An Ordinary Man

1882 store book page as a single man.

“When the courting at midnight has ended

And he stands with his hat in his fist

And she lovingly lingers beside him,

To wish him ta-ta and be kissed,

How busy his thoughts of the future,

You betchya his thoughts he don’t speak,

He is wondering how they can manage,

To live on six dollars a week.”

(little poem etched in pencil in one of Norman’s early ‘store books’)

Norman Nicholson, my husband’s great grandfather liked to keep track of things: Indeed, that was his one extraordinary trait. He kept track of his every expense, business or household, over five decades (right down to 5 cents tossed to a tramp). He kept balances, inventories, invoices and lists from 1881 when he left home to live on his own to 1921 at this death at home in Richmond, Quebec.

He kept all this information in dozens of ledgers, diaries and notebooks and he kept these booklets neatly arranged in a trunk under the window in his daughter’s room. ( I know because it said so in one of the many letters he kept, which the daughter in her turn kept, and which eventually fell into my hands as the wife of his great grandson.)

Norman in Masonic Regalia circa 1905

That’s how history-challenged I came to have a real appreciation for the life of a 1st generation Canadian living in the Eastern Townships of Quebec at the turn of the 20th century, that is Norman Nicholson, son of Malcolm Nicolson, he who came to this country in 1841 at age 26 with his parents and 8 siblings after being cleared from the family farm on the nearly treeless Isle of Lewis, Hebrides; who walked from Port St Francis to Flodden and settled on crown land, earning money by burning wood for potash and clearing trails through the forest.

That’s how I’ve come to understand that my husband’s great grandfather, Canadian-born, Canadian schooled Norman Nicholson, successful hemlock bark dealer, turkey salesman, bill collector for a local doctor, Town Public Works Clerk, Inspector for the Transcontinental Railway and The Quebec Streams Commission (I have all the documentation) was a work-a-day sort, devoted husband to the spirited feminist-minded Margaret McLeod, (also a Lewis descendant) doting father to three feisty and ambitious daughters Edith, Marion, Flora and one lost soul of a son, Herb.

He was the kind of ordinary man who lives a full life, with all its joys and sorrows and broken dreams, and dies, the memory of him quickly fading to black until, one day, (with any luck at all) a glimmer, as a great great grandson, flipping through the brittle pages of a photo album, points to one particular picture and asks. “Who’s this ‘sick-looking’ dude with the white moustache and beard?” And the boy’s middle aged father answers: “Oh, that’s Norman Nicholson, your great great grandfather, or at least, I think it is.”

“Was he a general or something, too?” the boy asks referring to the man’s mason uniform – because the boy is related to General Douglas MacArthur on another branch of his family tree.

“No, Norman Nicholson was just an ordinary man.”

Cost of setting up house 1883. 45 dollars for furniture

Now, after scanning the ledgers and reading all his diaries, that I can confirm: ordinary, in every possible way. Not a hero like Alexander Mackenzie, the Lewis born explorer, for whom a great Canadian river is named, although Norman did have a thing for bodies of water. From his 1912 diary: List of Rivers East of Cochrane, Abitibi River, Sucker Creek, Mistango River, Low Bush Creek

Not a villain like Lewis descendant Donald Morrison, the Megantic Outlaw, subject of Canada’s largest ever manhunt and at least two books and one documentary, although Norman did have a part in the man’s post capture defense.

From an 1889 press clipping: Let it be hereby resolved that Norman Nicholson be appointed by the Richmond Royal Caledonia Society to press the authorities for an interview with Donald Morrison.

Neither famous, nor infamous, neither scoundrel nor saint; ergo NOT the kind of man whose exploits are chronicled for future generations in plodding high school history texts or low budget straight to cable documentaries; just a loyal husband, protective father, dutiful citizen. An ordinary man, the kind of man who reaches a point in life where he feels the need to lay down the law to his kids: November 14, 1902 Future Regulations: All must be up and downstairs by 7:30 o’ clock in the morning, Sunday included, breakfast at 7:30. The kind of man who, lonely on the job in middle age, writes love letters to his wife: “I don’t want a concrete hall or a little birch canoe; just want a place with you by the fireside.”

Very very ordinary. No, not the stuff of history books or even good caricature, although it would be easy to characterize Norman as the quintessential penny pinching Scot (someone who believes his bank book to be the best kind of reading) but that characterization would be totally unfair.

Norman Nicholson may have been a practical man:

Price of ash for 1899: 8 cents for 12 inch;10 cents for 13 inch; 12 cents for 14 inch.

1913 Trip to Boston to see Grand Lodge: ticket to Montreal, 2.55, street car 05, ticket to Newport, 3.25. Dinner on train .60

with a petty side:

number of times Dr. Kellock was away from his congregation in year 1897: 24 January in Boston; 21 March in Spencerville; 24 October in Toronto;

October 18, 1899. Date McMorine had his water cut off in his store by M. McDonald tinsmith.

But he also was a romantic:

Nothing to do Margaret, Dar..ling, nothing to do. Let’s take a trip on memory’s ship back to the by gone days. Let’s sail to the old village, anchor outside the school door. Look in and see, that’s you and me, a couple of kids once more.

See? An ordinary man of conflicting passions, just like you and me, the kind of man who has but one chance to have something flattering written about him and that’s at the end of his life:

From the Richmond Guardian June, 1922:

The death occurred suddenly last Friday morning in Montreal of Mr. Norman Nicholson, one of the most respected citizens of this place…

And then that’s it, finito, no more, except, perhaps, for an epitaph on a tombstone in a far-flung country cemetery no one ever visits.

RIP Norman Nicholson, my husband’s great grandfather. An oh-so ordinary man, except for this one extraordinary trait, this compulsion to keep track of things, to leave a paper trail for posterity – if mostly in list form.

END

LIST Cost of LIving 1900 Richmond Quebec.

1900 accounts, family of six, children in teens. Wife Margaret got a hefty allowance with her purchases going unnoted, but I see no mention of material or sewing notions in the list and Margaret sewed her daughter’s clothes for the most part. In 1900 the Nicholsons were comfortably middle class with a fine house, but their fortunes would soon fail with the end of the hemlock bark industry.

January

1/3 of a beef, 106 pounds 6.35

Skating rink 10

6 lbs pork 25

2 beef tongues 20

Marion for Rink 10

Postage 12

79 lbs pork from Bromfield 4.35

Sunday School 04

Church plate 05

Scribbler for Flora 05

1 lb sulphur 05

Hairdressing 15

Membership Board of Trade 1.00

Treat of cigars 25

Fare to Sherbrooke and return 1.35

Copy book Flora 08

Scribbler Edith 05

Marion skating rink 10

½ lb Black tea 18

Sunday school 04

1 Ladies Jacket 8.50

1 pair gent’s overshoes 2.00

¼ lb candies 05

1 lb frosting sugar 08

1 lb baking soda 04

¼ lb peppermint 05

Sunday School 04

Church concert 60

Postage 20

1 paper of pins 05

I pocket handkerchief 08

Herbert 05

Postage 25

1 jar molasses 14

Mending Marion’s boots 25

February

Sunday School 04

Bridge toll 02

¼ pound candies 05

Times for one year 1.00

Maggie 25

½ pound Black tea 18

Marion for rink 10

Sunday School 03

¼ lbs cream of tartar 09

1 lbs currants 10

1 bottle Powell’s medicine 25

Maggie 50

W. Daigle for hauling bark 15

1 writing pad 15

1 pair rubbers Edith 45

1 pair rubbers Marion 45

1 loaf break 05

1 lb crackers 08

1 pint oysters 20

Cough candies 02

Scribbler for Marion 05

Postage 02

Maggie 50

1 loaf bread 05

1 bag fine salt 10

Sunday school 02

Church Collection 10

100 lbs salt 05

1 whisk 15

1 loaf bread 06

¾ pounds walnuts 10

Maggie for Church 2.10

1 lamp chimney 07

1 bottle M. Liniment 25

Maggie 06

½ black tea

1 pair laces 04

4 gallons coal oil 75

10 lbs corn meal 15

10 lbs Graham flour 25

5 gallons Coal Oil 95

1 hockey stick 30

Herbert for Dictionary 15

Maggie 10

½ loaf bread 06

1 lbs ginger snaps 10

¼ pound Ceylon Pepper 10

Postage 06

Flora and Marion 05

1 package Corn Starch 09

¼ lbs cream of tarter

Hair dressing 15

Marion for rink 10

March

1 jar molasses 12

1 doz eggs 20

Maggie 10

Chinaman for laundry 14

Sunday School 04

Patriotic Fund for Hockey 60

1 pair rubbers Herbert 60

Maggie 40

Marion and Flora 10

Sutherland for Miss Wilson 1.00

Postage 20

Mending tins 05

Missionary meeting 05

Skating rink 05

Maggie 25

¼ pounds cream of tartar 10

Sunday School 03

Maggie for concert 10

1 cake shaving soap 07

1 lbs soda 04

½ lbs Black tea

¼ lbs cream of tartar 09

1 bottle vanilla 10

5 pounds sugar 25

Maggie 25

5 lbs butter McKee 1.00

Marion 05

Herbert for Sharpening skates 05

Maggie 1.00

5 lbs G Flour 10

6 ½ lbs butter 1.45

Mending Herbert’s boots 25

1 loaf bread 10

Cough candies 05

1 quart milk 05

Skating rink 20

Maggie 22

9 ½ lbs butter 2.00

Flora 05

1 bags fine salt 10

Maggie 50

1 bag flour 2.25

49 pounds oats 49

5 lbs sugar 25

Sunday School 04

½ lbs Black tea

Postage 10

Postal notes 05

Subscription to Herald `1.50

Subscription to Westminster

Pady Jim 25

12 ¾ cords wood 35.25

I scrubbing brush 10

April

5 lbs sugar 25

Maggie 10

1 pair of rubbers Flora 35

Sunday School 04

½ gal Coal oil 10

1 bottle ammonia 05

1 lamp burner 10

1 doz herrings 25

20 lbs Graham Flour 50

1 bag rolled oats 25

5 Gal Coal Oil 95

20 pounds corn meal 30

Flora 05

Small writing pad 05

1 box crackers 25

½ pound candies 10

Scrubbing floor 25

Herbert for sugar 10

Maggie 20

Hair dressing 15

1 jar molasses 15

½ lbs Black tea 18

2 lbs tapioca 10

Postage 27

Sunday School 07

Herbert for Birthday 25

Maggie 10

1 Gallon syrup 65

3 lbs sugar maple 24

3 pairs shoe laces 08

2 pair stockings 60

5 lbs sugar 25

Sugar scale 40

Maggie 2.60

1 pair rubbers 60

Maggie 35

To Sunday School 03

2 dozen eggs 30

1 package popcorn 05

F Lyster for milk 95

Fir dressing Herbert 15

5 lbs sugar 25

Maggie 1.00

Hauling manure 20

Postage 10

Sunday School 03

Bill of goods bought by Dan 32

1 box crackers 25

1 spool thread 10

1 can corn beef? 25

3 ¾ lbs steak 47

Sunday school 04

Candies 04

May

5 lbs sugar 25

½ lbs Black tea 18

¼ pounds ginger 09

1 bag potatoes 45

¼ ream bill paper 05

Daigle for manuring 40

Edith 50

Herbert suit of clothes 4.00

Spading garden 1.00

Mending M and F. Shoes 70

Garden seeds 40

2 pairs shoes Edith and Marion 3.00

1 necktie for funeral 25

Maggie 25

Seeds got by Dr. Cleveland 50

1 package envelopes 07

Post office box 1.00

Sunday School 03

2 scribblers 10

1 bag oatmeal 1.90

1 lb flour 4.50

Mending boots 1.25

Pass Book 10

Postage 09

10 lbs graham flour 30

¼ lbs cream of tartar 25

2 lbs steak 25

3 ½ pounds S. Ham 25

Military dinner 75

3 gallons Maple Syrup 1.95

3 thoughts on “An Ordinary Man”

  1. Hi Dorothy Dixon

    Just enjoyed reading your article.

    My 2nd great grandparent was the Malcom Nicholson as mentioned below.

    My full name is David Richard Malcolm Johnston – Age 78.

    My great grandmother was Christina Nicholson the sister of Norman.

    PS – I also like to keep notes. At university I kept a note pad with all my expenditures every day.

    Regards, David Johnston, B. Arch., MRAIC, O.A.A.

    Cell 416 919-6020

    David Johnston Architect Ltd.

    8 Maple Lane, Unionville, Ontario L3R 1R2

    Tel. No. 905 479-9992 x220

    E-mail: d.johnston@davidjohnston.ca

    Liked by 1 person

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