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!

So did we take the plunge and buy that turquoise marvel?

Beautiful turquoise bench

The astoundingly turquoise vintage booth that my brother John discovered in the Lambs and Ivy antique barn in tiny Gelert, Ont. Was it right for the Manse? Read on… (Photo by John Sedgwick)

I suppose it is within the realm of possibility that a few among you nice Meanwhile, at the Manse readers might have found yourselves idly wondering whether Raymond and I took the plunge and bought the marvellous piece of vintage turquoise-upholstered furniture that you see in this photo. As you might recall if you read the post in which I revealed this wonder to the world – and ruminated on whether we had to have it for the Manse – it was spotted by my eagle-eyed brother John in an antiques barn. Knowing my love for things vintage and turquoise, John had wondered whether it would be just the thing for Raymond and me.

And you know, we wondered the same thing. We wondered pretty hard, in fact. So hard that we got as far as planning out how the Manse kitchen could be organized with that turquoise marvel as its focus and centrepiece. We knew we couldn’t afford its asking price, but we thought that if we could get it for, say, something under three-quarters of that price, it might be worth the dent in the bank account to acquire such a great-looking piece.

And so one recent Sunday we set out for – it can now be revealed – Gelert, Ont., where this fine piece of furniture was the first thing customers would spot when they walked into the antique barn called Lambs and Ivy Collectibles. (I didn’t want to tell the world where it was in that first post, for fear some canny collector of great midcentury furniture would get there before we did.) On top of our interest in the smashing turquoise dining booth, it was a good excuse for a drive up through Bancroft, an interesting and historic town with a very active arts community that’s the capital, so to speak, of northern Hastings County. After Bancroft, we stopped for lunch at another Hastings County hot spot, the venerable and funky Craftsman Restaurant in tiny Paudash.

And then on to Gelert, a hamlet in Haliburton County that also happens to be where my family’s ancestral farm is located. (Which explains why my brother John had been poking around an antique barn in the area.)

And we saw the amazing turquoise settee. It truly was eye-catching and, you know, one of a kind. The upholstery was in great shape. The whole thing was in great shape.

But we decided we didn’t need it. Somehow, despite its midcentury beauty, is wasn’t quite right for the Manse. The shade of turquoise was a tiny bit on the garish side, for one thing. But more importantly, it just didn’t seem to either of us to be what we needed to build a kitchen around.

We climbed back into Raymond’s red truck, satisfied with ourselves at having made the trek, seen the object of interest first-hand, and saved ourselves a whole bunch of money by not buying it. Have I had non-buyer’s remorse in the days since? Not a whit, I am happy to say.

All of which means that if you would like to be the proud owner of this amazing piece of vintage furniture – well, assuming the Lambs and Ivy folks haven’t sold it yet – it might just be worth the drive to Gelert!

What is “North of 7”?

Highway 7

This photo of Highway 7, which I took this very afternoon, gives you a sense, I think, of what a geographical divide it is between “the fat south/with inches of soil on/earth’s round belly,” as the poet Al Purdy put it, and the “lakeland rockland hill country” of the Canadian Shield, as Purdy also said. Note the rock through which the highway had to be blasted.

If you’re a regular, or even occasional, reader of Meanwhile, at the Manse, you’ve probably noticed me using the phrase “north of 7” with some regularity. If you live in or are from the Queensborough area or quite a wide swath around it, you will be instantly familiar with the phrase and know what it means.

But I always keep in mind that it probably doesn’t mean a thing to readers from elsewhere, and so every time I use it I try to get in some kind of an ever-so-brief explanation – often something as simple as noting that “7” refers to Ontario Highway 7.

So I thought it might be useful, both for readers and perhaps especially for me, to try to give a once-and-for-all explanation so that every time I say “north of 7” in future posts I can just link back to this one (for those who are puzzled and want more information) and so that I won’t have to explain it every time.

Okay, so what is “north of 7”?

Well, to begin with – and the main reason why I use the term so often – it’s where Queensborough is, and thus by extension where the Manse is. Living here makes Raymond and me by definition north-of-7 people.

And yes, “7” is Highway 7, or, if you want to get all formal about it, “The King’s Highway 7” – though why ownership hasn’t been transferred to the current female monarch, who has, after all, been ruling for sixty-two years, is kind of beyond me. I have many times linked to the Highway 7 section of the very interesting website The King’s Highway (thekingshighway.ca) that is put together by Cameron Bevers, who has a vast interest in the geography and history of Ontario’s highways. If you’ve never gone to those links I urge you to check them out: go here to get not only some quick facts about Highway 7, but also an excellent recounting of its history, and here to see some great historical photos of it.

But why does being “north of 7” constitute a state of being that is so different from, say, “south of 7” (or, for that matter, “north of the 401,” or “north of Highway 2“)?

Well, I’m no expert in this stuff, but here’s my take on it. People, if you have information to add, or a different perspective on this locally important subject, please share your knowledge in the comments section!

Basically, in Hastings County, Highway 7 (which runs east-west) is the unofficial yet remarkably accurate demarcation between the rich (agriculturally speaking) lands to the south, down to Lake Ontario, and the Canadian Shield. North of 7 is where the soil thins out dramatically, where rocks and lakes and evergreen trees take over from wide-open fields and big, flourishing farms. Yes, there are pockets of reasonable soil and some nice farms north of 7; but they are relatively few and far between. For the most part, north of 7 is a different kind of country altogether.

It is the country that poet Al Purdy so memorably described in his poem The Country North of Belleville. (You can read all about that poem, and read the poem itself, in my post here). Except when Purdy was talking about “bush land scrub land … lakeland rockland and hill country” he really was describing “the country north of 7” more than “the country north of Belleville.” (I think the latter title just sounded better to him, and it is very possible that more of his potential readers would have twigged to “Belleville” in the title than to “7.”)

“This is the country of our defeat,” Purdy says, taking on the identity of one or all of the would-be farmers who tried to make a go of it in the land north of 7 after it was opened up in the 19th century. It is, he says,

… where Sisyphus rolls a big stone
year after year up the ancient hills
picknicking glaciers have left strewn
with centuries’ rubble
                backbreaking days
                in the sun and rain
when realization seeps slow in the mind
without grandeur or self-deception in
                noble struggle of being a fool…

As it happens, there is a just-published book on the very subject of Hastings County north of 7 being “the country of defeat” for early pioneers. It is called The Trail of Broken Hearts (you can read all about it here), and it is by Paul Kirby, a writer and publisher who has done an enormous amount to explore and share the history of Hastings County. The Trail of Broken Hearts of the book’s title is the Old Hastings Road, which I wrote about at length here and which is the perfect symbol for the tough times that people of past generations have dealt with in the land now known as “north of 7.”

Not that there was a Highway 7 in pioneer times, of course. As I wrote here, the local section of the highway was built during the Great Depression as an employment project. Here is a wonderful photo of that time, which I have thanks to Keith Millard, a descendent of an early family here in Elzevir Township, the Kleinsteubers:

Highway 7 under construction, 1932

Highway 7 (in the Actinolite area, a bit southeast of Queensborough) when it was under construction in 1932. (Photo courtesy of Keith Millard)

What is interesting is that when it came to constructing that roadway, the powers that be, whether consciously or unconsciously, did lay it out in a path that demarcated two different ways of living.

But I think it’s fair to say that “north of 7” isn’t just a geographical thing; it’s also a state of mind. Longtime residents have told me they remember the days when if you lived north of 7 – say in Queensborough, or Cooper, or Eldorado, or Bannockburn, or Millbridge, or Gilmour, or maybe way up north in Coe Hill or Ormsby or Bancroft (where the writer of the excellent blog Living North of 7 [livingnorthof7.com] is based) – some people from south of 7 would look down their noses at you. You might be considered the Canadian version of a hillbilly, in other words. And l think there is no doubt that over the years, some hillbilly types have chosen to live in these relatively remote and undisturbed parts. But so have people who just want to get away from it all; if you want to be left alone, this traditionally has been a pretty good place to do it.

I don’t know whether any misguided people south of 7 still look down their noses at those of us who choose to live north of 7. But I do know that times are changing, and areas that were once seen as remote and forbidding are becoming ever-more-sought-after by people – and I’m not talking hillbillies here – who want to live, even if only part of the time, in a place that is quiet and beautiful and unspoiled. Like this:

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So yeah, I think “quiet, beautiful and unspoiled” pretty much sums up north of 7. And I know I am far from the only person who is very proud indeed to call “north of 7” by another term. That would be: home.

Can anybody tell me where this train station was?

Madoc train station c. 1905

“G.T.R. (that would be Grand Trunk Railway) Station, Madoc,” c. 1905. Lovely little building. Where was it? (Photo courtesy of Vintage Belleville, Trenton & Quinte Region)

I’ve mentioned before what a marvellous repository of historic photos the Facebook page Vintage Belleville, Trenton & Quinte Region is. (Even if I am sometimes taken aback by the notion that photos taken in my lifetime are “historic.”) And now I’m going to say it again. Because thanks to that Facebook page, not once but twice recently I have seen photos of the no-longer-extant train station in the village of Madoc. (One of the places that is “town” when we here in Queensborough go to town.)

I am almost 100-per-cent certain that when I was growing up here at the Manse in the 1960s and early ’70s there were no trains running to and from Madoc. I don’t know when the train line (presumably running between Belleville to the south and Bancroft to the north? Though please correct me if I’m wrong) was closed; perhaps it wasn’t all that long before my childhood here. But when I read in the remarkable biography/autobiography Your Loving Anna (a book I wrote about here, which is on the subject of a 19th-century family “roughing it” – as Susanna Moodie would say – in the northern reaches of Hastings County) about Anna Leveridge and her children arriving from England, via the Atlantic Ocean and Montreal, by train in 1880-odd in Madoc, I found myself wondering: “Where the heck was the train station?” I just couldn’t at all place where it had been, or might have been. And I certainly couldn’t picture it; I assumed it had been long gone by the time I arrived on this planet.

Then a little while ago the photo atop this post appeared on Vintage Belleville, Trenton & Quinte Region. It’s a wonderful shot of the “G.T.R. (that would be Grand Trunk Railway) Station Madoc,” and the information posted with it added, “c. 1905.” Don’t you just love the greatcoats and the hats and the horses and the all-round turn-of-the-(last)-century feel of that photo?

But: you can’t tell from it where the station actually is – or was – in Madoc, which I found frustrating.

Then a little while later this photo was posted on the same site, thanks to a chap named Dan Ryan. It’s the same train station, only many years later – 1974, to be exact:

Madoc train station 1974

The Madoc train station in 1974. How did I not know about this? (Photo from Vintage Belleville, Trenton & Quinte Region via Dan Ryan)

Nineteen seventy-four? Gracious, I lived in these parts in 1974! I thought I knew Madoc – the town that was where my family shopped for dry goods and groceries and whatnot, and where I went to high school, and that was … well, was town – like the back of my hand! So why did I not know about this old train station?

I gather the building itself is long gone, and maybe someone could tell me when its demolition (which is just too bad) happened. But what I’d really like to know is: where was this interesting historic building? Can someone familiar with Madoc and its history tell me, very specifically so that I can picture the site in my mind’s eye, or better yet go seek it out and see what’s there now?

Because, you know, inquiring minds need to know.

Just how high are the hills of Hastings County?

Hastings County website photo

Reader Mark was suspicious about whether this photo, which appears on Hastings County’s website, was actually taken in Hastings County. Were his suspicions justified? Read on…

It’s time to tie up a loose end, people.

A few months ago, reader Mark, who has been kind enough to post comments from time to time, had a question, and it was about the image at the top of this post. You’ll probably see that image if you click on the hyperlink I often insert – like, here – when I make reference to Hastings County in my posts; the link takes you to the official website of the county – which, I would like to add, is quite a nice-looking and elegantly done site. Its attractiveness is enhanced by the three photos that scroll on the home page, one showing a woman working at a laptop while sitting on a dock on a pretty lake, one showing the same woman on that laptop while sitting on a rock beside a lake, and the third, the image above, of a woman on her mobile phone, laptop open in front of her, with a lake and – here’s the key thing – some high hills (some would say mountains) in the background.

Those hills are what aroused Mark’s suspicions: “I didn´t know there were mountains in Hastings Co.,” he wrote. And as a followup: “They look to me as if they’re snow-capped mtns … and the lake looks like it’s from western Canada or something. Since it looks like summer weather when her pic was taken, it is highly unlikely it is anywhere in Ontario.”

Donning my Nancy Drew perky blonde wig and jumping into my roadster, I promised Mark that I would get to the bottom of things. And I have – but it’s taken a while, and I’ve learned something about the hills of Hastings County in the interim.

I made some inquiries of the tourism and economic-development folks at the county, and learned eventually (it took a while, and a bit of persistence on my part, for them to get back to me) that the photos were “purchased from a photo site,” which pretty much means they could have been taken anywhere (possibly even Hastings County, I suppose – but probably not). The county people – who were very nice and quite forthcoming when I did get them to reply – said that they and the site’s developer and designer felt that the photos fit well into the theme of the site, “The Best of Both Worlds” – in their words, “showing that you can still do all your work and be connected, while enjoying the rural life.” They also said that they felt the images were “consistent with typical images found in Hastings County.”

Now, on the issue of being connected (through your mobile phone and the internet) while enjoying the rural life, I have to say that some people in Queensborough (and, I expect, other parts of rural Hastings County) would probably take issue with the county’s assertion about having that connectivity – and you can read my posts here and here for more on internet issues, and this one here about having to retreat to a far bedroom at the Manse in order to actually have a conversation with someone on my iPhone.

Revival Store

A few miles east of the village of L’Amable on Detlor Road, you will find Revival Store, where proprietors Moxie and Suzy have all kinds of wonderful vintage stuff for sale. Raymond and I visited while exploring the hills of northern Hastings. It is my kind of place!

But as for the photo showing the hills, or mountains – well, despite Mark’s skepticism, I have learned that in the northern reaches of Hastings County there really are some pretty high hills.

This past Thanksgiving weekend, for instance, Raymond and I took a trip along Detlor Road just south of Bancroft (and east of L’Amable) to visit the funky and wonderful Revival Store. (And yes, purchases of vintage stuff were made – including a second midcentury hassock for the Manse!)

As we drove east on Detlor Road I was quite stunned to see how high the hills off in the northern distance were. I took some photos, though unfortunately they don’t do the hills justice. But if you look at the background in this one, maybe you’ll get a bit of a sense of it:

hills in northern Hastings County

Looking north from Detlor Road in the L’Amable/Bancroft area of northern Hastings County. My photo doesn’t show it very well, but those hills in the distance are – well, they’re serious hills.

Anyway, I suspect that if there’s a pristine lake up in them thar hills – and I’d be shocked if there weren’t – you probably could get a photo very similar to the one on the Hastings County website.

Ah, but here’s my question (based on my previous remarks on connectivity issues in rural Hastings): would the woman on the phone, with the laptop open in front of her, be saying anything other than, “Can you hear me now?”

In a tiny outpost, shopping, dining, and a warm welcome

Raymond on the front porch of the Old Hastings Mercantile. It was a grey and rainy day, but inside we received the warmest of welcomes and discovered a treasure trove of wonderful goods for sale.

Raymond on the front porch of the Old Hastings Mercantile. It was a grey and rainy day, but inside we received the warmest of welcomes and discovered a treasure trove of goods for sale.

It wasn’t very long at all after Raymond and I bought the Manse in Queensborough that people in the area starting telling us we had to go visit Ormsby. My first reaction: where and what is Ormsby? Despite having grown up in Hastings County, I’d never heard of it. But these folks were eager to tell us about the fantastic gallery/general store there, the Old Hastings Mercantile. And the restaurant/tearoom, the Old Ormsby Schoolhouse. And the tiny historic church, the Old Ormsby Heritage Church, where, we were told, an unforgettable evening Christmas service is held by the light of oil lamps and with wonderful music. All this in tiny Ormsby, population 20!

We learned that Ormsby is in the north part of Hastings County, about a 20-minute drive southwest of Bancroft and something less than 10 minutes east of Coe Hill. And then we learned a lot more about the cool things going on there thanks to an article about the general stores of Hastings County in the excellent Country Roads magazine by our friend Lindi Pierce (the Belleville-based writer and literary/heritage enthusiast behind the wonderful blogs Ancestral Roofs and In Search of Al Purdy).

But for more than a year – despite people constantly telling us “You have to go visit Ormsby!” – we weren’t able to find the time, on our all-too-brief visits to Queensborough, to actually make the trek. Last weekend, however, we finally did – and what a wonderful discovery it was, and what a great day we had!

The Old Ormsby Heritage Church – and, in the rear, its church-styled outhouse! (A delightful touch by the Pattinsons.)

The Old Ormsby Heritage Church – and, in the rear at right, its church-styled outhouse. (A delightful touch by the Pattisons.)

I am pretty sure that one of the reasons so many people urged us to make the visit was that they sensed that in the proprietors of the Ormsby operation we had kindred spirits. Twin brothers Gary and Ernie Pattison, both top-flight professional orchestral musicians, have family roots in the area of Ormsby, specifically the nearby farming community called The Ridge. Despite busy musical careers in Toronto (and sometimes other cities, including Montreal), they were drawn back to the place, and together with Gary’s wife, Lillian, and Ernie’s wife, Debbie (both of them also musicians, which is very cool), they have created a remarkable, welcoming “destination” in a tiny place that some would say is close to being in the middle of nowhere.

The Mercantile has room after themed room, but this one, the tiniest, is a jewel: the room under the stairs, filled with beautiful little things. Delightful!

The Mercantile has room after themed room, but this one, the tiniest, is a jewel: the room under the stairs, filled with beautiful little things. Delightful! (To see pictures of all the other rooms at the Mercantile, all packed with great stuff, check out the Theme Rooms link on its website, here.)

Gary and Lillian are the proprietors of the Old Hastings Mercantile, a general store and gallery that you really have to see to believe. It is packed to the rafters with amazing stuff: jewelry, pottery, kitchenware, soaps, candles, clothing, books, Christmas items, music, greeting cards, games and toys, gardening items – and really, that’s just a start! Oh, and did I mention vintage candy? Which is displayed in an old-fashioned candy counter that, if you’re lucky like me and grew up in a tiny place with a general store (or two) will take you right straight back to that childhood. Blackballs, anyone?

The Old Ormsby Schoolhouse restaurant and tearoom, looking inviting on a damp, misty day in Ormsby.

The Old Ormsby Schoolhouse restaurant and tearoom, looking inviting on a damp, misty day in Ormsby.

Meanwhile, just over the hill from the Mercantile, Ernie runs the Old Ormsby Schoolhouse (“Educated Dining” is its slogan) and Tearoom. As you can guess, it is located in a former one-room schoolhouse, which Ernie and Debbie have beautifully restored: there is gorgeous wooden wainscotting, and patterned tin walls and ceilings, and a warming pot-bellied stove, and the original blackboards, and some of those old display maps made by candy-bar companies – remember those from the classrooms of your childhood, people of a certain age? The wooden tables and chairs are all vintage, the tables are set with tablecloths, and beautiful real (vintage) china cups and saucers adorn them. You feel like you have stepped back in time.

Even though it was our first visit to the Mercantile and the Schoolhouse, Raymond and I felt like we already knew the place thanks to all we’d heard and read about it – and also because both Gary and Ernie read and sometimes comment on my ramblings here at Meanwhile, at the Manse. Thanks to those communications, it has felt even more like they in Ormsby and Raymond and I in Queensborough really are kindred spirits, with a lot of shared interests.

Our haul of retro candy from the Old Hastings Mercantile. Remember that tri-coloured taffy? And snowballs? And Thrills gum? (Which, as it proudly says on the box, still taste like soap!)

Our haul of retro candy from the Old Hastings Mercantile. Remember that tri-coloured taffy? And snowballs? And Thrills gum? (Which, as it proudly says on the box, still tastes like soap!) And there’s lots more to choose from at the Mercantile – including good old blackballs.

Raymond and I began our Ormsby visit at the Mercantile, spending a long time poking through all the rooms full of wonderful stuff, and coming away with several books (gee, there’s a surprise), a lovely glass hummingbird feeder, some wild-rose seeds, and a few other items. Oh, and did I mention the vintage candy? (Yes, I know I did.) We could not resist a selection from the candy counter – which even included Necco wafers, candy Raymond grew up with (Necco stands for the New England Confectionary Company).

As we were paying and getting ready to head over to the Schoolhouse for lunch, Lillian pulled out a wonderful surprise that Gary (who was in Toronto, playing with the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra) had prepared for us: a frame that contains photos of the Manse, and of my family when I was growing up there – which I had posted right here on the blog – that show through cutouts in the matting that form the words “THE MANSE.” I was dumbfounded – and absolutely thrilled. What a nice thing to do!

Lillian Oakley Pattison, storekeeper extraordinaire, and Raymond with the gift that Lillian's husband, Gary, had made for us: It's THE MANSE with photos from my very own childhood. Lovely!

Lillian Oakley Pattison, storekeeper extraordinaire, and Raymond with the gift that Lillian’s husband, Gary, had made for us: It’s THE MANSE with photos from my very own childhood. Lovely! (And you can see from the surroundings just how much amazing stuff is for sale at the Old Hastings Mercantile. Every nook and cranny contains something interesting.)

At the Old Ormsby Schoolhouse, meanwhile, Ernie was there to greet us and answer our (many) questions about his and Debbie’s restoration of the building (it turns out it’s the third or fourth old schoolhouse that they have been involved in restoring in rural Hastings County!), and of their beautiful old farmhouse at The Ridge, and about the operation generally. And we had a wonderful lunch; mine was the amazing house special squash soup (for which Ernie kindly gave me the recipe) and tea sandwiches – you know, crustless ones cut into shapes, with cucumbers and egg salad and good stuff like that in them. Yum! All washed down with perfectly made tea served in a china teapot and the aformentioned china cups. If there is anything better than tea sandwiches and properly-made tea served in china teacups, I don’t know what it is. (Except maybe Ernie’s carrot cake for dessert.)

Ernie Pattison at the beautifully restored Old Ormsby Schoolhouse – a wonderful place for lunch or afternoon tea or (on weekends) supper.

Ernie Pattison at the beautifully restored Old Ormsby Schoolhouse – a wonderful place for lunch or afternoon tea or (on weekends) supper. I apologize for my slightly out-of-focus photo – I get nervous when I take pictures, because I’m so bad at it! But hey, note the slate on the table in the foreground – that’s what’s used to take your order. And also the authentic pot-bellied stove!

A lovely gift from Ernie Pattison: a miniature version of the funky TV trays that my grandparents once had, together with the recipe for his absolutely splendid squash soup.

A lovely gift from Ernie Pattison: a miniature version of the funky TV trays that my grandparents once had, together with the recipe for his absolutely splendid squash soup.

I came away from the Schoolhouse with yet another lovely gift (in addition to the squash soup recipe). Ernie had a twinkle in his eye as he showed me the little trays they use to deliver the check to the tables. They are tiny versions of the TV trays (a mid-20th-century staple, those of a certain age will know) that I remember from my childhood, and that I wrote about once here. In that post I lamented the fact that I have not yet been able to get my hands on a set of TV trays like the ones my maternal grandparents had, which featured big, brightly coloured flowers on a black background. Lo and behold, the little trays for the checks at the Schoolhouse are just like that. Adorable! (Ernie told us he had come across them in an antique store – now that is a find.) And he presented me with one to keep. I was thrilled!

Raymond and I already have plans to go back to Ormsby. In a couple of weeks, the anniversary service will be held at the Old Ormsby Heritage Church, a wee former Presbyterian church that Gary and Lillian own and that is used for weddings and special services. We’ll be there!

And while Christmas seems like a long time in the future, we are already looking forward to an annual special event at the Old Ormsby Schoolhouse. It is an evening when the electric lights are turned off and the whole place is lit by the oil lamps on the walls and tables. Dinner is served, after which the entertainment is a 1939 radio broadcast (on a vintage radio) of Charles Dickens‘s A Christmas Carol, featuring Orson Welles and Lionel Barrymore. I cannot imagine anything more magical.

In fact, magic might be the best word to describe the entirety of what Gary and Lillian and Ernie and Debbie have done at Ormsby. Restoring an old general store, schoolhouse and church; bringing new life to a former ghost town on the Old Hastings Road; and creating a true destination, a place that people travel from near and far to visit and enjoy themselves and eat and shop – all in tiny out-of-the-way Ormsby.

There is something to be learned for Queensborough in all of this!

Roughing it in the bush, in upper Hastings County

A drawing of the "shanty" near Coe Hill where Anna and David Leveridge and their seven children lived: "Our shanty is a strange place, just a one roomed house, made entirely of trunks of trees, 12 ft. by 20, the trees just as they are felled, with the bark on," Anna writes to her mother back in England. "The floor is lumber, as boards are called here; two little windows, one at each end, and a door in the side facing south. That, dear Mother, is my present home…How different everything is from my past life." (Drawing from Your Loving Anna, University of Toronto Press)

A drawing of the “shanty” near Coe Hill where Anna and David Leveridge and their seven children lived: “Our shanty is a strange place, just a one roomed house, made entirely of trunks of trees, 12 ft. by 20, the trees just as they are felled, with the bark on,” Anna writes to her mother back in England. “The floor is lumber, as boards are called here; two little windows, one at each end, and a door in the side facing south. That, dear Mother, is my present home…How different everything is from my past life.” (Drawing from Your Loving Anna, University of Toronto Press)

A little while back I did a post about an afternoon drive that Raymond and I took up the Old Hastings Road, which runs north up the spine of long, narrow Hastings County from the so-called (even on the map) “ghost town” of Millbridge (note to mapmakers: people do still live in Millbridge!) to just south of Bancroft. If you read the post, you’ll learn how our drive turned a bit hair-rising, in that the Old Hastings Road is very old indeed, and gets little in the way of maintenance. (You can read more about the road and its history in an excellent article here.)

The Old Hastings Road as it looks today; the farm fields of the late 19th century are long gone, and the trees and bush have reclaimed the land. (Photo from Ontario Abadoned Places (ontarioabandonedplaces.com), which has an excellent post, with more photos, on the Old Hastings Road here.

The Old Hastings Road as it looks today; the farm fields of the late 19th century are long gone, the trees and bush have reclaimed the land, and the road itself is very rough indeed. (Photo from Ontario Abandoned Places (ontarioabandonedplaces.com), which has an excellent post, with more photos, on the Old Hastings Road here.

But what really sticks with me about that drive is the sense of loneliness and loss one gets along the road. It really is the proverbial trail of broken dreams. In the later 19th century, people – many of them from the “old country” – came to the still-forested, untamed northern parts of Hastings County. (The southern parts, from Belleville up to Madoc/Tweed/Marmora or so were already developed and, thanks to decent farmland, doing quite well). They were seeking a place of their own, land they could clear so they could have a farm and a livelihood for their family. And while at first the land looked promising, it wasn’t long before harsh reality sank in: the soil was thin because it was atop the Canadian Shield. Except for rare fertile patches, there was no good farming. And while through the years there were hopes that various local mining efforts might turn into something – the fact that it’s Canadian Shield country means that there are all sorts of interesting mineral deposits scattered around – they never did amount to much. The rough homesteads in the wilderness were abandoned; farmland that had only existed thanks to unbelievable amounts of sweat and labour – cutting down trees, picking stones – was left to let nature take its course once again. When you drive along the Old Hastings Road today you can see traces of what once was – old cemeteries here and there; fencelines among the forest – but the life that people once hoped and worked for is gone. And with it, their long-ago dreams.

"Your loving Anna" is how Anna Leveridge always signed her letters from "the Ontario frontier" (northern Hastings County) to her family back home in England. If you're interested in the history of Hastings County, I recommend the book as an excellent read.

“Your loving Anna” is how Anna Leveridge always signed her letters from “the Ontario frontier” (northern Hastings County) to her family back home in England. If you’re interested in the history of Hastings County, I recommend the book as an excellent read.

In response to that post, some Hastings County friends recommended a book that details the life of just such a family in that very place. It is called Your Loving Anna, and was published in 1972 by the University of Toronto Press. Though long out of print, it’s quite findable; I got my copy through ever-reliable abebooks.com, an awesome Canadian-based network of sellers of used and antiquarian books all over the world.

It is the true story of Anna Leveridge, an Englishwoman who was living an ordinary working-class life with her husband and six children in the early 1880s when their finances took a turn for the worse thanks to an unfortunate loan guarantee made by her husband, David. He took it badly, started talking about emigrating to one of the colonies, and one day just up and disappeared, leaving no word behind and without saying goodbye. A week or so later, Anna got a message from him saying that he was embarking for Canada and would send word when he could. So there she was, alone with six children (and pregnant with a seventh) and no income. Imagine!

Long story short, she did eventually join David in Canada, and more on that anon. She scraped together the money (with some help from him) to make the voyage with the children. They crossed the ocean, one young woman and all those children (seven by then), and after landing (probably in Montreal), they made the long overland trip by train to Belleville and then north to Madoc. And there David, who was living and working in the area of Millbridge, met them, and their new life began.

(Now, I just want to pause here to say that if my husband had left me with six kids and not even a word of goodbye, I too would rejoin him across the ocean in Canada. But only to seek him out and chop his head off with a hatchet, ideally a dull one.)

The book consists largely of letters that Anna faithfully wrote to her parents and other family back home in England. They are strung together with an explanatory narrative written by her grandson, a teacher, writer and amateur historian named Louis Tivy who was born in 1902 in the farmhouse that David and Anna eventually were able to build near the village of Coe Hill in North Hastings. (Tivy died the year the book was published.)

While there is less outright drama in the letters than one finds in more well-known works about pioneering in central Ontario in the 19th century – notably Susanna Moodie‘s Roughing It in the Bush and her sister Catharine Parr Traill‘s The Backwoods of Canada – that is probably deliberate. Reading between Anna’s well-written lines you can tell there was immense hardship in her life. It is also obvious, though, that she was the kind of person to put the best possible face on all things, a born optimist and a firm believer in God’s goodness and providence. And besides, she surely wanted to assure her “Dearest Mother and all” (as she always began her letters) that she and her family were all right, out there in the middle of nowhere far across the ocean from “England’s green and pleasant land.”

The letters tell of their first months in a rough one-room house near Millbridge, followed by their time further north, near Coe Hill, where David had managed to buy some land with a “shanty” (I think we’d call it a shack, but it was better than their first so-called house) on it. And then eventually they are able to build a real log house, albeit a very simple and basic one.

The life they led! Anna writes about the loneliness so often: “We are so far away from a church and school, shop and post office,” she writes of their first home. “Here, if we see a man at a distance, we all run out and watch him as if he were a rarity, and the children say, ‘Oh, there’s a man.’ ” She is so happy when they move further north to their shanty, because there at least they have a neighbour family that she can see from her window. She is so grateful for letters from home – “write to me as soon as you can, as having letters is the principal event of my life just now” – and for anything to read that her family sends: “I miss the reading so much. I wish I had brought some books.”

In the early days especially, before they have a garden or any animals, food is scarce. (“We don’t get very fat,” she writes in one letter.) And then there were the Canadian winters. And the blackflies and mosquitoes. And the endless days of hard, hard labour, clearing the land, planting and tending crops and gardens, and feeding and tending to a large family (another baby was born a few years after their arrival) and often to others: there is a harrowing passage in which Anna describes helping a neighbour through a miscarriage while the poor woman’s husband held “the light for me to see to do what was necessary.” (She goes on to tell her mother: “So, you see I happen with some strange experiences. If anyone had told me I should have to do such a thing, I should have thought it impossible.”)

One of Anna's letters home. Notice how she "crosses" – turns the page 90 degrees and writes crossways on top of what she has already written. Both paper and postage were costly for a family struggling to establish itself in the backwoods, and "crossing" was a common way to economize on both.

One of Anna’s letters home. Notice how she “crosses” – turns the page 90 degrees and writes crossways on top of what she has already written. Both paper and postage were costly for a family struggling to establish itself in the backwoods, and “crossing” was a common way to economize on both. (From Your Loving Anna, University of Toronto Press)

But they manage, due no doubt in large part to Anna’s hard work, determination and good cheer. Their fields and garden grow well in those early years, and she even wins prizes for her vegetables at the Coe Hill Fair (which is still going strong, all these years later). They acquire a cow and later other animals. The children grow up healthy and strong (though entirely lacking a formal education). Anna makes some money for the family by teaching local girls to play the organ, and by sewing for other families. There are happy times like community Christmas “socials.”

And you can tell from the letters that Anna delights in discovering the landscape and customs of her new home – like the fact that it is “very fashionable” in Canadian households to have china cups and saucers of many different patterns. (That fashion continued for many years. If you grew up in Ontario in the 1960s and ’70s – like I did, at the Manse in Queensborough – you’ll recall that almost every household had a collection of china cups and saucers, no two alike, for serving tea when there was “company.” I never thought anything of it until I read that passage in the book.)

There is one section that I particularly liked, encapsulating in not many words the hardship, the beauty of the new land, and the echoes of home that mean so much. Anna writes about attending church, a four-and-a-half-mile walk: “It was a nice day, and I enjoyed the walk. The hills were not so bad to climb now that the snow is off them, and the birds singing, the wild flowers peeping, and the cowbells ringing, made it all pleasant. We got there just as they were commencing service. The usual congregation was there, not forgetting the babies and dogs, one of which decidedly disapproved of our singing and set up a doleful howl. The service was nice, the old familiar words in that strange out of the way place seemed like the voice of an old friend speaking.”

Afterward, they are invited to a neighbour’s home for midday dinner, and Anna reports on her discovery of a delicious new thing: “We had a famous dinner, to which I did ample justice, my walk having made me ravenous. Stewed chicken, mashed potatoes, and custard pie, i.e., custard flavoured with ess[ence] lemon on a short crust, on soup plates, and the whites beaten up and put on the top. You had better try it, it was very good.”

Lemon meringue pie!

If anything could make a hard life in the backwoods of Hastings County just a little bit easier, I guess it would be lemon meringue pie.