From the icy Northwest Passage to farm life in Ivanhoe

Gauen Cemetery historic-site sign

The newly erected historical-site sign along Highway 62 in the farm country just north of the central Hastings County hamlet of Ivanhoe. What’s it all about? Something very cool. Read on!

People, have you ever put the phrase “Northwest Passage” and “Ivanhoe” together in the same thought or sentence? My guess is that the answer is no, regardless of whether the word “Ivanhoe” conjures up for you the name of a novel by Sir Walter Scott or a hamlet in central Hastings County. So you may be surprised to learn that there is a very direct connection between the two, and I’m talking Ivanhoe the hamlet now – a place perhaps best-known as the home of the Ivanhoe Cheese Factory, one of the last of the dozens, if not hundreds, of cheese factories that once dotted Hastings County back when it was a full-on dairy-farming, cheese-producing place.

Now, readers of Meanwhile, at the Manse who happen to live in the QueensboroughMadoc-Tweed-Ivanhoe area will probably know what I’m about to get into here, because this very interesting story has been well-covered in our weekly newspapers recently. But since most of you live considerably outside the borders of Hastings County, I thought I’d share this very cool bit of local history. I mean, it doesn’t get much more Canadian-history than the Franklin Expedition’s search for the Northwest Passage, does it?

As most of us who can remember a bit of our Canadian history know, Sir John Franklin was head of a British expedition that in 1845 set off to try to find a way through the Northwest Passage, the elusive Arctic route that would have made 19th-century transportation between Asia and Europe phenomenally easier than it otherwise was (what with that long and pesky trip around South America and the Straits of Magellan and all that). Franklin’s ships, the gorgeously named Erebus and Terror, got stuck in the ice, and all 129 men aboard died.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have always found the story of the Franklin Expedition and the Northwest Passage to be quite haunting. To imagine those poor men slowly dying of cold and starvation (and let’s not even get into the cannibalism angle that their desperation drove them to) in that vast frozen emptiness, all in the great cause of discovery and exploration – it gives me shivers, and has ever since I was a kid growing up here at the Manse in Queensborough, when I first learned the story in history classes at Madoc Township Public School.

The famous – and also haunting – song called Northwest Passage by Canadian folk-music legend Stan Rogers probably also has something to do with that frisson that I feel. I’ll get to that song in a bit, though I’m sure many of you are familiar with it and it’s already running around in your head.

Anyway, as you probably remember, the fate of the Franklin Expedition was not known right away, which is hardly surprising; at a time when any form of communication was slow even when it was’t scarce, there certainly would have been no way for the men on the stranded expedition to let the world know of their plight. And so rescue missions were sent out. And that’s where the Ivanhoe connection to the story comes in. I will let the plaque at the site marked by the sign on Highway 62 tell the story (and if you’re having trouble reading it, just click on the photo for an enlargement):

Gauen Cemetery plaque

Now isn’t that something? A chap who served as a carpenter’s mate on a ship sent to find signs of the Franklin Expedition, and that mapped the Northwest Passage – a huge accomplishment – became an immigrant to Canada, a farmer at Ivanhoe, and one of the founders of the Ivanhoe Cheese Company. And he and his wife are buried on their farm, a place that is still being farmed all these years later.

And now, thanks to the work of the Madoc Lions Club, Gay Lea Foods (owner of Ivanhoe Cheese) and the Municipality of Centre Hastings, their graves have a historical marker and a plaque explaining the significance. You can watch the ceremony at which the tiny historic cemetery was dedicated this past September, in a video filmed by my friends at CHTV cable TV Madoc, here.

I think this is all very, very cool.

Here are some more of my photos of the site, in case you are not able to visit it yourself:

Gauen Cemetery

The small fenced-off cemetery where Henry Gauen and his wife, Mary, are buried. It’s right on a farm that is still very much in operation, and were it not for the sign pointing it out, most people driving by would certainly miss this interesting historic spot.

Henry Gauen

Henry Gauen himself, who became an important person in early central Hastings agricultural and business life. This photo is part of the plaque at the Gauen cemetery.

Franklin mission photo at Gauen cemetery

A painting about the Franklin Expedition and subsequent search, also from the plaque at the Gauen Cemetery. It shows a scene a long, long way from Ivanhoe.

Grave markers at Gauen Cemetery

The graves of Henry and Mary Gauen. Note how on Henry’s is marked “McClure Arctic Expedition,” Robert McClure having been the commander of the ship Investigator on which Henry sailed as part of a mission to find the Franklin Expedition. This is not something you find on many Hastings County grave markers!

I just think this is an amazing piece of local history, and I also think it’s wonderful that this tiny cemetery – where Henry Gauen, carpenter’s mate on a long and desperately dangerous mission to find the Franklin Expedition, lies buried – has been preserved and, now, suitably marked and honoured.

So hey, in the spirit of things, let’s listen to a group of young men from the University of Waterloo perform that haunting song by Stan Rogers about the Northwest Passage. And while you listen, think of Henry Gauen, who went from sailor and Arctic explorer to Ivanhoe farmer and cheesemaker. I’m sure he would agree with me when I say it seems like a safe and happy ending to an adventurous life. Tracing one warm line, so to speak:

4 thoughts on “From the icy Northwest Passage to farm life in Ivanhoe

    • Thank you so much for the kind words, Kerry! There is not one aspect of that story, from the Franklin expedition to Stan Rogers to Henry Gauen, that is not amazing. I was just happy to be able to pull some of those threads together!

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