Tag Archives: Nicholson

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

The Family Genealogist

 

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The truth is, family genealogists haven’t changed that much over the years. They are still the one in the family with time on their hands and the fierce determination to stick with it through all the brick walls and misinformation and family myth muddles. They still wonder, when all is said and done, if anyone in the future will value their hard work.

Well, I think future generations will care and something happened to me lately to prove it:

The evidence comes in the form of a letter dated only March 3rd, but I know it must be from the 1970’s. It is from a certain Isabel to a Muriel. The type-written missive appears to be the last in a series on the subject of creating a family tree– and, without ceremony, after the “Dear Muriel” salutation, the letter gets right to the point.

“I have found two omissions, Jean Pepler, how could I miss her? and Jean McLeah. I have made Jean Pepler 84a as I found it after I had put in the numbers.”

Jean Pepler is my husband’s great grandmother’s niece. I know this from a family tree I once had on hand, the McLeod Family Tree, and more particularly from about 300 family letters from the 1908-1913 period, letters I long ago transcribed and published in an online book, A FAMILY IN CRISIS.

But, until recently, when I received this 50 year old note, I did not know anything about Isabel or Muriel

Isabel, the genealogist of the letter, discovers another error. “I just found another error in these family notes. The Millers have two daughters. I forgot Annie…I’ll have to correct it before I send it.”

Yes, like all genealogists, past and present, Isabel has poured a lot of energy into her family project and after she’s typed out the family tree, just when she thinks she’s finished, she finds some errors!

Not wanting to retype the whole tree chart, Isabel merely creates an in-between number for Jean Pepler, an esteemed Quebec educator, to use on the summary list at the of her document.

This wonderful letter was sent to me by my husband’s cousin, Debbi who still lives in Quebec. We didn’t know about Debbi either, not before then.

You see, when my husband got his DNA done a few years ago on Ancestry, he immediately discovered two first cousins (whom he knew very well) and a third cousin, Jean, he didn’t know at all.

He assumed this person was a third cousin because he shared 60 centimorgans of DNA with her, the average amount for third cousins. I contacted the woman to confirm the exact relationship.

My husband and Jean were second cousins once removed, related through my husband’s two times great grandparents John McLeod and Sara Maclean of Uig Carnish, Isle of Lewis Scotland. My husband’s great grandmother, Margaret Nicholson and Jean’s grandmother, Isabella Hill, were sisters living around the corner from each other in Richmond, Quebec in early 1900.

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John McLeod of Uig Carnish Isle of Lewis, Scotland (Crayon Drawing) and his wife Sarah McLean McLeod, tintype.

These days, due to the Coronavirus, Jean is hunkering down with her daughter, Debbi, and they are passing the time exploring genealogy. Debbi saw my years old note on Ancestry.

“ I’m the one who is most interested in family,” Debbi wrote me. “Can you tell me more?”

So, I sent Debbi my compilation of Nicholson Family Letters that contain numerous mentions of Clayton and Isabella Hill. Clayton was a prosperous stone mason in Richmond who lived in a big house on ritzy College Street. Their son, Stanley, is Jean’s father. Their daughter Isabel (Hill Knott) is Jean’s aunt and Muriel (the letter’s recipient) is Jean’s mother, Stanley’s wife.

Isabel and Muriel were sisters-in-law.

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Flora Nicholson (1895-1978) my husband’s great aunt, with Stanley Hill and future family genealogist Isabel Hill Knott circa 1906

“Were there any other siblings in the McLeod Richmond family?” Debbi enquired of me. “ I’ve heard of Dan and Flora. Maybe a Mary-Jane, too?”

“I think I remember Mary-Jane from the letters, “ I replied. “ There was also a Christie in Illinois and a Sarah in Sarnia. But, I can’t remember any other siblings.”

I then explained to her that I once in my possession a McLeod family genealogy, neatly tied with shoelaces in a sturdy flip-board cover, but I’ve since misplaced it. Sad!

But, only a few days later, checking out some stored data on some random memory sticks, I stumbled upon some gifs of that same McLeod genealogy. (And, yes, we had missed some siblings!)

I emailed the gifs off to Debbi and that’s when she emailed me back a scan of her Great Aunt Isabel’s March 3rd letter from the 1970’s.

“As you can see, it’s the same genealogy. Jean Pepler is there at 84a!” Debbi wrote in the email.

What a serendipitous string of events had to unfold to marry these two documents, once again, almost half a century later!

 

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Isabel’s Pepler page with new info added by a relation.

Today, with electronic communications, genealogists have so many tools at their disposal it is simply dizzying. Isabel’s letter reminds us that in the good old days it could take years and years of correspondence by mail or telephone to build a family tree – and typing it out before the age of White Out and word processors was an especially arduous task.

Isabel did, indeed, take a long, long time researching the tree:

“You should see my desk in the kitchen. At least now I can clean it up, getting rid of all the bits of notes I have gathered over the years.”

Isabel says that she spent three weeks at her kitchen table to type out the seven page genealogy.

“As this is all I have done for the past three weeks, I have no news….This has been hard work and has taken a lot of time but that is something I have plenty of.”

Isabel wasn’t sure, in the end, if she had done a good enough job:

“I find it hard to put in any notes for the younger members. There lives are still in the process of developing, but they can fill in what they find important. There might be even more births.”

And like many genealogists, then and now, she wondered if it was all worth the effort.

“What a job! Probably nobody will be interested because we have to accept that the world has changed.”

Well, it was worth the time and effort, Isabel, I can tell you that. Fifty years later many of us still do care. So, thank you for all the hard work you put into piecing together your (well, our) family tree.

 

 

 

 

Biology and Ambition

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Marion canoeing circa 1907

Marion Nicholson, first year teacher at Sherbrooke High School in 1906-07, is serious about having a career. She is not focused, like so many of her colleagues, on finding a husband or ‘a pupil of one’ as soon possible. Or so she says in her letters home to her mom.

However, Marion’s “strictly private’ pocket diary  from 1907 suggests something else: that the young Richmond-born woman is very much torn between her biology and her ambition. In this little brown journal, eighteen year old Marion often comes off like a flighty Scarlett O’Hara type.

January 12: “Went to a card party and dance at Mrs. Griggs’. Had a grand time. Played cards with Mr. Watson, danced with Mr. Avery, had supper with Mr. Davidson and Mr. Sampson came home with me.” Marion even reflects on this coquettish behavior in a February 19th entry: “I believe I think too much of boys and am a flirt.”

Marion’s busy social life centers around skating parties at a Sherbrooke rink where she obliges many potential suitors – and turns down some others.

That Edwardian winter there are two young men fighting over the ultimate privilege to take Marion home from the ice rink, or the snow shoe club or the local youth hangout: Monty and Gordon.  It does get complicated.

Here’s the entry for January 28: “I slighted Monty by taking off my skates before his turn. He was quite huffy. I guess I will have to go skating with him tomorrow instead of driving with Gordon.”

For Feb 3: “Went to the theatre with Monty. I did not tell Gordon. Gordon was there by himself. He did not look our way the whole time.”

Eventually, this juggling act becomes too much for Marion. “I have decided who I like best and G is the one. I am tired of having two.”

In the spring of 1907, Gordon takes Marion canoeing.  The couple gets caught in a storm on the river and has to take shelter on shore. How romantic!  How promising!

By the time June rolls around,  Marion is getting anxious for the school year to end. It isn’t her work. She is exhausted from all the late nights and ‘dissipation’, as she refers to it in her diary. She returns to Richmond, 30 miles away, to spend the summer with her Mom and sisters.  Here, her social activities center on family friends: the Pepplars, the Clevelands, the McCoys, the Sutherlands and the Crombies.  In 1907, Richmond is a town without any eligible young men. They have all moved away to find jobs.

Marion helps support the family, so she isn’t expected to do work around the house. Most days she is bored silly.  She often sleeps in until noon. She sometimes spends afternoons taking ‘crazy’ photos with her Kodak.

Marion gets down on herself for this: “I think I am about the laziest person alive. All I have the gumption to do is sit and dream of what I would do if I tried. I have wasted two weeks of my vacation doing nothing, when I could have been practicing music or sewing. I hope I improve.”

In Richmond, Marion can go to church, twice a day if she wants. There are frequent afternoon teas hosted by society matrons, daily walks downtown to the mail to see if Gordon has written her, ice cream socials, croquet, tennis, strawberrying and country drives to places like Windsor and Kingsbury by horse drawn carriage.

Town tycoon Mr. Wales is the only Richmond citizen who has an automobile, but that will soon change.

Yes, it is the summer of 1907 (a year on the cusp of some game-changing technological changes)  and the living is far too easy for Miss Marion Annie Nicholson, an energetic young woman who, one day, will lead the PAPT teachers union while supporting four children as a single mom.

According to Marion’s 1907 diary, the most interesting thing to happen to her that summer is when some kittens get into the barn.­­

Oh, and there’s this entry for July 13th :“Lily Lyper nearly murdered. Great excitement.”

Even sleepy Richmond, Quebec had its share of scandals 100 plus years ago.

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Marion, seated bottom and other Sherbrooke High Teachers 1906

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Marion and beau in front of Tighsolas, their house in Richmond, Quebec

Afterward: (added March 14)

Marion did not see much more of Gordon, the son of a wealthy Sherbrooke merchant who would  be making a very good salary, 3,000 a year, in 1911 at the age of 26, this according to the Census.

Gordon married a friend of Marion’s, it seems.  In 1913, Marion married Hugh Blair, the son of a prosperous Three Rivers lumber merchant,  although his parents did not favour the marriage because by that time the Nicholsons were broke.

Marion’s in-laws did not attend the October wedding at the Nicholson residence on Dufferin in Richmond. Marion’s marriage contract was a nasty piece of work  saying she got nothing but the furniture should the marriage break up FOR ANY REASON.

As it happens, Hugh died in 1927. Marion was left high and dry cut out of the Blair family business, so she rolled up her sleeves and went back to work becoming a Master Teacher and WWII era President of the Provincial Association of Protestant teachers in Quebec.

She never re-married, despite having many suitors, such was her sex appeal even in old age. She died of a heart attack in 1948, a few months after representing the Canadian Teachers Association at an UNICEF education conference in Sevres, France. The Editor of the Montreal Gazette (another admirer apparently) wrote her an editorial page eulogy: “With the death of Marian A N Blair, education in Quebec, indeed the entire nation, has suffered  a serious loss. ”

In the end, Marion did have it all, love, work and family. It just came with some major trials and tribulations. Apparently, she never complained.