Cabin Fever

By this time of year many of us are experiencing Cabin Fever – loosely defined as “irritability, listlessness, and boredom from long confinement or isolation indoors.” That feeling of being trapped is generally caused by snowstorms when you can’t go out even if you wanted to – those severe blizzards where they’re telling people to stay home, off the roads and wait for the snowplows to do their thing – but it’s been made even worse this year by the pandemic lockdowns. 

Although we may be stuck inside, we have all the comforts of home – a warm dwelling, good food and plenty of entertainment available.  It’s even possible to ignore things altogether if you don’t look outside, especially if you have a cozy fire to sit beside, a hot beverage and a good book or movie.  Winter can be very hygge.

While I would normally appreciate these quiet January days after the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, lots of time to read and write and putter about pretending to reorganize, this year when we’ve been cooped up inside so much already, it seems downright claustrophobic.   So let’s call it pandemic fever instead.  In fact the term cabin fever had an early association with typhoid fever and quarantine.

As the term originated with the pioneers who spent long winters by themselves, when severe weather and long distances from neighbors were truly isolating, let’s take a look at how people coped with cabin fever way back when there were cabins.

The Log Cabin

I often wondered how my ancestors survived their first winter here.   They came from Ireland in 1846 during the potato famine, three brothers and their families, and after jumping ship in the St. Lawrence to evade the cholera epidemic, arrived in Toronto, starving and penniless.   They had to borrow one pound from the Immigrant Land Agent (National Archives Document Oct 16 1846) to pay for water transport to the area where they would settle.  The land was all wilderness then, and arriving so late in the year, they would never have survived the first winter were it not for the help of the Indians and a neighbor who helped them build a hut dwelling and showed them how to hunt for game.  (Most likely they ate a lot of venison stew).  They were unprepared for the cold and the snow as the posters advertising Upper Canada boasted about its abundant game (true) and tropical climate (well maybe in the summer).   Did they even have any warm clothing?   My great-grandfather, who had stayed behind to go to school, arrived later wearing a straw hat.  They would gladly have returned to the misery of Ireland in those early years. 

The First Winter

Their first homestead was on swampland and the water was bad, so eventually they moved to a different site a few miles down the road, where they build a log cabin, similar to this one I blogged about in my Pioneer Village post.   

The inspiration behind the painting….

This cabin dates from 1870, and is fairly large, with room for a farmhouse table and a sleeping loft above.    

A warm stove…

Another cabin on the site of the local Heritage Museum is much smaller, and housed just two people, a widow and her young son.  

The original Tiny House…

It was constructed in 1857 of lumber rather than logs, as there was a sawmill nearby – the interior is pine. With only two rooms, this typical first home was built quickly, as more effort went to clearing the land and planting crops.

While small in size, it was snug and warm with the long stove pipe circulating the heat across the house.  There was an additional sleeping space in the attic over the kitchen.

The rope bed was covered with a straw or feather mattress.

While the quilt is nice, it does make me grateful for my comfy bed, with its deep mattress, soft sheets and down comforter, and there’s certainly not much counter space in that kitchen!   

Now the local heritage museum is fund-raising to restore another log cabin.  

This one has an interesting and well-traveled history.   Originally built in 1840 in the Goderich area, it was disassembled in the 1930’s and floated down Lake Huron to a lakefront property where it was used as a summer cottage. In the 1970’s it was donated and moved to it’s current site in a local park where it was used for community events such as Christmas in the Park, until it fell into such a state of disrepair that it was deemed unsafe and they decided to tear it down and build a replica.   A great hue and cry ensued from the public and the local historical society, so they relented and at a cost of $50,000 are paying to have it relocated to the museum site for future restoration.  I know, it seems a lot of money to spend on a derelict old building but they waste money on other things, and how many 180 year old log cabins are left?  This will be it’s third move, but just look at that solid construction.    

No chilly drafts would come through those thick walls, but they do need to do something about the broken windows.      

I’ve been feeling bad about my house lately. My renos remain undone, dust bunnies abound and I don’t seem to have the energy to give it a good cleaning. My cleanliness standards have slipped considerably since no one is seeing it but me. Hopefully in March I’ll be motivated to give it a good spring cleaning.

But after a look at these humble abodes, I’m appreciating my own home and hearth more, and feeling better about cabin fever. We have so many more creature comforts today and all the modern conveniences. Maybe it really is all about perspective.

With no internet or Netflix to occupy themselves with what did they do for entertainment back then?   Being Irish, I’m sure there was music – the fiddle – and story telling often took the place of books, and I hope there was comfort food too – warm bread and  apple pies and taffy treats.  

So perhaps some things haven’t changed – after today’s dose of wintry weather it’s time for some beef stew. 

Supper by candlelight…

PS.  While researching this, I came across two books, The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie by Cecily Ross, a fictionalized historical novel based on the life of Susanna Moodie, a genteel English writer who immigrated to Canada in 1832. Moodie wrote about her experiences in the Canadian wilderness and subsequently published her memoirs as Roughing It In The Bush and Life in the Backwoods. I enjoyed the fictionalized book more, as it was rich in historical detail, although the first half in England was not as interesting. Both books depict a harsh life with many hardships and little in the way of fun or luxuries, a sobering look at the reality of pioneer life for many women.    

(1128 words)       

Irish Soda Bread and A Family Letter

My great-great grandparents Patrick and Mary and five of their six children, immigrated from Ireland in 1846 during the Potato Famine.   I’ve blogged previously about my Irish roots and a visit to an Irish Graveyard, but today’s post will be about a letter from Ireland.     

Patrick and Mary - edited version

Patrick and Mary – tintype picture

They came in a party of twenty or more but lost three relatives from typhus  on the way over.    While in the quarantine station, more of the passengers started to get sick so they decided to jump ship, losing one teenage son in the Quebec bush in the process, who was never found.   They later traced him to northern Ontario, but he had moved out west before they could get word to him.

Family Portrait

John and Ellen Family Portrait – 1912

Their 14-year-old son John (my great grandfather in his old age, sitting in the chair) had stayed behind because he had the chance to go to school with the overseer’s son, an opportunity too good to pass up.   He came two years later through New York and an uncle was sent to pick him up.   A family story tells of the letter that was sent from Ireland about his expected arrival.  

In the spring of 1847, their second year, a surveyor came through the woods and inquired who they were.   He informed them there was a letter for them at a post office near the river, presumably word of where and when their son John was to arrive.   Mary, reportedly a tall robust woman, set out walking to collect it.   The country was all wilderness then, with no roads, just a blazed trail with trees felled across the swampy areas to walk across.   When she got to the post office six miles away, they told her they had sent it on to another hamlet four miles south, so she walked along the river trail to that post office, where they told her that they hadn’t known of any settlers with that name, so they had forwarded it to a larger port to the north.  Mary walked along the river to that town and finally got the letter, although it’s unlikely she could read it as she signed the land deed with an X.   It began to get dark and Patrick became worried that she had not returned home.   He set out along the trail and encountered her carrying a big sack of flour on her head which she had purchased in town.   All told she had walked over thirty miles to get the letter!   Having already lost one son in the bush, she must have been overjoyed when John finally arrived safe and sound.

While admiring Mary’s strength and determination to be reunited with her son, what has always struck me about this tale is the sack of flour.    In my uncle’s genealogy notes, he writes it was a fifty pound bag, surely an exaggeration as when I tried to hoist a 25lb bag at the grocery store I could barely budge it off the bottom shelf.    

Flour

10kg = 25 lbs

Admittedly, I am neither robust nor strong, but Mary in the photo above doesn’t exactly look like an Amazon woman either,  so I assume that must have been a wee bit of blarney!   

In the early days when the land was sparsely populated, grist mills were few and far between.   They were usually located on the banks of a fast flowing  river or stream and and powered by a water wheel.  I took this picture of a flour mill display at a history museum last summer.  

grindstone display museum Note the cotton flour bags and the heavy grist-stone.

grindstone - museum

While large grist-stones were associated with commercial mills, many farms had their own smaller grindstones for grain or sharpening instruments.  (My brother kept ours from the farm).  Once settlers had harvested their grain, they then had to grind it by hand using a mortar and a pestle or a pair of grindstones placed on top of one another, both time consuming methods.      

So for Mary to be able to buy a bag of ground flour at a mill in town must have seemed the height of luxury, an endeavor well worth the effort involved in lugging it home.   When we toss butter, milk, eggs and flour into our grocery cart, we forget how much of our ancestors time was spend just obtaining the simple necessities of life, although I do sometimes think about this family story when I pull out the flour from my pantry to do some baking.   Flour

Today we’re going to make Irish soda bread.   There are many versions of this bread, some are more scone-like with white flour, sugar and raisins, and some are like the denser darker brown bread traditionally served with orange marmalade at breakfast, but I’m going to experiment with something in between.   As I’ve never made any kind of bread before, wish me the luck of the Irish.    

Irish soda bread was popular in Ireland as it could be baked in a covered skillet over the fireplace, and did not require an oven or yeast like more traditional breads.   It relies on the chemical reaction between the sour milk/buttermilk and the baking soda instead of yeast.   Here’s the recipe.

Ingredients:

1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour

1 3/4 cups all-purpose white flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 (level) teaspoon baking soda

2 tablespoons cold butter, cubed

1 egg

1 2/3 cups buttermilk

1 tablespoon oats 

Irish Soda Bread

I made one small change – as I only had self-rising white flour with the salt and baking POWDER already added, I cut the salt back to 1/2 tsp.   The baking powder didn’t make any difference, it just made it rise a bit more.

Instructions:

Heat the oven to 425°F (215°C).   Mix together the flours, salt and baking soda in a large bowl.    (NB: make sure the baking soda is a LEVEL teaspoon otherwise the bread may taste funny and/or turn green!) 

Irish Soda Bread Add the butter and rub into the flour mixture with your fingertips until it resembles bread crumbs.    (I did not take a picture here, as my hands were too messy.   Those food network divas must have their own photographers!)

In a separate measuring jug, whisk the egg and buttermilk together.  The egg is optional but makes the batter richer so I added it.   Pour 3/4 of the liquid into the centre of the dry ingredients.   

Irish Soda Bread

Using your hands mix the flour and liquid together to form a loose dough.  The dough should be soft, but not too sticky.   Add more of the liquid as needed, but try not to overwork it.  

Turn onto a floured work surface and bring the dough together into a round shape about 1 1/2 inches thick.   (Again, no pictures but I used my new glass kitchen board, new as in found in the basement cleanup.   For someone who doesn’t cook that much I seem to have a lot of kitchen stuff).glass work board

Place formed loaf on a baking sheet dusted with flour.   Brush a bit of the left over liquid on the top of the bread and then sprinkle the rolled oats on the top.   This gives it a nice rustic-looking appearance. 

Irish Soda Bread

Now for the most important part.   Using a sharp knife, score the bread by blessing it with a deep cross on top.  Then poke a hole in the four quarters of the bread to release the fairies and stop them from cursing your bread.  Do not skip this last step, unless you wish to incur their wrath!   

Irish Soda Bread

Bake for 15 minutes at 425 F in order to give it a nice crisp crust, then turn down the oven to 400 F and bake for 30 minutes more.   When done the loaf will sound slightly hollow when tapped on the bottom.    Remove from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack.    

Irish Soda Bread

As I’ve never made anything with buttermilk or whole wheat flour before I have nothing to compare it too, but I was very pleased with the way the bread turned out – the rustic taste, appearance and ease of preparation – and would definitely make it again.   I was especially keen on the part about the blessing and the fairies as I like a bit of folklore with my baking.     

Irish Soda Bread

Serve warm slathered with some chilled fresh butter and enjoy!   Goes great with potato soup, but we’ll save that for next year, as we’re already over 1400 words.    (It was nice the next day too, served with jam).    

Now, we’ll have a wee small toast to John, using his own crystal decanter and glasses.   I think he’d like that it’s whiskey imported straight from his old homeplace, Leitrim County. 

Maybe another thimble or two…

Whiskey decanter two

I should clean out the basement more often….

For those who don’t drink, I experimented with this no-alcohol low-calorie version of an Irish Coffee, adding an ounce of Skinny Syrup, Irish Cream flavor, to a mug of hot coffee and topping with a squirt of low-fat whipped cream from a can.    Magically delicious! 

 Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

St. Patricks' Day leprechaun

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

         

 

 

Pioneer Village

Victorian Tea China        Last month I blogged about a Victorian tea party I attended on the grounds of a local museum.    If you are a history lover, please join me for part two of the tour,  a visit to yesteryear.   

Moore museum collage

While the Victorian cottage is one of the original buildings on the museum site, there are many others.   Most have been moved to the site, including a one room schoolhouse, a small church and a log cabin from the days of the early settlers, as well as a local lighthouse.           

The 1919 church with the original pipe organ in the corner.

 

The one room schoolhouse.

schoolhouse

At the risk of sounding like someone from Little House on the Prairie, I seldom admit I once attended a one room schoolhouse.   It was located less than half a mile down the road from our farm, within walking distance even for a first grader, and was the same school my dad and all his ancestors had attended.   In 1963 the government closed all the remaining rural schools, and our parents drove us into town to the Catholic school until the bus system was started a few years later.  

What do I remember from my year and a half there?   Not much, as I was only six.   The big wood burning stove, so hot you could cook hot dogs wrapped in tin foil on top for lunch, schoolhouse

games of baseball for all ages at recess, getting the strap once (just a little tap on our hands) for talking in class and being made to stand in the corner with my cousin – much more humiliating.  schoolhouseThe teacher was always yelling and in a bad mood – can you imagine trying to teach 40 kids of all ages.   It may sound archaic, but I suppose it would be similar to home schooling now, with different age appropriate lessons.    As there were only three of us in grade one, myself, my cousin and an unkempt boy whose family no one knew, we did not get much attention, but I must have absorbed something from listening to her teach the older grades, as when we were given tests at the new school I passed with 92%.  (They thought we were country hicks who would have to be held back a year).   My new grade two teacher was pleasantly surprised and told my parents I was smart, a moment I remember to this day.   I always had a friendly rivalry with the boy sitting in front of me over who would get top honors, sometimes it was him, sometimes me, and as I went on to graduate from the University of Toronto, it didn’t to me any harm, although I admit some kids who needed extra attention were not as lucky.    

Compare this slate with the tablets of today.   I vaguely remember the sound of the school bell being rung.  

schoolhouse

At the one room schoolhouse the grade ones were let out half an hour early, and my cousin, who lived next door, and I would dawdle along, catching tadpoles in the ditches, playing in the snowbanks and making up fairy stories, the road being lined with beautiful trees, (channeling Anne of Green Gables here), and arrive home the same time as my siblings.    It seems I remember more than I had thought.   

Here is a picture of the class of 1934, with the school in the background appearing larger than I remember. 

schoolhouse dad

This is a log cabin from 1874, not a replica but an actual cabin moved to the site to preserve a part of history. 

cabin

My great-grandparents John and Ellen were married in 1870 and I try to imagine my Irish ancestors living in such a small drafty house during their early years on the farm.  The old white farmhouse I grew up in had two parts, the initial smaller dwelling and a larger addition with bedrooms upstairs to accommodate their growing family of nine children. 

This picture of an old stove certainly puts my complaints about the ongoing delays in my kitchen reno into perspective.   What my ancestors would have given for such modern conveniences as a stove you could turn on with the touch of a button.

cabin

Not too keen on the sleeping arrangements, a loft accessed by very steep stairs.    I remember my dad saying some of his uncles slept upstairs in the granary when it was new, which probably looked like this.  I imagine it was freezing in the winter, hence the quilts. 

cabin

Open concept floor plans were popular back then too!   We have an antique farm table dating from 1870, longer than this one.  

cabin

While most farms had large vegetable gardens, including rhubarb, and were mainly self-sufficient,

cabin

there were times you simply had to go into town for a few provisions at the general store,  

general store

and perhaps a new hat.

general store hats

The model train room, which boasts three large train sets, is always a hit with the guys.  

model train

 As well as the individual buildings, there is a large agricultural building full of old farm implements such as this cutter/sleigh.    We had one just like it and my dad sometimes took it for a spin behind the Clydesdales.

cutter sleigh

There is also a large exhibition hall, with a marine room and different display rooms and lots of historical archives.   It does seem strange that my Barbie/Skipper carry case has now achieved vintage status.   

vintage toys

I remember playing with this doll house too. 

vintage doll house

Several volunteers were setting up the loom for a display of weaving the day of our visit, a time consuming process.   There was no fast fashion back then.  

loom

And of course, I always enjoy looking at old medical exhibits, such as this infirmary,

infirmary

and pharmacy.   

pharmacy

The tools of my trade

Perhaps somewhere among those antique bottles is a clue for my (long neglected) murder mystery?    Agatha Christie used the knowledge acquired during her days as an apothecary apprentice when writing her books.   

When I think back to the changes in my profession over the past one hundred years – the invention of penicillin and antibiotics, vaccines, insulin – these are discoveries which saved lives.   In my student days pharmacy labels were prepared on typewriters, not as ancient as this one as ours were electric with correcto-tape.

typewriter

The last forty years of my career has seen the implementation of computers (a massive improvement for record keeping, drug information and drug interactions), clot-busters for preventing damage in heart attack and stroke, palliative care measures for end of life, improved chemotherapy, drugs for depression and mental illness, biologicals for autoimmune diseases, and more new drugs on the market than you can possibly keep up with.   When I think of the future – targeted chemotherapy, gene therapy, cures for diseases never thought possible – it is amazing the amount of change that can happen over the course of a century. 

One Christmas my father was given one of those autobiography books to document your life for the grandchildren.   One of the questions was what are the most important changes you have seen in your life as compared to that of your grandparents.  

“When my grandparents settled here the land was all bush.   Roads were Indian trails.  People lived far apart.   They had to build houses, barns, roads, clear land.   Walking and horses were the main modes of travel.   Machinery was crude or non-existent.   Since then tractors and combines have been invented.  Hydro, paved roads, cars, radios, toasters, tvs, micowaves, computers.   Household goods and furnishings have changed such as washers and dryers, refrigerators and stoves, air conditioning in summer and furnaces in winter instead of a wood stove.    My mother churned butter and we had an ice box and a root cellar for vegetables, an outhouse, no running water in the house and having to heat water on the stove for a bath.    Materials are softer now than the scratchy clothes I wore as a child.  You have toys now that we never dreamed of.   The biggest changes are education and modern schools, and medicines and childhood diseases.”

My father was a child of the Depression, and one of changes he recalled was hydro.  The farm didn’t get hydro until after WW2, 1947, and all of a sudden you had lights in the barn and weren’t milking cows by lantern light, and you could stay up late with hydro in the house.   Worth thinking about  the next time I grumble because the power is out a few hours due to a storm.   As to the future, he commented on computers and the internet which was just starting up.   In the twenty years since he died we now have – Google, Youtube, Facebook, Wikipedia, Skype, Instagram, Twitter, Siri, Spotify, Netflix, IPods, IPads, GPS, digital cameras and clouds which are not rain clouds, although we have plenty of those too!   We are now testing cars that drive themselves, robots and artificial intelligence.   It feels like something out of the Jetsons –  that old 60’s cartoon about a futuristic world which was very predictive.   Does anyone else remember the theme music?

What will the future hold?    Maybe someday my old 1986 DOS computer, currently residing in the basement, with it’s orange blinking screen and large floppy disks, will be on display at the museum, resting behind the electronics exhibit, along with a  Sony Walkman and a ghetto-blaster.

As a history lover, I feel it is important to preserve our heritage, and I hope you have enjoyed this peek into the past.  

Postscript:   My mother painted the log cabin (two versions), but she placed it in winter time, as my ancestors arrived here in late October, not expecting snow.   Is the lighthouse a beacon to the new world?    You can tell I’ve been hanging around the art world too much…

Postscript:  This is my 100th post.  I never would have imagined that!

 

A Victorian Tea

Every May 24th weekend one of our local museums hosts their annual Victorian Tea, complete with freshly baked scones, white tablecloths and fine china.   

 The May 24th holiday weekend in Canada is called the Victoria Day weekend, because May 24 was Queen Victoria’s birthday.   Older people may remember the schoolyard rhyme children chanted years ago – “the twenty-fourth of May / Is the Queen’s birthday; / If they don’t give us a holiday / We’ll all run away!”    Now many people don’t even know who Queen Victoria was, unless you watch the PBS TV show Victoria, but she was Britain’s longest reining monarch, although Queen Elizabeth surpassed her in 2015.   She became Queen at age 18 and reined over the British Empire for 63 years, from 1937 until her death in 1901, a period known as the Victorian era.   She married her cousin Albert, had nine children and survived 20 different governments and 11 prime ministers.   After her death, her birthday was made a federal holiday, which was eventually was moved to the Monday preceding May 24 because of the weekend.   Queen Victoria most likely would have approved as weekends were an invention of the Victoria era.   This May 24th marks the 200th anniversary of her birth in 1819. 

Victorian Tea CottageNote: the Union Jack (Canada did not get it’s own Maple Leaf flag until 1965) and the old fashioned lilac bush (see Lilac Time)

The Victorian cottage is one of many buildings on the museum site, whose mandate is to display our past customs and heritage.   Many have been moved to the site, including a one room schoolhouse, a small church and a log cabin from the days of the early settlers, but the cottage was part of the original grounds.   It is a small one floor dwelling, built in 1893,  which was used by a Detroit woman as a summer home until her death, when it was donated to the museum.    She was known as the cookie lady, for her kindness in treating the neighborhood children to sugar cookies on the veranda when they were passing by. 

Victoria Tea Cottage

 It consists of a good sized dining room, living room and  kitchen and two very small bedrooms.   

Victorian Tea

Victorian Tea Cottage

The inside still looks as it did during the time she lived there, floral wallpaper, quilts and all.  

China cabinet Victorian Tea

The problem with the Victoria Day weekend is that the weather is usually guaranteed to be cold, rainy and miserable, which does not deter the campers, as it is considered the unofficial start to summer.   It seldom fails, whereas the following weekend, the US Memorial Day is often quite nice.  Still, not one to let a bit of rain (or even forty days of it like this spring), get in the way of a good tea spread, I decided to attend.   The last time I was there,  it was miraculously a warm and sunny day, with a pleasant breeze coming off the river, and we were able to take our tea outside on the veranda, as opposed to inside huddled beside the stove.     It was such a fine day we lingered over a second cup.  

Victorian Tea cottage

Although the day started out warm and sunny, the forecast was rain by 3pm, (I’m quite serious about the forty days of rain), so we set out early and decided to tour the buildings first (my friend had never been there), as we could always sit inside later if it started to pour.   On our walk about, I noticed a big patch of rhubarb growing beside the log cabin and took some pictures which I could have used in last week’s Rhubarb Lunar Cake blog.  (It’s never too late to edit!)  

Rhubarb

There’s something so civilized about a tea party and the clink of china tea cups, shades of Downton Abbey.    Each small table was laid with white tablecloths, cream and sugar sets, crystal butter dishes, jars of strawberry jam and a colorful mixture of china cups and plates. 

Victorian Teat

 The servers, young and old, were dressed in the costume of servants of the day, complete with frilly caps and white aprons.   The wind was so strong, their aprons were billowing in the breeze and the tablecloths were threatening to blow away, so we decided to sit inside. 

Victorian Tea

The only occupant of the veranda was a bird nesting high up in the rafters, most likely anticipating left over crumbs.   

Bird nesting

 Even inside, with the veranda doors open, it was so windy that our vase of flowers blew over soaking the tablecloth, which they removed and replaced with one even more exquisitely embroidered.   Our server, a charming young girl of about ten, inquired as to our choice of tea and scones – raisin, rhubarb, orange or apple cinnamon.   

Victorian Tea China

 Such a difficult decision, but my choice is always the rhubarb – it was divine, light and fluffy, and I am still trying to get the recipe, a carefully guarded secret.    Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of it before it was consumed!   Victorian Tea Cottage

They make up to 400 scones for the day, using the cottage’s own wood-fired stove.  (Note the mirror at the top – I guess that was to check your appearance after slaving over a hot stove all day?)    The cost of the tea was $7.50 with donations to the museum fund, ordinary admission being $5, a bargain for the price.    

Exactly at 3 pm as predicted, the skies opened up and rained on our lovely tea party.   Oh well, there’s always next year…I’m sure I’ll be back.  

Postscript:   Easy rhubarb scones, only for truly lazy cooks or those whose kitchens are about to be torn apart.   Mix this, Rhubarbwith this, Rhubarb scones

bake as directed,  Rhubarb sconesand you get this.  Rhubarb scones

Enjoy with a nice cup of tea in a china cup!

 

 

Come From Away

Nfld Wash Day Two - AMc

Newfoundland Wash Day

When 911 happened, 38 airplanes were diverted to Gander Airport in Newfoundland.   The island of Newfoundland is the most easterly province in Canada and generally the poorest, with high unemployment and a mostly rural lifestyle, but Newfoundlanders are also known for their friendliness and down home hospitality and the small community of Gander took in 6500 stranded passengers, supplying meals, beds and entertainment for five days and spawning lifelong friendships in some cases.  The musical “Come From Away”, which debuted on Broadway last year and is currently playing in Toronto, is based on this true event.   The phrase Come From Away, is east coast slang for the fact that you are from someplace else, somewhere other than here.   

       It is human nature to want to help those in need, especially true if those in distress have a face and a name, but what if they come in the tens of  thousands, and we had to help them indefinitely?   Would we be quite as accommodating?  Or what if they were a boat full of 500 Sri Lankan refugees, as happened on the west coast of British Columbia in 2010, people from a different country and language and background?   Ah, it’s getting complicated.     

A overloaded raft filled with refugees sinks and a dead toddler washes up on the beaches of the Mediterranean – tragic.   Angela Merkel expresses sympathy for the drowned victims.  Gangs of young men board trains in Germany and swarm European borders, not so tragic – maybe even scary, in the way that large unpredictable crowds can be.   Now, it’s even more complicated.   

They are all asylum-seekers, but are they “refugees” fleeing conflict and death in a war torn country, or “economic migrants” seeking a better, more prosperous life?   Should people who follow the rules, fill out the required paperwork and wait their turn, be treated differently from those who just show up?    

As a writer with an interest in history and genealogy I have been mulling over these questions lately, because immigration is a hot issue today.   There’s a lot of anger and resentment.   Many people are in search of a better life, whether it is planned immigration, like my Dutch grandparents (see Dutch Inheritance), or fleeing a crisis, like my Irish ancestors (see Irish Roots), during the potato famine when a third of Ireland’s population starved to death.   But it’s also a much more complicated issue. 

When my Irish and Dutch ancestors came here, the country welcomed immigrants – they were needed to settle the wide open spaces.  The immigrants weren’t dependent on the government to support them, because there was no support system, or very little – unless you count that one pound note they received from the government for water transport to their new home.   They lost three members of their party of twenty on the way over, and jumped ship while it was lined up waiting to dock at the quarantine station in the St. Lawrence River, thus arriving destitute but nevertheless alive, although they lost one fifteen year old son in the bush and never found him.   I’m not sure how they traveled from Quebec to Toronto, where they were issued the loan, but as Quebec was swamped with the Irish, as were major US cities like Boston and New York, perhaps there were charities to give them a meal and help them disperse.    Certainly they were penniless, as the record, for the three brothers and their families, referred to them as indigent emigrants – poor and needy.   To put this cost of Great Lakes water transport into perspective, the ship fare from Ireland was 3 pounds per person to Canada, and 5 pounds to the US.    In many cases the landlords paid for the passage, eviction being an established practice.  National Archive Record -

In 1846 much of Canada was forested, and it must have been a daunting task to clear the land of all those trees to be able to plant a small crop.  They arrived in late October and wouldn’t have survived the first winter if the Indians hadn’t helped them build some kind of hut to provide shelter from the snow. 

First Homestead - AMc - 2017

First Homestead 1846

 Their first years were so bad that they gladly would have returned to Ireland, but slowly they started to prosper.  I can follow their prosperity through the agricultural census reports, so many acres farmed, bushels of wheat, livestock etc.    

My mother’s Dutch parents planned their immigration in 1922.   By then, immigrants had to pass a pre-medical and be sponsored by a Canadian farmer for a year.  Harvesting sugar beets in the hot sun was hard work – which they continued to do even after the year was over, until my grandfather found carpentry work building houses, barely surviving during the lean years of the Depression.   Both groups eventually adjusted and assimilated into society and their descendants considered themselves Canadian first. 

Canada is a lucky country in that we tend to have a fair degree of cultural tolerance – yes people can retain their culture here, but they are also expected to become Canadian.   But we have our limits too.  Unfortunately, demands to accommodate customs and episodes of cultural extremism tend to breed intolerance and distrust of all immigrants.   There’s a reason why America was called a melting pot – if people don’t wish to adapt and aren’t willing to abide by the laws of their new society, then perhaps they would be better not to come.   Respect is a two way street – if a country is kind enough to welcome someone in, they should be respectful of that country’s customs too.      

Being from a rural area as white as Wonder bread, I was in university in Toronto in the late 70’s, before I met anyone of a different race or color.  Now I work with so many different nationalities I don’t even think about it, because they are all just Canadians.   A few years ago during a playoff game I saw a TV clip of a group of fans cheering their hometown team in a sports bar in downtown Toronto, truly a multi-cultural city now, and there wasn’t a white Caucasian face among them.   Mind you, they were most likely first generation descendants who grew up on hockey and baseball, but certainly the face of the nation is changing.  (If you come here, you must love hockey – it is the law!)    

A co-worker of mine went through two years of paperwork and red tape to immigrate from an eastern European country.   Neither she nor her husband could work here in their respected careers (engineering, translator), but they came anyway.   They wanted a better life for their children.   They started with modest jobs and a modest home, then got better jobs and a better home.  Another colleague of mine was visiting her sister after graduation and got stranded here when the Croatian war broke out and the borders were closed back home.   She taught herself English and obtained her Canadian license.   Planned, not planned – both of them became excellent Canadian citizens, hard working, educated, the kind of people any country would want. 

But are all educational degrees the same?  Skills, knowledge?  There are lots  of taxi drivers with degrees.  What about values, ethics?  It would be naive to think all refugees share our moral standards.   If a person comes from a country where violence, fraud and corruption is rampant, and sometimes the only way to get ahead, then they might think those practices are acceptable here?  They’re not.  There has been some talk of making an ethics test a requirement for immigration.  But just how do you go about that?  It’s about as impractical as a test for terrorists.   I’ve often wondered why we letting so many international grads into the country when our own Canadian grads can’t get jobs.  It seems unfair.   Ordinary citizens may find their tolerance slipping away every time they read something negative in the newspaper or on social media or perhaps experience something themselves, because so many of our opinions are influenced by our personal experiences. 

When our prime minister (polite, nice hair but politically inexperienced, champion of women’s rights until one disagreed with him), proudly but  naively proclaimed that Canada welcomes immigrants, he also opened the floodgates to over 40,000 illegal immigrants walking across the Canadian-US border at unofficial entry points, most fleeing possible US deportation.   What he actually meant was applying for it the usual way.   But can the steady stream of people wheeling their over-sized suitcases across the fields near the Quebec and western borders be considered “refugees” fleeing a war torn country, or are they “economic migrants” who have heard Canada is a good place?   The social services system in the big cities like Montreal and Toronto have run out of places to put them – they are housing them in hotels and calling on federal reimbursement for the millions spent accommodating them, as Ontario is already in a major-debt crisis, (346 billion and climbing, similar to California and Greece).   The refugee claimants are entitled to free social assistance, education and medical care while awaiting their hearing before the Immigration Board, for up to one year but often longer, as there aren’t enough immigration officers to process them all.   They are also allowed to apply for a temporary work permit after the claim is initiated but many have children to look after and who would hire them temporarily?   And just how do you sort out which ones might be ‘undesirables” – perhaps criminals or drug dealers back home.   It must be a difficult process doing background checks, if they can be done at all.   Recently, in an effort to stem the tide, the government enacted legislation to try and deter the “asylum-shoppers” – if they have already claimed asylum in the US then they will be deported back to await a hearing there.      

Years ago, borders between the nations were more fluid.  People moved to where there was work and stayed there.   Most of my grandfather’s siblings went to the US.    In 1913, the big Detroit car factories (GM and Ford) were just starting their production lines and needed workers, so they advertised $5/day, enticing many Canadians to move across the river.  But by the 1960’s, I remember my great Aunt Bea hesitating about visiting the farm in her old age, as she did not have any papers to show the border officer.   Another of my grandfather’s siblings went to Seattle to work in the logging industry in the 1920’s.   When he couldn’t get work the first year, the whole family picked apples.   Now, nobody wants to do that kind of manual labor anymore, so our fruit and vegetable farmers must hire Mexican or Jamaican seasonal workers through a government sponsored program.   My ancestors didn’t settle in the big city, they spread out to the rural areas where land was cheap and work available and settlers needed. 

Both my Irish and Dutch ancestors faced some prejudice as foreigners.  The Irish were universally hated, there were so many of them taking away all the jobs, but now 1/4 of North Americans can claim some Irish descent and no one thinks anything of it.   My mother remembers the teachers not liking the Dutch and foreign kids as the parents couldn’t speak English, one of the reasons most of the new immigrants prefer to stay in the big overcrowded cities.  Perhaps they feel more comfortable with their own kind, but often it is the opposite of what they might expect.   The people in the smaller towns may be more welcoming and the churches who were sponsoring the Syrian refugees and had raised enough money for a year to qualify, were delighted to have a family to help out.      

While Canada did take in it’s share of Syrian refugees, many are still unemployed.   It’s hard to find work when they can’t speak English or their English is poor.  The schoolkids always do better at picking it up.   For some their sponsorship money has run out and others have expressed the wish to return to their own country once things settle down – the winters here are too cold.   (Yes, Canada is a great country, except for the snow and the winters that drag on for six months and the high taxes).   One poor Syrian family lost all seven of their kids in a tragic house fire in Nova Scotia – such beautiful children all perished.   They may have wanted the promise of a better life, but sometimes that promise isn’t fulfilled.   

If a person is destitute they are glad of a safe haven anywhere, but is their new life what they expected?  (My Dutch ancestors stepped off the train in Niagara Falls into a foot of snow, and the Irish crew had heard Canada was a temperate climate requiring nothing more than a straw hat!)   Perhaps their lives are better overall, but are there regrets?   I wonder about the caravans coming over the southern US – Mexican border – if they don’t speak English do they even know what they are facing, or are they just fleeing from a situation which is even worse?   Are they aware they might be separated from their children (like my ancestors losing one son in the bush and never finding him).    Or is the hope and promise of a better life for their children worth the chance?     

In today’s era of entitlement, I have been reminded lately of the famous J.F. Kennedy quote “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”   While each individual case may be different, the goal is the same for everyone – hopefully each immigrant will become a hard working, law abiding, contributing and tax-paying citizen of their new country. 

Taxes – those necessary evils that help support our enviable social programs, and yes the taxes here (in our cradle to grave social state) can be as high as the snow.    But people can’t pay taxes if they’re here illegally under the radar.   If I wanted to move to Provence permanently as I hear the sun shines there 300 days of the year – and I’m there illegally and don’t pay taxes, eventually I would be sent right back to snowy Canada.  And if I insisted on butter tarts from le patisserie instead of macrons I would be deported tout suite!   

In addition to humanitarian concerns and human rights, each country also has the right to decide their own fate, to have a system in place which is fair and reasonable and not so costly that it deters the country from letting anyone in at all.   Which is what might happen if this heated issue continues to build steam.  The door will be closed to everyone.  You can already see individual countries everywhere (Australia for example where immigrant boats are diverted to an island offshore), tightening up their immigration policies.           

A recent UN survey states there are 227 million migrants in the world, people who have left their countries in search of work, to join their families or fleeing conflict.  There are probably another billion or two who would like the opportunity to leave.   47 million migrants said they would most like to move to Canada, a nation of just 37 million.  (I’m not sure how they arrived at this data other than through extrapolation).    Any country with a good standard of living, offering free social services and health care is attractive, witness the desire for many of the Syrians to travel north to Denmark and  Sweden.   But Canada lets in just 300,000 immigrants per year.   The dilemma is deciding who and how? 

We may want to help everyone, but can we afford to?   Canada is a big country land wise – maybe we could take in more people if we didn’t have to guarantee them so much, for so long?   What if social assistance was limited to six months, could we take in twice as many?   Three months, three times the amount?   Or just vet the applicants and open up the border like centuries ago and let everyone fend for themselves?   No, there are too many people now and the world has changed too much for that.   And what about human rights? 

Immigrants and asylum seekers have rights too, but sometimes a plea for help may seem like a demand, especially if there are large numbers  involved, a mob of people versus an orderly process.   “Let me in, support me financially while I’m waiting even if takes years, let me stay and let me appeal if you decide to deport me.”   Is this a right, a plea, a hope or a demand?   There’s everything good and decent and right about giving someone a helping hand, a start to a new life, and that’s what it should be, a start.   Our ancestors did it, they had no other choice.     

Fast forward a few decades to the future and the possible issue of mass migration and “climate refugees”.   If climate change evolves, and droughts and flooding and food shortages occur all over the world, will hordes of people be leaving their counties seeking food and shelter elsewhere?  If that happens more prosperous countries will simply shut their doors and take care of their own.  It will be every country for themselves, and every man for themselves.   Our face of humanity will be lost.   It’s disappearing now.  People are losing tolerance and empathy.   The immigration systems are strained and overwhelmed.   It’s something to think about and there are no easy answers, but we need to figure it out, sooner rather than later.       

To sum up, we all came from away at some point, even those white Europeans who came over with Columbus on the Santa Maria, but surely there is some middle ground somewhere, and room for reasonable discussion and action.   We need to learn to balance practicality with compassion, for the storm is coming.       

PS.  Your respectful thoughts and opinions are welcomed.

And because there’s always a book or two in my blogs, may I recommend some excellent reads on the refugee crisis.      

A fictionalized account, the Canadian novel The Boat People by Sharon Bala explores the Sri Lanka refugee boat incident from all angles – the refugees, their history and the workers in the legal and immigration systems who have to decide who can stay.   

Castaway: True Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis by journalist Charlotte MacDonald-Gibson, first hand reporting mixed with personal stories, told from an observer point of view leaving you to draw your own conclusions. 

Tears of Saltby Dr. Pietro Bartolo – memoir by an Italian physician of his many years of treating the many Mediterranean refugees who washed up on his small Italian island.   

They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky – The True Story of Three Lost Boys of Sudan   –  A  heartbreaking memoir by three orphaned cousins, aged 5 to 7,  who spent over ten years in a refugee camp before immigrating to the US in their teens.

First They Killed My FatherA Daughter of Cambodia Remembers – by Loung Ung  – memoir of life as a child soldier in a work camp during the days of the Khmer Rouge.  

In my shoes

(Next week I will return to my regularly scheduled non-political topics.   Also, when The Tall Ships visit this summer, I hope to blog about the replica of the Santa Maria, of Christopher Columbus fame.)

Dutch Inheritance

Dutch china       It’s a sad fact of modern life that when you receive an inheritance letter in the mail, you automatically assume it’s a scam and throw it away – especially if it’s from someone who promises that if you will only oblige and send your bank account information the money will soon be on it’s way.    But as it turns out not all inheritance letters are scams.

Tulips

          It’s almost tulip season again, which always reminds me of my grandmother.   I have blogged about my Irish Roots (see also A Visit to an Irish Graveyard), but not about my Dutch ancestors.   My maternal grandparents were from Holland but I never knew any relatives from that side of the family because they immigrated to Canada in 1922.   My grandmother was from a family of seven siblings and my grandfather ten, and being from the same village she was friends with some of my grandfather’s sisters.   In this picture, which was taken in front of the family home just before she immigrated, my grandmother is in the back row, second from the right. Gramma's family (2) My grandparents were married the week before Christmas and left on a boat to New York, arriving in Ellis Island on New Year’s Day 1922.    According to the Ellis Island archives, they traveled with two other couples, one of which was my grandfather’s sister and her husband.   Two of his other sisters and their spouses were already here in Canada, a country where things were supposed to be more prosperous, especially after WW1.    My grandmother had grown up on a small farm and my grandfather worked on the boats on the canals, but there wasn’t much farm land available or work to be had, after he put in his mandatory four years of service in the army reserves.   In order to come to Canada, you had to pass a medical and be sponsored by a Canadian farmer for a year, so they decided to settle in a small Ontario town where there was already a small contingent of Dutch people.   

      I used to tease my grandmother that the ocean liner came over on was her honeymoon cruise, as she was just newly married.   She was 24, the baby of the family and a homebody, and I suspect had she known she would never see any of her family again, she never would have left.    Her parents did not want them to go – but ah, the things we do for love.   She boarded the boat with a large wicker trunk containing all her worldly possessions, her trousseau, blankets and household items, and wearing her mother’s brooch.   I suspect her mother knew they would not be coming back.   She was the only one of their party not seasick on the way over, but if you pretended you were and stayed below deck then you got an orange, which was a luxury at the time.  She remembered having a nice turkey dinner on Christmas Day.   When they got through Ellis Island, they were immediately whisked away to a waiting train enroute to Canada.   They got off the train in Niagara Falls, stepping into a foot of snow, with no boots, as they were not used to that much snow back home. 

       Times were not as prosperous as promised.   They worked in the sugar beet fields to meet the sponsorship requirements.   They had to learn how to speak and write English.   My grandmother’s English was good by the time we were kids but she always had a trace of an accent, and certain words were mispronounced, Kalander for calendar and sleep-out for sleep in, and if she was discussing something with my mother that she didn’t want little ears to hear, she spoke in Dutch.   My grandfather was a quiet man, a real Checker fiend who would never let a poor kid win!   After they had been here a few years, they thought about trying their luck in the US (Chicago), and had a family passport picture taken, (my mother is the baby), but changed their plans when the Depression hit in the 1930’s.  

Gramma passport picture (2)

Those were hard years, but my mother said they always had enough food to eat, unlike some families.   An uncle was a butcher and used to supply them with meat.   It was shameful to go on the dole, considered a last resort.  Only if you were sick or starving would you apply for food stamps, otherwise you made do or did without.   It was WW2 which brought them into relative prosperity, as all four of them, including my 16 year old mother and her brother, worked in the war plants, which enabled them to save enough for a down payment on a farm two hours away, (and right across the road from my father, so effectively she married the boy next door).  

It was nice having my grandma right across the road, as we visited frequently, and she would feed us Gouda cheese, homemade root beer and those Dutch ginger windmill cookies which are still available today, plus it meant we didn’t have to travel far at Christmas and holidays.    She was a kind woman, but strong in her opinions and philosophy, could debate any topic, and she raised my mother to be a strong woman.   We were raised to be strong and independent too.   There were no helpless damsels in distress or pampered princess types in my family.    She loved to knit and crochet and tried to teach me once, but I was hopeless.   Her afghans came  in bright colors and I still have a brown/orange/green one she made for me when I was away at school.   She always painted her kitchen farm table an aqua green, where we sat talking many an afternoon, with the white curtains fluttering in the summer breeze and a cat curled up on top of the freezer.   She favored lime green aprons, (it was the sixties), and often wore one even when not cooking, but my mother was by far the better cook.    Emigrating so young she had no one to show her and Canadian food was different from back home.   She had a set of those shallow European soup bowls in her (blue and white) china cabinet long before they were all the rage here.   In her later years, she was starting to lose her vision and hearing, but her mind was still sharp, and she knew everything that was going on in the world and still had an interest in life.    She always told me I was the best of the bunch, because I would go and visit her after she moved into town and bring her cans of lobster, (she had grown up on seafood).   I wish I had visited more often.   You don’t realize what an influence a grandparent has on you until after they are gone.   The last time l was there, she grabbed my hand when I left, her hands were so warm – a few weeks later she was dead from a sudden stroke.  

      I suspect my grandmother always regretted coming to Canada.  She missed her family.   In her old age, she said she was a woman without a country.   When the stairs got to be too much for her she moved into a one floor house in town and hung a photo of her childhood home on the living room wall where she could see it every day.    In this picture are her mother, brother, sister and young niece.

Dutch home

Even if they could have afforded it, my grandpa would probably never have gone home for a visit, as he suspected she wouldn’t have come back, but after the Depression, came the war, and then her parents were dead.   My mother remembers getting the black edged envelopes containing the death notices in the mail and my grandmother dissolving into tears.  Death notice envelope 3 (2)          After my grandfather died, my sister tried to talk her into taking us to Holland on a trip but she said she was too old (she was only in her early 70’s) but I don’t think she wanted to go by then, fifty years had gone by, it had been too long.   But she continued to send airmail letters back and forth to her brothers and sisters over the years.   They sent her a bouquet of tulips for her 80th birthday.   Her siblings all lived well into their 90’s, the last one dying at 95, still riding his bike around town.   They had moved into town by then too, as their farm had been swallowed up by development.   My grandmother herself lived to be 96 in her own home – she was the last of her family and many condolence letters arrived from nieces and nephews in Holland after she died.

       Flash forward to five years ago when my mother received an inheritance letter in the mail.   A cousin had died and she was entitled to 1/17th of her estate, if she would just sign off for the debts of the estate and return said form as soon as possible.   The English was poor, the grammar worse.  Obviously a scam, who would sign for debts for someone they didn’t even know.   Although my mother was aware of this cousin (the young girl in the picture above), we thought it quite strange, and I assumed scammers, ever a resourceful lot, must have been cruising Ancestry.com for single elderly people  and their distant out of country relatives.   I googled the law firm on Facebook – a group of women lawyers, all wearing navy suits and white shirts, and a few testimonials, all in Dutch – this was in the days before google translate was a feature.   I put the letter aside.   A few months went by.   I mentioned it to my brother when he was home, and he decided to email them – no response.    Six months went by and another letter arrived, this one an official looking form.    By then I was beginning to think it might possibly be true.   But why didn’t they just pick up the phone, they had my mother’s address, exactly as it was wrongly printed in the phone book.   I decided to take the official looking form to the library.    One of the new librarians was Dutch and I had commented on her accent one day as it reminded me of my grandmothers.   She informed me it was a tax form from the Dutch government.  She had emigrated many years before but had an overseas phone plan as she still had relatives back home, so she very kindly offered to call the law firm for me and speak to them in Dutch.   It was legitimate – not a scam at all, and there were no debts – the estate taxes had all been paid off.   My mother had only to send her bank account information, and a copy of her passport.   In the meantime, I received an email from the relative in charge of the estate, assuring me it was not a scam, and they were all waiting for her to sign off.    He sent a copy of the obituary which I later asked the librarian to translate.  By then I had gone through my grandmother’s papers and found a condolence letter from a nephew, and called him, as he spoke English.   We emailed a bit, I asked for some stories about the deceased cousin, and he said he would email later, but he never did.   I wish I knew more about her life, I know she took care of the old folks but nothing else about her.   She must have died without a will as the estate was split among all those cousins.  By then my mother was thinking maybe she would just decline her share and let someone who had looked after her have it, but she wasn’t allowed to decline as then it would go to her children and get even more complicated.    Several weeks went by while the euro continued to drop.   The exchange rate is usually fairly stable at 1.5 but it was down to 1.3.    I emailed the law firm when to expect the money so I could keep an eye on the bank account we had opened, and they said there were now 36 people who had to sign off.  I quite  liked the idea that I have 36 relatives I have never met, surely there must be a family genealogist among them.   Eventually, about a year after the first letter, my mom received about $7,000 worth of euros, which she later used for a new air conditioner/furnace.   I wish she had spent it on something extravagant, like a trip to Holland, but my mother is practical, and at 93, her travelling days are over too.  

Luckily, if you are an immigrant now,  you have much better ways to communicate than my grandmother did – email, Skype, Facebook, getting on a cheap economy flight for a visit.    Be grateful for ways to stay in touch.   Remember when you chose a man or a job or a country, you are choosing a lifestyle.  Choose wisely.   If you want to travel, go when you are young – don’t wait until it’s too late.   Eat plenty of Gouda cheese – it’s good for your bones.  When you grow old, make a will.   Stay interested in life.   Be strong but be kind.  Plant or buy some tulips and enjoy! 

PS.    Do you have a relative who especially influenced your life?     

Dutch Inheritance - AMc

 (Next week in Come From Away, I will be tackling the timely topic of immigration from a genealogical point of view…if I’m brave enough.)   

     

 

 

A Visit to An Irish Graveyard

Ireland church
       
         When I traveled to Ireland in the early 80’s, in the days of cheap Euro-rail passes, I went by myself, which looking back was a brave thing to do and certainly out of character for me, a reserved introvert (and I might add the one and only time I traveled by myself).   None of my family or friends were interested in Ireland, but it was one of two places I wanted to see when I graduated, the other being New York city.  Ireland was not then the popular tourist destination it is today.    I remember it as a dismal country, full of small dreary towns, but I had Irish ancestors and even at a young age I was the family historian.   It was the stories that interested me.   In addition to researching the family history, I had booked a week at an English-riding academy, as a promise to my younger horse-crazy self.  This was in the days when Glamour magazine (my fashion bible) had the travel section, which profiled said establishment and promised a glorious week in the Irish countryside (I remember the exact wording) with lovely walks by the sea.   I must have envisioned riding to the hounds or galloping along the cliffs like  Poldark, something which appealed to the poetic me.  After spending a few days at the Dublin Library going through old microfilms of land records (computers and the internet had not then been invented), I located a section of Leitrim County where there seemed to be a large concentration of Patricks and Marys and Johns with my last name, spelled with an a and not the more common o.   My dad said it was always with an a, but you have to be careful with genealogy records as variations in spelling can sometimes be the recorder’s honest mistake.    
       My great great grandparents Patrick and Mary had immigrated to Canada  in 1846 at the start of the potato famine and their 14 year old son John came a year later through New York.   For more on their story check out last years St. Patrick’s Day blog – Irish Roots.   

Patrick and Mary

Patrick and Mary – (tintype)

Their son John below, sitting in the chair, aged 80 yr in 1912. 

Family Portrait

John and Ellen Family Portrait – 1912

Patrick was proud of his Leitrim County heritage and had it inscribed on his  tombstone when he died in 1880, where it is barely legible today.    
Gravestone
After sight-seeing in Dublin, I took the train around Ireland, staying in B&B’s and doing some side tours, the usual ones, The Lakes of Killarney,

The Lakes of Killarney - AMc - 2018

The Lakes of Killarney

the Ring of Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula (the only sunny day), and the Cliffs of Moher.   Readers of my long-winded posts might find it hard to believe but I bailed out of kissing the Blarney stone. Blarney castle (4)

 The medical me was horrified at the unhygienic aspect, especially considering my general lack of immunity to foreign germs, plus the thought of reclining backwards over the parapets at that height was not exactly appealing.  (see picture under Wikipedia link) 

          It was September and the weather was gloomy – it rained every day.  If it wasn’t raining, it was overcast.  (I forgot to put film in the camera, thus missing a whole role of dull gray skies).   Central heating was mostly non-existent.    I was cold all the time, and wore both of the Irish sweaters I had bought in Dublin the first week.  Cliffs of Moher (2)

It poured on the Cliffs of Moher and I got thoroughly soaked, then the bus broke down and we sat for hours waiting for a mechanic to arrive.   It was a scary drive back to Cork in the dark with no headlights.   Fortunately, my very kind B&B owner met me at the station, as she wondered why I hadn’t returned at 6 pm as planned.    She turned on the bedwarmer/electric blanket and after I had a hot bath, brought me tea and cookies, while I sat in bed writing in my journal about my dreadful day.  I guess you could say Ireland is where I first started to write, as I kept a travel journal  and wrote in it at night if there was nothing else to do.   Although it was easy to meet people in the B&B’s, I wasn’t much of a party person and there are only so many pub/Celtic music nights you can handle over a three week period.   Reading back over my journal entries, they’re not half bad.      

       The glorious week at the equestrian centre turned out to be one lesson in a drafty old riding ring, listening to a rude female instructor yell at a group of tweens, horses and myself, in that order.   I wasn’t sitting up straight enough, and even though I have a small degree of scoliosis, she showed no mercy.  Towards the end of the lesson, when the horse sat down on me, I got off and walked back to the B&B just down the road.   So much for that expensive pair of riding boots I had bought in Dublin.    The next morning I woke up with a terrible cold, but luckily I had a nice B&B to convalesce in.  The proprietress kept insisting there were some lovely walks to the sea (perhaps it was she who had supplied the Glamour advertisement), but I barely left the room, sleeping and reading, and being entertained by their talkative twelve-year old daughter (a carbon copy of Anne of Green Gables complete with red pigtails), who kept me amused with her drawings and music collection.   I would surface for supper with the only other guest, an older lady from Dublin in search of a holiday and some company.   She talked non-stop.   I listened, nodded, and after a spell by the turf fire, went back to bed.      
       When I was sufficiently recovered, I took the train to Carrick-on-Shannon.    Leitrim County (see Wikepedia) is located in central Ireland near the northern border.   It’s definitely off the beaten tourist path, but I wasn’t brave enough to rent a car as there were white crosses on the roads marking the spots where tourists had died from forgetting to drive on the left side of the road.  I  found the local parish and the priest said there was a church in Fenagh and they might have records.  He said he didn’t have any records, that I’d come at the wrong time of year and that the area was ‘polluted’ with people with my surname.  I didn’t have time to reply that it was spelled with an a, before he slammed the door in my face.   (Sigh….they must get tired of tourists).
      While I had been blessed so far with nice B&B’s, the one I booked into  must have been the worst in all of Ireland.    It was undergoing renovations, there was doggy do-do on the stairs, no hot water or heat, and the not very kind landlady told me I had to have breakfast by 8 or I wouldn’t be getting any at all.    She did however make arrangements for a driver to take me out to the parish church.   There was only one Catholic church in the outlying area  and only one cab driver in the town.    The next morning when the driver (your typical small Irishman), showed up he was dressed in a tweed suit and tie and not a day under 85.   He looked frail, but the B&B lady had assured me he was in good health, just a bit senile, and unlike most Irish people not much for conversation.   The only word I remember him saying was ‘aye’.    

       It was a very foggy morning as we drove out into the countryside and all I could see were hawthorn trees and piles and piles of rocks, swirled in an eerie mist.    It was the most desolate place I’d ever seen, and I kept thinking no wonder they left.    The west parts of Ireland around Connemara by the sea are rocky but picturesque – but this was just plain bleak.    When we got to the church, it looked like a new modern church, right there in the middle of nowhere.

     An old priest answered the door.   His eyes were red and rheumy and he looked hungover, but he opened the church so I could take some pictures.  He told me the church had been built in 1840, (so perhaps my ancestors had worshiped there), but the records only went back to 1855 because of ‘the fire’.  There were a few Patricks and one John listed in his old book but the dates weren’t right.  The church had been renovated in 1970 and there were about 700 people in the parish.  We certainly hadn’t passed any houses so the parish must have taken up a large area of the countryside.   (We hadn’t passed any cars either, so perhaps I could have driven on the right side of the road).  

       When I went back to the car the driver had fallen asleep, so I woke him up and we drove down to the church cemetery which was about a mile down the road, just outside a small village which consisted of a pub, a store, a few houses and a school.    The church graveyard was at the site of an old monastery (Fenagh Abbey) which originated around 500 AD and held the ruins of two churches which dated from the 15th century.   

Ireland church

     There were some newer tombstones, most with the o spelling, a few Patricks and Johns, and lots of crumbled old stones which were impossible to read.   I wandered around for awhile taking pictures – it was a strange  experience being in the place where your ancestors might have stood and could be buried.     The atmosphere was certainly mystical. 

Ireland church

      Patrick and Mary’s parents, being too old to travel, had stayed behind, and I assume John must have stayed with them when all the others left.   Maybe they died in the famine and so he had no choice but to leave a year or two later.  They  probably wouldn’t have had a proper burial place as in 1847, the worse year of the famine, corpses littered the roads and fields and there was no one left to bury them, nor any coffins to be had.  Tombstones were only for the rich. 

Ireland church

I recently read a book by John Kelly, The Graves are Walking, which details the horror of that era of Ireland’s history.

The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People

The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People by John KellyMy rating: 4 of 5 stars  A scholarly well researched history of the Irish Potato Famine, this book is an important but disturbing read, especially for those of Irish descent.

 

 

Having read it, I’m having difficulty with the decision of John being left behind, but then they left in Sept 1846 when the potato crop had failed but before the worst of the famine hit, and if it was John’s decision to stay behind and go to school, then perhaps 14 then wasn’t the child it seems today.  Someone must have paid for his passage and put him on a ship to New York, the poor survival rate on the coffin ships to Canada being well known by then.   (NB: there is also a Famine Museum in Roscommon Ireland, a tribute to the national disaster). 

      When I went back to the car the driver had dozed off again and I didn’t have the heart to wake him up so I wandered around some more, snapping pictures.  Finally I had to rouse him as I had to catch the train to Dublin.  The fog had burned off by then, so I could see more of the countryside on the way back, poor rocky land, the odd house, a few cows and sheep here and there.   It was September which would have been harvest season if they had been able to grow anything, even potatoes.    We passed a small lake, perhaps they fished?  

Ireland church
        The Irish tourism site says that Leitrim County, at 32,000, is one of the most sparsely populated counties in Ireland.   It was certainly a godforsaken place.   At the time of the famine it had a large population of over 150,000, many of whom emigrated.   When we arrived  back at the B&B I gave the driver 15 pounds instead of the 10 he requested.   I was just glad he got me back in one piece – that we hadn’t driven into a bog someplace where I might have been preserved for centuries like the famous bog man in the Dublin museum.  

         Certainly, it was a surreal experience to visit the land of your long lost ancestors.  Now that we have Ancestry.com and numerous online resources, and personal genealogists who will do all the searching for you, I might go back some day, with a more specific plan in mind.   For it has certainly occurred to me, that possibly I wasn’t even in the right place.  A few years ago, a distant relative in California contacted me.   He had tried to do further research and came up empty-handed.   There are so few records, that I may have to remain content with my “lost in the mists of time” experience.   

      A friend brought me back some souvenirs from her Irish trip last year, a Leitrim County flag and a miniature bottle of whiskey, which my leprechaun is enjoying here. 

        In the thirty five years since I was there, Ireland has prospered, every small town now a picture of tidy charm.   Her photographs were gorgeous, but then cameras have improved too.   Sensibly, she went in May and had two weeks of solid sunshine and balmy weather.   The clerk in the tourist shop inquired why would you want a souvenir from that place –  nobody lives in Leitrim County.   Well my ancestors once did.   I placed the flag on Patrick and Mary’s tombstone in our church cemetery, as I thought they might enjoy the fact that a great great granddaughter was thinking of them and their old homeplace.    I hope their Irish eyes were smiling down on me. 

Gravestone

A few weeks later, the flag was gone, blown away by the wind, or removed by the priest or grass-cutter, someone with no respect for the past.   

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Postscript:    When I got back to Dublin, I booked a hotel on Grafton Street which had central heating, plenty of hot water and lots of shopping nearby, then switched to a B&B the night before my flight.   My suitcase was so full of souvenirs that I had to leave the riding boots behind in the B&B.  I simply could not cram them in, so I left them there beside the bed.    I hope someone else found them useful – but I have regretted that decision to this day, as there are many times when I’m mucking around in the garden in the spring when they would have come in handy!  

Irish Cottage - AMc

Irish Cottage

The Witch of November

The Witch of November -AMc

The Witch of November

As the genealogist in the family, the small ad in the local newspaper, caught my eye.    A woman was looking for descendants of The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 for a book she was writing commemorating the one hundredth anniversary.     The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 was a hurricane-like gale which raged over five days, Nov 7-11 in 1913.   The weather had been unseasonably warm for early November, but two major storm fronts converging over the warm lake water (also known as a November Witch), suddenly brewed up the storm of the century.  This perfect storm was actually a combination of two of the worst meteorological phenomena, a blizzard and a hurricane, or what is known as a white hurricane or an extratropical cyclone.  The gale-force winds, massive 40 foot waves and whiteout conditions resulted in the sinking of 19 ice-laden ships, the stranding of another 19, and sent over 250 sailors to an early grave.   (For those unfamiliar, the Great Lakes comprise five interconnected lakes on the border between Canada and the US, famous for being the biggest fresh water lakes in the world and important then and now as a commercial shipping route.  Even today, the big freighters ply the waters, although with the milder winters now, shipping season extends later in the year.   Last year they went very late, and the coast guard cutter trying to plow a route through the ice for one straggler, did some significant damage to docks on the Canadian side, a legal nightmare still being sorted out).              

Henry B Smith two (2)

      So, I emailed her that my great-uncle Joe had die in the storm, he had been a boatswain on the Henry B. Smith.   He was my dad’s maternal uncle, and it was a bit of folklore passed down in the family history, that the captain had been drunk and should never have gone out.   (The ship had been in port in Marquette Michigan on Lake Superior, from Nov 6 to 9th, taking on a load of iron ore, so it wasn’t caught out in the storm like the rest of the boats which sank on the lakes).  Here’s more (Wikipedia) info on the sinking of the Henry B Smith.   As it turned out, her great uncle, was “Dancing Jimmy/James Owen”, the captain, of the Henry B. Smith.   Oops.   She was gracious about it, having heard the rumors herself over the years.  He sounded like quite a character, known for visiting dance halls in every port and laughing in the face of danger.   Although an experienced and valued captain, he had experienced many delays on his last voyage of the season, and was under considerable pressure from head office to meet the schedule or be fired.   He was an invincible soul, who like many captains back then, felt no fear – any captain who couldn’t sail in a storm wasn’t worth his salt.   There had also been a lull in the northern part of the storm, before the southern part converged.    Most likely, it was a combination of all these factors.   At any rate, it was a reckless decision which took 25 men to their deaths, and which had far-reaching impact on many lives.   Poor Captain Owen realized his mistake not many miles out and tried to change course, but by then it was too late, the ship had disappeared into a crashing snow squall and was never seen again, although several oars and one or two bodies eventually found drifted ashore.  The ship was officially declared missing on Nov 14 1913.    

She felt it was important to honor the stories of those mariners who had gone down with their ships, so we ended up corresponding over the next year, and she put a short chapter on my ancestor in her book of personal stories.  When I say short, I really did not have much information to give her and none of it a first hand account, but she did a great job considering.  She later invited me to attend her town’s memorial services but as my mother was having hip surgery that November I was unable to attend any services, either there or here.        

My dad’s mother was one of nine children, six girls and three boys, one of which was Uncle Joe.  The other two brothers were Bernard and Leo.   Here’s a picture of my great-grandmother Jane with some of the family, except for Joe who was deceased by then.    Jane lived well into her 90’s and my dad recalled her babysitting him while his parents went to the dance pavilion across the river – he remembered hearing the music floating over the water, (the end of the Roaring 20’s?), as their family homestead was close to the river, and also her cookies.   As a family, they were very involved in the local church which was right down the street and it was the job of one of the boys to ring the church bell on Sundays.    My paternal grandparents died before my parents were married, so the only ones I knew when I was a child were Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Leo, who was as deaf as a doorknob.   Uncle Leo gave up the boats and became a house painter, but he still rang the church bell on Sundays.   (My grandmother is the one with the child on her lap).  

Zink Family

Jane’s husband had been a cobbler, (I have his business card), but died young, leaving her a widow with nine children, ages 1 to 19 yrs.   The girls went to work as maids in the big hotels, or as a seamstress (my grandmother), and the three boys sailed on the boats.   They were river rats.

Here are the girls, displaying a bit of ankle…..what would they think of the fashions today?  Zink girls

And here are the boys.   Joe is the oldest, sitting in the chair,  Zink boys

and here he is later in life, quite a dapper young man.   I am not hundred percent certain this is him as opposed to one of his brothers, (Leo the middle one and Bernard the youngest), but was given the photo by my 97 year old great-aunt Dorothy, (Bernard’s daughter), who was born in 1917 and so never met him, although she was of course familiar with his tragic end.   Cameras were still rarities at the time, so I have very few photos  from either grandparents side. 

Joe Zink Later on, his brother Bernard captained his own small boat, and made trips up and down the river to Detroit.   Perhaps he no longer wanted to be at the mercy of someone else’s orders like his brother had been.  Here’s a picture of some of his family eating watermelon on board his boat.    From the middy blouses and big hair bows, it is probably dated around 1920?

Zink boat

Zink boat

According to the 1911 census, Joe made $500 on an oil barge, while his two brothers Leo and Bernard, worked on steamers, making $450 for a 36 week season.     

Joe is on the far right in this picture of the crew relaxing on deck. Henry B. Smith crew Joe Zink

Here is a photo of the ship leaving Cleveland on it’s last voyage, taken through a glass display case so it is hard to see, but you can just make out the Henry Smith name down in the lower right corner.  I wonder if Joe is in the picture and who are the women on deck saying goodbye?

Henry B Smith

Below are a couple of descriptions of the boat leaving port in the late afternoon on the day of the storm.     

Henry B Smith document one (2)  And another writeup……

Henry B Smith document two (2)

What were Joe’s thoughts on that fateful day?    Were they of his family and his fiancé/sweetheart?  He was supposedly engaged to be married to my dad’s paternal aunt Annie.   Here’s Annie in the middle of the back row, photo taken around 1911.    

Ancestors

How awful it must have been for her and for the families waiting at home for word which never came.    I remember sitting in the genealogy library, back in 2003, reading all the newspaper coverage of the storm on microfilm, and the reports of bodies being washed up on the shore near our area of the lake.  He was 30, and she was 29, and the last of the girls left on the farm.   Options were few for women back then, and after her mother died in 1917 and her brother, (my grandfather) wanted to marry and start a family of his own, she ended up marrying someone else and moved to Seattle where one of her other brothers lived.   They adopted a child, as she was older then and couldn’t have any of her own.   When that child, now in his 70’s, returned for a visit to the homeplace in the 1990’s, intent on researching his family roots, he did not seem to be aware that he was adopted and no one let on.            

The following gives a bit of credence to the family folklore.       

Henry B Smith document three (4)

While there was certainly a significant financial loss to the storm, most ships were insured, and the owners of the Henry Smith ended up with an insurance payout of $335,000.   Total losses from the storm, for lost and damaged ships, were almost 4 million, with another million for lost cargo.   A compensation fund for the families of $18,245, shared by the 250 sailors lost, meant each received $73, (about $1700 in today’s money).   The life of a sailor was cheap.  One good thing to come out of this marine disaster was an improvement in weather forecasting and faster responses to storm warnings as well as stronger construction of ships.

Could they have survived had all the hatches been closed before they left port, and if the waterproof tarps had been placed over them to protect them from flying apart from the force of the pounding waves, a time consuming procedure the captain had not deemed necessary.   There were two theories, the most likely that she took on too much water in the hold and rolled, pouring out the ore through the hatches as she sank, the second that the excess water caused the steel to fracture.   As only two bodies, both wearing life preservers, drifted ashore, it is probable there was little warning and the rest went down with the ship.    But it was not just the wind and the waves which caused havoc in the storm for the temperature had dropped enough to create a full-blown blizzard, reducing visibility so that the ship could not see the shore, and significant icing from the freezing spray weighed it down to the point that they could not even navigate, so the odds were slim, but some ships did make it through, (any port in a storm), although they were badly damaged and encrusted with ice.    Could Joe and his fellow crew members have said no, when the whistle had blown and the boat was already streaming away – not likely they even had a chance.   While working conditions have certainly improved in the past century, are workers today, still being asked to perform reckless duties and actions in the names of corporate profit/greed?    In some jobs cutting corners might mean lives lost, maybe not yours, but someone else’s.   Something to think about if you’re the boss….or a worker being asked to do unsafe tasks.    

Flash forward to the spring of 2013 and they have found the wreck of the Henry B. Smith in waters not far off Marquette Michigan, almost one hundred years after it sank. 

wreck of Henry B Smith (2)

The wheel and bridge of the wreck of the Henry B. Smith

 Here’s a link to a newspaper article with a video of the flying bridge.   And a more personal account of the dive team.    The boat had split in two and was  resting on it’s load of iron ore at the bottom.  Most of the hatches were open.  My author friend emailed me that she had been invited by the dive team to go out on the water for a memorial service the following year.   She was excited that the divers had recovered an enamel coffee pot from the bottom of the lake, a poignant piece of memorabilia, and she was picturing the crew members pouring a cup of coffee from it on a cold blustery night, a night fit for no man.  I have not talked to her since but in the mariner’s tradition, I hope someone rang a bell on behalf of each of the 25 men lost on the Henry B. Smith.   I think Joe would have approved.  

PS.   The title The Witch of November is taken from Canadian folksinger, Gordon Lightfoot’s, song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a ship which sank in a November 10 1975 gale on Lake Superior with the loss of all men aboard.  In that song, “The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald”.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald 

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called ‘Gitche Gumee’
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.
That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early.

The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ship’s bell rang
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too,
T’was the witch of November come stealin’.
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the Gales of November came slashin’.
When afternoon came it was freezin’ rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind.

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin’.
Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya.
At Seven P. M. A main hatchway caved in, he said
Fellas, it’s been good t’know ya
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her.
They might have split up or they might have capsized;
May have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion.
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams;
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her,
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the Gales of November remembered.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.
The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call ‘Gitche Gumee’.
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early!

PS.   There are many books available on the Great Storm, most of them self-published by local authors.   Here is my Goodreads review of one I read last year, and I also attended a lecture by the author, but it is more focused on the sailing aspects of the disaster, as opposed to the personal stories.   The author focused on just a few of the ships and gave a more detailed account.   Still, it was a fascinating read, even if you already knew the outcome.  

Weather Bomb 1913 Life and Death on the Great LakesWeather Bomb 1913 Life and Death on the Great Lakes by Bruce Kemp

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An excellent read about the big storm of 1913 on the Great Lakes. I had a family interest in the subject as my great uncle died on the Henry Smith, which was recently located a hundred years after it went down, and while his boat wasn’t mentioned much in the book, there was lots of detail and research about other ships. Stayed up late two nights reading, couldn’t put it down, even though I knew the sad outcome. Well done.

PS.  While I was preparing this post last week, the Witch of November came calling.   On November 9, the exact date of the sinking, we had our first snowfall of the season with blustery north winds….   

Remembrance Day

In honor of Remembrance Day, I would like to link back to last years blog about my Uncle Charlie – WW1 Vet – a post wherein I was able to trace his path across Europe during the last Hundred Days Offensive of the war, based on his war memorabilia.     I have had many positive comments on this post, and it seems particularly fitting during this, the 100th year anniversary of the signing of the Armistice.    

For those who might have already read the above, I am working on a post about a  WW2 Bomber Tour and Swing Dance I attended last year.  Check it out next week.   In WW1 we may have sent horses to war, but in WW2 we sent 18 year olds up in tin-cans.   I was horrified when I saw what they had flown in….it’s no wonder so many did not return.    Lest we forget.  

Poppies - AMc

Poppies