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!

Easter wishes from across the miles

Hudson's Bay candles

The Manse’s small collection of Hudson’s Bay-striped candles (and playing cards) – a collection that was augmented slightly as I carried out a cross-border mission for a new faraway friend.

A little while ago (in a post here) I promised to tell you how I made a new friend, Shirley, in far-off Minnesota, thanks to Hudson’s Bay colours, a Queensborough mailbox, and Meanwhile, at the Manse. On this Good Friday I thought it would be a good time for that story, having been reminded of it by an email from Shirley wishing me a happy Easter. It’s just a little story, but as so many of us are marking Easter and Passover, and spending time with loved ones and friends, I thought it might be a happy glimpse into how the smallest things can bring people together.

Hudson's Bay mailbox

Prettiest mailbox in Queensborough, in Hudson’s Bay colours.

It started with a post I did back in October, singling out what I considered then, and still consider, to be the prettiest mailbox in our little village. Why? Because it’s been painted in the Hudson’s Bay stripes, a great, and attractive, Canadian tradition. To further illustrate the Hudson’s Bay colours in that post, I tossed in a picture of a pillar candle and deck of playing cards in those same colours – purchased at the Bay, of course – that Raymond and I have in the Manse’s living room.

In early December, a couple of months after that post appeared, I got this email:

Hi Katherine,

I found your blog while doing a search for Hudson’s Bay pillar striped candles.  I fell in love with the look of these candles after seeing them on a fireplace mantle in a Christmas movie several years ago.  I have been trying to purchase some ever since.  It has become an obsession!  I live in Minnesota in the USA and am unable to purchase them from Hudson’s Bay since I don’t live in Canada.  I got excited when I found out that some of their items are sold at Lord and Taylor and can be purchased from outside of Canada.  Unfortunately, they don’t have the candle on their website and my online chat with customer service wasn’t any help.  Do you have any suggestions for somewhere that I can purchase them?

I realize that this question really has nothing to do with your blog except that you had a picture of one of the candles.  I will certainly understand if you are unable to respond and I thank you for taking the time to read this.

I thought it was a nice note, and that Shirley sounded like a nice person. I mean, all people who appreciate Hudson’s Bay colours are nice, right? And as it happened, I was able to help her out.

I started by doing my own online search for Hudson’s Bay candles, kind of incredulous that someone living in the U.S. wouldn’t be able to get one there. Sure enough, I discovered that they aren’t available, not even on eBay or Amazon, and that the Bay doesn’t ship to the States. (Which seems rather counterproductive on their part.) So no dice on that front. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

As it happened, Raymond and I were going to be back in Montreal (our home until I dragged him to Queensborough and the house I grew up in) just a few days after I got Shirley’s note. There’s a huge, historic Bay store in downtown Montreal, with a whole boutique of items featuring the iconic Bay stripes – including the pillar candles. So I told Shirley I could pick one up for her and ship it when we were visiting Raymond’s family in the Boston area at Christmas (to save high Canada-to-U.S. shipping charges).

She was so happy! And so we carried through with the plan, picking up a candle for Shirley (and another one for ourselves) that I shipped out to Minnesota from Nashua, N.H., on Boxing Day. (Boxing Day isn’t a holiday in the U.S., so the post offices are open.)

Here is the email I got a few days later:

Hi Katherine,

The candle was in my mailbox when I stopped by it this morning.  I took it to work with me as I was so anxious to open my package and see it.  It is as beautiful as I knew it would be.  THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!  I can’t believe that after all of these years, I own one.

She went on with some personal details about her family and her Christmas, details that were fleshed out more as we exchanged messages about the cost of the candle and the shipping (after which she sent me a money order that went way beyond covering my costs, which she shouldn’t have – Shirley, if you’re reading this, you shouldn’t have!). It was interesting to learn that she, like me, works at an academic institution (the University of Minnesota). And my suspicion that Shirley was a thoroughly nice person was only confirmed the more I got to know about her.

And then a couple of days ago I got an email from her wishing Raymond and me a happy Easter and telling me that she was still enjoying looking at her Hudson’s Bay striped candle. How nice is that?

And how remarkable that two total strangers living a thousand miles apart in two different countries could become friends over a random blog post that, by sheer dumb luck, included a photo of a candle in Hudson’s Bay colours.

A story with a happy ending – just in time for Easter!

An object of hungry desire

Weston Biscuits shelf

This gorgeous metal biscuit shelf is among the fine selection of food-themed antiques for sale (along with amazing baked goods) at Madoc‘s Hidden Goldmine Bakery. How I covet it to help store our collection of vintage cookbooks!

There is something for sale in beautiful downtown Madoc that I would just love to have. Its price, however, is a little north of $300, and while I am quite sure the amount is fair, it’s a little rich for my blood right at the moment. Because it is located in the wonderful Hidden Goldmine Bakery – source of the best butter tarts you will ever eat, as well as possibly the best cookie, the splendid Cinnamon Sparkle – I get to see and ogle this object frequently – because you can’t make a trip to “town” without stopping by the Hidden Goldmine.

This object is, as you can see from my photo, a vintage metal store shelf for holding packages of Weston biscuits. Now, Weston being a fine old Canadian company and all, the name is a big lure for me. I’m also very interested in the fact that this particular shelf may have come from Raymond’s home state, Massachusetts, because in the small print at the bottom it tells us that the biscuits it was helping to market to consumers had been made in a factory in Watertown, Mass.

(Now, before we go one bit further I need to point out that Watertown, Mass, is not the same thing as Watertown, N.Y., home of WWNY-TV, channel 7 CBS on the old black-and-white TV that was at the Manse when I was a kid growing up here. In the period, I might add, that I think constituted the golden years of television [as I wrote about at length here]. Those golden years included a corny made-in-Watertown kids’ show featuring the late Danny Burgess. Anybody here remember Danny Burgess? I’m sure at least a few of you do.)

Anyway, I am surprised to know that the George Weston company, Canadian through and through, had a factory in New England, and so far I haven’t found anything about that on my friend the internet. But really it’s no matter. What does matter is how much I would like to have that biscuit stand!

Why? Because I think it would be the perfect funky place to display some of our large (and growing) collection of vintage cookbooks. The ones I find at yard sales and flea markets and library sales, that promise midcentury hostessing perfection, not to mention a limitless supply of casserole recipes. I love those cookbooks! (As I’ve written before, notably here and here.)

To show you how much I love them, here are some photos featuring some of the titles. Perhaps the pictures will bring back some culinary memories for you too:

Vintage Betty Crocker cookbooks

Thanks to Betty Crocker, I have instructions on being the perfect hostess and making the perfect dinner for two. Like: Liver and Bacon Patties, with Glazed Sweet Potatoes, Broiled Tomato Halves, Fruit Compote and Ginger Creams. Wow!

Serve At Once/Dinners That Wait

I deliberately put side by side the two cookbooks Serve At Once (subtitle: The Soufflé Cookbook) and Dinners That Wait, a classic featuring recipes that finish themselves off on the stovetop or in the oven while the hostess sits down with her guests for “a leisurely cocktail.”

Vintage cookbooks

More vintage classics (and not-so-classics).

Vintage cookbooks 2

I have a soft spot for anything by Elizabeth David. And the bright colours on the dust jacket of her cookbook brighten up the shelf!

Oh yes, I guess I should also show some proof that we do have modern cookbooks too:

Modern cookbooks

And also proof that I actually use my cookbooks. Just look! Do you think any previous occupant of the Manse has ever made such a nice cheese soufflé? (Thanks for the recipe, Julia!):

Katherine's Famous Soufflé

Hot and beautifully puffy, light as air: a cheese soufflé (recipe by Julia Child) just out of the Manse’s vintage Harvest Gold oven.

Anyway, that’s a very quick partial tour of the contents of the Manse’s cookbook collection. Now can you see how perfect Mr. George Weston’s biscuit shelf would be to show them off?

In which Sieste the cat learns to share the hassock. Sort of.

Sieste and the church schedule

This is Sieste the cat, somewhat reluctantly deciding to share hassock space with the schedule for services at St. Andrew’s United Church. The things a cat has to put up with!

Long, long ago, I told you (here, in fact) about how the Manse needed a hassock, an oddball object that was unavoidable in North American households in the middle of the 20th century (including here in Queensborough when I was growing up at the Manse) and that has since kind of gone missing in action. Later, I delightedly told you (here) about how Raymond and I finally acquired a cool midcentury hassock that fits right in with the midcentury vibe of our happy Queensborough house. (And if you’re wondering why a house that was built in the Victorian days of 1888 has a mid-20th-century vibe – well, chalk it up to my midcentury youth here.)

Anyway, what you might not know – yet – is that one of the favourite recurring characters here at Meanwhile, at the Manse, Sieste the cat, totally loves that Harvest Gold hassock. It is one of her preferred places to perch, and she’s even got used to the fact that it has wheels and sometimes rolls around a bit when she jumps up on it. (I think maybe it’s her version of a midway ride at the Madoc Fair.)

Even as I write this, Sieste is on the hassock by my right knee, keeping an eye on me and on all that might be going on in the Manse’s dining room on a quiet Wednesday night. Which is, truth be told, not all that much – but then it doesn’t take a lot to amuse Sieste.

Anyway, I thought I’d share the photo that’s at the top of this post because I found it funny how Sieste felt she had to find a place on the hassock a couple of nights ago, even though much of the hassock space was taken up with a piece of paper showing the schedule of services at St. Andrew’s United Church here in Queensborough and the two churches with whom we share the services of The Rev. Caroline Giesbrecht, St. John’s United in Tweed and Bethesda United in the hamlet of White Lake. The schedule was there on the hassock so I could refer to it as I did some church work – I am the secretary at St. Andrew’s – but Sieste could not bear to have her space usurped. So she kind of worked her way into the situation, first by jumping up and announcing her intention to make that pesky piece of paper make way for her:Sieste making her peace with the church schedule 1

And then by trying to find a way to settle down beside it without looking like she was being too accommodating to this annoying intrusion on her space:

Sieste making her peace with the church schedule 2

And then finally settling herself comfortably (without disturbing the church schedule, I might add) and making peace with the situation.

You’ve heard of separation of church and state? Well, I consider this separation of church and cat. A separation in which, appropriately, everything has its place. Right there on the hassock.