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.
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