All posts by Dorothy Nixon

I am a Montreal based writer with a new book about the British Invasion of Suffragettes to Canada in 1912/13 Furies Cross the Mersey on Amazon Kindle.

The Bush Camp Bean Counter

“Three years ago, Wabush was bush: a rough, scraggly, nearly lifeless wilderness. The hills in summer echoed only with the whir of the black fly. The only way for a man foolish enough to want to go there was to do so by seaplane. The bush, like so many of the parts of Canada that have yet to be opened, had to be broken and tamed, and the men who broke it — the last frontiersmen — are a breed apart.” Macleans Magazine

In November, 1963, Peter Gzowski, the young managing editor of Macleans, wrote an article for his magazine entitled “The New Soft Life on the Last Frontier.”

The journalist – now legendary – had worked ‘like a serf’ as a student on the Labrador railway that was needed before they could start work at the iron ore mines at the Quebec/Labrador border.

Apparently, he was amazed at the advances made in just a few years in the embryonic mining town of Wabush, 1248 kilometers from Montreal.

A rough, scraggly nearly lifeless wilderness is how Gzowski described Wabush back in 1960, and, yes, that is certainly how I remember it – if only from photographs we took on our little Brownie camera.

My brothers, Mark and Phil, and me in front of Little Wabush Lake, 1960, my ridiculous hairdo courtesy of my mother who was trying to make me look less of a tomboy.
A Y Jackson Wabush Lake. If my memory is correct he visited Wabush while we were there and told my mom he would have liked to have painted my twin brother (not me!)

My family moved to Wabush in the spring of 1960 when the only family quarters there were a log cabin owned by the American Foreman and, just up the hill, a few well-equipped house trailers for the families of other supervisors.

The other mostly young unmarried male workers lived in crude canvas tents. They included an athletic young prospector who would go on to win Canada’s only gold medal – in the four man bobsled – at the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics.

Our long, green trailer was state-of-the-art with its own washer-dryer, but it was still a trailer and during the short black-fly infested summers of 1960 and 61 all five of us packed into it. I think my parents slept in a Murphy bed that made room for the kitchenette table when not in use. My twin brother, Phil, and I slept in bunk beds.

I don’t remember feeling crowded but my father, Peter Nixon, certainly did. He spent most of his time at work or outside fly-fishing in summer and taking me and my twin brother for walks ‘across the lake’ in winter.

My father and me with his fly fishing catch which I always ate because no one else liked trout.

It helped that outside the summer months my older brother, Mark, attended prep school in England. He missed out on the Wabush winters where the annual snowfall is twice that of Montreal, the days one hour shorter, and the average daily temperature what a Montrealer would consider part of a mercifully short-term deep freeze.

I do remember visiting the Foreman’s log cabin as a friend of his daughter who was a few years older and a full head taller. (Well, I remember the memory of the memory of the memory.)

She confidently made a pie, plopping peaches out of a can onto a pre-prepared pastry impressing me no end. Apparently, we played together a lot because I am in a few of the family pictures she still has in a box at her home in the U.S.

I may remember the Foreman’s daughter, but she doesn’t remember me. She attended school in Sept Iles and had other older, more intriguing friends to play with.

There were 21 children living in Wabush in summer. The many boys contented themselves with mischief, such as chasing behind the D D T truck! I mostly pushed my beige doll carriage around the small trailer camp, sometimes talking to the lonely mothers there. One of these women made me a beautiful doll’s quilt, the highlight of my entire Wabush adventure!

Generally, I lived a rather feral life with no TV and no colourful picture books to keep me amused.

My most vivid memories are not of other children but of animals: a frightened snarling fox in a cage that men were poking with a stick; a dead baby bear shot while trying to get at someone’s larder; oh, and the owl that flew down and lit upon Mark’s shoulder.

A newsclipping from 1960: “Wabush presently has crude wooden buildings, tent bunkhouses and a few housetrailers and about 125 workmen. But it boasts a fine 4,600 foot airstrip, and a daily schedule air service to Sept Isles, plus a twice weekly shuttle service to Shefferville operated by Quebecair. The Foreman says it will take five years to build a town site, a grinding and concentrating plant and a loading facility.”

My mother Marthe’s catch. They were spawning, she said.

We arrived at Wabush in April or May of 1960, taking a very noisy and cold DC 3? plane, I remember, with our young dog, Spotty, the coonhound wailing in a cage at the back of the plane.

A brilliant 1990 history of Wabush using first-person testimony, written by Dana Hines and available at their Town Hall has a telling quote:

Some of these early residents recall stepping off the plane or train and sinking up to their knees in mud. This was to be their first taste of what initially appears to be a very barren place indeed, for Wabush at that time was nothing but wilderness. “(Page 12)

So, I am not imagining things: my family arrived in the Labrador bush at the very beginning. My father’s job was to oversee the money being used to create this model family mining community, for two years on-site (1960-61) and for another four years (1961-1965) out of the Canadian offices of the Wabush Mines Company on Dominion Square in Montreal.

In late 1961, he moved my Mom, my twin brother and me back to the big city, into a relatively spacious upper duplex apartment in Snowdon. I started the first grade, an over-due November arrival who still couldn’t read. How embarrassing!

The change of work locale for my dad, from a crude wooden structure in the deep bush to a storied edifice at the ‘cross-roads of Canada,’ also must have been truly head-spinning.

Mark returned to live with us a year later, a British schoolboy in every respect. So pudgy, polite and bookish he was, I hardly recognized him.

The town of Wabush was designed by the same architects who created the Expo 67 islands. ( It is no surprise, then, that my father went on to work in 1965 as an auditor for the Fair Commission instead of taking a transfer to Cleveland, Ohio, the seat of the US head office of Wabush Mines.)

And those architects did a very good job designing the mining town judging from the many happy, nostalgic postings on the Memories of Wabush Facebook page.

There were 293 families in Wabush by 1967 and the many children living there had lots of things to do. By then the town had a school, a library, a recreation centre with television and movies and a bowling alley, as well as a swimming pool with sauna and sundeck – and even a small shopping mall.1.

(Of course, in Montreal I had Expo 67 with its endless wonders to keep me amused, so it was no contest.)

My older brother summed things up upon reading the town’s history: “We left before things got good.”

1. Hynes, Dana. Untitled History of Wabush. 1990. Available at the Wabush City Hall.

A call for an auditor for Wabush a few years after we left. My father still worked for the company at their head office at 1010 Ste Catherine Street, the Dominion Square Building.
Grandiose 16MM film promoting Wabush in 1960. Big money is being spent: I guess my dad had to keep track of it.

Click here for the Gzowski article: https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1963/11/2/the-new-soft-life-on-the-last-frotier Gzowski’s main point: The workers still had it very hard and the prices were scandalous!

From Daguerreotype to Digital in Four Generations

Sarah Maclean Macleod : Daguerrotype or Tintype

The above picture is a digital reproduction of a tintype or daguerreotype portrait of Sarah Marion McLean, my husband’s great great grandmother, taken (most probably) around the time of her marriage in 1849 in Flodden, Quebec. I scanned the metal photograph to computer over 10 years ago.

The pic above is composite montage of Sarah’s 4 times great granddaughter, Nora, my granddaughter born 2018, stored on my cellphone. The collage consists of photos snapped from the moment of her birth until her 1st birthday. These pics are but a fraction of the pictures existing of Mademoiselle Nora, now 4 years old, on various cellphones belonging to family.

I have in my possession only two other photos of Nora’s 4x great granny, Sarah, one where she stands beside her seated husband (Isle of Lewisman John Mcleod ) looking very pregnant. Another cardboard studio photo of her is from her final year. At the back of the photograph someone wrote in her name and dates. Sarah Marion McLean McLeod 1825-1912. She may actually be dead in the photo.

Unfortunately, I have misplaced the metallic originals, so I can’t test whether they are daguerreotypes or tintypes. (Tintypes are slightly magnetic.) They must be in a box somewhere in the garage with the other ‘important’ family photos I am missing. I mean, it has to be, right? I would never have thrown out such precious mementos.

The Macleods emigrated to Quebec in 1838, before so many others in their clan were pushed out in the infamous ‘clearances.’ Sarah Maclean from Coll arrived in Quebec a little later, after her parents and two brothers died back home. She had a sister in the province. Sarah, who was born at the height of the Industrial Revolution, led a long life in southern Quebec before passing away just as the motor car was making life in the Eastern Townships much more exciting. Too bad. Apparently, she loved to travel about.

Sarah is oft mentioned in family letters I have on hand from the 1908-1913 period. The family is feuding over her care in old age. Apparently, she speaks only ‘the Gaelic.’

A few years ago, I digitally enhanced her portrait. There was a white ‘hole’ in her forehead. I scanned the dag/tintype into the computer (afraid that any residue from harsh chemicals on the photo might be harmful to me) and filled in the hole using Photoshop.

Later on I embellished the photo of this Scottish ancestor whose face has passed down through the generations.

So, in the almost 200 years between the births of Sarah and Nora, the photographic world has gone from solid metal daguerreotype to a multiverse of ephemeral digital media – with the act of taking photographs becoming progressively easier.

Photographers in the Victorian Age were well-heeled trailblazers and techno-enthusiasts in possession of a great deal of very expensive -and very cumbersome – equipment. Today taking pictures is, no, exaggeration, mere child’s play. Nora is already pretty adept with a cellphone. I imagine in a very few years she’ll be taking candid photos of me as I crawl out of bed and creating instant animations with my dishevelled image and posting them online. Well, she already is.

Nora is already taking candid photos of her grandmother.

Sarah Marion McLean McLeod saw great advances in photography within her very own lifetime.

Although I have only three photographs of Sarah, I have many more of her daughter, Margaret McLeod Nicholson, my husband’s great grandmother 1853-1942 , perhaps 15 in total, and even more, around 75, of her granddaughter Marion Nicholson Blair, my husband’s grandmother, 1887-1947.

Margaret Macleod Nicholson, Sarah’s daughter. 1912. “I have the new pictures. I do not think they make me very good-looking.” (Letter)
Advert for Kodak, aimed at women, without the technical jargon in camera ads aimed at men.
Photo of Margaret, her daughters Edith and Flo and a neighbour taking tea on the lawn circa 1912. Colourized by me. Taken by Marion as she is in another pic from the same day.

According to her 1906 diary, Marion Nicholson (my husband’s grandmother) who was a teacher liked ‘to fool around taking Kodaks’ during her summer vacations. The Nicholson likely purchased their camera at Sutherland’s drug store in their home town of Richmond.

This was clipped because of the final potato entry, I imagine.
1910 Ad from the Delineator Women’s Magazine.
The Nicholson family photo album with the ‘tea on the lawn’ in upper right corner with Marion on the ground in her white dress. The album is full of pics of unnamed people,too. Alas!
Marion, detail from pic above.
My fave photo from album: Sailing in Hudson, Quebec.
Trip to Potton Springs. I love this pic. It looks like a still from an old movie. Where’s Lillian Gish?
Collage of Sarah’s female descendants up until the 1970s. That’s the ‘death’ photo of Sarah top left.

And the family photographs just keep on coming throughout the 20th century. There was that first decade, the era of shirtwaists and silly-looking BIG hats; then the roaring twenties with Sarah’s descendants in home-made flapper dresses sporting crude bobs; then the 30s with the Nicholson women wearing tonnes of movie star makeup to emulate their favourite big screen thespians; then the 40’s with the women in suits with big shoulders or, yes, even military garb; the 50’s ladies in A-line floral sun dresses sporting wing-tipped sunglasses; the 60’s gals reclining in frilly one piece bathing suits at the cottage, all puffing on cigarettes.

Nora will likely have thousands and thousands of photos taken of her in her lifetime. Still, I wonder, will any of these photographs be accessible to HER four times great granddaughter? Or will they have vanished over the years into the Cloud? I have already lost many many valued pics and videos when my ‘ancient” Note 2 suddenly expired.

Should I, as the family genealogist, be printing out all of the best photos on glossy paper with a colour printer with permanent ink, putting them into a giant album – a real album – for these future generations? (Always making sure to put names and birth dates to the pictures.)

(This would be an extremely costly proposition considering the price of colour ink.)

Or, do I merely create an enormous virtual album and put it on a key and into the safety deposit box and hope against hope that it won’t be casually tossed out one day – and that the info on the key will remain accessible?

Maybe all that will be left of the bazillions of photos of Nora, my granddaughter, will be on novelty items like coffee cups and calendars given to me each Christmas.

Or perhaps her image will exist only on this blog post, ready to be extracted from the ether in 2300 by some self-styled cyber-archaeologist.

I’m no fortune teller but I can hazard a good guess…but, first, I have to find that box of precious old photos down in the garage.

Possibly my favorite pic from the Nicholson collection. Waiting for the bus in Richmond, circa 1908. Edith Nicholson standing at front with young cousin Stanley Hill in front of her. Flora seated at left. Could be a scene from the Music Man. What is that decoration on Edith’s hat?

Years ago I wrote an essay for the Globe and Mail on the same topic. It was very well received and often reprinted. Gone with the WIndows.

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

Entertaining Edwardian Montrealers

Dominion Park postcard circa 1912 (era of the big hat). Is that my husband’s grandmother looking at the camera?

Everyone has heard of Coney Island, the legendary thrill park in New York, but have you ever heard of Dominion Park, Montreal’s Coney Island?

Not likely. The Montreal Amusement Park ran from 1906 to 1938 and is all but forgotten.

Map of Dominion Park in Montreal’s East End

However, colourized photos like the one at top are widely available on the Internet thanks to Valentine and Sons.

Judging from the newspaper record, the ‘official’ opening of Dominion Park was in 1908, but I have hard evidence of a 1906 opening. In 1906, Herbert Nicholson, 21, my husband’s great uncle, working in Montreal, wrote a letter to his younger sister, Flora, 17, a student in Richmond, Quebec.

June 3, 1906

Dear Flora,

I suppose you have to be careful how you speak now that you are living with a model school teacher. I have not much news to give. I was down at Dominion Park last night. This is the new one that you may have heard so much about, or at least read so much about. Well, there is everything that you have ever heard of in your life.  They take you way up on a slide and then slide you down in a boat into a little lake made just for the purpose. And then they have a railroad that goes down and up hill and around curves and through all kinds of places so fast that you loose your breath.  Then there are other places where the stairs move and the wind blows and the floor jumps and I couldn’t tell you what all things do happen. There is a place where you lose yourself and then places where the looking glasses show you every way but the way they should. There are lots of other things, too, that I saw and many more I did not see.

I will tell you more about it when I see you,

 Love, Herb.

Herb appears to have been thrilled with his visit.

The newspaper record notes the attractions featured at Dominion Park. Some of them, like the roller-coaster, water slide and Fun House or “House of Nonsense” are familiar to Boomers.

There was also the Bump the Bumps, (bumper cars?) the trained wild animal show, the ‘Frisco Earthquake (just one year after the real thing happened) as well as a merry-go-round.

Some exhibits were frankly bizarre: the booth where young men could break crockery for a price (and get back at their mothers and wives, I imagine) as well as the Infant Incubator Exhibit where preemies were cared for by competent nurses in full view of the festive crowd.(Shades of the Dionne Quintuplets fiasco to come.)

There were travelling side shows, of course, many of which were colourfully ‘ethnic’ that would be considered in poor taste -even racist – today.

There were also vaudeville acts and circus acrobats as well as fancy sit-down concerts, stealing the mojo of another, more refined, Montreal entertainment venue, Sohmer Park.

Dominion Park, like Coney Island, was a place where all entertainment options came together.

Judging from those Valentine and Sons postcards, Dominion Park was a place young men brought their ladies, whether courting or married, all of these men wearing their epoque signature straw boater hats (the kind we see in Renoir paintings) the women, in the 1910 era, in their puffy white dresses.

Herbert, a ladies man, discretely does not mention with whom he went. I doubt his sisters, young unmarried Edith, Marion and Flo, could go without an escort of some kind.

But in 1912, Marion Nicholson had someone to escort her to Dominion Park: her new beau Hugh Blair.

Her sister Edith writes her mother who is visiting Marion in Mile End: “Don’t let the villains, Marion and “Romeo” (Hugh) take you to Dominion Park.”

It’s true that Edith enjoyed ‘high-brow’ activities more than her younger sister Marion, but she liked to have fun as much as anyone, so I assume she is joking.

When I first saw the picture at top, I thought the woman looking into the camera might be Marion. She is wearing exactly the same white dress Marion wears in many pictures.

Here’s a blow up of Marion taking tea on the lawn of her home in Richmond, Quebec 1912.

Marion Nicholson Blair, my husband’s grandmother taking tea in around 1912.
Marion certainly had a similar hat to the one in the Valentine and Son postcard pic at top. 1912 was the year of the big big hat. But trendsetters like Colette in Paris were already wearing the cloche – as a bold countermove to this increasingly ludicrous hat fashion.

I have positive proof that Marion Nicholson visited Dominion Park around 1920 with Hugh Blair, now her husband, and both her sisters, Edith and Flora, as well as her brother Herb who was making a rare visit home from out West. It comes in the form of a novelty postcard.

Novelty postcard, circa 1920 Dominion Park. Hugh Blair and unknown man hovering over Edith, Marion and Flo Nicholson and unknown woman, probably cousin May Watters. Man at right is brother Herb Nicholson making perhaps his only visit back home to Montreal after leaving for out west in 1914.

From news reports I can glean that Dominion Park struggled through the Depression and closed without fanfare after the season in 1938.

­Here’s likely the reason why: 1938 was the first year of BELMONT PARK located in Cartierville. Belmont Park was a rickety place when I went there as a kid in the early 1960’s and was, in its turn, usurped by La Ronde at Expo 67, a bigger, brighter and more expensive amusement park.

When it comes to entertainment, new is best.

1.In 1906, entertainment in the big cities ranged from vaudeville and circuses to high-end theatre with 100’s of small venues, especially along Ste Catherine East, showing “flickers” on the wall during the day, and featuring live acts at night. In Montreal, there was only one large venue devoted entirely to motion pictures, the 500 seat Ouimetoscope. By 1910 there were scores of small entertainment venues lining Ste Catherine, most places offering a mixed bag of live shows and flickers and sometimes ice cream. A May 26, 1906 Gazette newspaper reveals entertainment options: A Kipling play with a well known actor at his Majesty’s Theatre; the Georgia Minstrels at the Academy of Music; The Holy City, a religious drama at Le Francais; The London Gaeity Girls at the Royal; ‘improved’ music and lotsa vaudeville at Sohmer Park: Miller’s elephants and other midway attractions at Riverside Park (a small amusement park also on Notre Dame Steet that would close in 1906.) Also Dominion Park opening June 2 with the Duss Band. Something for everyone – especially for the young people from rural areas flocking to the city to find work.Most of these wonderful entertainment options (excluding theatre plays) were considered out-of-bounds for respectable middle class women, especially if unattended.

Herbert’s sister, Marion, was also living in the city, having just graduated from McGill Normal (teaching) School and taken a job at Royal Arthur Elementary School in Little Burgundy. The year previous, she had boarded at the YWCA on Dorchester, a cold, leaky place with “too many rules.” Her words.

The city elite, including the Refords, the Birks’, and Julia Parker Drummonds, were planning a woman’s hotel where ‘respectable’ women from out of town would stay – and where bible readings would be their main nighttime recreation.

Still, Marion went to many a theatre play with her sisters and to Vaudeville shows with her beaus. After 1914, movies became more respectable for the middle class because that is where you could get your war news.

One movie house, the Royal, advertised itself as a safe venue for women.

2. There were two fires at Dominion, 1913 and a fatal one in 1919. Journalist Edgar Andrew Collard, known for his Montreal history column in the Gazette newspaper, was saved from the conflagration by his father, according to a very personal story he wrote in 1977.


When the fire broke out, They were riding the Mystic Rill, a ‘water-maze’ boat ride through a tunnel lined with flammable material designed to look like rock. His father saw a high window and managed to push his son through it.

Only magnificent strength could have accomplished what he did: he not only had to keep a grip on the window but he had with his legs and feet to keep the boat from being carried away by the current.”.

Even way back in 1977, the Park was all but forgotten: “Only a few older people remember Dominion Park,” wrote Collard in this same article.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAFkxSVlSCk Coney Island 1918 Americans at Play

Lydia and the Mill

Jacques et Gilles work at the mill;

That stands beside the water;

Could be Lowell, could be Lawrence;

Or Nashua, New Hampshire;

Jacques et Gilles, they hate the mill;

But they’ve too many sons and daughters.

(Jccques et Gilles: McGarrigles from Matapaedia Album)

Sulloway Mill, Franklin, NH

Lydia Morrisette, my granddaughter’s 2nd great grandmother on her mom’s side, was a real Americanophile, or so Lydia’s daughter, Irene, told me just the other day. Lydia always raved to Irene about life the US despite the fact she had lived and worked there for a mere seven years in her youth, in Franklin, New Hampshire from 1903 to 1910.

Why do you think your mother loved the United States so much, I asked Irene. After all, work in New England textile mills by most accounts was no picnic, not even at the best of times, what with the long hours, the lack of respect, the bad ventilation and lint and dust flying everywhere, the dangerous machines that could ‘jump’ at any time and the NOISE. Oh, the noise! Let’s not forget the institutionalized racism against French Canadians, often referred to as pea-soupers, or the paternalistic behavior of the French Canadian overseers.

“She liked the independence,” said Irene. “She liked the money.”

So, it seems that Marie-Leonie Ledia Morrisette, like so many other Edwardian women out in the workforce in the big cities of the Western World, valued her independence and enjoyed having an occupation in which she took some pride. After all, the Sulloway Mill up on the hill produced top-of-the-line men and women’s hosiery.

Irene agrees. “They made nice socks,” she says.

Maria-Leonie Lydia (Ledia) Morissette was born in 1889 (with the help of Dr. Harel1) in Ste Gertrude, Becancour, Quebec, a short ferry ride across the St Lawrence to Three Rivers, to farmer Eugene Morrisette and his wife, Clarisse Heon.

In 19032 The Morrisettes and their children, four five girls and two boys, set out to work in Franklin Mills, a smaller, happier sort of industrial town of around 6,000 people on the Miramack River.

Lydia and her sisters on the 1910 US Census. Few French workers made the Census for some reason (including Lydia’s parents) but the 1906 Franklin Annual Report reveals there were many French Canadians in the town. They just weren’t enumerated, perhaps seen as temporary workers. The Morrisette family is on the 1911 Canada census but Eugene and Clarisse and a son and daughter returned to the US.

With four girls and two boys (including a newborn with “muscular atrophy” ) moving to a mill town where the older children could help support the family was a logical step for a Quebec subsistence farmer.

The 1910 United States Federal census has Lydia and her two sisters, Antonia and Elivina (Alvina) working in a “hosiery mill” (almost certainly the Sulloway Mill) as helpers/top hand and boarding in Ward 2, up from the river and the mill, with teamster M. Poirier and his family.

Lydia, as young “Canadiennes” were instructed to do by the community patriarchs (wherever they happened to be living) ceased work in 1910 to marry handsome Quebecker Henry Hamel. Of course, biology likely had its part in this 🙂 The couple moved back to Drummondville, Quebec and raised a large family. Irene, born in 1918 (and the last surviving child, needless to say) is the among the youngest of their brood.

Lydia was the only female member of her strong-willed Morrisette girls to marry. A sister Alvina remained a mill worker in Franklin and two of her sisters became nuns.3

Perhaps because Franklin was a smaller, kinder New England textile down with fewer workers; perhaps because Franklin is where Daniel Webster of dictionary fame was born; perhaps because the Morrisettes lived in Franklin during an era of exponential change, Lydia and her sisters were different from many New England mill workers from Quebec – who usually kept to themselves. The women took pride in integrating and learning English.

Indeed, their one healthy brother, Horace, was of a similar stamp. He stayed in New Hampshire with his parents, Eugene and Clarisse, and his sister Alvina and married an English girl, Mary Murray.

French Canadian child workers at the enormous oppressive Amoskeag Mill in Manchester New Hampshire 1909. LIbrary of Congress. in Franklin NH, at least in boom times, there were Company picnics and baseball games and parades to compensate for the gruelling work in the mills.

1. This is the first time I have seen something like this on the Drouin records. Was the birth difficult?

2. This 1903 date is given on the US Federal Census, shown above and on Eugene Morrisette’s death certificate in 1937.

3, Alvina is listed in the 1930’s as a working as a finisher, which might mean sewing toes and heels into socks or applying chemicals and pressing the socks. Another sister, Antonia, joined a Catholic order back home, but moved to Ontario as she spoke good English. Another sister, Aurore, became a nun in Africa, much to her parents’ displeasure.

325,000 Quebecers left between 1860 and 1900. Just 100,000 between 1900 and 1910 with 40,000 returning. ­ This 2020 YouTube Video from Rhode Island Genealogy Society explains: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyWu46jbauk Country life was very hard for Quebeckers in the Victorian Age. The burgeoning New England textile industry proved most alluring to many farm families. As industry competition increased over the decades, some New England Textile Corporations actively sought out French Canadian workers who, because of their large families who could pool their income, could toil for less money and were less inclined to agitate. French Canadians were also valued for their excellent work ethic.

The Goddesses of Expo67

My mother-in-law’s Expo passport. My husband’s family didn’t go to Expo often; there was a summer marriage.

I remember 1967 as the best of year of my childhood. In the US, 1967 was the Summer of Love (flower-in-your-hair hippies) and of war (Vietnam draft dodgers) and of civil unrest (inner city riots) but in Canada it was our Centennial Year, the 100th anniversary of Confederation. For children across the nation it was an especially giddy year: teachers from coast-to-coast were teaching their charges how to sing Bobby Gimby’s exuberant CA-NA-DA song, “one little, two little, three Canadians. We love you. Now we are twenty million.”

For Montrealers like me, it was the summer of Expo67, our fabulous world’s fair, situated just a short bus and metro ride away on two man-made islands in the Saint Lawrence River.

I visited Expo 50 times, if memory serves. I sometimes went by myself and I was only 12 years old!

I could go whenever I pleased because I was in possession of a shiny red passport that cost a whole 17 dollars. With his passport you could go from pavilion to pavilion and get it stamped, just like travelling the world.

I no longer have the passport, but it was not lost. My passport was given away by my mother to a beautiful young African woman – and this is how it came about.

Mentewab (probably) at the coffee bar from a Youtube Video
(See notes 1)

A friend of my mother’s had gone through official channels offering to chaperone Expo hostesses from foreign countries. Two Ethiopian hostesses, Hanim and Mentewab, were suggested to her. My mother got into the act and the two girls soon regularly visited our Snowdon home.

Hanim was shy and wore a caftan and hijab. Mentewab was ‘wild’ and wore a halter top, micro-miniskirt and white go-go boots when not in her official costume.

I do not recall having any specific conversations with these young ladies, but I can still see in my mind’s eye their pretty faces as they sat so graceful and ‘grown-up’ on our brown corduroy living room couch, Mentewab so animated, Hanim so quiet.

These women seemed to exotic to me: the reporter in the Gazette had called them ‘goddesses’ after all.

Hostesses from Montreal Star Insert. The media focused a great deal on the attractive and accomplished hostesses of Expo, from Canada and beyond.

I doubt that they were as impressed with us and our dingy upper duplex apartment. These girls must have been from the elite classes to have been chosen to host at Expo.

As it happens, on May 2, I caught a glimpse of their leader, Haille Selassie, as he passed through the Expo crowd to polite applause, a small, very proud-looking man followed by a tiny little dog, Lulu the Chihuahua, whose short legs were working very hard to keep up with her master. My mother, who admired powerful men, was very excited. “The Lion of Judah” she sang out as he passed.

On cold rainy days at Expo I spent a great deal of time in the coffee bar at the Ethiopian Pavilion, a shiny red tent with lion cubs on guard, probably pestering Hanim and Mentewab big time.

And then, in mid-October, Expo was over. I guess the women visited us one more time because that is when my mother gave MY Expo passport away to one of the girls. Upon learning that Mentewab or Hanim didn’t have a passport of her own, she merely grabbed mine and said, “Take this one.” (At least, that is how I remember it.)

Sometimes I wonder if Mentewab and Hanim are still alive (why wouldn’t they be, they were hardly older than me) and whether one of them, living in Addis Ababa or Paris or New York City, occasionally opens a drawer crammed with Expo67 memorabilia and shows to her many grandchildren a shiny red passport belonging to a pimply, brown-haired Canadian girl called Dorothy Nixon – and wonders, in turn, where I am today. I’d like to think so.

A World of Education. No kidding. The copy here acknowledges that Canada is multi-cultural the visuals not so much.
Ethiopian Stamp that was really a stamp.
My husband may not have visited Expo much, but he did keep the newspapers from the opening.
  1. A video about the Ethiopian Pavilion with images of Hanim and Mentewab (I assume) is here.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQAbaRTki-g

Mother, Love and the A & P

Recipe cards from 1971.

Four Decker Fruit Tart

From pastry dough based on 3 cups flour, roll out four 10” rounds. Place on baking sheet, or backs of 9” cake tins. Fold under 1/2 inch around edges. Flute. Prick well. Bake in hot oven 475 degrees….

It’s been over 50 years since I’ve typed the above words in that exact order from a recipe for a gunky (but delish) 60’s confection, 51 years to be exact. Now, I’m doing it again, as an exercise in memory.

In 1971, when I was in 10th grade at high school, I helped my mother type out her favourite recipes onto file cards, many of which I still have – and treasure – today.

I found them again in 2009, in a hidden drawer in a Chinese cabinet, shortly before my mother’s passing.

My mother, a bilingual legal secretary, could type up a storm in both English and French and I was just learning to type, but she left me to perform the honours for some reason, hence all the typos and misspellings. 3 ripe bababas, lemong, seperate the eggs.

Today, half a century later, as I meditate on these yellowed, oil-stained, recipe cards and their deeper meaning, I realize that this may well have been the only sustained project my Mother and I ever worked on together.

My mother was a doer, not a teacher, and her only creative outlet (outside of coordinating her work outfits) came in the kitchen and at the bridge table. She didn’t have much patience, any patience for that matter, so she commandeered the kitchen, using me only to convert fractions as she doubled and tripled the recipes and to sift the mountains of flour for her classic cakes. I sometimes helped her stir the various batters with our little yellow Mixmaster with the motor that smelled of burning plastic as it heroically whizzed away. For this reason, I still can’t make a pie crust – even after watching my mother ply so many apple pies right in front of me, but who bakes any more, anyway?

My Aunt Flo, me and my brother and my mother at Old Orchard Beach 1962 ish. My nickname was “Stringbean” or “SkinnyHymer” so all that Cafe Bavarian (my fave dessert from the inside of a Carnation Milk label) didn’t hurt me.

My mother , Marie-Marthe Crepeau Nixon was a terrific cook, at least that is how I remember it.

But reading the recipes on these battle-scarred cards I realize these are mostly very simple back- of -the -magazine recipes, using products advertised within the pages like Fry’s Chocolate or Hunt’s tomato sauce and in the case of the above 4 Decker trifle-style dessert, Delmonte fruit cocktail.

I also realize, now, fifty years later, that I didn’t like some of these recipes. The chicken mole was too authentic using unsweetened chocolate. The tokay grape aspic or gelatin mould, so trendy at mid-century, well, what can I say. Yuk.

I sort of liked the hot tomales, except the sauce was too hot for my immature taste buds. All that tobasco.

But most of these recipes I remember as rib-tickling: a simple lasagna (you could use “real” swiss instead of mozzarella) that only had one herb, rosemary. It called for two teaspoons of olive oil, but I suspect my mother used Mazola. The beef stroganoff (another 60’s favourite) called for one cup of white wine. My parents never had wine in the house, so I doubt my mom added that ingredient.

My mother’s go-to meals are not on the cards I still have: her fabulous Italian spaghetti that when cooled had at least an inch of fat on top and her equally hearty chili con carne, from which I would pick out all the mushrooms before it hit the table. (She fried the hamburger first for the chili. She put the raw beef into the simmering sauce for the spaghetti.) Her southern fried chicken put the Colonel to shame. It attracted the neighbourhood kids to many a picnic on our back porch.

I even adored her calf’s liver and onions, ‘as delicious as steak’ she said, and it was.

My mother’s only heirloom recipe in her writing for turkey stuffy from her mom. A real cholesterol bomb. One pound of sausage meat and 1/2 pound of butter.

Yes, I remember my mother for being a fabulous cook, despite the fact she obviously didn’t come to her marriage at 30 armed with years of experience and a file folder filled with secret family recipes. She looked to Redbook and Ladies Home Journal for ideas, just like many other new ‘housewives’ of the era.

My mother was born in 1921, to middle-aged parents who, by that time, were very well off. She went to a fancy boarding school nearby, learning Greek and Latin but probably not domestic science. I doubt she lifted a finger when at home.

Her unschooled older sisters who who had known leaner times were the ones who helped out at home. In her twenties, my mother lived with her widowed mom (famous for her fatty tortiere and savory baked beans) and two sisters on Oxford in the Notre Dame de Grace section of Montreal, one of whom, Cecile, is listed as ‘housekeeper’ on the Voting Register. My mother was working as a ‘stenographer’ for a movie distribution company down the street, RKO, so she likely helped support the family.

Yes, my mother was a great cook (I seem to remember) but one lousy home economist, but what could you expect from a “daddy’s girl” who, by her own admission, was always exceeding her allowance at boarding school.

If there was a more expensive way of making something, my mother would find it. She would buy Kraft dinner for the macaroni and discard the little aluminum packets of processed cheese product, adding her own fresh cheeses and herbs and spices. The metallic packets piled up 40 high in our pantry.

The A and P on Queen Mary and Earnscliffe, Snowdon. BANQ. In 1960 there was a bowling alley over top. My mother loved to bowl but I don’t remember every going there.

I recall 1964, when we would go grocery shopping at the A& P on Queen Mary at Earnscliffe. It was an old-fashioned (see dingy) store, opened 22 years before, with wooden floors covered in sawdust to soak up the slimy spillages; the pleasant aroma of their famed Eight O’clock coffee; grey display counters filled with 1960’s staple vegetables, like iceberg lettuce and broccoli, big baskets of juicy peaches, but only for a few weeks in late summer, and all the 20th century commercial brands that made America great.

My mother would fill to heaping two shopping carts with food. The cashier would often ask, “Are those BOTH yours?” I seem to recall the bill coming to a whopping 60 dollars. We were only a family of five. 1

Prices in 1962 in Quebec City from Le Soleil newspaper BANQ. My mother’s coffee was instant Maxwell House with Carnation Milk. I made a bazillion cups for her.

What made my mother’s food so tasty and so memorable? Was it the simple ingredients? Was it the fact that she never overcooked the high quality meats she purchased from Queen Mary Provisions, a specialty store? Was it the Hollandaise or white sauce that always topped the lightly steamed veggies we ate?

Maybe her meals were so satisfying because she had no fear of cholesterol and didn’t skimp on the seasoning and, truth be told, didn’t hesitate to add cascades of Accent to any soup or stew.

Or maybe, there’s another reason. Maybe her meals are so memorable because cooking for her family was the only positive way my mother, who was bright as hell, frustrated with her domestic life, and bipolar, expressed her love for us. Oh, yea. That last one. That’s clearly the reason I treasure these scruffy little yellow recipe cards from over 50 years ago.

  1. I did the research and according to Statistics Canada historical 60 dollars every two weeks was the average amount spent by families every two weeks in Canadian cities.

Can We Ever REALLY Know our Ancestors?

Moor Guide.

The Costumes of Yorkshire: George Walker, 1813. New York Public Library Online, Public Domain photo

“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there,” writes L.P. Hartley at the very beginning of The Go-Between, a novel I read and loved in my 20’s.

As a woman who now likes to pen stories based on her family tree, this famous first line has new meaning for me. It makes me ask the question: Despite our best efforts, can we ever really know our more distant ancestors?

Sure, we can absorb with attention the family myths. We can dig out the dates of births, marriages and deaths. We can check out the newspaper record. We can look up legal documents and even research with scholarly precision the historical context of their -often- difficult lives.

But is that REALLY knowing them?

Or is the best way to know our ancestors through our own parents and grandparents, through their inherited behaviours and beliefs that we witnessed first-hand. I have three other ideas.

The Coast-to-Coast Walk (WIkipedia Share alike Pic John Carter

1. Visiting the ‘homeland’ can give you a feel for who your ancestors were.

There’s a well-known 182 mile coast-to-coast hike that goes from the soaring sandstone cliffs of St. Bee’s Head on the west coast of Cumbria to the charming storied fishing village of Robin Hood’s Bay on the east coast in Yorkshire. Patching together my father’s Nixon/Forster family tree, I discovered he had ancestors; farmers, lead miners, grocers, servants; living just north and south of – and even directly on – this picturesque route.

This 182 mile ‘footpath’ traverses three national parks: The Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Parks. It’s a walk that offers up isolated pebbled beaches and quaint historic villages; rugged wildernesses with hilltop cairns; flat easy patches with long sweeping vistas; medieval castles and ancient stone circles; serene valleys dotted with sheep; sturdy Roman roads and magical heather moorlands.

As it happens, I can take this hike anytime (on YouTube) and see with my own eyes pretty much what many of my ancestors saw with their own eyes.

My ancestors had good eyes, I bet, for long distance gazing. Strong legs, too. And leathery skin beaten up by the cold wet winds of the moors. They probably were skinny and didn’t worry about cholesterol as they downed their breakfasts of heavy black rye bread and fatty bacon. Come to think of it, that description fits my ­father pretty well. His exceptional long distance eye-sight and strong legs made him a top athlete in the 1930’s at this boarding school in St. Bees. He was still participating in cross-country ski marathons in Quebec in the 1980s.1

Woman making oatcakes on a Yorkshire farm

2. You can always look to old family recipes to teach yourself something essential about your antecedents.

In my 1960’s Montreal home, on Saturdays when we ate roast beef, I was in charge of making the Yorkshire pudding, and I do believe that it was my father who showed me how to make the batter and take fat drippings from the roast and spoon it into the bottom of the muffin tins.

Still, it was my French Canadian mother who was in charge of the kitchen and her roast was ‘blue’ -practically mooing on the plate a la francaise. My father ate only the outside over-cooked part.

Apart from frying our POM (Pride of Montreal) white bread slices in bacon fat (ICK!) and threatening to feed us smoked herring (double ICK) my British pater (who was born in Malaya, after all) didn’t seem to know much about his native Yorkshire foods. He never mentioned the oatcakes that were a staple of the poor; or the cheese pies eaten on various festive occasions or the special mutton pie made with candied fruit in a rich crust served with fresh fried trout and curd cheesecakes, washed down with ‘home-made’ whisky served as a reward at the end of sheep-shearing season.

As a child of the Raj, my father more often spoke with fond nostalgia of the Mulligatawny soup (curried chicken with apples) he ate on his father’s Selangor Rubber Estate.

Still, somehow, more through his dislikes rather than his preferences, I learned that (generally-speaking) eating plain hearty food was in his North of England blood.

Midsummer Eve in Yorkshire – a time when witches and fairies come out to play with the humans.

3. Consulting out-of-print genealogy books can give you an insider’s knowledge about the people who came before.

I stumbled upon a terrific little volume online: Rambles Through the North Yorkshire Dales. Published 1913 on archive.org. The book even has a chapter on the Yorkshire character. Bingo!

The Yorkshireman, says the author, a native, is notorious for being tight-fisted. “He loves to get the best of a bargain not only for business purposes but as sport.” He is suspicious of strangers, especially of the patronizing upper-crust kind. He is “reticent and hard on the outside with a queer sense of independence and a real and natural sense of humour.”

So right! My father would drive ten miles to save ten cents on gasoline. He could deconstruct a person’s character, a television show, a work of art with one well-chosen (often withering) word. He didn’t follow the current fashion – and mocked us when we wanted to. He was amused by the minutia of everyday life, although I seldom got his subtle jokes.

Yorkshiremen says the book are filled with ‘a fierce romanticism, a strong religious fervour.’ Still, people from the North of England were once very superstitious. These people believed or half-believed in dragons and water sprites, fairies and ‘boggles’ or imps who were often the ghosts of nasty feudal landlords long dead.

Many of the local traditions around holy wells and sacred fires, etc. stem back to pre-Christian times. and are still carried out in various and sundry small towns.

Does this fit my father? No, not at all. My father, educated in mathematics at Oxford, was a pragmatist. Still, he seemed to actually take delight in reading fairy tales to me.

Peter Nixon and Marie Marthe Crepeau

And last but not least, my North of England ancestors spoke funny. Real funny. According to my mother, my father lost his English accent the day he arrived in Canada.

I learned about the Yorkshire dialect by watching the original All Creatures Great and Small television series based on the life of Alf Wight or James Herriot, a veterinarian, in Thirsk, North Yorkshire. In that show, locals were used to play the farmers and I often needed subtitles to understand them!

No, my Yorkshire father never said things like, “Ere, wot’s f’r us tea Mutha” as in “Mother, what are we having for dinner?”

M’of t’sop, d’yawanowt?

I’m going to the shop? Do you want me to get anything?

Put t’wood int ‘ole. Close the door. (Put the wood in the hole)

Sit this sen Darn as in Sit down.3

but I suspect his grandfather, Robert Nixon, who at 67 in 1911 was still working as a delver in the local Rievaulx quarry certainly did.

Rievaulx Castle by Turner: There is no shortage of paintings of the North of England, from Victorian Era and beyond, but these paintings seldom depict working people. The few I could find online were not Creative Commons. Indeed, Her Majesty the Queen has a nice one of poor fisher folk in her collection.
My father’s ancient genes according to mytrueancestry.com. Yes, Danish and Norwegian Viking, Saxon, Visigoth, Merovingian. The history of Yorkshire indicates this is all pretty on spot. He has lot of Celt too. And some deep Illyrian (Croatia). Maybe this has something to do with Hadrian’s Wall and the Roman Legions (mercenaries) who manned the outpost. Apparently, Northern English is riddled with Viking words.
  1. Even better, his younger brother, Michael Nixon, living in Keswick right on the hiking path, was awarded the MBE for performing mountain top search and rescue in the mountains of the Lake Country well into his 80s! https://keswickmrt.org.uk/mike-nixon-mbe-1928-2018/)
  2. I never met Michael. I don’t think my father knew him at all, either.
  3. My father very very often made fun of the Canadian ‘aboot’ for ‘about.’ From what I can see, this ‘aboot’ is right outta Yorkshire so I have to wonder if there was something subconscious going on here: if years before at prep school he had had the ‘aboot’ shamed out of him. My grandmother spoke in the Queen’s English. She was from County Durham but educated at a Quaker School. I know because I have a tape of her speaking about British Malaya from Cambridge University archives. It is not in the public domain so I can’t link it here. https://imfromyorkshire.uk.com/yorkshire-sayings. Here’s a link to BBC Sounds discussion of English spoken in Helmsley North Yorkshire, the home of the Nixons. https://sounds.bl.uk/Accents-and-dialects/BBC-Voices/021M-C1190X0035XX-0301V0

When History and Genealogy Come Together

Genealogy is usually of little interest to children probably because their parents already seem from the Dark Ages and their grandparents from the times when Tyrannosaurus Rex tramped the planet.

It was the same thing for me way back in the 1960’s – except for the one day when I was about twelve years old. My mother came home all excited with some important news passed on to her by a cousin who had researched the Crepeau family tree.

My mom’s father, Jules Crepeau of Montreal, was descended from one Abraham Martin dit L’Ecossais, a pioneering (boat) pilot and land-owner in New France. My French Canadian mom found this fact highly entertaining. “I am descended from a Scotsman,” she told me, laughing. “What a joke.”

I remember this episode only because of another part of the story. Apparently, this Abraham Martin fellow owned the Plains of Abraham. THOSE Plains of Abraham. Now that I could sink my tweenage incisors into.

You see, I was learning about Canadian history in school. Our text was Canada Then and Now, a bright green text with a very iconographic cover pic.

From this textbook, I was learning for the first time how the French and British were always at war with each other, way back then, in Europe and in North America. In North America, the fought over control of the lucrative fur trade and, apparently, it all came to a head one morning on the 1th of September, 1759 when a British general named Samuel Wolfe, after being rebuffed a few times by the superior French forces, led a cagey attack on the French General named Louis Joseph Marquis de Montcalm on the cliffs of Quebec City, cutting off his supplies and defeating his superior forces. This was all part of something called The Seven Years War.

All night long kept quietly landing the men on Wolfe’s cove. By morning, 5000 British soldiers were drawn up ready on the Plains of Abraham. The French had avoided battle, believing they were safe because they had more men than the British and plenty of supplies. They knew the British wold have to withdraw before freeze up. But now tht the British had landed above the town and cut off supplies from Quebec. The time had come for battle.

The textbook instructed us Canadian children, in subtle terms, to take no especial pride in this seminal event:

Wolfe and Montcalm were great generals and gallant men. Today, on the Plains outside of Quebec, a monument stands to honor them both. Wolfe’s name is on one side, Montcalm’s on the other. There is a Latin inscription that says, “Valour gave them a common death. History a common fame and posterity a common memorial.”

Illustration from Canada Then and Now. Storming the Plains of Abraham

Today, I am much older and predictably I am into genealogy. I have written many many family stories from both sides of my tree.

My mother’s French Canadian side was easy-peasy to patch together thanks to all those fabulous Catholic church records on Drouin available. And yes, if the Mons Origins website information is correct, my mom was indeed descended from this Abraham Martin.

Should I write about this pioneer ancestor? I have long wondered.

Truth be told, I would very much like to puzzle out the story of my earlier French Canadian ancestors, as Tracey Arial and Claire Lindle have done so brilliantly on this blog. I’d like to discover exciting new tidbits of information about my ancestors to add to the historical record (perhaps using some of the stellar resources catalogued on Genealogy Ensemble by Jacques Gagne) but it all seems so difficult, so labour intensive and so hard on the eyes.

In the past, I have explored the lives of Les Filles de Roi – because I am particularly interested in the lives of women ancestors – only to find there doesn’t exist much detailed information about these pioneering females from Normandy and Ile de Paris. It seems no one bothered to document the day-to-day lives or unique personal stories of these ‘mothers of millions’ back then– either in Europe or New France.

When it comes to this Abraham Martin dit L’Ecossais character, it would be a real waste of time to try to find a new angle or to write something fresh about him. There are already reams and reams (or pixels and pixels) of information written about him. It appears that Abraham Martin dit L’Ecossais is one of the most famous French Canadian pioneers and a father to millions of North Americans, including Madonna and Justin Bieber – and, ah, little ole me.

Long story short: He married Marguerite Langlois. Had 14 children. I am descended through Vitaline Forget-Despatie, my mother’s father’s mother.

The kicker to this non-story of mine: Abraham wasn’t necessarily Scottish. He could have invented the epithet to avoid criminal prosecution or he was a war deserter. His name might have generated from the fact that he had visited Scotland many times in his youth.*1

Now, lately I have dug out one very interesting fact about my mom’s French Canadian ancestors on her dad’s side, one she didn’t know about. My mother always told me that the name Crepeau meant “curly haired one.” She had very very curly hair herself, as did her father. I have no idea how long she had known this fact or who originally informed her.

If that same cousin, back in 1967, had provided her with a paper genealogy, my mother would have noticed that the original Crepeaus, going back six to eight generations, were Crespeaus, from Poitou Charent. I have recently learned that the name Crespeau almost certainly came from Crespo, a very Spanish name – and not only that a Sephardic Jewish name.

I found this tidbit on sephardim.com:

“The name Crespo has been identified by the Holy Office of the Church of Spain as a Sephardic Jewish surname.”

How fascinating.

So, it seems, even genealogically-timid I can dig out an interesting fact or two about a distant French Canadian ancestor. Maybe I should keep trying.

1. Even if Abraham Martin wasn’t born to the Tartan, he likely had English, Scottish and even Viking dna. Normandy, Normans, North men, Norsemen. Ancestry gives most of my many many French Canadian cousins a little bit of Norwegian ethnicity. I have a very vague 0-8 percent.

Wouldn’t it be funny if my mom were related to Eric the Red, chronicled in the second chapter of Canadian Then and Now, after the first chapter on “Indians” and “Eskimos.”

If you believe mytrueancestry.com, my husband, whose Mom comes from Isle of Lewis Scots, apparently is connected genetically to Eric’s clan. How very romantic! If I didn’t love him before, I’d have to love him now!

2. I checked the Y dna lists online at Family Tree and someone is trying to see if French Canadians have Semitic genes. There are very few members. On a regular French from France Y dna site I can see that some French Canadians have J M172, an Anatolian line, often thought of as the Greek Diaspora. Cote and Leger are the names that crop up. There are no Crespos, Crespeau’s or Crepeaus.

My grandfather’s brilliant city hall career in four scandals – part 3

The Coderre Police Corruption Inquiry/Laurier Palace Fire Scandal

The Crepeaus in Atlantic City probably 1927. Working vacation?

If you are a Quebecker of a certain age, it is possible that as a child you never went to the movies. Everyone under sixteen years of age in this Canadian province was banned from attending the motion pictures even in the company of an adult from 1927 until 1962 *1

This is because of the tragic Laurier Palace movie house fire in January 1927 where seventy eight children perished in a crush at the downstairs doors, doors that only opened inwardly.

These 78 children were among a larger group of working class kids crowded into the upper balcony of the ramshackle Laurier Palace watching a Western on a Sunday afternoon.

A slew of high-profile inquests and hearings followed the tragedy. My grandfather, Jules Crepeau, Director of City Services, was the first to testify at both the initial coroner’s inquest and subsequent hearings. It is unclear what exactly happened in the balcony as only children came forward to testify. All seven or so adults seated there seemed to disappear into the ether. There was talk of two men purposely closing the doors on the desperate kids. At least one older boy had time to go up and down the stairs a few times before the smoke got dangerous. The origin of the fire was never discovered. *2

Most parents, afraid of legal reprisals, testified that they thought their children were at church that afternoon. But parents of the era could hardly be blamed for allowing their children to attend the movies by themselves– against the by-laws. Many of their male children were already out in the workforce earning their own discretionary income and many of their young daughters were already ‘little mothers’ in charge of even younger siblings. With the traffic chaos on the streets in 1927, the movie house probably seemed like a relatively safe place for their children.*3

Just as special ‘kiddie matinees’ were taking off in the US (late 20’s early 30’s) Quebec banned all children from going to the cinema – for 4 decades. Crazy!

On January 10, 1927, the day after the Laurier Palace Fire, the front page of Le Devoir newspaper ran two related stories side-by-side. One was a dry report where my grandfather Jules Crepeau, Director of City Services, admitted that the Laurier Palace Theatre had been operating without a license.

“This will all be explained at the Coroner’s Inquest,” he said.

The second story was a shocking side-bar rehashing testimony from a two year old inquiry into police corruption, testimony that also mentioned my grandfather.

“Our readers will no doubt be interested in re-reading these extracts from testimony at the 1924 Coderre Inquiry into Police Malfeasance and Corruption, 4 that bear on motion picture theatre attendance.”

The side-bar included bits and pieces of testimony given in December, 1924 at this hearing by a certain Constable C.T. in the ‘special services’ division of the Montreal Police Department. The cop railed against City Hall. He was angry because members of the Executive Committee, he said, as well as my grandfather, repeatedly forced the police to cancel citations against motion picture houses that allowed children into the shows, unattended.

Constable CT gave specifics, naming each of the movies houses (the Ouimetoscope!) and the dates when citations were cancelled. He said, “One of these moments there’s going to be a catastrophe that will wake up the authorities.” Le Devoir put that quote in all caps.*5

Despite this sensational after-the-fact finger-pointing at a sensitive time by an otherwise respectable publication, no one took the bait. My grandfather Jules was once again called to testify at the Coroner’s Inquest as well as the other inquiries into the fatal fire but was never asked about Constable CT’s earlier accusations.

Indeed, a while later, when the Taschereau Government was deliberating whether to ban all Sunday showings in Quebec, my grandfather testified once again. He even brought in Ernest Cousins, Vice President of United Amusements, Montreal’s largest movie chain, to talk about the importance of Sunday showings to the movie distribution industry.*6

Isadore Crepeau, my grandfather’s brother, who just happened to be another Vice-President of United Amusements, was not called in to testify at this time, nor was my grandfather’s family connection to United Amusements ever mentioned.*7

So, why wasn’t my grandfather pilloried back in 1927, when passions over the tragedy were at a high boil, for these two year old allegations of interference with the policemen who patrolled motion picture houses (and who, btw, regularly accepted free tickets for their kids.)

Well, the truth is, Constable CT’s testimony was hardly gold-standard. Under cross-examination a day later, the cop admitted rather glibly to having lent the Chief of Police large sums of money at different times, for reasons he refused to elaborate on. He also admitted to depositing more than five thousand dollars into his five bank accounts over a short period of time. “Rents and winnings on horses” he said.

Constable CT was just another corrupt cop, put on the stand specifically to threaten my grandfather by bringing up, out-of-the-blue, the fairly benign subject of children and the motion pictures, when the Coderre Inquiry was mounted to deal with much more dire and dark issues: police involvement in prostitution of women and girls, drug rings and organized crime and illegal booze smuggling in the era of American prohibition.

Taken in that light, Constable CT’s statement “One day there’s going to be a catastrophe” uttered in December 1924, a full two years before the Laurier Palace fire, could be construed as a threat.

My grandfather, at the time, certainly felt threatened. He had Constable CT fired the very next day.

“Who is this Jules Crepeau who can tell the Chief of Police what to do?” asked Juge Coderre in his summary report in March 1925. As if he didn’t know.8

Three years later, in September, 1930, as explained in Part Two of this series, Mayor Camillien Houde was speechifying at the City Hall meeting where the aldermen debated whether or not to accept my grandfather’s coerced letter of resignation.

“The people want revenge,” Houde said. “They want revenge for the Montreal Water and Power Purchase (the purported reason for wanting my grandfather out) and for the Laurier Palace Fire.”

This was a sneak attack of some sort because never before had the Laurier Palace Fire been brought up as a reason to oust my grandfather from his lofty post at City Hall, at least not in any news clipping I have read.

With all the Houdist’s voting against him, my grandfather was, indeed, forced to resign his post of Director of City Services in September, 1930.

At the time, Grandpapa Jules negotiated a huge life pension that would make him the second highest paid employee at City Hall, without working. Seven years later, during the Great Depression, his huge pension would be rescinded by the City.

Two weeks after that, Jules was hit by a car near his home in Notre Dame de Grace, a car driven by an off-duty police officer. I guess my grandpapa threatened someone with a long reach.

He would die a year later of complications.

As it happens, Le Devoir was the only Montreal newspaper to give Jules a lengthy front page obituary. They even called out the other Montreal papers on this point.

The other day a noted public servant was put in the ground. The newspapers only published laconic biographical notes about him that don’t give a just idea of the role he played in municipal politics.”

The obituary didn’t mention the suspicious nature of my grandfather’s death, but it did allude, rather kindly, to the many scandals in his career:

He was too passionate not to occasionally take sides between two rivals, often creating his own enemies. Indeed, he received some knocks, some devastating knocks, but we must say upon his memory, that none of these accusations stuck.

Read the entire obit here.

I have added this on February, 14, 2022. The Montreal Star came online and I was able to read their point of view. They liked him, that’s for sure. Upon his forced retirement they wrote:

“His rise to the position he just vacated was accomplished by merit. A thorough knowledge of the whole involved process of civic administration, of civic problems and the various services, combined with a ready tact, a suave manner, and a keen intellect, which enabled him to penetrate to the root of any problem without delay and which made it very difficult for anyone to mislead him.”

Also, I reread the testimony of Constable CT during the Coderre hearing. Of course, different newspapers covered these political stories differently. I was surprised to see that in his testimony Constable CT claimed that Jules cancelled citations against movie houses owned by United Amusements. It was stated at the hearing that ‘no civic employee had any connection to the company.” LOL. My grandfather’s brother was VP.

Notes:

  1. The city by-laws forbade children to attend movies unless in the company of an adult, not because of a fear of fire-traps but for a fear of the morality of pre-code Hollywood. Indeed, exceptions could be made for films vetted by the Censor. A year later, a similar fire happened in a motion picture house in Scotland – also caused by a crush at doors that opened inwards. The only change that came of that was a law forbidding such doors in motion picture houses. But, in Quebec, everything becomes political. A parade of Montreal citizenry testified in the sad affair: the theatre owners (who were eventually exonerated) and employees and the firemen and the victims’ parents; then followed moguls in the theatre business, small independent theatre owners, union activists, more parents and more firemen, also educators and church officials and representatives of various community groups – anyone with a stake and an opinion – showed up to testify . Fire safety became a mere side issue: it was all about the morality of the motion pictures. The government ended up banning children from all showings, in return for allowing the controversial Sundays showings for adults. (Children could not vote, but their parents could.) I personally think the new “Talkies” coming in right then in 1927 had something to do with the decision. They were English talkies after all. Despite all this, Quebec children over the decades often evaded the rules by dressing up and acting like adults. There were also special children’s showings at various theatres over the years.

2. “It must have been a cigarette.” Most movie house fires of the time started in the projection booth. This wasn’t the case here, so they took a wild guess. A fire station was across the street, but firefighters could do nothing upon arrival to save the children.

3. 1927 was a pivotal year in traffic safety in North America. The horse and wagon era was literally colliding with the era of the automobile – and their were no road rules yet. The same edition of the Montreal Gazette that covers the Laurier Palace Fire has a story of a toddler being run over in front of her house. This was a daily occurrence in North American cities at the time.

4. The Coderre Inquiry into Police Corruption and Malfeasance was launched after a record-breaking Brinks robbery in the Hochelaga district where it discovered that policemen were involved, but it had long roots back to WWI and prostitution around the Montreal Barracks. A Committee of Sixteen mostly Protestant groups organized an all-court press on Montreal City Hall in 1921, to protect the sad girls working in prostitution in the city after a prominent doctor gave a speech to the elite members of Canadian Club. They focused on the Baghdad Cafe, a sleazy dive serving US tourists located across the street from the ritzy Mount Royal Hotel, Tony Frank, Montreal’s leading mobster and top drug dealer was also implicated in the Brinks robbery. He thought he had the perfect alibi, but he and his henchmen were quickly hanged on circumstantial evidence. Judge Coderre, a religious conservative, used the Inquiry as his bully-pulpit. “Vice spreads its tentacles into every aspect of Montreal life, ” he wrote in his final report. He made many recommendations, all of which were ignored.

New York Times article: “300 to 600 houses of vice in Montreal, many owned by respectable women who live in good districts and seldom visit the brothels except to do administration.”

5. The Montreal Gazette’s quote at the time was “One day there’s going to be a catastrophe and if a fire breaks out one of these days no one will be able to get out.” These may or may not be the same quote. Unfortunately, the newspapers used creative license when transcribing the testimony and no full 10,000 page transcript of the Coderre Inquiry still exists, although Montreal City Hall has some original documents. https://www.archivesquebec.com/montrealp045.html . I visited there a few years ago and was shown a transcript on pdf that had been prepared for JAAA Brodeur and the Executive Committee. It was edited down and did not include Constable CT’s ‘prescient’ quote. From what I read, it appears that Constable CT brought up the incriminating evidence against my grandfather without even being asked. He changed the subject himself in mid interview. This transcript did contain a vivid account of a visit to a house of prostitution made by an undercover American. All he had to do was to ask the cabby and he was guided to this brothel (that was said to be under the protection of the police) where a dozen of drug-addled girls wearing ‘handkerchiefs’ were displayed before him.

6. The UA chain did not have children as customers, said Cousins, but Sunday was the company’s biggest day at the box office for adults. If Sunday showings were cancelled, United Amusements would have to close down their entire operation…. United Amusements was a movie distribution chain founded by Greek immigrant George Ganetakos during the WWI years.. He started out small, showing ‘flickers’ on the wall o f his uncle’s ice cream shop, then took on Ernest Cousins (an ice cream man) and my great uncle Isadore Crepeau when he expanded. Eventually his company became part of Famous Players. United Amusements built many of the gorgeous Montreal movie palaces of the day. Greeks were big in the movie biz as they were entrepreneurial by nature and this new movie revolution presented a big opportunity for them. In his testimony, as reported in the Montreal Gazette, Constable CT accused Greeks of corralling children into the movies. The Laurier Palace was owned by Canadians of Syrian origin, a group often back then conflated with Greeks. On the morning after the fire, as reported in Le Devoir, George Ganetakos, using the name George Nicholas, set up an emergency fund for the victims.

7. My Mom’s Uncle Isadore was a glass manufacturer/insurance agent whose elegant stained-glass window graced the Rialto Theatre on Park Avenue for many years. It’s still there – in what is now an entertainment venue. In 1933, Isadore ‘fell’ out of his office window, seven floors up, and met his death. The police deemed it an accident relating a ridiculous story and citing unnamed witnesses. Isadore was very likely hired by Ganetakos because of his connection to my grandfather. A survey of movie industry magazines, like Box Office, reveals that my grandfather’s name came up much more often than Isadore’s.

8. Juge Coderre and his wife often attended City Hall events like the soiree for the Royal Princes held in August 1927.

In November 2022 I found a bit in an online archive from 1940. A man described the Director of City Services as the Manager of the City. Period. BUT he said when the post was created they didn’t allow for enough autonomy for the Director who was subject to blackmail and political interference. By 1940 only two men, my grandfather and Honore Parent had held the post.