Who Will Tell The Story?

The old aban­doned struc­tures dot­ting the land­scape across our coun­try mark the his­tory of a pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion’s way of life.

Our Canada - - Features - By Sandy Mor­ton, Pic­ton, Ont.

The crumbling homes and barns stand off in the fields, ne­glected from a time long ago. Many peo­ple look at them as they pass by, but they don’t see them: They look at the black­ened win­dows, but they don’t see in­side of them. They look at the roof in a state of dis­re­pair, but they don’t see un­der it. They look at the front porch pre­car­i­ously hang­ing onto the fall­ing walls, but they don’t see who once stood there.

My hus­band Rod and I re­cently be­came empty- nesters and I fi­nally re­tired af­ter 42 years in the fi­nan­cial in­dus­try in a small town just east of Toronto.

Em­brac­ing this new- found free­dom, we started plan­ning for the next phase of our lives. Un­be­knownst to me, Rod had al­ready been look­ing into his dream of own­ing a small par­cel of land, and he knew just where he wanted to look. Over the years, we had taken many road trips, trav­el­ling east to Prince Edward County, af­fec­tion­ately known as just ”The County.”

Our trav­els took us through the many small towns and open coun­try­side through­out The County. On an is­land on the north shore of Lake On­tario, some­where be­tween Toronto and Kingston, I would find out later why I al­ways seemed drawn to this area.

Af­ter mov­ing to The County, we were able to head out on drives any time we wanted, ex­plor­ing more of the coun­try­side. I have al­ways been fas­ci­nated with old build­ings and our searches did not dis­ap­point. Wher­ever we drove, we’d spot derelict homes, di­lap­i­dated barns and aban­doned build­ings, all pic­ture- wor­thy and all of which in­ter­ested me fur­ther. Who had lived in these homes? Why was the land aban­doned? It struck me that I needed to find out more about the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion who’d lived there.

Spend­ing time with my ag­ing par­ents and talk­ing to them about their up­bring­ing, I re­al­ized that it was their gen­er­a­tion who had lived in these ba­sic wooden struc­tures with­out any sign of elec­tric­ity or mod­ern-day con­ve­niences. My fa­ther, at 90, is the last sur­viv­ing sib­ling of four in his fam­ily, whereas my mother, now 85, is one of only two re­main­ing sib­lings from her fam­ily that once boasted 12 chil­dren. They both en­joy noth­ing more than rem­i­nisc­ing and telling sto­ries. No, they didn’t walk five miles to school ev­ery day in snow up to their waists—up­hill both ways—but their sto­ries do go a lit­tle some­thing like that.

They both re­mem­ber the days when they lived in old wooden farm­houses, with a wood stove to cook their meals and act as a source of heat in win­ter. They had no hy­dro, no run­ning wa­ter and you shared a bed­room with your sis­ters or brothers. Of course fa­cil­i­ties were out­side, and it didn’t mat­ter how cold it was or how deep the snow— noth­ing was go­ing to change that. They also re­mem­ber work­ing the fields, grow­ing crops and rais­ing an­i­mals to feed the fam­ily. Their rec­ol­lec­tions in­clude wear­ing hand- me- down and home­made clothes; and their par­ents mov­ing to new land that had to be cleared be­fore they could start building a home.

Those were hard times, but fam­i­lies were close and they made it through. Work wasn’t al­ways read­ily avail­able close by; you of­ten had to fol­low the work as the rail­way pro­gressed across the coun­try. It wasn’t un­com­mon for a home­steader to up and leave their home be­hind as they trav­elled to find new work, or to join other fam­ily mem­bers in new parts of the coun­try. My mother’s par­ents did that on a cou­ple of oc­ca­sions as times got too tough to keep try­ing to make a go of it where they were liv­ing.

In think­ing about these old, aban­doned home­steads scat­tered around this and other home­towns across the coun­try, I have come to re­al­ize that my par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion are the last ones left to re­late these sto­ries first­hand. They are the ones who watched hy­dro and run­ning wa­ter come into their homes. Once their gen­er­a­tion is gone, we will then have to rely on his­tory and ances­try alone to fill in the blanks.

As for be­ing drawn to this area, my sis­ter’s in­ter­est in ances­try has un­cov­ered the fact that the land which Rod and I built next to had been set­tled by an­ces­tors on my mother’s side in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Both her fa­ther and mother’s fore­fa­thers came and set­tled in The County years be­fore we did. I guess that may be why I felt drawn to move here, to search out the early home­steads and learn more about their his­tory. n

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