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 gutsy 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 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 rain 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.    Looking 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 bit of scoliosis, she showed no mercy.  Towards the end of the lesson, when the horse sat down on me, I got off and went 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 lovely 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 nice 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 Irishmen), 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 ever, 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 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 fields and roads 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 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 at all, 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 I possibly wasn’t even in the right place.  A few years ago, a distant relative 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 an unappreciative grass-cutter or priest, someone trying to obliterate 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

Irish Roots

Irish Cottage - AMc - 1988

Irish Cottage – 1988

Genealogy websites are full of facts, names and dates, some accurate some not, but what makes genealogy addicting are the stories that make these people come to life.  Often these stories are only of interest to the family members, but even if you are not a big fan of history, viewed in the broader context of the immigration issue, it might be worthwhile to record one family’s struggle to survive, for we all came from someplace else.   The Irish potato famine (1845-49) was a national tragedy.  One quarter of the Irish population either immigrated or died from starvation or disease.   I think of my Irish ancestor’s story whenever I read of newly arrived immigrants struggling to start over or the desperate migrants escaping on those overloaded boats in the Mediterranean Sea, for this kind of crisis is still going on all over the world.  (see postscript)

A few thoughts on my Irish roots, but first a bit of family history….

              The phase the homeplace (the name of my blog), is self-explanatory to country folk.  While you may own several farms, the homeplace is the one where your home is, or the original homestead.  I grew up on a hundred acre farm which had been settled in 1849 by my Irish ancestors who had immigrated from Leitrim County just before the worst of the potato famine. My great great grandparents Patrick and Mary,

Patrick and Mary
Patrick and Mary – (tin type)

 and four of their six children arrived in Canada penniless in October of 1846 with an original party of twenty or more, having lost three on the coffin ship on the way over and one teenage old son in the Quebec bush when they decided to jump ship in the St. Lawrence River during the cholera quarantine.   I have a record from the National Archives of Canada, dated Oct 16 1846, for the three brothers who had to borrow one pound for water transport from Port Toronto to where they settled.   My great grandfather John, who was fourteen at the time, stayed behind in Ireland because he had a chance to go to school with the overseer/landlord’s son.   He came a year or two later on a ship through New York.  An uncle, the single one of the three brothers, was dispatched to pick him up, although he had little recollection of the journey other than it was a long way along lots of water.   His mother Mary, walked thirty miles along Indian trails through the bush to the nearest post office to get the note telling them when and where he was coming.     It was late October when they arrived here, and the Indians helped them build a hut, otherwise they never would have survived the first winter.   Several years later they bought the homeplace farm – for poor Irish tenant farmers to own land was a dream come true.   They prospered, and John married Ellen a schoolteacher in 1870 and they had nine children.

Family Portrait
John and Ellen Family Portrait – 1912

  My grandfather, who I never knew as he died before my parents were married, inherited the farm, and is the second from the right back row.  The only one in the picture I ever met was my Aunt Bea, the one with the glasses standing on the far right, as she used to come visit the farm when I was a young child but she died when I was eight so my memory is vague.    I have inherited my mass of frizzy hair from the Irish clan, we all have lots of hair, as well as their deep set eyes.   It is interesting to see the resemblance and family traits down through the generations.   I first started doing genealogy in 2003 when I was between jobs and had lots of time, searching paper records mostly, as there was little online then.  Someday I’ll join Ancestry.com and pick up the trail again.   My father never knew his grandfather so all I have are some notes from him and my uncle, and of course the family stories.   (The homeplace was sold and the house and barn torn down twenty years ago after my dad died.   My mother painted it in 2005 from an aerial photograph, which is the picture on the blog home page and below). 

The Homeplace - AMc - 2005

The Homeplace – 2005

Many of us have these family stories passed down through the years, and of course there are also gaps in the tales – missing pieces.   A favorite past time of genealogists is conjecture, which is a way of filling in those gaps.   Some things I have always wondered about.  How did they make the decision to stay or go, or was it made for them?  They left late in the year when it was evident from the potato blight that the crop had failed.  Did they have to pay their own passage or did the landlord pay it for them?   Who did John stay with when he was left behind?   His grandparents had elected not to make the journey as they were too old, but how did  Mary and Patrick feel about leaving their parents behind?  How hard it would have been to say goodbye, knowing they would never see them again.  Did they die during the potato famine as the worst year 1847 was still to come?  Who paid for John’s passage when he came later?  Presumably by then people were aware of the bad conditions on the coffin ships, so perhaps that is why he came through New York.  And how did Mary feel about leaving her child behind?  I read somewhere that the Irish Catholics were not permitted to be educated, so was the golden opportunity to stay and finish school  such a rarity as to justify what must have been a difficult decision.  Or maybe 14 wasn’t considered a child back then and would it be any different than sending your 17-year-old off to school today?  It must have been devastating for Mary to have lost her oldest son in the bush.  They heard rumors that he was up in northern Ontario but by the time they got word to him he had moved on out west.  (I might have a whole other set of relatives in western Canada, or the US as borders were fluid back then).

My uncle had an interesting story about Mary in his notes.   In the spring of the second year a surveyor came through the woods and inquired who they were.   He informed them there was a letter at a community along the river for them, presumably word of where and when John was to arrive.  Mary, reportedly a tall robust woman, set out walking to collect it.  There were no roads then, just a blazed trail with trees felled across the swamp land to walk on.  When she got to the post office six miles away, they told her they had sent it to a hamlet four miles south, so she walked along the river to that post office, where they told her they had not known of any family by that name so they had sent the letter on to a bigger town to the north, so she walked along the river to that town and finally got the letter.  She must have been overjoyed to finally get the letter, although it is doubtful she could read it as she signed the land deeds with an X.   It began to get dark, and Patrick became worried that she had not come home.  He set out along the trail and encountered her carrying a big sack of flour on her head which she had purchased in the town.  All told she had walked about thirty miles to get the letter!    I sometimes think of this story when I’m sitting at my little farm table (1870), which is my computer desk.  Could they have ever imagined a future world of instant communication, Skype and email?

And what about John, how did he feel about being left behind, separated from his family and witness to all those people dying.  Were his grandparents still alive when he left?   Was he all alone on the ship or traveling with people he knew?   Would he have been worried that he wouldn’t be able to find his uncle on the docks in New York, or that he wouldn’t show up at all.   By the few accounts we have, in his later years he was a gruff old man (and he looks gruff in the picture), but is that the gruffness of poor health and old age or from damage to one’s psyche at a young age?   Were the conditions on his ship any better than on the Canadian ships?

For an understanding of the conditions on the coffin ships, check out…..Famine Diary by James J. Mangan, a first person tale of the journey, based on Gerald Keegan’s diary.  (Goodreads link)  A must read for anyone of Irish descent, it is a disturbing account.  There is such a memorable description of the hunger of the potato famine, that to this day, I can not stand to see a scrap of potato left uneaten on a plate without thinking of the heartbreaking descriptions in this book.   Although their tenant farms were small, an acre of land could grow enough potatoes to sell and to keep ten people fed over the winter, but when the blight hit, there was nothing to sell or to eat.   (Another good book is The Coming of the Irish to Canada – Flight from Famine – by Donald Mackay).

And what about that tale of jumping ship?  Is it even plausible?  My uncle’s notes say the ship hit rough weather and head winds and took six weeks to cross the Atlantic.  Ships fever broke out and three of their party died, but which three?  Whoever they were, their burial would have been at sea.  They arrived at an island in the St. Lawrence for quarantine, most likely Grosse Isle.   It was a requirement that all be in good heath for several weeks before proceeding to the mainland, but the immigration post on the island was grossly understaffed, so there were many ships lined up in the river waiting to unload.   First one got sick, then another, and time began to pass.  Finally, they arranged to be smuggled to the mainland from where they promptly disappeared into the bush to avoid the authorities.  This is how they lost their son, as there would have been no way to find him.  But how did he get separated?  Did some of them elect to swim over?  Or did they bribe someone to row them over, seven of the fourteen were children, two young babies, so that is more likely the case.   Is this any different than the migrants now on the boats in the Mediterranean?  You take your chance for survival, for you and your children.  How did they eventually get to where they settled?  They had to apply for a loan of one pound (National Archive record) for water transport, so we know they were broke, and even if they had any money they would have had to pay the smugglers.    I was only able to account for 14 people on the journey, all descendants from the three brothers, plus the 3 who died, so who were the others and did some of the party remain in quarantine.   Why did they come to the area where they settled?  Someone in Ireland knew where to send the letter re John’s arrival so they must have had some idea of where they were going to settle, unless they sent word back home after they were here.  I have tantalizing tidbits about a relative who might have been here already, but I have been unable to trace it further like so many dead ends in genealogy.   Genealogy is like a jigsaw puzzle you try to piece together, but sometimes the pieces just don’t fit.  So many unanswered questions…I would like to be a time traveler for a day to fill in the blanks.

When they arrived here it was October and winter was soon upon them.  The advertisements that went up about Lower Canada depicted it as having abundant food and game and a tropical climate, so they arrived with bare feet and straw hats, unaware that Canada had snow.  The Indians helped them erect some kind of hut to get through the first winter.

First Homestead - AMc - 2017

First Homestead –  2017

They didn’t know the countryside was covered in forest and the drainage poor until they arrived.  They were frequently sick from drinking stagnant swamp water.  They spent the next year clearing enough trees on higher ground to erect a house and permit the planting of crops.  The local Indians were friendly and played a major role in showing them how to survive, although they never knocked prior to entering, so when the men were all out in the fields an Indian would walk into the house and scare the womenfolk, as they had heard many stories of scalping.  (My apologies to the indigenous people but those were the fears at the time).   My uncle’s notes say that at first, they would gladly have returned to Ireland, but after a few years they moved to a different site, (the homeplace), with better soil and drainage, and things improved rapidly to well above what they would have had in Ireland.  They were land owners, and at least there was plenty of food to eat.  I can trace their increasing prosperity through the agricultural census, so many acres cleared, bushels of corn and wheat, livestock owned.  Eventually they must have had enough money to have their pictures taken, the pictures are tintypes, probably from around 1865.   By the early 1900’s, John and Ellen had wallpaper and crystal and monogrammed silverware in the old farmhouse.

Christmas on the Farm
Christmas Dinner on the Farm

 I still have the crystal bowl in this picture, in fact I have several of these bowls from the attic, family heirlooms.

My mother used to make potato soup when we were growing up, which was basically a bland affair of mashed potatoes, milk, a bit of onion for flavor, and salt and pepper.   It was my father’s family recipe, and upon retrospect, that was probably what they ate back in Ireland, nothing fancy.  We thought it was good at the time but had nothing to compare it with.   I still love potato soup but have moved on to more flavorful varieties.   It’s strange but I don’t remember eating potato soup at all when I was in Ireland in the 1980’s.  I had tacked a few days onto a trip to venture into Leitrim County, which was off the beaten tourist path.  After spending a few days viewing microfilm at the Dublin library, I took the train to Carrick-on-Sharon, as I was not brave enough to drive on the left, with all those white cross marks on the road pointing out where tourists had been killed.  I’ll leave that story for another time, as it is long and involves a hired driver not a day under eight-five who kept falling asleep at the wheel, and a foggy cab ride to a churchyard lost in the mountain mists in what I am sure must be the most desolate part of the country.  (see March 2019 blog – A Visit to An Irish Graveyard).    It was a surreal experience, but I could see why they left, nothing but rocks, and not picturesque rocks by the sea like in Connemara.  How could they ever have farmed such poor land?  Sometimes it is better to make the decision to leave for hope of a better life.   Some day I would like to go back and rent a cottage for a month and see if I can find any long-lost kin, as the priest had gruffly remarked that the area was polluted with people of my surname.

My father would always call me on St. Patrick’s Day and say, “Top of the Morning to you,” and I would answer, “and the rest of the day to you!”  It’s a great day to be Irish, but even if you’re not, I hope you enjoy some green beer or Irish coffee.   

Quote of the Day:   “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”    (from plaque on the Statue of Liberty)   

The Lakes of Killarney - AMc - 2018

The Lakes of Killarney – AMc – 2018

Song of the Day:   That’s an Irish Lullaby – Bing Crosbymusic link

Over in Killarney, many years ago
My mother sang a song to me in tones so soft and low
Just a simple little ditty in her good old Irish way
And I’d give the world if I could hear that song of hers today

Postscript:  For those interested in reading more about the very complicated issue of the Mediterranean migrant crisis I recommend two books,  Cast away: true stories of survival from Europe’s refugee crisis, by Charlotte McDonald-Gibson, a journalist, which chronicles the journey of several individuals and families, and Tears of Salt by Dr. Pietro Bartolo, a physician’s story of the medical treatment of the refugees on an island off the coast of Italy.   Both are excellent reads.  

Ann and Hugh

Great Aunt Ann and Hugh – (tintype)