Posted by Dorothy Nixon
On Sunday, October 1, 2017, some members of Genealogy Ensemble will be participating in the Culture Days event at the Verdun Farmer’s Market, in promotion of Beads in a Necklace, our book of family stories to be published in November. My talk will focus on WWI Victory Gardens and the rising cost of living during that period.
The newspaper clipping, above, is from the social notes column of the Richmond-Times Guardian, (Richmond, Quebec) circa 1905. The very silly item about a big potato is probably my husband’s grandfather’s way of poking fun at small town pretentions. Or is it?
The Nicholson family’s vast vegetable garden behind their charming red-brick house in the Eastern Townships of Quebec was no joke to them, not even in an era when pre-prepared foods, like Heinz Beans, Jello, and Quaker Oats, were fast becoming house-hold names.*(1)
In 1911, with their four children were grown up, the large backyard garden that produced corn, beets, sweet peas, etc., was critical to the diet of this frugal Scottish Canadian family.
The potato patch was a particular concern:
“I put the Paris Green on the potatoes twice. Mrs. Montgomery came over to tell me that the bugs were eating up my potatoes. I was waiting to get someone to do it for me, as that was one thing I never attempted.
“But when she interfered thought we would try it. So one dark night, Flora (daughter) got the lantern and we went out when the bugs were asleep and gave them their dose. We dressed ourselves in the shed. You ought to have seen us. When we got through left our clothes there. Went to bed and dreamed all night that the bugs were crawling over us.”
So writes Margaret Mcleod Nicholson, in a July, 9, 1911 to husband Norman, who was away in Northern Ontario working as a railway inspector.
You have to admire Margaret’s style. Although her letters were often penned in haste and full of household concerns, ‘the local news’ as in gossip, and much high anxiety over finances, she certainly could paint a word picture when she wanted to.*(2)
In the spring of 1911, it was 57 year old Margaret’s job to care for the garden because her two older girls, Edith and Marion, were away teaching in Montreal, and her youngest, Flora, was very busy studying for final exams. Margaret and Flora were living alone for most of the year.
Although her daughters returned to Richmond for the summer, they came and went as they pleased, often in motorcars owned by wealthier neighbours. *(3)
Norman, in his letters home, warned his wife not to work too hard out in the backyard, especially in hot weather, and the summer of 1911, as it happens, was very, very hot.*(4)
An ‘old-fashioned’ carriage in front of Tighsolas, the Nicholson home, circa 1910. A hire. The Nicholsons couldn’t afford to keep a carriage, let alone buy an automobile, like so many of their neighbours.
The same letter continues:
“We have had dreadful hot weather. Just fancy, one night we slept out on the veranda. Took our mattresses down. The Skinners (other neighbours) were sleeping in theirs so that we were not afraid and we had Flossie (the dalmatian) with us but yesterday afternoon it rained so last night was cool.
We all had a good sleep and today is fine. We feel like working. I hope you did not have this extreme heat. We had quite a cold wave about the 24th but no frost.”
This sounds like typical Quebec weather, doesn’t it? So up and down. It’s not easy cultivating a garden in this province. It takes perseverance.
Six years later, in the spring of 1917, most everyone in the west end of the city of Montreal was out on the street digging their wartime Victory Gardens.*(5)
Marion Nicholson, now a mother and homemaker living on York Street in lower Westmount, describes the scene in a letter home to Mom:
“Every vacant lot around the city has been utilized for gardens and I think it is more common to see people out digging and planting in these gardens than in a small town like Richmond. Some I think are making their first attempt.”
Her small family is no exception. “Hugh (husband) and Willie (cousin) are making a garden. What success they will have I do not know. One thing for sure, the beds are straight (her underline) and square. I myself would prefer more in them.”
Marion (who is six months pregnant) then describes how she has hardly slept all week while tending her very sick toddler. She begs her mom to send as many crates of eggs as she can on the next train.
It certainly was an era of high-anxiety about food, nutrition – and so many other things.
Margaret’s 1917 butter bill. Inflation. The price of butter goes up from 30 to 40 cents from September to October.* (6)
Still, Marion closes her letter to her Mom by praising her comfort food: “So, now to get a taste of your home-made bread. When I eat it, I close my eyes and I feel as if I were home. Thank you for all the good things you sent.”
Edith, young Margaret, and Marion, far right, in summer of 1918 in an orchard in Richmond, possibly behind the Nicholson home as they had apple trees. (The newborn is in other pics.) This was the year of the Spanish Flu. It was safer in the countryside. Marion stayed an entire month in Richmond, until her husband, Hugh, begged her to come home in a letter. “The ice in the icebox has melted all over the floor, there’s no food in the house, the windows are kept open and it’s hot as Hades in here. Please come home and take care of me!” He was in the care of his sisters-in-law, who had better things to do in wartime Montreal than to baby their brother-in-law. Edith, a Sun Life employee, volunteered in Soldiers’ Aid for the YMCA and for the Navy League.
- 1. Most of the famous food brands of the 20th century got their start in 1900-1910 by advertising in magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal with happy-family lifestyle ads with bigger graphics and fewer printed promises. “Pure” was the adjective of the day.
It was understood, even back then, that the home was evolving from a center of production to a center of consumption. Margaret, born in 1853, made everything from scratch, on a woodstove, with recipes she kept firmly locked in her head; Marion Nicholson, born 1886, would cook on a gas stove relying on her Fanny Farmer Cookbook; her daughter, also Marion, born 1917, living in middle class comfort in 1950’s suburbia, would feed her brood nothing but canned vegetables, even canned potatoes, which she warmed on an electric stove.
- 2. Norman was tickled by an anecdote from a November, 1909 letter, where Margaret vividly describes a back-and-forth argument she has had with a male relation over woman suffrage. The relation invokes St. Paul as was the custom. She replies “St. Paul has been dead for a long time. I don’t live in those days, milking cows and making fires.” Norman, who is active in local politics, replies in support of his wife: “Too absurd to think that a woman cannot exercise her franchise with as much intelligence as some of the male sex. And when you have to drag some of these supposedly intelligent men to the polls as you would cattle.”
- 3. Margaret disliked motor cars. From 1909. “Mr. Montgomery is selling his horse and buying a car. Don’t you think he is foolish?” But, she was happy to go on drives when invited.
- 4. Here’s a note about the heatwave of 1911 in nearby New England. http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/the-1911-heat-wave-was-so-deadly-it-drove-people-insane/
- 5. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/victory-gardens. Apparently, Victory Gardens weren’t only a way to add to the food supply; they were about improving morale on the home-front by making people feel useful.
- 6. A Chicago Agency sent a very fancy direct mail advertisement out to Richmond homemakers in 1916 on behalf of a new product called Crisco Shortening asking, “Do you like the taste of fresh buns in the morning? Try Crisco.” A coupon was attached.
Posted by Dorothy Nixon
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!