Bringing local history to light
It’s pretty fascinating the kinds of things that can be found buried deep in the attic of an old Townships farmhouse. And when those things fall into the right hands, like those of Dixville’s James Belknap, you can be sure they’ll get the respect they deserve.
That’s because Mr. Belknap, the son of Baldwin Mills pioneer Walter George Belknap, who founded the Baldwin Mills fish hatchery in 1898, knows the importance of local history and the sense of pride it can instill in the people of a region, when they are aware of it. “A lot of people today don’t know who their grandfather is. But there’s an old saying: If you don’t know where you’re from, you don’t know where you’re going.”
“I found these letters in an old trunk,” said Mr. Belknap, showing me photocopies of and original hand-written letters dating back to the 1800’s, one even being what he believes to be the earliest example of a post-marked letter that passed through Stanstead, dated 1836. Reading excerpts from letters that originated with the Parker and Bartlett families from the Barnston area, you get a glimpse of what it was like to live in the region almost two hundred years ago. “What amazes me is how the women often died before they were fifty from lung problems from cooking over an open fire. I’m also amazed by the things people would put in their wills, like cooking pots, axes, rope and cloth. They didn’t have a lot of stuff back then.”
“One letter was about how cold it was in February and that only three people had frozen to death. We’re lucky today,” said the octogenarian who seems to have one foot in the past, with his strong interest in the history of local families and genealogy, and one foot in the future when he surfs the internet for historical information or uses his cell phone to call home to say he’ll be late for dinner. “Judith am I going to send you a lock of your father’s and my hair and I ask you to keep it and the letter as longe as you can in remembrance of your Parents,” wrote a mother in another of the letters, that one dated 1816.
Also in that ‘treasure chest’ were some old books, some about the Bartlett family that Mr. Belknap would help reunite with Bartlett descendants living in the United States. “The book about Richard Bartlett is in Kapaa, Hawaii now. That family said they will forever cherish it, and sent us a big box of macadamia nuts and other Hawaiian treats,” said the amateur historian/genealogist.
Mr. Belknap was keen to talk about a local hero that he researched for several years after finding old photographs and newspaper clippings in old ledgers found, once again, in a farmhouse attic. “William Best, born and raised in Lennoxville and retired in Coaticook, was a Railroad Engineer who rescued about five hundred people with his train in the Great Hinckley Fire, in Minnesota in 1894. In Hinckley, there’s a street named after him, but here, the most I could get done was to have a small plaque made in his honour,” said Mr. Belknap who even brought the story of William Best to the CBC, just one season too late to be a candidate for the Canadians – Biographies for a Nation series. “Best was quite a guy. He even started the first union to have all rail- way employees unionized. Perhaps that’s why he can’t get any recognition!”
Always enthusiastic about sharing his knowledge of the past with others, as he did in the special article that he recently wrote for the Stanstead Journal about his life in Stanstead in the 1940’s and 50’s, Mr. Belknap is now researching and writing a tribute to Donald Lafond. “He was a man who wore many hats. It’s ironic, I have a photo of Donald Lafond beside Junior ‘Smokey’ Smith, and now they rest side by side in the cemetery,” said Mr. Belknap about two of his friends. “I wanted to write about Donald because he had a lot of adventures and misadventures, and he lived in Rock Island.”
Keep your eyes open for more interesting stories from the ‘ole days’, as remembered and researched by James Belknap, appearing in coming editions of the Stanstead Journal.
James Belknap, who now lives in Dixville, has saved important pieces of local history, and other things like his hand-carved cane, from ending up in the dump.