So, how IS the internet? Well, I’m glad you asked.

The internet comes to the Manse

Look up, way up. (I hope you will catch the Friendly Giant reference.) Can you see that small diamond-shaped piece of metal attached to the ancient TV antenna that towers over the Manse? That, people, is the magic gizmo that catches the Xplornet internet signal and brings it into our home. It has changed our lives immeasurably for the better.

I don’t suppose it’s been keeping any of you awake at night or anything, but I’ve had enough people ask me whether our new internet setup here at the Manse is working out well that I decided I should give those interested a full and complete report. After all, longtime readers of Meanwhile, at the Manse will be well aware of my many, many posts of frustration and sometimes even despair about the poor (and costly) internet options that until recently were all that was available to us in Queensborough.

(If you’ve any desire to take a nostalgic trip back through the Valley of Katherine’s Internet Despair, click here and here and here and here and here and here and here. It was a long-drawn-out saga, with many chapters.)

It has been a month and a bit since Raymond and I acquired a hookup through Xplornet, the company contracted by the Eastern Ontario Regional Network, a kind of municipal co-op with the mission of providing high-speed internet service to Eastern Ontario. That hookup was made possible by Xplornet making the excellent decision to erect a communications tower on Declair Road, just a little north and east of Queensborough. When those of us who live here in our pretty little river-valley village heard the news of plans for the tower, we were all atwitter: would this finally mean decent internet service? When the tower went into service early this year, we started signing up. Raymond and I were near the front of the line.

And now, after about six weeks of the new setup, all I have to say about it is this: our lives have utterly changed. For the better.

House of Cards

A brilliant online-only show that we can now watch at the Manse!

People, we have endless internet! All we can use, and to spare! We can use Netflix! We can watch House of Cards! We can watch anything! Online! In high definition! On our laptops and phones, we can watch YouTube videos and download audiobooks and even listen to streamed radio broadcasts. And on television (or his laptop, or his phone) Raymond can watch every blessed one of the games that his beloved Red Sox play. In HD.

And it is all costing us less than we were paying previously for the barest of bare-bones internet!

As you can probably tell, I am absolutely thrilled about this. And I am not just thrilled for Raymond and me at the Manse – because, contrary to what it might sometimes sound like here, it is not all about us.

No, what I am really thrilled about is the possibilities that this service offers to our own rural area and to others like it in Eastern Ontario. Suddenly it is possible for a business that needs good internet service (and what business in 2015 doesn’t need good internet service?) to operate here. It means that smart, creative people who are tired of city life and want to come live and work in God’s country (translation: North of 7) can do so, and by doing so can and will contribute to our local tax base and economy and community life.

So please allow me, the person who complained so loudly and so long, so unequivocally and so publicly, when the the internet was bad, to hereby offer up my huge thanks to the good folks at the Eastern Ontario Regional Network (with a special shoutout to Hastings County chief administrative officer and co-leader of the EORN team Jim Pine, who was kind enough to reply helpfully to my emails of inquiry and concern about the situation when I first realized how bad it was), and to those at Xplornet (who put up that blessed tower on Declair Road). Thank you, thank you, thank you! You have made our community a better place, one with more to offer and with a much greater potential to thrive.

People, this is a good-news story, pure and simple. The internet has come to Queensborough. It is good internet. It is reasonably priced internet.

Just when you thought that life in Queensborough couldn’t get any better – it did.

A picture that tells our story

Farmstead, central Hastings County

The huge rocks pulled long ago to make a farm field out of virgin forest; the half-ruined split-rail fence; the old farmhouse in the distance; the blue sky over all. To me this photo says so much about the industrious past and the quieter but beautiful present of the place where I live.

Not long ago I did a post with the headline “The poetry of decay,” featuring photos of an old shed not far from Queensborough that is slowly, and rather beautifully (in a melancholy sort of way), crumbling. (That post is here, if you’re interested in reading it.) Tonight’s post feels like a bit of a followup to that one. And perhaps to several other instalments of Meanwhile, at the Manse, particularly those having to do with The Country North of Belleville, also widely known as “north of 7.”

Now, truth be told this photo was taken south of 7 (that would be Highway 7; click here for an explanation of the terminology), but only barely. I came across this abandoned house and its surrounding farm – the land still being farmed, as far as I can tell, but with not much happening on it on a very early spring day – one recent Saturday morning when I was poking around the back roads north of Tweed. It struck me as a visual summing-up of so much about our neck of the woods, which is central and central-north Hastings County.

There is, first, the abandoned – but, I should note, certainly not crumbling – farmhouse, a reminder of the early settlers who claimed this land, cleared it, and planted crops on it in the hope and expectation of making a go of it in this country. This is probably not the first house built on the farm, but rather a later and fancier (when compared to what might well have been little more than a shed) iteration, put up when the family felt that they truly were settled and were making out all right. I like its typical-of-the-area red colour (Hematite red? Hematite is a common mineral in Hastings County, and dust from operations to mine it was commonly used as pigment, as you can read in the comments on this post), and its semi-rusted roof that I’d be willing to bet still keeps most of the rain out. And it looks so solitary and striking out there in the middle of the surrounding yellow-brown field. What stories could that house tell?

I like the old barns and sheds that you can see at the left of the photo, holding up very well despite obviously being well over a century old. You can’t see them in the photo, but there were pieces of farm equipment stored in the outbuilldings on the day I passed by. Another clue that this farm is still a farm, even if the house is no longer lived in.

I think most of all I love the half-wrecked split-rail fence and the large boulders at the front of the property and in the foreground of the photo. They are silent testament to the hard, hard work that the first settlers had to put in as they cleared the land and made fields out of forest. Big stones like that would have been pulled from the fields and moved to the edge to make fences; you can still see such old stone fences all over central Hastings, a country where there is no shortage of rocks and stones. As any farmer north of 7 will tell you, the task of clearing those rocks and stones is an unending one; each spring a new crop comes up from the Canadian Shield that lies so close to the surface here.

I do not for a second consider myself a good photographer, but I do like this photo. To me it is kind of an iconic image of what central Hastings County has been – and is. There is beauty in the ruins and in the silence and the emptiness and the landscape. Is it desolate? No – because there is life all around. To both sides of this old house and farm, and across the road from it, are newer houses, and people who still live and work here and call it home. But I like the thought that in the midst of 21st-century life is this beautiful reminder of what was. I think its continued existence helps us, whether we realize it or not, to better understand the place we live in, and the people who were here before us, trying so very hard to make it a good place to live. In which, by the way, they succeeded.

If you haven’t visited recently, here’s what you’ve missed

Kayakers going over the dam, Queensborough

Charlene McKeown of Stirling took this terrific photo (and a couple more that you’ll see if you read on) of kayakers going over the dam on the Black River in “downtown” Queensborough this past Saturday. Many of the kayakers like to end their trip down the river in style, with that jump right over the dam. Their reward: homemade pie, made by volunteers with the Queensborough Community Centre Committee. (Photo by Charlene McKeown, courtesty of Charlene and Bob McKeown)

I don’t think anyone would ever accuse me of being shy about proclaiming that Queensborough is a happening place. Sometimes people from “away” look at me askance when I go on about it, as if to say (though they are too polite to say it out loud): “It’s a tiny hamlet in the back country north of 7, for Pete’s sake – how can there be that much going on?” Well, that just shows how much they know.

Take just the past week, for instance. Why, on Wednesday night (April 15) there was the venerable and (justly) famous annual Ham Supper at St. Andrew’s United Church. As always, crowds of people came for a great feed of ham, scalloped potatoes, baked beans, salad, rolls – and of course homemade pie. All of it is cooked and served up (and the mountain of dishes washed) by the members and friends of St. Andrew’s, and it’s an evening of fellowship, fun and food for all concerned. (Plus a lot of hard work, but the fun and fellowship and food make up for that.) Along with local residents we had visitors from Madoc, Tweed, Stirling and beyond. And I know I am safe in saying that not a soul went away hungry.

We were very fortunate this year to have Terry and Eileen Pigden of Centre Hastings TV in Madoc stop by the supper and photograph scenes from it. Terry just recently posted his footage on YouTube, and I think you’ll agree that he’s done a great job of capturing the event itself and also (at the end of the video) some scenes showing how pretty Queensborough is in springtime. Here you go, and thank you (again) to Terry and Eileen for showing Queensborough events to the world!

But barely had the dishes been dried from the Ham Supper than it was time for the annual celebration of spring on the Black River in “downtown” Queensborough. That’s when kayakers from all over Ontario and beyond flock to our village to test their mettle against the fast-flowing waters of the river as part of the Marmora Area Canoe and Kayak Festival (MACKFest), and at the end of their watery exertions enjoy barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs, hot coffee and hot chocolate, and of course more homemade pie. This time the food is provided by the Queensborough Community Centre Committee and friends, and the proceeds of the food sales go to support the community work of the QCC.

Now, a combination of circumstances (which included a disadvantageously scheduled but unavoidable trip to Toronto) kept Raymond and me away from the festivities this year, though I’ve been on hand in previous years and have written about it here and here and here and here. It was too bad for us, because the weather this year could not have been better, especially on Saturday when temperature climbed to 20C and the sun shone all day long. I am reliably informed that the turnout – both in kayakers and spectators – was excellent. I’ve included a photo taken by one of those spectators, Charlene McKeown of Stirling, at the top of this post; here are a couple more, also courtesy of Charlene and her husband, Bob:

Beside the Black River with kayalers, Queensborough

What a beautiful day in Queensborough! A warm summer sun shines down on the historic Thompson house – built in the middle of the 19th century by Daniel Thompson, considered the founder of Queensborough – beside the Black River. On the lawn of the home, now owned by Elaine and Lud Kapusta, you can see the white awnings showing where a busy group of volunteers barbecues hamburgers and hot dogs and serves them up, along with hot coffee and homemade pie, to flocks of hungry kayakers. (Photo by Charlene McKeown)

Kayaker below the dam, Queensborough

Mission accomplished for this kayaker, who’s in the fast-moving water just below the dam. Homemade pie awaits! (Photo by Charlene McKeown)

So in a single week, we had a hamlet full of visitors for two great local events that featured great homemade food. Now who dares tell me that there’s not much going on in Queensborough?

“Let me live in a house by the side of the road”

Let me live in a houseHello, readers! I am back after a week’s vacation from Meanwhile, at the Manse – my first vacation from daily posting since I began this exercise a little over three years ago, and one I allowed myself only after having hit what I considered the milestone of 1,001 posts. As I told you when I reached that milestone, I’ll still be here regularly, but I am going to cut myself some slack and not write every day. Hey, that way I’ll have more time to find interesting new things to write about!

Which is precisely what I’ve been doing on my one-week vacation. (Well, that and going to my real job every day. And attending to church work. And, you know, yard work. And so on. And so on.) But anyway, a week’s worth of days that did not include spending a couple of hours each evening spinning a Meanwhile, at the Manse tale has afforded me the incredible luxury of a little bit of spare time, a little bit of rest, and a little bit more occasion to just hang out with Raymond, my favourite person. (The husband who came all the way to Queensborough with me.) And yes, I have found interesting new things to write about!

I thought I would start with the object that you see in the photo at the top of this post. It is a framed picture that I just recently found in an antiques emporium in Cobourg, Ont., and that is my new favourite thing. (After Raymond.) Also, I might add, it is is exactly what the Manse needs in the way of a new addition to the décor.

As you can tell from the photo, it is a framed picture that includes a verse of poetry. It was the rather charming old-fashioned picture, with the modestly coloured green and brown tints, that first caught my eye; but when I read the words, I instantly knew I had to have it. Now, in the hours since my purchase I have learned that the poem the words are from is very famous indeed, and I expect some of you will know it; but until today it was unknown to me, and so it is a new discovery and a new delight.

Sam Walter Foss

Sam Walter Foss, a “minor poet with a major message.”

The author of the poem is one Sam Walter Foss, 1858-1911, a “minor poet with a major message” as this interesting writeup by the Ethical Society of St. Louis (“A welcoming home for humanists” is their slogan) explains. Foss was a New Englander who, according to that same very helpful article, published several collections of verse toward the end of the 19th century. The one featured in my framed picture, called The House By the Side of the Road, is probably his most famous poem, though Wikipedia informs us here that the opening lines from another poem, called The Coming American, used to be inscribed in a granite wall at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. (The lines are: Bring me men to match my mountains / Bring me men to match my plains / Men with empires in their purpose / And new eras in their brains; they were removed from the granite wall, apparently, when it crossed the academy’s mind that there were women in the air force too.)

I also discovered in my research that it is widely (though not necessarily correctly) believed that the “house by the side of the road” that inspired Foss’s poem is one in the town of Tilton, N.H., which I found interesting – mainly because Raymond and I have been to Tilton several times, it being the location of one of those factory outlet malls that we Canadians love to visit when we are Stateside.

Finally, I learned that the outfit that produced my Cobourg antiques-emporium find, the Buzza Company of Minneapolis, Minn., (I can just barely read its name in tiny, tiny print at the bottom corner of my picture) was in operation between 1907 and 1942 (though its heyday was the 1920s). It produced “framed lithographs of gift mottos,” according to this site, and “knew that sentiment sold.”

Well, okay, so I bought the sentiment brought to me by Sam Walter Foss by way of the Buzza Company. But I bought it because I liked it, and I don’t see who wouldn’t. Here is the full text of Foss’s poem.You can  judge for yourself.

The House by the Side of the Road

There are hermit souls that live withdrawn
In the place of their self-content;
There are souls like stars, that dwell apart,
In a fellowless firmament;
There are pioneer souls that blaze the paths
Where highways never ran –
But let me live by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

Let me live in a house by the side of the road
Where the race of men go by –
The men who are good and the men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner’s seat
Nor hurl the cynic’s ban –
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

I see from my house by the side of the road
By the side of the highway of life,
The men who press with the ardor of hope,
The men who are faint with the strife,
But I turn not away from their smiles and tears,
Both parts of an infinite plan –
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

I know there are brook-gladdened meadows ahead,
And mountains of wearisome height;
That the road passes on through the long afternoon
And stretches away to the night.
And still I rejoice when the travelers rejoice
And weep with the strangers that moan,
Nor live in my house by the side of the road
Like a man who dwells alone.

Let me live in my house by the side of the road,
Where the race of men go by –
They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,
Wise, foolish – so am I.
Then why should I sit in the scorner’s seat,
Or hurl the cynic’s ban?
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

– Sam Walter Foss

Now you tell me, people – is that not a rather fine sentiment to have, and a code to live by? (Aside, that is, from the poem’s inherent assumption that all humans are men.)

I am going to place my framed Buzza Company print, with its charming picture and its words of wisdom by my new New England friend Sam Walter Foss, near the front door of the Manse – a house by the side of Bosley Road, Queensborough, Ont. A house that, having been built as a church manse, is supposed to be a place where a “friend to man” (and woman) lives. I hope that, from our house by the side of the road, Raymond and I will live up to Sam Walter Foss’s sentiment – sentimental though it might be. I believe it is good advice.

1,001 Nights at the Manse

Katherine in blog position

This is the view of me that Raymond has had for many and many an evening – 1,001 evenings, in fact – as I’ve worked in the blue glow of my MacBook Pro to churn our yet another yarn about life at the Manse. It’s time to move away from the blue glow, just a bit. (Photo by Raymond Brassard)

Tonight we are celebrating here at Meanwhile, at the Manse. Why? Because we have reached our 1,001st post!

Celebratory Manhattans

A thousand and one posts? Hey, that calls for a Friday-night Manhattan at the Manse!

Yes, just like Scheherazade, that legendary young woman of the Arabian Nights who held off a cruel king’s bloodthirsty urges by telling him stories every night for 1,001 nights – featuring Aladdin and the lamp, and Ali Baba, and Sinbad the Sailor, and all that stuff – I have recounted a yarn for you every single night (minus Sundays, because a minister‘s daughter shouldn’t work on Sundays, right?) 1,001 times, as of this very night. Now if that doesn’t call for a little celebration, what does? It being Friday night and all, I think I’ll have a Manhattan – minister’s daughter or no.

I’m in a bit of a celebratory mood for another reason too. It’s this: I decided a while back that with my 1,001st post I’d cut myself a bit of slack and lift the daily deadline that I imposed when I started this blog, on Jan. 30, 2012 – the day that Raymond and I became the owners of the Manse, the house that I grew up in. I do this with mixed feelings; I know from many years of practising journalism that deadlines are what force writers to produce, and without them, they… well, they often don’t produce. My daily deadline has been very helpful in giving me both focus and an imperative to get the job done.

But writing a post every day takes an extraordinary amount of time, and I am finding that I need some of that time – time being, along with health, the most precious commodity that any of us has – for other things. I have community work to do; I have St. Andrew’s United Church work to do. (I am the church secretary.) Also, spending a bit more time with my mum and the rest of my family couldn’t possibly hurt. Having more time to spend with Raymond would be a very good thing; he has been unendingly patient as dinner has been delayed night after night after night as I have hunched over this laptop, writing like mad about Avocado Green and Freshie and antimacassars and crokinole and the like. I’d like to stop dipping into his huge well of patience. And hey, the timing is good too: two days from now (April 12) is our seventh wedding anniversary, and maybe giving more of my time to my excellent husband and less to producing words on my laptop is a good anniversary gift.

Also: I could use a bit of a rest. Since I started this blog I haven’t taken a break from it, even when on vacation. I need a vacation.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Meanwhile at the Manse is going to go dark. Far, far, far from it! I promise I’ll still post with great regularity. Because, you know, there is just so darn much going on in Queensborough to tell you about! And there are so many interesting bits of local history to be dug up and reported on! So much artistic activity to investigate! Why, just last night as I was going through my photo files to find a picture I took a year ago of a crumbling shed on the road to town (to use in last night’s post, which is here), I realized that I have a lot of photos and ideas for posts kicking around. And then of course there are all those memories of my childhood here at the Manse in the 1960s and ’70s still to be mined – along with pictures of vintage finds from auctions and flea markets and yard sales to complement those memories, and take us all back to those happy midcentury times.

So yeah, there’ll continue to be Meanwhile, at the Manse stories. And if I give myself a little more time to produce them, I should be able to do some deeper research when it’s warranted, which it often is. Like: doing an interview with one of the people who was on the scene shortly after the UFOs landed in Cooper. (I am not making that up.) Or: checking out a hand-painted mural of a Queensborough scene that exists in a local house, a wonder that I only recently learned about. Or collecting still more reportage about Queensborough’s first and only (to date) rock festival.

Remember that old line about there being “a million stories in the naked city”? (In researching it just now, by the way, I discovered that the line is actually that there are eight million stories in the naked city.) Well, I am pretty sure there are a million stories in Queensborough alone – or, for that matter, in any place on this good planet. Every place, no matter how small, has history, and art, and interesting human beings, and anecdotes, and oddities, and slices of life both ordinary and extraordinary. All that’s needed is someone – a Scheherazade-type character – to find and tell those stories.

As of this post I’ve told 1,001 stories about life in Queensborough, and life at the Manse. And I’m rather proud of that accomplishment. Well, proud, and – ready for a bit of a rest.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the stories so far. I hope you don’t mind if it’s a bit longer in between them from now on. Most of all, I hope you’ll stay tuned. There are many more stories to come. I can’t wait!

The poetry of decay

Crumbling garage March 2014There is no shortage of old, decaying buildings here in The Country North of Belleville (as Al Purdy called our part of the world in one of his most famous poems). On many of the back roads, and even the front roads, you will see old barns and sheds, and sometimes houses, some of them dating from pioneer times, that are gradually wearing down and falling apart – some rather majestically, and some in just kind of a slow, quiet, wistful way.

While I’ve always been interested in these ghosts of buildings past – I wrote at length here about one of the more eye-catching ones, the hollow building up on a high hill on Tannery Road a little east of Madoc – they seem to have caught my attention a little more of late. I find myself stopping to photograph them as I drive around central Hastings County, not quite knowing what I plan to do with the photos. These decaying buildings speak to me somehow. Perhaps they speak the poetry of what once was. Or of the past meeting the present.

Maybe I have poetry on my mind tonight because I have just come home from a couple of hours spent in the company of a poet. Kath MacLean, whom you can read all about here, was the latest speaker in the always-excellent Friends of the Tweed Public Library Writers’ Series. MacLean, who lives in Edmonton, will be spending the next few months as writer in residence at the A-frame cottage that none other than Al Purdy (and his wife, Eurithe) built down in Prince Edward County. The Friends took advantage of her temporary proximity to Tweed (our area) to invite her to speak about her work. Which she did, most eloquently, as she read some of her wonderful poems.

There are several running themes in MacLean’s work, but one of them is ghosts – and maybe that’s another thing that made me think of the decaying buildings of central Hastings County tonight.

Now the shed, or garage, or whatever it is, that you can see collapsing in the photo at the top of this post is perhaps not what you would call a “historic” building. It’s kind of hard to tell how old it is; it could be anywhere from a century to just a few decades in age. But because I drive past it every day travelling to and from work, I’ve basically been watching its collapse in slow motion. The photo at the top I took a year ago, in March 2014; here is how it looked just a few days ago:

Crumbling garage April 2015

I have to say I’m kind of surprised that the roof hasn’t completely caved in. It has seemed to be on the brink of doing so for ever so long, and with this past winter’s heavy snows I was sure it would. But while it’s in dire shape, it is still a roof, after a fashion. Not a very straight roof, but at least it’s still there.

Once upon a time, when I was kid growing up in this same Manse where Raymond and I now live, I knew the people who lived in the decaying house that’s behind this decaying garage. One young man, a little older than I, sang in our choir at St. Andrew’s United Church. He was soft-spoken, a nice chap. When I drive by the abandoned house and the crumbling garage, I wonder what happened to him – where he is now, what profession he chose, whether he by any chance still sings in a church choir.

I guess it’s the human factor that ultimately speaks to us when we consider crumbling buildings, isn’t it? The people who built those buildings, who used them and lived in them. Even if those people are still alive, they no longer live in or use these places; and so, to these places, they are ghosts.

And for those of us who drive by and observe this sometimes splendid, sometimes almost imperceptible decay? What is it to us?

Well, I can’t answer for you. To me, it is a kind of silent poetry.

A delicious cure for the unseasonable-weather blues

Ham Supper 2015April snowAs I write this, on April 8, long past the official first day of spring, the weather outside is frightful. The snow is belting down on top of a layer of freezing rain and sleet, the wind is howling, and the Manse’s lawn, which only this morning was almost entirely green – okay, a mottled brownish-yellowish-green, but still – is now a blanket of white once again. It’s enough to make a person feel a bit discouraged. Why, just look at that jaunty little cap of snow that our back-of-the-Manse thermometer is sporting, even as it shows the temperature plunked firmly down at the freezing mark. Yikes!

St. Andrew's Easter 2

St. Andrew’s United Church, Queensborough, home of the longstanding tradition of the community Ham Supper.

Do you know what you need to do to get you out of the gloominess that such cold, nasty, unseasonable weather brings on? It is this: to make a promise to yourself that exactly one week from today, you will make the pleasant drive to pretty little Queensborough – which is sure to be almost snow-free by then, thanks to the mild temperatures in the forecast – and come to St. Andrew’s United Church for the annual Ham Supper. There you will join friends old and new and sit down to a hearty and delicious repast of ham, scalloped potatoes (some of them made by yours truly) and all the fixings, washed down with lots of strong church-basement tea, and topped off with a slice (or three) of the homemade pie that the women of St. Andrew’s are justly famous for. And you’ll do it knowing that in buying a ticket for this great meal (at what I’m sure you’ll agree is a bargain price), you’ll be supporting the good work of our historic little country church, which just happens to be celebrating its 125th anniversary in this Year of our Lord 2015.

So there – doesn’t that excellent plan make you feel better about today’s dismal weather? Aren’t you glad you have such a great old-fashioned community experience, and such a great meal, to look forward to just one week hence?

Are you hungry already? Good! Hold that thought. And we’ll see you next Wednesday. Raymond will be the one pouring the church-basement tea. Be sure to say hi!

A cool piece of regional history that’s very close to home

Several times in the past (notably here but more recently here) I’ve written about the excellent magazine called Country Roads (subtititle: “Celebrating Life in Hastings County“). It’s a delightful collection of interesting stories and beautiful photos about the people and places in this intriguing (and relatively undiscovered) part of the world that I grew up in and that Raymond and I now call home. Whenever copies of the new issue show up in stores, restaurants and other outlets, locals and visitors snatch them up eagerly. If you’d like to have your own electronic read of the latest issue (Spring 2015), just click on the link at the top of this post.

Aunt Gert story, Country Roads

What I want to specifically draw your attention to this evening, however, is one article in that most recent issue. It’s a feature story (which you can find on pages 22 and 23 of the electronic edition above) by Barry Penhale headlined A Medical Pioneer, and it is about a remarkable woman named Gertrude LeRoy Miller who, throughout the decade of the Great Depression, served as the nurse in charge of the Red Cross Outpost hospital in tiny Wilberforce, Ont. – a little outside the boundaries of Hastings County (it’s actually in our neighbour to the northwest, Haliburton County), but close enough.

The building that housed the Outpost hospital is now a museum and is designated a National Historic Site, partly because it was the first such hospital in Ontario. (You can check out its website, which includes listings of events at the museum, here.) But the focus of the article is less on the building and more on Gertrude LeRoy Miller, who, as it notes, is “by far the best-remembered Outpost nurse.” It explains that she arrived in tiny, remote Wilberforce from her native Toronto in 1930, brand-new nursing diploma from Toronto Western Hospital in hand.

Gertrude LeRoy Miller

A photo of Gertrude LeRoy Miller “during her first winter in Wilberforce, 1930-1931,” featured in the Country Roads article.

“Over the years she became steadily better-known for her countless errands of mercy, and often was the only one on the scene when remote homesteads coupled with violent storms and almost impassible roads combined to hold off the arrival of doctors from Haliburton (village) or Bancroft,” Penhale writes. “She soon discovered that isolation and the meagre existence associated with bush life were almost the norm for the area as she made her rounds. Not only were many people unable to pay for health-related servives, but a suspicion of anything modern among those whose home-doctoring methods often had their roots in local folklore meant that she had to exercise considerable tact. Some of these same people in  need proved, in the beginning, to be less than hospitalble. To her credit, Nurse LeRoy won over many such individuals, much to everyone’s benefit.”

The article goes on to recount some of Gertrude’s adventures in remote-country health care, and how she would sometimes make her rounds on skis or on a handcar of the Irondale, Bancroft and Ottawa Railway. And it tells the happy story of how her memoirs were eventually published (by Barry Penhale’s company, Natural Heritage Books) as a book called Mustard Plasters and Handcars.

Didi and me

My maternal grandmother (and Gertrude LeRoy Miller’s sister), Reta LeRoy Keay, with me, age five, at the Manse, December 1965. (Photo by my grandfather, J.A.S. Keay)

Now, this is all interesting enough in and of itself. But it’s particularly interesting for me because – I am Gertrude LeRoy Miller’s great-niece! She was the aunt of my mum, Lorna Keay Sedgwick, and the sister of my maternal grandmother, Reta LeRoy Keay. I have many happy childhood memories of visiting Aunt Gert and her husband, Uncle Del (Delbert Miller; I remember Aunt Gert always called him Delbert) in their Wilberforce home, listening to her stories of her nursing days and his of being a hunting guide and naturalist. (And admiring the astoundingly colourful fish swimming in the aquarium they had in their kitchen.)

Also, I should tell you that, while my grandmother and Aunt Gert died some time ago, their youngest sister, Virginia LeRoy Luckock (my Great-Aunt Gin) – who features in one of the photos in the Country Roads article – is still very much with us at the age of 99. Isn’t that something?

Anyway, as I think about Aunt Gert and how tickled I was to see her story included in Country Roads, it dawned on me that there is a much closer connection than just that article between her and my telling you this story this evening, from here at the Manse. It is this:

Because of Aunt Gert’s nursing career taking her to the WIlberforce area of Haliburton County, my mum’s parents were also introduced to that area, and subsequently bought a summer cottage on a lake nearby.

And because my mum spent summers in the area and knew and liked it, she applied for, and received, a teaching job at Haliburton Highlands Secondary School when she graduated from university and teachers’ college.

And it was through teaching at the Haliburton high school and living in Haliburton that my mum met my dad, who at the time was a young farmer in Haliburton County.

us six at the Manse

My family – Dad, Mum and us kids – in the Manse years of my childhood, 1964 to 1975.

And they married, and Dad went on to university and divinity school, and became a United Church of Canada minister – and in 1964 was appointed to his first pastoral charge, which was the Queensborough Pastoral Charge, and moved his young family, me included, to its Manse. And that Manse was therefore the house that I grew up in. And  because many years later I bought the house I grew up in and decided to write a blog about that, here I am today, telling you stories about the Manse, and about Queensborough, and about Hastings County and its history. And about Aunt Gert.

So basically, if you enjoy Meanwhile, at the Manse, you have Aunt Gert to thank for its existence. And actually, I guess I have Aunt Gert to thank for my existence.

Thanks, Aunt Gert!

Why the long A, Eldorado?

Eldorado sign

The sign at the southern entrance to the hamlet of Eldorado, just across the way from us here in Queensborough and straight up Highway 62 from Madoc. How would you pronounce it?

Okay, readers, I have yet another excellent central-Hastings-County mystery for you to solve! This one comes from a fellow reader, James, who tells me (in a comment he posted a couple of days ago, which you can find if you scroll way down here, in the “About” section of Meanwhile at the Manse ) that he moved to the area of the hamlet of Eldorado (just a few miles northwest of us here in Queensborough) a little over a year ago. (Welcome to our wonderful part of the world, James!) I know that some of you get alerts when new comments are posted so will have already seen it, but many of you do not. So for your benefit, here is James’s question:

All the history books and people from out of town refer to and pronounce Eldorado “El Dorado”, as it was originally called when the village was founded back in the gold mining days. As I understand, the name was shortened to “Eldorado” when the post office opened but the pronunciation is the same. Every other place or thing called Eldorado or El Dorado is pronounced the same way – like “Colorado”, “Cadillac Eldorado” or “Eldorado Gold”. I hear some locals say Eldorado with a long /ā/ sound, more like “Elder /ā/ do”. So my question is why? Do you know who started to pronounce it that way and possibly when?

Great question, James! Would that I had the answer.

Because you are absolutely right: anywhere and everywhere else in the world that the name El Dorado, or Eldorado, is used, it is pronounced with a soft A, as in the original Spanish. (Meaning “the gilded [or golden] one.”) If you click here, the knowledgeable folks at no less an organization than National Geographic will tell you all about the legend of El Dorado, and Sir Walter Raleigh, and why all kinds of real, or once-real, or illusory, or hoped-for, mining towns (like our very own Eldorado, Hastings County, Ont., site of the brief but ever-so-exciting 19th-century gold rush that James refers to) got that name. Pronounced (in all those other cases) with a soft A.

But not here! Here in Hastings County (and environs), we seem to like our hard As, as another reader, Wendy, pointed out in a response to James’s query. She even invoked a matter close to my heart (I wrote about it here), which is the mysterious pronunciation of the name of the small but for some reason well-known hamlet (in neighbouring Lennox and Addington County) of Kaladar:

I have wondered about the pronunciation myself in recent years, although not during the time I was growing up in MAYdoc. It seems to be a bit of a HastingsCountyism to insert the long A sound in names that would otherwise be pronounced with a short a. Many local people also call Kaladar, KaladAAr. (difficult to describe). Who knows when this all began?!

Wendy’s comment reminded me that people who don’t know the proper pronunciation of Madoc (which is “town” for us here in Queensborough, and which is, as Wendy says, pronounced MAYdoc) tend to assume it is something along the lines of “MeDOC,” as in a certain region of France. And yes, those same people would probably never think to pronounce Kaladar as “KalaDARE” – but that’s the more common version here where we live.

Is it possible that the hard A is an Ottawa Valley regionalism, and we are just close enough to the Ottawa Valley to have inherited it? Is there any chance that it’s a tendency that came here thanks to the specific part of the British Isles that many Hastings County settlers came from? Could the United Empire Loyalists have anything to do with it? I could throw out as a possibility the strong francophone influence that we have historically had in this area, but French is not at all big on hard As, so it can’t be that.

Perhaps it’s just that the rugged inhabitants of this rugged part of the world (“The Country North of Belleville,” to quote Al Purdy) decided that soft As were a little too fancy-schmancy for them, and by god they were going to pronounce things a little harshly, just as life here in Shield country was being harsh to them.

People, what do you think? Any theories?

The joy of being right where you belong, on an early day in spring

Rocky outcrop, Quin-Mo-Lac RoadHave you ever had a moment when a sense of pure and absolute joy floods over and washes through you? I mean, not just a moment of happiness – I assume and hope that we all have lots and lots of those – but utter, overwhelming joy? I think I’ve had that feeling maybe half a dozen times in my life. It always comes on unexpectedly, triggered by small things: a cherished song, a particular place, a sense of rightness with the world.

It happened to me the other day. And it was brought on by what you see in the picture at the top of this post: a rocky outcropping along a stretch of country road on a beautiful, sunny early-spring day.

“But rocky outcroppings and old fences and farm fields and sunny days are not hard to come by, especially in the North of 7 country where she lives,” is what I expect you are saying to yourself. And that is very true. But that’s what I mean about moments of unexpected joy: they can be triggered by the simplest and even the most familiar of things.

In this case I think it was the sudden realization, as Raymond and I travelled along that road in the early-spring sunshine, that the rocky outcropping – so utterly representative of the Canadian Shield landscape here in “the country north of Belleville,” as poet Al Purdy put it – was also utterly representative for me of home: this part of Hastings County where I grew up and where I now live once again. The landscape of rocks and lakes and rivers and trees and marshes and sumacs and split-rail fences and old barns and “bush land, scrub land” (to quote Al Purdy again) may not be to everyone’s taste. But for me, it is beautiful. And it is home. And I felt so utterly, utterly blessed, on that sunny early-spring day, to be home in this beautiful place.

And just as that wonderful feeling was washing over me… I saw my first robin of the year. Springtime has truly come. And that is a joyous thing.

* * *

St. Andrew's EasterSt. Andrew's Easter 2Speaking of springtime and joy, any reader who happens to be in the Queensborough area tomorrow – or who would like to take advantage of another pleasant spring day to make an excursion here – is warmly invited to the Easter service at worship at St. Andrew’s United Church, 812 Bosley Rd. (Just up the road from the Manse!) The service is at 11 a.m. Everyone is welcome to join us for this happiest of Christian celebrations, this joyful Eastertide, in our historic country church.

Happy spring, dear readers, and happy Easter!