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!

A fashion trend for sheds, once upon a time. Featuring: pink.

Pink and grey barn

An ordinary-looking barn, right? But what I find not so ordinary about it is the colour scheme: grey with pink trim. It was kind of a thing in our rural area, back in the day – and now that I am living in that area once again, I can’t help but wonder: why pink?

Memory can be a fickle thing, they say. There are so many things that we think we remember that may in fact be quite wrong. (Here is a very interesting article from The New Yorker on the subject.) Have you ever got together with family members or old friends and, in reminiscing about the things that happened in the old days, discovered that various people in the group had quite different versions of some of those events? Or that they’ll all remember something vividly and you – who apparently were there as well – have no recollection of it at all?

I say all that by way of introduction because I’m about to tell you my very first memory of Queensborough, from when I had just turned four years old. But is it a real memory? I think so, but…

Maybe you’ll laugh when you hear what it is: a grey shed with pink trim, with a pink swing set in front of it.

The shed and swing set were at a house right near the Manse, and in my memory my family – Dad, Mum, me, my younger sister, Melanie, and my baby brother, John – drove by that house as we made our way to our new home (the Manse) in Dad’s 1956 Chev for the very first time, in July 1964. Dad, newly ordained a United Church of Canada minister, was about to take up duties as minister of the Queensborough Pastoral Charge.

I remember it so vividly because of the swing set; I was convinced that it meant that the house’s yard was a public playground, like the one where I had played on the swings so often near my maternal grandparents’ home in the Leaside neighbourhood of Toronto. That is where we had been living before moving to Queensborough, while my father finished his studies in divinity school at the University of Toronto‘s Emmanuel College.

The day we arrived in Queensborough we had probably driven all the way from Toronto, or possibly from the Sedgwick family farm up in Haliburton County; either way, it was a long car ride for a four-year-old, and you can imagine how appealing a swing set looked at the end of it. And a pink swing set at that! Perfect for a little girl!

It was all my parents could do to keep me from dashing the 50 yards or so over there and jumping onto the swings at the house of people we didn’t even know. (We very soon found out they were the Gordon family, and their daughter, Connie, became a good childhood friend of mine.) Presumably Mum and Dad put me to work instead, carrying some things from the car into the big brick house that was to be our home for the next 11 years. (And that is now home again, after my husband, Raymond, and I bought it three years ago.)

The Gordons’ house is now the home of our neighbours and friends Chuck and Ruth, and the pink swing set is long gone. The shed/garage is still there, but it is no longer covered in grey insulbrick with pink trim. But, people, that shed colour-scheme trend that dates from sometime around the middle of the last century still shows up in this area, and every time I see it, I am reminded of that first sunny July day in Queensborough, so very long ago.

Every weekday on my drive to and from work I pass not one but two such buildings. One is the small barn that you can see in the photo atop this post: the other is a garage between the hamlet of White Lake and the hamlet of Ivanhoe, along Highway 62:

Pink and grey garage

I finally stopped and got photos of them both yesterday. Because – well, who knows how long there’ll still be traces of that interesting midcentury colour scheme for barns, sheds and garages?

I mean, I get the grey insulbrick. Grey is a pretty traditional colour for garages and sheds, right? But what, people, what on earth is, or was, with the pink trim? I mean, I love it – but why would the men (inevitably men) who built and/or covered those barns and sheds in siding, and painted the trim, have chosen pink? It seems like such an odd thing to have happened over and over and over again. I’m thinking there must have been some sort of marketing campaign or something: “Pink is the perfect colour to set off your brand-new grey insulbrick siding!”

I have trouble imagining the farmers of central Hastings County going for such a marketing push. But how else to explain it? People, do you have any ideas?

This funny little colour thing is a happy circumstance for me – because it reminds me of a sunny day long ago, when all the world was young, and there was a shed with pink trim with a pink swing set in front of it. But I sure am curious to know how all those pink-trimmed sheds came about.

Get out your knitting needles!

Beehive knitting booklets

Do these these look familiar, people? Booklets featuring knitting and crochet pattens for “shells” (sleeveless sweaters), raglans (what are “raglans,” anyway?) and more to the point – for tonight’s post, anyway – “carefree afghans” that one could create using Patons Beehive yarns? Don’t you just love the hairstyles on the models in the middle one? Ah, the memories…

A while back I wrote a post (which is here, if you’re interested) about a very entertaining find I made at the used-books-for-sale cart at the Tweed Public Library: to wit, a couple of vintage booklets containing instructions and patterns to create macramé delights. And I am talking delights, people! Why, with those instructions you could macramé yourself a hanging-plant holder, or a lampshade, or even a wine rack! (I am not making this up.) And if you happened to do such a thing today, and installed your creation in your home, you would instantly create a mid-1970s time warp. All good clean fun, if you ask me. Not that I’m quite prepared to try it at the Manse.

Anyway, what I didn’t include in that post, and in fact was saving for just the right moment (which happens to be now), was another find I made in that same pile of vintage handicrafts how-to booklets. As I was riffling through it and smiling at the 1970s macramé memories, I suddenly came upon one booklet that was so familiar, from so long ago, that it almost made me gasp. Here is the cover:

Carefree Afghans

What a flashback! That same booklet had sat for years around the very house where I am writing this post – the Manse, of course, in Queensborough – back in the early 1970s, when my mum, Lorna, had (along with much of the rest of the female population of North America) taken up knitting such things as “carefree afghans.” To take advantage of that knitting craze – a wave that seems to crest every 20 or 25 years, in my experience, not that I’ve ever been much more than a very casual surfer on it – the good folks at Patons, makers of Beehive yarns (100-per-cent artificial fibres, as I recall) produced booklets of instructions like this. There were probably quite a few booklets of afghan patterns out there, but the instant I spotted this one I knew that it was the one my mum had used here at the Manse.

Okay, let’s take a brief pause and ask the obvious question: why were those knitted blankets, or throws, or whatever we might call them now, called “afghans,” do you suppose? I leave that to the wisdom of the readership to answer.

Oh, and let’s take a second pause and ask a second question: How on earth did my mother, who was a full-time high-school teacher, mother of four young children, and United Church minister‘s wife who was expected to carry out all the minister’s-wife duties of the time (including  preparing and hosting dinner parties for families who were members of the church congregation every single Sunday night), have time to sit around and knit afghans? That, my friends, is a huge mystery to me. (Also, I might add, to my mother.)

Anyway. I should tell you that the reason you did not see a post from me here at Meanwhile, at the Manse last evening was that we were celebrating Mum’s birthday at her home in Port Hope, Ont. I took advantage of the family gathering to bring along my Carefree Afghans find – and sure enough, it elicited gasps of recognition from my mum and my sister, Melanie, just as it had from me. Now I must show you the back cover, on which is the pattern my mum liked best and made into not one but two “carefree afghans”:

Carefree Afghans (back)

It’s the one with the mod squares in pink, plum, red and scarlet, the very colours Mum used for her second go at that afghan; her first one was in various shades of green. “Toned Tiles,” this carefree afghan is called in the Patons book. “Designed for the modern living room or recreation room,” it says in the introduction to the knitting instructions.

Both Mum’s red and green “Toned Tiles” afghans were well-loved and well-used in our “modern living room” – notably for keeping knees warm while watching Hockey Night in Canada on the telly – for many, many years; those Patons 100-per-cent-artificial-fibres yarns were pretty much indestructible, even in a family with four rambunctious children. And in fact, the green Toned Tiles afghan is, Melanie informed us last night, still extant and in occasional use up at the home at the Sedgwick family farm in Haliburton County. More than 40 years after it was knitted!

Talk about a carefree afghan built to last. I suspect it needs to find a permanent home at the Manse – where that pattern was carefully followed by a very busy young mother, all those years ago.

So NOW he tells me.

Bathroom December 2014

A corner of our very humble (though large) bathroom at the Manse – for which, I discovered when it was probably too late, Raymond had a vision of an amazing vintage-themed breakfast nook.

Usually Raymond serves as my editor and proofreader before I put up posts here at Meanwhile, at the Manse, but occasionally he’s not around or is busy with other things so I just go ahead and merrily send my deathless prose (not) out to the internet without his two cents’ worth. Such was the case with last night’s post about the amazing midcentury turquoise dining booth that we decided not to buy when we finally saw it in person. Should you have not seen that post, or want a refresher on what that remarkable article of furniture, discovered in a Haliburton County antique barn, looks like, here it is, one more time:

Beautiful turquoise bench

So anyway, a short while after I’d announced to you all last night that we had decided we could live without that very cool piece of furniture (and perhaps could find better uses for the substantial amount of money it would have cost us), Raymond did read my post.

And kind of said, “Oh! Well, I’d been thinking about that, actually.” (Buying the turquoise dining booth, I mean.)

Uh-oh, says I to myself. Am I going to have non-buyer’s remorse after all?

Here’s what Raymond had been thinking, without thinking to mention what he was thinking.

Pantry December 2014

Raymond making dinner this evening in our ridiculously small pantry/cooking area, which might better serve as a bathroom.

He’d been thinking that a suggestion I had casually made a while back about remodelling the kitchen area of the Manse was quite a good one. (Raymond thinking that one of my design ideas is a good one is a first, by the way.) That idea was this: that we transform the house’s one and only bathroom – which, as I’ve written before, is wildly oversized and idiosyncratically located immediately inside the front door on the ground floor – into an extension of the kitchen area; and that we transform the current small pantry, where the trusty vintage Harvest Gold stove and (weirdly) the washing machine reside – along with the kitchen sink and the sum total of all our kitchen-cupboard and counter space – into a downstairs bathroom. (With at least one more bathroom upstairs, because as we all know, you can never have too many bathrooms.)

So yeah, Raymond had been mulling this plan, thinking it was quite a good one, and – get this – had worked the turquoise dining booth into it! As he proceeded to show me, he envisioned its short end along the wall where the vanity (and Harvest Gold sink) now stand in the bathroom, and the long part against the back wall. Take a look at my photo at the top of this post and you should be able to picture it yourself; the long part of the turquoise bench would be facing you with the short part along the wall to your left. With the nice big window that’s in the left foreground of the photo opened to let in the sunlight (as opposed to shuttered to the front porch as it currently is, the room being a bathroom and all), this would make a brilliant breakfast nook, he suggested.

And you know, it would.

But I’ve probably gone and blown our chances of making that happen by revealing to the world where this treasure is being offered for sale; for all I know, it’s already been snapped up. Should Raymond have mentioned this idea to me a little earlier? Well, you can be the judge of that.

Still, I can console myself with the fact that we’re nowhere near ready to start ripping up and renovating the bathroom or the pantry, which means that if the Turquoise Marvel were ours, we’d have to find someplace to put it. Which would probably be right smack in the middle of the kitchen floor; which in turn would be crazily inconvenient.

Also: I still feel kind of rich as a result of not having laid out the money for it.

But regrets? Yeah, I now have a few. Is it too late to change my mind?

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!

Really, there is just no end to the excitement.

Mussed-up garden

I think a roaming animal might be behind the trampled-looking state of one section of our garden. Could it have been the cow (or cows) that caused some excitement in town this week?

A few days ago when I was out in the yard of the Manse, I noticed that some plants in the perennial garden looked like some creature had got into them. The leaves were all mussed up and flattened, as you can see in my photo. I wasn’t remotely worried about it – they’re just leaves, and the garden season is at an end – but I was curious as to what it might have been. Probably a dog, I imagined. But now, thanks to an amusing incident that I just heard about today, I am not so sure.

The amusing incident in question is one that I wish I’d witnessed, because let’s face it: unless you live on a farm, how often do you see a cow strolling past your house? But that is apparently what happened one recent day, as one or more bovines (I haven’t yet heard numerical details) escaped from whatever pasture they were supposed to be in and wandered into Queensborough. Just because they could, I suppose. Because my father had cattle on our family’s farm up in Haliburton County, I am well aware that cattle, given half a chance – or even a quarter of a chance – will find a fence opening, or bust through a fence, and wander to kingdom come.

What the cow, or cows, decided to do when they got to town was to gain entry to a property that borders directly on ours. The main sign of the intrusion was a broken gate; apparently the grass was greener in that property’s yard than anywhere else in the village.

Now, several people noticed the broken gate, but not a single person that I have so far spoken to actually saw the beast(s) wandering around. Which is a little odd, given that it’s rather hard to miss any activity in the streets of Queensborough, due to the general tranquillity of the place. Perhaps the cattle’s visit was in the middle of the night.

(“So,” you are perhaps asking yourself, “if no one saw them, how do you know it was cattle?” Well, I have the answer to that: there were hoof prints – and a little deposit they made on the property they chose to visit.)

But anyway, chances are very good, given the location of that property, that their journeying took them right past the Manse. And I just think it would have been hilarious to see cows passing by (or through) our yard. (Probably not nearly so hilarious for the farmer from whom they’d gone missing, of course.) Now that would have been something to capture on camera.

And now I’m wondering whether the disarray in the foliage in the yard might have been caused by something larger (and more interesting) than a roaming dog. I like to think it might have been The Cow Who Came to Town.

Really, there is never a dull moment in Queensborough.

On the eve of Dominion Day, fireworks – and fireflies

Domion Day EveAs you’ll see from this picture of the flag flying from the front porch of the Manse tonight, Raymond and I are anticipating tomorrow, July 1 – Dominion Day, as I like to call it. Evidently some of our neighbours here in Queensborough are too, because they put on a nice little fireworks display just a few minutes ago. When I went out to take a picture of our flag, that nostalgic scent of post-fireworks smoke was in the air.

I love fireworks!

But there’s another thing that lights up a summer night that I love even more, and that is fireflies. I remember how magical it seemed to me as a kid, seeing them on a summer evening here at the Manse or up at the family farm in Haliburton County, where we always spent July in those days. I think the reason they seem so magical is because they are so ephemeral: now you see them, now you don’t. Or at least, you don’t see them in the place where you saw them just a second before; you may instead see them a few inches or feet away. It is delightful to watch.

I’d been thinking about fireflies in the past few days, after coming across a random reference to them in a book. What I was thinking was how many years it had been since I’d seen one, doubtless due to my urban-living habits over the past few decades. I’d been wishing I might see some fireflies one of these evenings in quiet, dark little Queensborough.

And tonight I did! On a brief walk through the village, I saw a mysterious, brief bright light, and wondered for a half-second what it might have been. And then there was another, and another. They didn’t last long, but they were most definitely there.

And so my wish was fulfilled. Something else to celebrate on Dominion Day!