Your ticket to learn the secrets of Queensborough pie perfection

Pie FlyerYou heard about it here first, people: early next month, you get your chance to learn how to make pies as great as the ones you enjoy whenever you come to Queensborough for church suppers and the like. As I reported back in January, the volunteers at the Queensborough Community Centre committee are organizing the first – and, we hope, far from the last – Master Pie-Making Course. And now, as I promised in that earlier report, I have all the details for you, plus – as you’ll see at the top of this post – your registration form for this fantastic event.

Potluck Supper poster 2018The first thing I have to tell you is this: act fast! Spaces in the class are limited and, judging by the enthusiastic response I received to that first post both here and on social media, they will fill up very quickly. If you want to learn from the best of the best, follow these instructions:

  1. Click on the photo at the top of this post showing the registration form.
  2. Go to the bottom right of the next screen you’ll see. Click on “View full size.”
  3. Drag the image to the desktop of your computer.
  4. Print it out, fill in your information, and mail it off as soon as you can – or better yet, come to the potluck supper this coming Sunday (Feb. 18, 2018) at the Queensborough Community Centre and drop it off ahead of time. (Hey, how about this: we’re having a Queensborough Trivia competition at the potluck supper – how much fun is that? People, we in Queensborough know how to have a good time.) Also: if you have trouble downloading the form, you can also find it, readily downloadable, at the Queensborough Community Centre’s Facebook page.

And hey – how about the amazingly low registration fee for this class? Only $10 to learn life-changing pie-making skills from the pros: Betty Sexsmith, Ann Brooks and Barb Ramsay. Plus the QCC supplies all your ingredients! (That would be flour, lard or shortening, pie filling, etc.) You’re not likely to find a better deal than that.

Now, you do have to supply some stuff yourself, as noted on the information sheet. Presumably you all know what a rolling pin is, but we decided to use a photo of a pastry blender because there are probably some potential pie-makers who have never used one. Wondering about the dry-measure measuring cups? As the lovely Mrs. Meraw taught me in home-economics class at Centre Hastings Secondary School in Madoc way back in the days when I was growing up in Queensborough, you must use dry-measure cups for ingredients like flour, sugar and so on – not the measuring cups you use for liquids like milk, oil, etc. Here’s a visual to help the measuring-cup-challenged, with Raymond, my husband and in-house chef extraordinaire, doing the modelling. Dry-measure cups look like this:

Raymond with dry-measure cups

And liquid-measure cups look like this:

Raymond with the liquid-measure cups

There! A baking-utensils lesson from me, of all people. All credit to Mrs. Meraw for this knowledge. She was an excellent (and very patient) home-ec teacher.

Now, a couple of other things to note:

  • The spaces for this session really will fill up quickly. We don’t want people to be disappointed, so if it turns out that the class is full by the time your registration arrives, don’t despair! We can and will do it again.
  • After lengthy deliberations, the planning committee decided that this first Master Class will be strictly about the magic of making good pastry. We thought that adding instructions for turning fresh or frozen fruit (or savoury ingedients, such as the makings of chicken pot pie) into pie filling would be too much for one session. As a result, the pies that students will take home to bake will contain canned filling. But! If there’s interest and demand, we’ll hold another class on making yummy fillings for your perfect pie crust.

Okay, there you go. Round up your materials – borrow them if you don’t have them, or stop by your friendly local Home Hardware store or equivalent to buy some of your own, because lord knows you’ll be making pies after this pie-making class. Send in your registration. And come to beautiful Queensborough on Saturday, March 3, for this extraordinary culinary experience.

The organizers think of this as a passing of the pastry-blender-shaped torch, from the veteran pie-makers of Queensborough to the next generation.

I want to be there to catch that torch. You do too.

Postscript: Thank you so much to all of you who responded to last week’s post, sending me some answers to my questions about “Canada’s Oldest Gas Station” in Eldorado. I promise I’ll get back to that topic, and share the information you sent, very soon. But right at the moment, pie-class registration is urgent!

This time it’s your turn to tell ME a story.

Lounge: Gas and Food

The vintage sign suggests comfort: a place to stop, get warm and get both your vehicle and yourself refuelled. Unfortunately, these days it’s an empty promise because the food, fuel, groceries and ice cream still proclaimed on signs at “Canada’s Oldest Gas Station” in the hamlet of Eldorado are no longer available, the operation having closed down an undetermined number of years ago.

My friends, I’ve told you a lot of stories over a thousand-odd posts since Meanwhile, at the Manse began in January 2012. This time, I want you to tell me a story.

Here’s what has prompted my request.

A couple of weekends ago, I was driving south down Highway 62 toward Madoc, having returned some borrowed books about old-home restoration to a friend in the hamlet of Bannockburn.

As I zipped through the next hamlet south of Bannockburn, which is Eldorado – a tiny but historic place, being the site of Ontario’s first gold mine and all, and as close as rural Madoc Township gets to having a township seat – something that I’d vaguely noticed many times before suddenly stopped me in my tire tracks. As I reversed up the highway so as to get a closer look and some photos, I said to myself, “Self, what on Earth is the deal with that ‘Canada’s Oldest Gas Station’ sign?” Here, take a look at what I mean:

Canada's Oldest Gas Station

Canada’s Oldest Gas Station? In Eldorado? Really? I need to know the story behind this.

People, why would tiny North-of-7 Eldorado be the home of Canada’s oldest gas station?

Or at least, what maybe once was Canada’s oldest gas station. Since this gas station is no longer a gas station, perhaps another one still in operation somewhere else across the length and breadth of our vast nation has usurped its claim.

“Canada’s Oldest Gas Station” still has gas pumps, but they’ve clearly not been used for some time:

Gas tanks at Canada's Oldest Gas Station

The gas pumps at the onetime gas station are definitely not the pay-with-your-card type that you see most of the time these days. It looks like Canada’s Oldest Gas Station was a full-serve operation.

And it still has signage proclaiming all the things that one could once have purchased there when stopping for gas, including “Great Food,” “Ice Cream,” “Takeout” and “Groceries”:

Groceries and ice cream at Canada's Oldest Gas Station

But clearly none of this is any longer on offer to the travelling public. This place that must once have been the hot spot of Eldorado looks long-shuttered, sadly.

So I’d like anyone who knows about this to tell me the story of what it once was. And mainly I’d like to know whether it’s true that this place in tiny Eldorado is (or was) Canada’s Oldest Gas Station, and how that came to be.

And here’s another thing I’d like to know, about myself and, perhaps, all of you: I’d like to know how many times in our days, our weeks and our lives we pass by interesting and/or odd things – such as a sign in Eldorado proclaiming “Canada’s Oldest Gas Station” – and pay them little or no mind. How many stories, how many pieces of our collective and community history, do we miss learning about and passing on to future generations because we – like me, every time I drove south through Eldorado except this one last time – don’t stop to wonder about, and maybe look into, what’s right before our eyes?

Lesson learned for me. Now, Eldorado, Bannockburn and Madoc Township people: please tell me the story of Canada’s Oldest Gas Station!

Want to be a genius pie-maker? Come to Queensborough!

Pies at the St. Andrew's supper

The pie table at a community supper at St. Andrew’s United Church, Queensborough, is proof that the art of pie-making is alive and thriving here.

I have noticed that the world is divided into two kinds of people:

  • Those who can make pie.
  • Those who cannot.

By my unscientific calculation, the second group outnumbers the first by a factor of about 377 million per cent.

It wasn’t always like that – at least, not in the world I grew up in, which was North America in the middle part of the 20th century.

In that world, every woman – or at least, every woman I knew, here in Queensborough and elsewhere – and also some men, could make pie. And by “make pie” I do not mean “could pour a can of pie filling into a frozen pre-made pie crust.” No, I mean taking a basket of freshly picked apples, or strawberries, or peaches, and peeling or pitting or stemming or whatever you had to do to them, adding some magic ingredients such as maybe cinnamon and definitely a whole lot of sugar, and then putting it into a homemade pastry shell, covering it with another piece of homemade pastry (possibly in the form of fancy latticework), crimping the edges prettily, cutting a few artful slashes in the top, and after it spending a certain length of time in the oven, producing a mouth-watering dessert that needed only a scoop of vanilla ice cream, or a dollop of whipped fresh cream, or – if we’re talking apple pie, and if we’re in dairy-farm country like my own Hastings County – a slice of nicely aged cheddar to turn it into something that everyone at the table would adore and ask for seconds of.

That, people, is pie-making.

Pies at the church food tent

Homemade pies at the food tent that St. Andrew’s United Church, Queensborough, helped run at the Hastings County Plowing Match at the McKinnon farm just west of the village in the summer of 2016. We sold every piece!

But now that we’re well into the 21st century, it seems to be something of a lost, or at least disappearing, art. Can you make melt-in-your mouth flaky pie dough, dear reader? Can you make a raspberry pie that would have them coming back for seconds?

I know people – notably my mother, Lorna – who used to whip up homemade pies at the drop of a hat, but who for some reason have lost their pie-making mojo, or at least think they have. “I can’t make pie crust anymore,” my mum tells me quite frequently. I don’t think it’s true, but I do know that, unlike in the days of my childhood, she doesn’t make pie very often.

Then there’s the vast number of people – including me – who never had that mojo in the first place. For all of my life – until just a couple of weeks ago, and I’ll tell you that story in a bit – I’ve been unable to make pie, because I could not make pie crust. The few times I tried it, even under the watchful eye of an experienced pie-maker, the crust was an utter disaster, falling apart as I tried to roll it out, hard and unflaky when baked. It was a stressful, discouraging experience. I’ve always thought of people who could actually make great pie crust as being – well, kitchen magicians.

Ruth's pie vs. my pie

This is the time a couple of years ago that I tried to make a lemon meringue pie to contribute to a community event. The result – the pie on the left – was an appalling embarrassment, and went straight into the garbage. My pie-making neighbour Ruth, who just makes the best pies, saved the day with a lemon meringue pie of her own – the beauty on the right.

Carol's pie pastry recipe in my recipe box

Carol’s recipe for pie pastry, safely stored in my vintage recipe box.

(My recent modest conversion to the side of people who can produce a pie crust – if not necessarily yet a full pie – came about thanks to a conversation on the picket line, of all things. As many readers will know, faculty at all of Ontario’s community colleges were on strike for an agonizing five weeks this past fall. Since I’m a faculty member at Loyalist College in Belleville, that included me. As I walked the picket line with a colleague named Carol one day, we began talking about pie-making, and I referenced the same sad tale I’ve just told you about my lack of pie-making skills. Carol told me that if I had a food processor – which I do – I had no excuse, that she had a recipe that would never fail me. The next day, she produced it on one of those old-fashioned recipe cards. I tucked it away in my old-fashioned recipe box [of course you knew I’d have an old-fashioned recipe box] and promised Carol, and myself, that I’d try it one day. Well, that day came one late night two days before Christmas, when Raymond was making a fancy recipe for tourtière and the fancy recipe’s recipe for the dough failed utterly. Raymond was not happy, and I knew I had to step in if Christmas cheer was to be restored. “I have Carol’s recipe!” I told him, trying to sound more confident than I felt. I knew that if I messed up on the the pastry, and all those lovely tourtière ingredients – various meats, spices, vegetables, herbs, stock and so on – that Raymond had so painstakingly prepared couldn’t be baked in it, there’d be a whole lot of crankiness at the Manse. So I gathered my courage, followed Carol’s simple recipe to the letter – and voilà:

Tourtière saved by Carol

I like to call this “Carol saves Christmas.” The pastry isn’t perfect – you’ll spot the place where it had to be patched a bit – but it looked, and tasted, wonderful!

But just because I can now produce a pie crust doesn’t mean that I know anything about filling a pie, or doing that lattice-work thing with the top crust, or marking the edges look nice – Raymond did that with the tourtière – or actually baking it.)

I believe I’m safe in saying that those of us who can’t whip up a pie tend to be in awe of those who can. And that we would love to have that skill, would love to be able to proudly produce a delicious blueberry or lemon meringue pie, or a savoury chicken pot pie. In my case, I’d like to be able to be one of the women of Queensborough and area who, when a church supper or other community event involving food looms, turn out two or three delicious pies in a snap to contribute. My contributions always have to be something else, because of my pie-making shortcomings. Despite my recent start on the pastry front, I’m still out of the pie-making clubhouse.

Does my situation describe your own? Or are you maybe one of those people, like my mum, who thinks you’ve lost a knack you once had? Or are you maybe just in need of a bit of pie-making inspiration? Well, people, I am here to tell you that help is at hand! Right here! And soon! It’s your chance to learn about making pie from the best of the best: the women of Queensborough!

HQD QCC with Buddy Table

The Queensborough Community Centre, where the March 3 Master Pie-Making Class will take place. It’s at 1853 Queensborough Rd. But because of expected demand you’ll probably have to pre-register (rather than just showing up), so watch this space for details!

On Saturday, March 3,  at 1 p.m., there will be a Master Pie-Making Class at the Queensborough Community Centre – our village’s historic former one-room schoolhouse. At this session, you’ll have the opportunity to learn the art of pie-making from three of Queensborough’s best and most experienced pie-makers. And this won’t just be a watch-the-teacher-do-her-thing session; people, we are talking about hands-on learning! You will have flour on your hands, and you will be rolling out that pastry yourself, under the careful eye of a master of the craft.

Does it get any better than this? I think not.

Word of our Master Class has already gone out in some tourism and coming-events publications, and people are excited. Members of the community centre committee are being stopped in the aisles of the Madoc Foodland by people who want to come on March 3. It seems that even if the skill of pie-making has got a little bit lost these days, the interest in acquiring that skill has not.

We’re still working out some of the details of the pie-making session, like whether students will have to bring anything (probably not, aside maybe from an optional apron), and what kinds of pies we’ll make, and how much the fee for the session will be (small, but necessary to cover the cost of ingredients). So keep an eye on this space, on the Queensborough Community Centre Facebook page, and on the local media as we get closer to the date – or message me here if you have questions. Meanwhile, please feel free to tell your friends, family and neighbours – men and women! young and old! – about this amazing opportunity to learn pie-making from those who do it best.

I, by the way, will be the keener in the very front row.

New Year’s Days of yore – plus a bonus candy recipe!

LOSTRECIPES_Taffy

What do this delicious-looking fudge and long-ago New Year’s Day celebrations in Queensborough have in common? Read on! (Photo from the Lost Recipes page of myneworleans.com)

Well, the holidays are behind us, and a long and – to judge by how it’s been so far – very wintry winter lies ahead. Doubtless we’ll make it through to the other side, to those happy days when the streams start to run, the crocuses peek through the snow, and the scent of sun-warmed earth greets us when we go outdoors of a morning. But on this early-January evening, the end of a day when several inches of snow fell and fell and fell and fell on Queensborough and a great deal of shovelling, snowblowing and plowing was done by all, springtime seems a long way away.

So to cheer us all up before Christmas fades too far into the rear-view mirror, I’d like to share a wonderful Queensborough holiday memory from sometime around the early middle of the last century.

The memory is not my own (though I wish it were); it comes from Barbara Martin, a good friend of Meanwhile, at the Manse and of Queensborough generally. Barbara (née Sager) grew up in Queensborough, one of several children of the proprietors of Sager’s General Store, Bob and Elsie Sager. (In later years, the running of the store was taken over by Barbara’s older sister Bobbie, a woman who is legendary here for her community service, strength of spirit, terrific sense of humour and kind-heartedness, and for just generally being a force of nature. I’ve written about the late Bobbie Sager Ramsay and her store before, notably here, and my first-person account of Bobbie’s wedding – a surprise event that stunned the good folk of our hamlet – is here.) While Barbara and her husband, Don, have lived elsewhere for many years, she keeps Queensborough close to her heart and visits whenever she can. One reason she is important to this place is her vast store of memories of what it was like in the days of her youth.

Barb Martin at former Sager's General Store by Queensborough Beauty

Barbara Martin outside her family’s former general store (now a private home and the headquarters of the Pronk Canada Queensborough Machine Shop) on Historic Queensborough Day this past September. (Photo courtesy of Queensborough Beauty)

Jamie and Tory at LOL by Gary Pattison

Jamie Grant and Tory Byers, new owners of the former Orange Hall, are turning it into an arts space that can be used for community events such as the Black Fly Shuffle dance. (Photo courtesy of Gary Pattison)

In the comments section here a few days ago, Barbara shared one of those memories. Since many readers don’t see all the comments that are posted, and since this one was too good not to pass on to you, I decided to build this week’s post around it. And there’s an added bonus: you get a candy recipe out of it!

Here are Barbara’s words, sent in response to my New Year’s Day post a week ago. In it, I mentioned events planned for our village in 2018, one of the most fun of which is the return of the Black Fly Shuffle community dance in the former Orange Hall. (It’ll be on Saturday, May 26, and you won’t want to miss it. Stay tuned to this space for details as the time gets nearer.)

I think you’ll agree when you read this that Barbara conjures up a lovely, Christmas-card-type image of Queensborough in the – well, not quite the “olden days,” but let’s say in times past. Over to you, Barbara:

It is ironic that you mention a possible dance in the old Orange Hall, as I had just mentioned to Don last evening how on New Year’s Day we always went to Uncle Bruce and Aunt Carrie’s for a dinner at noon, sleigh riding and horse and cutter ride in the afternoon, back for supper in the evening and then to the dance in the hall that night. Also Aunt Carrie always made homemade ice cream and Russian toffee. I do make the toffee, but have not had homemade ice cream since Bobbie passed away. What wonderful memories.

Oh my goodness! Can’t you just picture yourself bundling up in your warmest coat, mittens, hat and scarf, after a big holiday noonday meal, and being taken for a horse-and-cutter ride in the snow and the sunshine, the clear, brisk air reawakening both you and your appetite? There are many farm fields around Queensborough – notably in behind the spot where the home of Barbara’s Uncle Bruce and Aunt Carrie Leslie stood – where one could go dashing through sparkling, pristine snow in the proverbial one-horse open sleigh. And then another meal, complete with homemade ice cream and that candy I hinted at earlier, and then gathering with all your friends and neighbours for a community dance in the Orange Hall, the old kerosene stove blazing as the music played, couples swung ’round, kids watched in delight, older folks chewed the fat, and a roaring good time was had by all. Now that’s what I call a New Year’s Day celebration!

Thanks to Barbara’s evocative description, I almost feel like I was there. I sure wish I had been.

Two Queensboro Cook Books

My two treasured copies of the Queensboro Cook Book, given to me my two wonderful Queensborough women: Barbara Martin and her cousin, the late Isabella (Sager) Shaw.

But on to the candy. I was intrigued by Barbara’s mention of Russian toffee, which I’d never heard of before, and so I asked her about it. In a followup email, she filled me in and steered me to the recipe – which I am delighted to report is in my two treasured copies (one of which, you won’t be surprised to hear, I got from Barbara) of the Queensboro Cook Book! Published in 1966, when I was a six-year-old living here at the Manse, it is one of those church cookbooks produced by the thousands across the country back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. As I’ve written before, leafing through its pages and seeing the names of the recipe contributors and the advertisers takes me right back to my happy minister’s-kid childhood in this house.

Ads in the Queensboro Cook Book

Advertisers in the Queensboro Cook Book. Wow, does this take me back.

So back to Russian toffee, or taffy as it seems to be more commonly called. Sure enough, just as Barabara told me, there it was on Page 37 of the Queensborough Cook Book, the first page of the Candy, Jelly and Preserves section:

Candy, Jelly and Preserves in the Queensboro Cook Book

And the recipe was contributed, it turns out, by Barbara’s niece, Sharon Cassidy! (Who is now Sharon Morgan, and who I was delighted to see again after all these years when she visited Queensborough on Historic Queensborough Day.)

In doing a bit of quick research on Russian taffy online, I discovered that it seems to be something of a specialty of the New Orleans area. I found mention of it here, in a blog called Louanne’s Kitchen, where it’s referenced as a New Orleans treat; here (where it is oddly spelled “Russin Tafffy”) on a site called Cajun Grocer (“Louisisana’s Best to Your Door’); and here, on the site of New Orleans’s venerable newspaper, the Times-Picayune.

And I thought to myself: Isn’t that odd? What could be the connection between Queensborough and Louisiana for a creamy fudge treat? Any thoughts, readers?

At any rate, here’s a closeup of Sharon’s recipe if you’d like to try it yourself, which I assure you I intend to do:

Russian Taffy recipe, Queensboro Cook Book

And here is some additional helpful advice from Barbara:

You really do have to stir it constantly or it will stick to the bottom of the pot.  Also you need to use a pot with a heavy bottom.  Be sure and time it as soon as it starts to boil, because if you boil a few minutes too long it will get hard.

It should be chewy and I put it in the fridge to cool and get a bit harder, take it out, cut it and wrap in pieces of wax paper. (The recipe) does not mention pan size, but an 8 by 8 is the perfect one to use.

So there you go, readers – one last holiday treat for you. Enjoy!

A new year, and many reasons to be thankful – and excited

Madoc Township Public School

Easily one of the things I am most grateful for when I look back on 2017 is the fact that our local elementary school, Madoc Township Public School, was saved from closure and will go on to educate our community’s children, and expand their skills and their horizons, for years to come. You can read all about the hard-fought battle by dedicated community members to save our school in many of my posts from the past year, notably this one.

Happy new year, dear readers! I hope that 2018 brings you much joy, interesting things to see and do, lots of opportunity to be with family and friends, good health – and perhaps most of all, the ability and the time to step back and appreciate all the gifts and blessings that life offers us.

That stepping-back-and-appreciating business is something I find myself doing as the old year merges into the new. In the days and weeks leading up to the start of 2018, I have been feeling thankful for so many things.

Lots of them are personal, and they’re the kind of things that I’m sure most of us are thankful for at one point (hopefully at many points) in our lifetime. I am, for instance, thankful for having a job (teaching student journalists) that allows me to do something useful to society, and that pays the bills. I am thankful for my five (yes, five) sweet, beautiful and friendly cats, all rescued from feral colonies and rough situations by good cat-loving people for whom I am also thankful. Would you like to see some photos of my cats? Gracious, I thought you’d never ask:

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I am thankful for the occasional chance to travel, though I’m generally even more thankful to get back home to Queensborough, the place I love the best. And most of all I’m thankful for my kind, smart, resourceful and (most of the time) patient husband, Raymond, who is (in my opinion) the best husband anyone could ever have.

Raymond outside the opera

Raymond looking handsome on a recent visit to a Canadian Opera Company performance in Toronto.

But those are things that are personal to me. What I’d mainly like to write about in this post are the things I’m thankful for that have to do with living here in Queensborough – things that I hope readers both from the GQA (that would be the Greater Queensborough Area) and from further afield can appreciate, either because they are part of their daily lives (the first group), or because they are something they could experience if they visited (or moved!) here. I’m excited to say that this list is growing longer by the year, as good new things happen in Queensborough.

In no particular order, it includes:

  • The beauty of this place, and the wildlife we see every day:
The woodpecker at our feeder

The woodpecker who has been enjoying the gooey feed we put out for him (her?) is one of many birds that we (and the five cats) enjoy watching from our kitchen windows every day.

  • The  smashing success of the second iteration of Historic Queensborough Day this past year (read all about it here) and our plans for an even bigger and better one in 2020:
Crowded King Street by Shelly Bonter

Crowds filled the streets of Queensborough on our second Historic Queensborough Day, held Sunday, Sept. 10. (Photo courtesy of Shelly Bonter)

  • The new owners, Jamie Grant and Tory Byers, of the historic former Loyal Orange Lodge building in Queensborough, who, with energy levels that I can only wonder at, have already transformed the place and are brimful of ideas for its future as a community arts space. While I am sworn to secrecy on some possible events there for 2018, I can tell you that they involve music, theatre and visual arts. Wow! And it’s no secret that the Orange Hall will – on Saturday, May 26 – return to its longstanding function as a place for community dances and socials by playing host to a newly revived springtime tradition: the Queensborough Black Fly Shuffle dance! You can check out Jamie and Tory’s Orange Hall plans and events on their lively Facebook page here. This couple is doing so much to bring new life to our hamlet – and I know I am far from alone in being thankful for that.
Jamie and Tory at LOL by Gary Pattison

Jamie and Tory having fun welcoming visitors to the former Orange Hall on Historic Queensborough Day in September. (Photo courtesy of Gary Pattison)

  • All the other good things that are happening in Queensborough. The annual spring visit of kayakers from all over Eastern North America who enjoy the whitewater trip down the Black River followed by a warm fire and welcome and good food by the river’s edge at the historic Thompson home and mill. Our hamlet’s continuing reputation as a place where artists (once upon a time including A.Y. Jackson of the Group of Seven) like to come and paint. And: a new event for 2018 that is already creating a lot of buzz: a master class in pie-making! Watch this space, local media and of course the Queensborough Community Centre’s Facebook page for details as the time (Saturday, March 3) gets closer, but long story short, some of the people whose talent for making homemade pies has turned Queensborough’s community suppers into a place of pilgrimage will be showing a new generation how it’s done, so that the tradition will live on. (You can bet that yours truly, who has never once successfully made pie crust, will be one of the eager students.) Things are happening in Queensborough!  We are making a name for ourselves!
Artist at work close up

Ottawa artist Nicole Amyot was in Queensborough this past fall for a day of plein air painting. For many years, artists at their easels in various corners of Queensborough have been a not-uncommon sight. Now, with the planned repurposing of the former Orange Hall as a space for the arts, perhaps there can be a showing of all that Queensborough art!

St. Andrew's choir

The reborn St. Andrew’s United Church choir performs Christmas music at a service this past December. The choir is led by Katherine Fleming (at the piano); members for the December performance were (from left) Joan Wilson, Jean Finlayson, Katherine Sedgwick (me), and Carol King, whose energy and infectious enthusiasm were the reason we got together. We have some additional members lined up for the new year – and if you’d like to join us, please let me know! (Photo by Raymond Brassard)

  • The people who volunteer their time and talent to keep Queensborough beautiful. I’m thinking here of the volunteers who work so hard on the Queensborough Beautification Committee (who this Christmas season launched a fun holiday-decorating competition) and the Queensborough Community Centre Committee, but also many other individuals and households who contribute in so many ways to our hamlet being the kind of place that visitors – rightly – call magical.
Flowers on the Methodist Church steps

Queensborough: the place where caring people turn old church steps into a lovely photo op.

  • Madoc Township Public School, a wonderful school and an important part of our community for many years, which we came close to losing this past year. We didn’t lose it, thanks to widespread support plus endless hours put in by a small, dedicated group of community activists. It is one of the honours of my life to have been a part of that group. Here we are on the day we found out that our efforts on behalf of our school had been successful:
The MTPS crew

Outside the headquarters of the Hastings and Prince Edward District School board in Belleville, happy supporters and activists after we learned that our school would be saved from closure: from left, recent Madoc Township Public School grad Brooklyn Gylyktiuk, Wendy Spence, Margaret Heard, Randy Gray, Denise Gray, Holly Korman, Amy Beaton – and (having been dragged into the photo by the others) me.

  • The neighbourliness and the friendlinesss. Recently I’ve been repeatedly struck by how often I’m on the receiving end of a warm greeting by people who know me by name, and know what I’ve been up to, as I push my cart around the aisles of the Madoc Foodland, or stand in line at the bank, or pop into many other places where people gather in Queensborough, Madoc and Tweed. I love getting a happy “Hi, Katherine – how are you?” when I walk into Kelly DeClair’s Kelly’s Flowers and Gifts or Tim and Penny Toms’s One Stop Butcher Shop or the Hidden Goldmine Bakery in Madoc, or the offices of the Tweed News or the Moira River Food Company in Tweed, or the Home Hardware in either town, or … well, you get the picture.

And then there have been the invitations over the holidays to all manner of get-togethers – Christmas and New Year’s gatherings, housewarmings, anniversary celebrations, sometimes let’s-just-get-together-and-open-a-bottle-of-wine events – mostly casual and sometimes a little on the fancy side.

And then there are the people who stop by to help when you’re shovelling out the driveway, or trying to heft a newly acquired piece of vintage furniture out of the back of the red truck and into the Manse. There are the people you know you can call and count on to help in an emergency, real or imagined: frozen pipes, a difficult-to-locate septic-tank opening, a staple gun when one is needed, a bit of reassuring information on a neighbour you haven’t seen for a while and are worried about.

I guess long story short, you could say that as I bid farewell to 2017 and welcome 2018, I am thankful for kindness and community. And for the chance to experience so much of both, simply by living in beautiful little Queensborough.

“We live in a Christmas card!”

Kincaid House, Dec. 24, 2017

The historic Kincaid House beside the Manse on Bosley Road, decorated for Christmas and wearing a pretty coat of white.

“We live in a Christmas card!” I exclaimed to Raymond one recent sparkling day as we drove along Queensborough Road, admiring the beauty of the pristine snow that covered the fields and the branches of the evergreens.

Raymond agreed.

Actually where we live is not really the inside of a Christmas card, but the front cover. You know those pretty scenes you see on so many of them, images of a small snow-covered village with church windows aglow, perhaps a skating rink with some children on it, and a cluster of cozy homes lit up for the season? Well, that’s Queensborough at this time of year.

Which is something I’ve said before, but that I think bears repeating, Especially on Christmas Day, when I want to wish you wonderful readers of Meanwhile, at the Manse all the very best of the holidays, and much happiness in the coming year.

And to put you in the mood for that happiness, let me take you on a little Christmas-card tour of Queensborough and area: scenes of Christmas 2017 in our lovely little corner of the world.

First, historic Hazzard’s Corners Church, where a beautiful candlelight service of lessons and carols drew the usual packed house two evenings ago:

Hazzard's Corners Church, Christmas 2017

Hazzard’s Corners Church, looking its best under a dazzling sun and bright-blue sky a few days before Christmas 2017.

And now on to another church – or more precisely, a former church – looking very pretty in the snow:

St. Henry's, Queensborough, Dec. 24, 2017

The former St. Henry’s Roman Catholic Church in Queensborough, now a private home.

A scene along the road to Queensborough:

Queensborough Road, Dec. 24, 2017

Coming into Queensborough from the east.

One of the sights Queensborough is most  known for:

Mill and Thompson House, Dec. 24, 2017

The landmark Thompson house and mill at the heart of Queensborough on the Black River.

A piece of the past, happily preserved:

Queensborough and Bosley Roads, Dec. 24, 2017

The former blacksmith’s shop at Queensborough and Bosley roads, Queensborough; street-sign Christmas decorations by the Queensborough Beautification Committee.

The scene from our back yard:

Kincaid House from the back yard, Christmas 2017

Outhouse and barn at the Kincaid House from the back yard of the Manse.

Hey, welcome to Queensborough!

Welcome to Queensborough, Dec. 24, 2017

Welcome to Queensborough!

And welcome to the Christmas Manse!

Welcome Santa, Dec. 24, 2017

Santa bids you welcome at the Manse.

Vintage Santa greets you:

Santa and bird feeder, Dec. 24, 2017

Santa and one of the bird feeders to which chickadees, blue jays, juncos and sparrows flock, much to our delight.

Here’s the Manse (looking its seasonal best, I think) on the day of Christmas Eve 2017:

Manse Dec. 24, 2017

The Manse, Dec. 24, 2017.

And here’s a closeup of one of our Christmas wreaths:

Front-door wreath, Dec. 24, 2017

The wreath on the front door.

And finally, here’s a special Christmas look inside the Manse:

Roscoe under the tree, Christmas 2017

It’s Roscoe the kitten, a little worn out from all the Christmas excitement,  snoozing among the gifts under the Christmas tree!

You’ll note that in this final photo is a DVD of the classic movie version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, starring the incomparable Alistair Sim as Scrooge. It’s one of our traditions here at the Manse to watch it every Christmas, and we did that again last night. As I bid a very happy Christmas to you all, I’ll close this post with the immortal words of Tiny Tim:

“God bless us, every one!”

Have we found a clue to the barn mystery?

Diamond cross on Vermilyea Road barn

Look up and left: an example – from Vermilyea Road, just north of Belleville, Ont., where I work – of the mysterious diamond crosses carved into some barns in our area. Why, people, why?

You know, I love solving mysteries, or at least seeing mysteries solved. As a rule the most mysterious mysteries in my day-to-day life are where I might have left my reading glasses, or my phone, or my keys – not super-exciting stuff, but one does get a nice surge of satisfaction when the mystery is solved and the missing object located. (My reading glasses, by the way, are quite frequently discovered perched atop my head.)

The most recent mystery I shared here at Meanwhile, at the Manse was one brought to my attention by reader Greg Polan. As you may recall, the mystery in question – which you can read all about here – is the phenomenon of diamond-cross cutouts on the upper levels of quite a few barns in Hastings County and some other parts of Ontario (as well as some places in the United States). As Greg put it, these barn crosses are “enigmatic in terms of original purpose and meaning.” People, enigma = mystery!

As was explained (more or less) in that earlier post, cutouts on barn walls are not uncommon, and probably have something to do with a combination of letting birds (owls, swallows) in or out of the barn, and providing ventilation and light inside the barn. But the diamond crosses that Greg drew to my attention are unusual, in that the pattern is a complex one to make, and has no apparent practical advantage over a plain old four-sided square or diamond. Whoever built the barns that have these unusual features went to a lot of trouble over them. Why?

Well, that’s the mystery.

I was pleased that when I uploaded that post and then shared it on Facebook, several readers indicated that they are now intrigued by the mystery too, and have already started looking closer at barns they pass in their travels to see if they bear the mysterious diamond crosses. Personally, I always look for them now, having been alerted to their existence by Greg, and I’ve spotted several.

The comments that came in (some from people having consulted their parents or other elders) also contained some suggestions about the purpose of the diamond-cross cutouts: ventilation, again (though why so decorative?); a tradition carried over from early Dutch builders in the U.S.; a symbol of Freemasonry or other such organizations; a church symbol of some sort; a Celtic cross; a Mennonite connection; a symbol to ward off witches – or the taxman! All god suggestions, in my view.

But something that two different readers dug up really intrigued me, and I think it might hold a clue to the mystery. Because many readers don’t see all the comments on my posts (whether here or on Facebook – the link showed up in both places), I thought I would share it here. It’s definitely food for thought.

The clue comes in an article published online in 2013 and (according to the online posting), written in 2008 as part of college project on research writing. The author is M. Custer, and I’m afraid I don’t know any more about M. Custer (including his or her first name, or geographical location) than that.

The full article is here, and I encourage anyone interested in this topic to read the whole thing; it’s fascinating! (Though the type is awfully small. Where are my reading glasses?)

But here’s the main gist of M. Custer’s piece: it’s possible that the crosses are a symbol intended to invoke protection against fire, whether caused by lightning strike or something else. The writer cites a couple of saints who are supposed to be able to intervene against the threat of fire, and who also happen to have interesting-looking crosses connected with them.

One of these is St. Florian, whose cross resembles a Maltese cross and is used as a symbol by fire departments pretty much everywhere; it looks like this:

Saint-Florian-Cross

And here’s what it looks like when worked into a fire-department logo:

St. Florian cross fire department

The other saint that M. Custer dug up is St. Brigid of Kildare, one of Ireland’s patron saints, who is sometimes thought to protect against fire. Her cross is quite an unusual one and, with a bit of imagination, one might be able to see it as a model for our Ontario barn crosses. Here are a couple of variations:

St. Brigid's cross

St. Brigid's cross 2

But after all this business about saints who are supposed to offer protection from fire, Custer also sensibly notes that Lutherans (associated with these barn cutouts in the U.S.) and many other Protestants do not adhere to a belief in protection by saints – so maybe this theory too flies out the window.

However: to quote M. Custer once again (and as someone who grew up in a rural area, I absolutely know this to be true): “Barns were the largest building and investment on a farmstead. It was considered normal and sensible to pay more for the barn than the farmhouse since a barn protected a farm family’s grain, tools, livestock, machinery, food and means for survival through winter.”

Back when these old barns were built, and in fact still today, a barn fire can be, and often is, a disaster, the destruction taking a farm family’s livestock and machinery and thus posing a very serious and immediate threat to the family’s livelihood.

Custer goes on: “Because barns represented success and survival, a cross-shaped [cutout] may have been a traditional symbol of protection and good luck.” And, I might add, if this diamond cross was seen as a good-luck symbol to ward off fires, I suspect the owners of the barn, Lutheran or whatever form of Protestant though they might have been, wouldn’t have cared a whit that the symbol had its origins in traditions surrounding Roman Catholic saints. Hey, if it protects your barn and thus your family from a disastrous fire – or even if it might protect them – who’s to question it? Whatever it takes…

ermilyea Road barn with diamond cross

Can you imagine a barn-builder carving that diamond cross as superstitious protection against fire? I believe I can.

Anyway, I think it’s an intriguing, and credible, theory, and I thank M. Custer for the research and for sharing the article, and my readers for finding it.

And now I shall sit back and await more clues and theories. Please feel free to share them, and let’s try to solve this mystery!