year the book was published.)
While there is less outright drama in the letters than one finds in more well-known works about pioneering in central Ontario in the 19th century – notably Susanna Moodie‘s Roughing It in the Bush and her sister Catharine Parr Traill‘s The Backwoods of Canada – that is probably deliberate. Reading between Anna’s well-written lines you can tell there was immense hardship in her life. It is also obvious, though, that she was the kind of person to put the best possible face on all things, a born optimist and a firm believer in God’s goodness and providence. And besides, she surely wanted to assure her “Dearest Mother and all” (as she always began her letters) that she and her family were all right, out there in the middle of nowhere far across the ocean from “England’s green and pleasant land.”
The letters tell of their first months in a rough one-room house near Millbridge, followed by their time further north, near Coe Hill, where David had managed to buy some land with a “shanty” (I think we’d call it a shack, but it was better than their first so-called house) on it. And then eventually they are able to build a real log house, albeit a very simple and basic one.
The life they led! Anna writes about the loneliness so often: “We are so far away from a church and school, shop and post office,” she writes of their first home. “Here, if we see a man at a distance, we all run out and watch him as if he were a rarity, and the children say, ‘Oh, there’s a man.’ ” She is so happy when they move further north to their shanty, because there at least they have a neighbour family that she can see from her window. She is so grateful for letters from home – “write to me as soon as you can, as having letters is the principal event of my life just now” – and for anything to read that her family sends: “I miss the reading so much. I wish I had brought some books.”
In the early days especially, before they have a garden or any animals, food is scarce. (“We don’t get very fat,” she writes in one letter.) And then there were the Canadian winters. And the blackflies and mosquitoes. And the endless days of hard, hard labour, clearing the land, planting and tending crops and gardens, and feeding and tending to a large family (another baby was born a few years after their arrival) and often to others: there is a harrowing passage in which Anna describes helping a neighbour through a miscarriage while the poor woman’s husband held “the light for me to see to do what was necessary.” (She goes on to tell her mother: “So, you see I happen with some strange experiences. If anyone had told me I should have to do such a thing, I should have thought it impossible.”)
But they manage, due no doubt in large part to Anna’s hard work, determination and good cheer. Their fields and garden grow well in those early years, and she even wins prizes for her vegetables at the Coe Hill Fair (which is still going strong, all these years later). They acquire a cow and later other animals. The children grow up healthy and strong (though entirely lacking a formal education). Anna makes some money for the family by teaching local girls to play the organ, and by sewing for other families. There are happy times like community Christmas “socials.”
And you can tell from the letters that Anna delights in discovering the landscape and customs of her new home – like the fact that it is “very fashionable” in Canadian households to have china cups and saucers of many different patterns. (That fashion continued for many years. If you grew up in Ontario in the 1960s and ’70s – like I did, at the Manse in Queensborough – you’ll recall that almost every household had a collection of china cups and saucers, no two alike, for serving tea when there was “company.” I never thought anything of it until I read that passage in the book.)
There is one section that I particularly liked, encapsulating in not many words the hardship, the beauty of the new land, and the echoes of home that mean so much. Anna writes about attending church, a four-and-a-half-mile walk: “It was a nice day, and I enjoyed the walk. The hills were not so bad to climb now that the snow is off them, and the birds singing, the wild flowers peeping, and the cowbells ringing, made it all pleasant. We got there just as they were commencing service. The usual congregation was there, not forgetting the babies and dogs, one of which decidedly disapproved of our singing and set up a doleful howl. The service was nice, the old familiar words in that strange out of the way place seemed like the voice of an old friend speaking.”
Afterward, they are invited to a neighbour’s home for midday dinner, and Anna reports on her discovery of a delicious new thing: “We had a famous dinner, to which I did ample justice, my walk having made me ravenous. Stewed chicken, mashed potatoes, and custard pie, i.e., custard flavoured with ess[ence] lemon on a short crust, on soup plates, and the whites beaten up and put on the top. You had better try it, it was very good.”
If anything could make a hard life in the backwoods of Hastings County just a little bit easier, I guess it would be lemon meringue pie.