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.        

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 ended up with an insurance payout of $335,000.   It is doubtful the families of the crew got anything.   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 the hatches been closed?  It was not just the wind and the waves which caused havoc but the temperature had dropped enough to create a full-blown blizzard, reducing visibility so that the ship could not even see the shore, and significant icing from the freezing spray weighed it down to the point that they could not even navigate, so the chances were slim, but some ships did make it through, (any port in a storm), although they were 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 with all the hatches still open – 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 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.    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.   The divers had recovered a blue 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 left back row.  The only one in the picture I ever met was my Aunt Bea, the one with the glasses standing on the far left, 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 swampland 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.  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 someone row them over, seven of the fourteen were children, two young babies, so that is most 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 drunken priest, 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.  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 Crosby – music 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)

Joy to The World – Christmas Playlist

Violin and Horn - AMc - 1990

Violin and Horn – 1980

 I have been listening to Christmas music lately, because it’s hard not to, with it blasting over the intercom twenty four hours a day in every store and workplace, telling us ’tis the season to be merry and be of good cheer, fa-la-la-la-la-la-la.  This is the most profitable time of the year for most businesses and they are just doing their part to get us into the Christmas spirit.   I love Christmas music, I really do, but in small doses, and not the same old songs, over and over again.  You hardly ever hear a lot of the old Christmas classics anymore, especially if they are religious hymns, so last week when I found a stack of vintage records from the 40’s and 50’s in my mother’s basement it was like finding treasure.   They were stored in brown cardboard albums, a 78 in each paper sleeve, mostly Hit Parade tunes,

but also a few smaller 45’s of children’s music.   I was surprised at how thick the vinyl was, compared to albums from later years.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I didn’t recognize many of the Hit Parade ones but I took a trip down memory lane with the 45’s – Horace the Horse, On Top of Old Smoky, Did You Ever See a Lassie – the lyrics came back in a flash.   We had a portable stereo in the sixties and then one of those big furniture cabinets in the early seventies that played eight tracks too, but my mother says she remembers playing those vintage records on an old phonograph that you wound up by hand when she first moved to the farm in 1944.   Her farm had hydro, but my father’s didn’t until after the war. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 There were a few Christmas classics in the bunch – an original Columbia records Gene Autry – Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, (one of the best selling records of all time), with If It Doesn’t Snow on Christmas on the B Side, and a Silent Night/Oh Come All Ye Faithful and Silver Bells by Bing Crosby.   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe children’s 45’s included Frosty the Snow Man, with God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman and Joy to the World on the flip side, and Santa Clause is Coming to Town with Silent Night.    (Note to self – check Ebay to see if any of these are worth anything…just out of curiosity, you can’t sell childhood memories).   

I used to listen to Christmas music every day during my commute to work, (while an hour a day of Christmas music can be good for the soul, listening to it for eight hours a day in a retail environment is not).  I would flip over to an American radio station which had made it a tradition to start playing it the day after Halloween.   This station tended to play the same soundtrack, over and over again, and while I liked most of the selections, there were some that just made me cringe and change the dial – Feliz Navidad, You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch, Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas time, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, Santa Baby, the Charlie Brown Christmas instrumental, and that annoying Chipmunk song. Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer is just plain wrong, what kind of song is that for little kids, reindeer bashing at it’s worst!    And I am probably the only person who doesn’t like Mariah Carey’s, All I Want For Christmas Is You – that high note at the end hurts my ears, and it reminds me of old episodes of Ally McBeal walking home by her lonely self at the end of every single episode.  I can listen to Jingle Bell Rock and Rocking around the Xmas Tree, but only once per season.   While I realize everyone has individual favorites, why would they include those when there are so many wonderful songs to get you in the Christmas mood.       

Old Christmas hymns can bring on an instant attack of nostalgia.  Going through the stack of old albums from the sixties I came across Christmas with Mitch Miller.   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When my dad used to watch Sing a Long with Mitch on Saturday nights, there were lyrics at the bottom of the tv screen, and yes tucked inside the album cover was a yellowed song sheet if you wanted to sing along.   Does anyone remember when newspapers used to print songbooks for caroling at Christmas?   What wonderful memories that album evoked, of going to midnight mass, when it was still at midnight, and struggling to stay awake, while the choir boomed out a resounding version of Hark the Harold and Joy to the World at the end, and you went out into the frosty night wishing everyone Merry Christmas, and then home to a midnight feast of bacon and eggs and sausage and then to bed way past one.  This was a family tradition as we always slept in on Christmas morn, except for my poor mother who would get up at 4:30 to put the turkey in the oven for the 1:30 dinner with our grandparents and then go back to bed.   We weren’t allowed to open our presents until my dad came in from milking the cows.  The last time I went to Christmas eve mass, about a decade ago, it was at 9pm and there was folk music, which was okay but not compared to these…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

   The Andy Williams Christmas album was another favorite, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(although I now dislike the highly overplayed Most Wonderful Time of The Year), as was Burl Ives, Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.  My mother used to sing that in the kitchen, and it really was her favorite time of year.  We didn’t have a lot of money growing up but my parents always made sure we had a good Christmas.  Other memorable songs off that album were, Please Send Some Snow For Johnny, and Silver and Gold.   Other great albums were the Carpenters – Karen Carpenter had the clear pure voice of an angel, (There’s No Place Like Home For The Holidays, Merry Christmas Darling, What are you doing New Years Eve), Boney M (Mary’s Boy Child, I’ll be Home for Christmas, When Darkness is Falling) and the whole soundtrack of the movie White Christmas, (Snow, The Best Things Happen While Your Dancing, Count your Blessings, and the army songs).   My Dad had a deep baritone like Bing Crosby, and used to sing the odd line in the barn while feeding the cattle, so I have a hard time listening to White Christmas.   Any Christmas song that makes you think of happier times can be a sad song when you are feeling nostalgic for Christmases past and loved ones who are gone.   Then there are others, the songs that are just plain sad, like Grown Up Christmas list, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, I’ll Be Home for Christmas if only in my Dreams, Blue Christmas, The Christmas song (NatKingCole), Silver Bells etc.    I love the Rosemary Clooney verision of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, but that line, “through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow” always makes me feel sad. 

If you want some merrier songs – We Need a Little Christmas, Must Be Santa, Christmas in Kilarney, We Wish You A Merry Christmas, are good choices and I can even stomach I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas if there are some wee ones around to march to the beat.   Ring Christmas Bells by the Trans-Siberian orchestra remains a personal favorite of mine for it’s uplifting beat, their Christmas Cannon is a like a soothing meditation with a children’s choir, and Here We Come Awassailing reminds me of a Dickens Christmas.  

For romantic Christmas songs you can’t beat, Let it Snow, Baby It’s Cold Outside or Sleigh Ride, for invoking visions of a simpler old fashioned time.  Who wouldn’t want to go for a ride in a one-horse open sleigh like Currier and Ives? 

sleigh ride 3 (2)   This is a picture of my uncle in the old cutter sleigh from the farm.   When we were kids the sleigh was stuck up in the rafters of the implement shed where it’s black leather seat made a fine nesting place for mice.  In the early nineteen hundred’s my ancestors used to go to church in this very same sleigh when the roads were bad, because despite the snow and the cold, no one ever missed church!

Sleigh Ride - AMc - 2016

Sleigh Ride – 2016

 There’s a wonderful stanza in Sleigh Ride – “There’s a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy.  When they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie.  It’ll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives. These wonderful things are the things we remember all through our lives.”   When we are older we don’t remember most of the presents we got, but we do remember the whole family sitting around the dinner table and talking and even after the big turkey feast there was always room for desert.   After the table was cleared, we ladies would spend two hours in the kitchen hand washing dishes, and then it would be set again for evening supper after the presents were played with and the chores were done, and we would end the day with a late-night game of euchre, except for me.  I would be curled up in a corner reading whatever book Santa had brought me, as that was always my favorite present.  (There may be a blog on Dickens A Christmas Carol next week if time and snowstorms permit). 

me reading (4)

      Down in my basement I have an old stereo unit that I bought at Sears years ago.  It plays cds, tapes and albums, and while I’m wrapping presents this year I will be singing along with Mitch.  What’s on your Christmas playlist?  Your most loved and most hated Christmas songs?  Please leave a comment if you wish.

Song of the Day:  Joy to the World – Mormon Tabernacle Choir – click here for music link

 

Uncle Charlie – WW1 Vet – Lest We Forget

Poppies - AMc - 2016

Poppies –  2016

Our regional art gallery is having a four month exhibit called Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War.  This travelling exhibition comprised mostly of works from the War Museum’s Beaverbrook Collection, was most recently shown in France, near Vimy Ridge and is quite a prestigious honour for the local gallery.  

JNAAG Witness to War

Witness to War art exhibit

It does seem somewhat bizarre now one hundred years later to think of a country commissioning artists (including some of the Group of Seven) to record a war, but photography was in it’s infancy, and presumably not allowed near the front lines.  The painting below depicts the arrival of the (camouflaged) Olympic, sister ship of the Titanic, in Nova Scotia with 5300 returning soldiers in Dec 1918.   My Uncle Charlie was not among them as he had contacted the Spanish flu and did not return to Canada until six months later. 

JNAAG Witness to War

The Olympic with Returned Soldiers – Arthur Lismer 1919

Uncle Charlie was a Canadian WW1 veteran.   A great uncle by marriage, he was married to my grandmother’s sister both of whom had died before I was born so I never knew them, although I remember Uncle Charlie as an old man with emphysema, probably from a combination of being a baker by occupation and being exposed to gas in the war.   My dad used to visit him every New Years, and sometimes I would go along but I have no distinct memories of him as a child.   Now as the history buff in the family, I have inherited his metals and war memorabilia, and so I decided to record something for the Stop and Share session organized by the local heritage museum to preserve family memories of the war veterans.  The heritage museum set up an artifact display room next to the gallery and it amazed me how small the uniforms were.   They looked like they would fit a skinny teenager, which they often were, but people were generally smaller back then.  According to his discharge paper Uncle Charlie was only 5 ft 4 inches.     

 

Charles Elliot Rae of Courtright, St. Clair Township enlisted on Feb 26 1918 at the age of 29 at London Ont.  (see Discharge paper below)discharge paper

He was single, and lists a friend as next of kin, so I am not sure what happened to his immediate family.   As deferred pay could only be assigned to a relative, he crossed out friend and wrote aunt.

Sailing and landing record

Deferred pay record

Privates were paid a dollar a day with a field allowance of ten cents, for a total of $33 a month, and $15 of that could be deferred, with the amounts of both increasing according to rank.

As conscription came into force in Canada in Jan of 1918 I would assume he was conscripted, as he was older than most of the earlier recruits.   None of my dad’s other uncles were veterans as they were farmers and well into their 30 and 40’s during the war years.  

Paybook

     We know he was part of the Canadian Machine Gun Corps in France, as part of the 2nd CDN. Engineer Battn, according to his pay book, plus his discharge paper says he served in France with the Canadian Engineers.  Engineers had a fairly dangerous job as they were the ones who went ahead to prepare the way.    I have an old battered cardboard box (which was probably mailed to him after the war, judging by the outside), in which there is a Canadian Engineer pin, and two medals, one with a multi-striped ribbon and The Great War for Civilization 1914-1919 on one side and an angel on the other, and the other with an orange and blue striped ribbon with a picture of King George on the back and a horse on the front. 

metals

WW1 metals

  He enlisted in Feb 1918 and sailed from Canada on May 11 1918 to England, then he landed in France on Aug 18 1918, probably as part of the Hundred Days Offensive in the last part of the war.  From his two pay books I can trace his journey as he is paid in Canadian money, then pounds, then francs, then marks, then francs, pounds and Canadian in reverse.  

Pay book

Pay Book with francs, marks and pounds

The pay book has him in France on Nov2 1918, just before Nov 11 Armistice day.   The next entry Nov 15 1918 has him receiving Xmas Pay of 70 something, and then on Dec 6 and Dec20 he is paid 20 and 30 marks so we know he spent Christmas in Germany. I have two folding cards of German postcards which he must have bought home as a souvenir.  

In January he is back in France, and on April 2 2019 he is back in England (at Norpington), where he stays until he is sent home to Canada on May31 2019.  Like many veterans he never talked about his war experiences, other than he had been gassed, and that he was six months coming home as he almost died from the Spanish flu.   His discharge paper says he was discharged Jun 23 1919.   He must have convalesced in an English hospital as there is a picture postcard of soldiers in a hospital ward, with a handwritten note on the back saying “there are 46 wards like this one with 40 to 50 beds in each.”   (note the two nurses at the back)back of postcard english hospital

 I am not sure if he is actually in the picture (front left) or if someone from the heritage committee assembling the WW1 book for the township, just assumed that was him in the front row, but it could be him, based on later pictures.

back of unmailed postcard

  

unmailed postcard

There is also a pictorial folding letter postcard of the town of Camberley postmarked from a Yepl. McNamee, Essex Scottish, Canadian Army England to someone in Windsor, Canada with a postage stamp on it, which is a bit of a puzzle.   It looks like it has been opened, but did the soldier die before it could be mailed?  So much of genealogy is like figuring out a puzzle, connecting the dots, like following his trail through the pay book. 

One of the most interesting things I have of his is a ticket holder from the Cunard ship he sailed home on.  I am not sure if the HMS Cunard ships just returned the soldiers to England from France or back to Canada also, but he had quite a few postcards of these ships.   The actual ticket is missing, but the cover of the holder says, “To Comrades from Overseas – the Cunard Steam Ship Co. Ltd., in wishing you a safe and pleasant voyage back to your Homeland, desire to express their unbounded admiration of your great fighting qualities and the sacrifices you have made in all theatres of The War.   Peace Year, 1919.” 

Cunard ticket holder

There are also twelve postcards of various HMS Cunard ships, (note the airplane in the one below), mostly in England but one of Quebec.  

  Postcards were popular back then, so there were also a number of of postcards of other lake liners from after the war.  The one below is addressed to his fiancée Genevieve (my grandmother’s sister) from a G.A.W. postmarked Detroit Michigan and mentions her and Charlie-boy and he would have sent a picture of the two of them from their trip but the camera man said she broke the glass and they were no good!  Maybe it was from their honeymoon? 

Great Lakes postcard

postcard re Charlie boy

   When he was discharged back to Canada from England he received the grand total of $81.14, which included a civilian clothing allowance of $35, and boat expense money of $4.87 and train expense money of $5….I assume this was only for the last few months in England.   

But I have no idea what he received for the time in total as his other pay book which has more frequent entries, lists 973 and 686 (on June 6 1919) as final entries, but these amounts don’t add up either as he was only about 18months in the war (at $33/month) and it doesn’t say what denomination it is in.    I wonder how this compares to today’s rates……I also wonder if they had a major war like that today would anyone sign up?    People were more patriotic back then, but they were also unaware of what they were getting into.  Even the war artists presented somewhat sanitized versions of the bloodshed.   We are well aware today, in this age of bloody reporting, non-stop news and nuclear arms, and yet still war talk persists…..perhaps because it seems so far removed from life in the muddy rat-infested trenches…..and more like a video game you can exit any time you grow tired of it, except you can’t.   It’s a sad thing when the world can’t learn from it’s mistakes.   Uncle Charlie was one of the lucky ones, he came back.   Lest we forget.

Song of The Day:   If You Were The Only Girl In The World – Alfie Boe – click here for music link

The song was originally recorded in 1916.   It sounded much better when Mary Crawley sang it on Downton Abbey when Mathew returned home from the war.  

Courting postcard from a hundred years ago:postcard courting (2)

Movie of the Day:   Warhorse – 2011 – Steven Spielberg – a Hollywood version of WW1 but still a good movie – imagine using horses in a war today?   

 

Apple Pie Memories

Song of the Day – Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree – Glenn Miller Band –     click here for music link 

 

Farmer's Market Apples

Farmer’s Market Apples

        Like many people I don’t make apple pie, I make apple crisp, but once a year I will try, using store bought crust and apples from the local farmer’s market, so at least I can say I made a homemade pie….sort of.   Pie crust is a lost art, drilled out of my generation by decades of warnings about saturated fat and heart disease.   With apple crisp you use oatmeal which is supposed to be good for you.  Now things have changed again and they say it’s sugar that’s bad not fat.   Unfortunately, apple pie has both, but moderation is also the key, so I think the occasional piece of apple pie could be justified, in view of the newer guidelines.   I am just trying to convince myself that anything made with lard could be good for you.   

My attempts at pie crust have produced a rock-like substance, which is why I stick with the crisp, but my mother’s pie crust was light and flaky…. she used Crisco, but I prefer butter, at least you can get some omega-3’s.   Unfortunately, my mother says she has lost her knack for pastry, (it’s an art form that needs to be practiced regularly), although every once in awhile she will make a crust for a turkey pie, which is still better than anything you can buy in the store.   I remember when we were kids my mom would make three pies a week and a dozen butter tarts (I have used her recipe for butter tarts with great success but with store bought shells), and it would all disappear.  My father was a prolific pie eater, but as he did a lot of physical work he never gained an ounce.    I remember an old man dropping by the homeplace one day unannounced in search of his roots.   I think his grandmother was a sister of my great grandmother Ellen, but as this was long before I had any interest in genealogy I didn’t pay much attention, although even then as a teenager I was interested in history and stories.   My mother was in the middle of making her weekly pies, her board and rolling pin all in a flurry of flour.  He stayed for supper and said it was the best apple pie he had ever eaten and it reminded him of his mother’s baking.  (No one had the heart to tell him there was a picture of his relative upstairs in the attic, riddled with holes, from where my brother had used it as a dart board).   Later we went to visit Ellen’s homeplace, a farm with a big old yellow brick farmhouse set high on a rolling hill just outside a city about eighty miles away (ie prime real estate).   A doctor had bought it and was renovating it so his daughter would have a place to ride her horses.  It was a beautiful spot. The only thing I know about Ellen is that she was a school teacher who had married a local farmer fifteen years older than her in 1870 and she raised nine children in our house.  My great grandfather John was by the few accounts we have, a gruff old man, and when her mother was sick and dying he refused to take her to visit, so she decided to walk.   Such is the family folklore, but I hope someone might have offered her a ride part of the way.    This is an old picture of the homeplace and Ellen out front with two of her daughters and grandchildren.   I still have the chairs they are sitting on, and the matching antique dining room table which folds out to seat twelve.  

The Homeplace circa 1915

The Homeplace circa 1915

How many weekly pies you would have to make to feed nine children, as well as all the threshing crews.  Like I said, it is a lost art form.  I wonder what will happen when all those older women who make the turkey and fruit pies for the church bazaars are gone.  Homemade pie will be a memory of the past.  No one has time to make pie now, it’s easier just to buy one.  Although I have never had much luck with store or bakery pies as they usually have corn starch as a thickener and I find it gives it a peculiar taste, but then I am comparing it to what I grew up on.   Although in a pinch President’s Choice sells a perfectly acceptable frozen apple crisp, made with Northern Spy apples, and you still get the benefits of a lovely smelling house.   I am sure all those cooking shows must have some instructions on the perfect pie crust, so one of these days I’ll have to tune in….and practice, practice, practice.   

My kitchen crabapple wreath

Scoop of the Day:   The local farmer’s market sells crab apple jelly, from BayField Berry Farm, and last month when I was at a craft sale, amongst all the crocheted and quilted offerings, there were a couple of tables selling homemade jellies and jams, including crab apple, which is made from the pressed juice, so I would not even attempt it…..besides which I am all jammed out for this year – this jam session is over. 

 

Bushel of Apples - AMc - 2015

Bushel of Apples – 2015

PS.  The fruits of my labour…

Quote of the Day:  Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness.”   (Jane Austen)