Tag Archives: Montreal Star

Write What You Know

Write what you know. That is good advice, but it can be hard to follow if you have poor health and seldom travel or even explore your own neighbourhood. This was the case for my mother. Nevertheless, several of her articles about her hobbies and personal memories were published in the local media.

As I write this, snow is falling outside my office window and, in the midst of a pandemic, the government has advised people to stay at home. These restrictions feel much like the limitations my mother experienced, so I dug out some of her articles to see what inspired her.

Joan Hamilton (1918-1994) was a prolific letter-writer: letters to the editor of The Montreal Star, letters to the newspaper’s television critic, and letters to federal and provincial politicians on a variety of topics. But what she really wanted was to write magazine articles, so she was very proud when several of her stories appeared in Montreal Scene, a magazine inserted every Saturday in The Montreal Star. It generally featured four or five articles, along with the weekly television listings, and there was always a painting of a local scene on the cover.

“Feathered Fun” by Joan Hamilton, which appeared in the January 15, 1977 issue, was about her own favourite pastime, armchair bird-watching.

My parents’ house had a sunroom with picture windows overlooking the backyard where a large crab-apple tree, laden with wizened fruit, attracted many birds in winter. “If you are lucky, anytime after mid-January, a group of evening grosbeaks or common redpolls may discover your garden treats,” she wrote, adding, “There is no better pick-me-up for the winter blues than to spot the beautiful yellow, black and white grosbeaks feeding on the snow.” Mother also attached small bird feeders to the sunroom windows and kept them full of seeds so she could watch the chickadees up close.

This photo was taken in Naples, Florida in 1977. After she returned to Montreal, Joan Hamilton wrote a travel article about Naples. photo by Janice Hamilton

In another article, “Winters Remembered,” in the March 25, 1978 issue, she suggested that Montrealers were getting soft, no longer able to cope with snow and cold weather. She recalled that the postman called twice a day when she was young, and if there was a time when he couldn’t get through the drifts, she didn’t remember it. Furthermore, “in those days, many deliveries were still made by horse-drawn sleighs, which always seemed to triumph over the highest snowbanks.”

She wrote, “We must have got our first car in the late ‘20s. A Hupmobile with glass flaps for windows, it didn’t have a heater, that’s for sure. Maybe that is why in those days nearly everyone put their car ‘up’ for the winter…. We relied on the trusty old streetcars. We lived near the crest of Côte-des-Neiges, and I don’t remember a time when they were not able to make the hill. They had cowcatchers that acted as snowplows in front, and during big snowstorms, there were special snow plow cars clearing the tracks, trailed by a string of streetcars, power lines crackling with light and windows steamed, but making it up the hill.”

Travel, both short and long distance, was by the invincible train, she recalled. “Trains may have been delayed, but at least you always got where you were going.” She had particularly fond memories of the Laurentian ski train which carried Montrealers to the slopes north of the city in the winter. “The gaiety on board was as much a part of the fun as skiing.”

She continued, “We never worried about freezing or starving during power failures. First of all, we had a coal furnace which, although it had to be stoked morning and night, was not subject to breakdowns…. We cooked with gas, so there was no worry about being unable to have a hot meal if the electricity went off. Lots of people still had wood or coal stoves.”

Towards the end of the article, Mother asked, “Was it really better back then, or has time blocked out the bad memories and left only the good?” Perhaps she did block out some of negative aspects of winter in the 1930s and 1940s, but her memories nevertheless made for entertaining reading.

Note: this article also appears in my family history blog, Writing Up the Ancestors, http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.com.

My new book, Reinventing Themselves: A History of the Hamilton and Forrester Families, by Janice Hamilton, will be published this spring.

The Mysterious Charlie G: An Edwardian Era Love Tragedy

Edith and her beau circa 1909 somewhere near Potton Springs in the Eastern Townships of Quebec
Edith and her beau circa 1909 somewhere near Potton Springs in the Eastern Townships of Quebec

Edith Nicholson (1884-1977), my husband’s Great Aunt Dede, never married. She told her nieces and nephews and great nieces and great nephews that she lost her Great Love in a hotel fire. The couple wasn’t ‘officially engaged’ but there was ‘an understanding’.

Some believed DeDe, some didn’t.

In 2004, I found 300 Nicholson family letters from the 1908-1913 period in an old trunk – and in a letter dated May 3, 1910, Edith writes of this loss to her mother, Margaret:

Your letter received this am. It was so good to hear your voice over the phone. It was quite natural. Oh, how I wish I could talk over everything with you. It seems terribly hard to think it all for the best, when there are so many that are of no use living on and others that are held in esteem cut off in a moment. One thing, I am very thankful for that he wrote me. No doubt one of the last things that he did. I can’t express my feelings. I never felt so badly in my life. But I suppose there are few who have had so pleasant a one as I have, and trouble comes to all.

So the story was true, after all!

Edith mentions many young men in her letters sent from Montreal where she was working as a teacher back to Richmond where her Mom lived. Edith often uses only initials when talking of her romantic life. Apparently, back then, courting was something to be coy about.

It took me long while to figure out but her Great Love was one Charlie Gagne, bank clerk, from Levis, Quebec. A French Canadian man, most likely. Now, that was a surprise.

It seems Edith and this Charlie had an on-again off-again relationship through 1908-1909.

Gagne is a French Canadian name but from the letters it is clear Charlie spent time around Edith’s group of Richmond Protestants. Perhaps he was a convert from Catholicism. In Montreal, Edith worked as a teacher at French Methodist Institute in Westmount, a school where Catholics, mostly French Canadians, were converted to “the Way.”

The Nicholson’s also left behind a photo album from the 1910 era. I have photographs of Edith on a country outing with a handsome young man. If this is Charlie of the May 3, 1910 letter, he is a slim, with a charming smile and a cocky attitude and he is a great dresser. Edith Nicholson would have accepted no less.

There are a few other mysterious mentions of Charlie, or Charlie G or CG in the 1909-10 letters.

In August 1909, Edith writes her Mom saying she managed to ‘show’ Charlie to her father at a train station, (it sounds like a set up) but her father was cool to her young man.

In September 1909, Edith’s mother Margaret writes her father Norman and says “Charlie has gone to Mexico. So that flirtation is over.”

In October 1909, Edith writes her Mom saying she hasn’t heard from Charlie G and that she has no intention of trying to contact him. “He could still be in Mexico, for all I know.”

In February, 1910, Edith writes that she is taking medicine, for ‘her heart has had a jolt’.

Then there’s NOTHING but that May 3 letter about Charlie’s death. Edith writes that she is looking at his picture in the Montreal Star and that “it does not do him justice.”

So I had bits and pieces of a sad love story, but I had to fill in the blanks. I couldn’t even be sure it was Charlie G. who died in the hotel fire.

One sentence in the May 3 missive was especially enigmatic. “It seems if it had only been an accident, it would be easier to understand.”

So, about 5 years ago, I tripped over to the McGill Library to check out the May 1910 Star.

Amidst the pages and pages of stories of Edward VII’s death, I found a story about a Cornwall fire, the Rossmore House Fire, where a Charlie Gagne, bank clerk from Levis, perished.   Proof at last.

Charlie had recently been transferred to the Cornwall branch from the Danville, Quebec branch, which is near Richmond, Edith’s home-base. (The February jolt!)

Only half of Charlie’s body was found at the scene and that was burned beyond recognition. There was only a tie pin to identify him.

The fire had started in a stairwell and, as a boarder who knew the hotel well, Charlie tried to use the stairway to escape the fire, as did a few other boarders, including an entire family.

Most hotel clients had been rescued by fireman at their hotel window, or had frantically jumped to safety.

There was no photograph with this Montreal Gazette newspaper article, though – so I was confused.

Then Google News archives came online and I saw that the Rossmore Fire happened on April 29!

I headed down to Concordia’s Webster Library to check out the January-April reel of the 1910 Montreal Star.

Sure enough, the Cornwall fire was front page news on April 29 as the Star was an afternoon paper.

The next day’s issue had a back of the newspaper follow up article on the fire with a photograph of Charlie Gagne, Levis-born bank teller at the Bank of Montreal.

The photo was of a sober-faced Charlie, but it was without a doubt the man of the family album.

At long last, mystery over.

Then, much later, on Ancestry.ca, I found Charlie’s name on the 1901 Census and his 1910 death certificate that claims he died accidentally in a fire. Charlie, the snappy dresser, was the son of a modiste, a widow, and he had a younger sister. And he was buried as a Roman Catholic!