Too Short a Time on this Earth: Dr. John McCrea and McCrae House

We’ve returned for a second visit to McCrae House in Guelph. It’s here, four years ago, where we began our quest to visit all of Ontario’s National Historic Sites. Having seen over 200 Sites to this point, McCrae House remains one of the treasures of our historical journey.

A compact limestone cottage in the heart of old Guelph, McCrae House was the childhood home of Dr. John McCrae, surgeon, soldier and the author of undoubtedly the world’s best-known war poem, “In Flanders Fields.”

Over 1000 artifacts are displayed in the home’s compact four rooms, from the earliest years of McCrae’s life, through to his school days at Guelph Collegiate Institute, on to the University of Toronto, to medical school and finally to the battlefields of Belgium and France during World War 1.

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Of particular interest to visitors are the earliest of McCrea’s writings and sketches. He began to seriously write poetry while in high school. Poetry sustained him too when he was forced to take a leave of absence from his studies at the University of Toronto, due to ill health.

During McCrea’s year-long recuperation he wrote 16 poems and a number of prose pieces. Their sensitivity and astuteness foreshadow his most famous work “In Flanders Field,” written in 1915.

The centrepiece of the museum, well-protected behind glass is a copy of “In Flanders Fields” in McCrae’s own handwriting. Only six copies are known to exist.

The circumstances behind the writing of the poem are tragic. History tells that McCrae wrote the poem in 1915 after the death of a close friend in battle.  Sitting in the back of a Canadian Army ambulance on the way to bury the soldier, the vehicle passed by the rows of white crosses marking the graves of dead soldiers. Wild poppies grew between the interminable rows. McCrae was inspired to write:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

But stories vary as to the circumstances behind the anonymous publication of “In Flanders Field” in the British Magazine Punch.  Some lore speculates that family members encouraged McCrae himself to send in the poem to the magazine.

Another more fanciful tales sees a dissatisfied McCrae crumpling up the poem, and leaving it as refuse in the back of the ambulance. Another soldier finding McCrae’s discarded poem where it was left, reads it and is so moved by the words that he sends it anonymously to Punch.

Only when the poem is published, does McCrae become aware of its journey to London, England.

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Moving through the Museum, John McCrae’s military medals now take centre stage. Only within the past 20 years have the medals returned “home.”

After McCrae’s death in the New Year of 1918, his personal artifacts were returned to his parents. After their death, the medals were entrusted to his sister, Geills living in Winnipeg. She stored them in a safety deposit box, informing no other family members of their existence.

After Geills’ death, the medals languished for years in a safety deposit. When the bank moved locations in 1990, employees opened a number of long-closed safety deposit boxes. Inside one were found military medals of unknown origin and ownership.

Uncertain of the value of the discovery, the bank manager kept them for some time before turning them over to an auction house. An astute auction official realized the origin of the medals and the wheels began to turn.

Fearful that the medals may be lost to a wealthy collector, members of the McCrae family contacted the media which exploded with the news of the find.

In 1997, Toronto businessman Arthur Lee purchased John McCrae’s medals for $500,000. They were promptly turned over to the safekeeping of McCrae House for display.

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Poet, artist, skilled surgeon, dedicated friend and beloved family member, John McCrae’s short life was also distinguished by his compassion for children and animals. During his medical internship at a Montreal Children’s Hospital he cared for the most seriously ill of patients. One day a young boy, tears welling in his eyes confided how much he much he missed his pets.

Brought to tears himself, the good doctor was determined to help. He “borrowed” a kitten from a friend whose cat had recently given birth to a litter and each day smuggled it into the boy’s room. When Dr. McCrae left for home for the day, the kitten would leave under his coat!

In his medical diary, McCrae noted how the boy’s outlook had improved, concluding that “there was no better pain control than the affections of an animal.”

So it was no surprise to family and friends that when McCrae left for the battlefields of Europe in 1914, a horse named Bonfire travelled with him. Tending to a never-ending stream of wounded soldiers, McCrae would recharge his emotional batteries composing letters to his nieces and nephews back in Canada in the voice of Bonfire. “Bonfire’s” letters back home were routinely signed with a hoof print.

It seems that like his master, Bonfire had a sense of humour. In an impish mood, the horse would knock off soldier’s caps and snatch officer’s “swagger” sticks, carrying them off to before giving them up.

As the war continued, McCrae retreated more into the company of Bonfire and Bonneau, a spaniel he adopted while in Belgium. He continued to write poetry including his last poem, “The Anxious Dead.”

Over 1917, John McCrae’s health deteriorated. He died of pneumonia and meningitis on January 28, 1918.

Appropriately, a tour of McCrae House ends with photos of his funeral procession. The faithful Bonfire, rider-less and led by the halter, his master’s boots backwards in the stirrups leads the funeral procession. Lt. Colonel John McCrae was buried in France with full military honours.

Stories vary about the fate of Bonfire after McCrae’s death. One report sees the horse returning to the farm where he was raised in Quebec. Other stories see him being retired to a farm in northern France.

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Slated for demolition in 1966, John McCrae’s birth home was saved from demolition by a group of concerned Guelph citizens who mortgaged their own homes to purchase the 1857 cottage.

They formed the Lt. Col. McCrae Birthplace Society, restored the home, and opened it as a museum. In 1966, McCrae House was designated a National Historical Site.

 

Industrial on the Outside; Glorious within. The Studio Building

IMG_0902IMG_0905IMG_0903355722_2“Well,” I comment to Louis,” all the detective work it took to get us here was well-worth it wasn’t it?” He agrees and like me regrets time-traveling back into the bustling world of present-day Toronto.

We’ve spent the last 90 minutes poking into the nooks and crannies of the National Historic Site  “The Studio Building” in mid-town Toronto. Designed and built by Group of Seven founder Lawren Harris and his friend, art patron Dr. James McCallum  in 1914 , the Studio Building’s intent was to provide studio space for the builders’ artist friends including Group of Seven painters Tom Thomson, A.Y. Jackson,  Franklin Carmichael and JEH MacDonald.

Now a private residence, the public is not welcomed to this historic site without permission. A long and winding trail led me to the present owner and an invitation to tour the building, located on the edge of the Rosedale Ravine at 25 Severn Street.

“The exterior of the building is pretty unremarkable,” I suggest to Louis as we approach the door. “It looks like it could be an office building or even a factory.” “Industrial design pretty-well describes it,” he counters.  “I hope the inside is more remarkable.”

We need not have worried.

Tag along with the art-loving Silcoxes  as we explore Canada’s first “purpose-built artistic studio and residence in Canada.” The Studio Building’s  live-in caretaker Abe will show us around.

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“As you probably know, Lawren Harris and his friend Dr. James McCallum were the brains, and the money behind the Building,” offers Abe. “Harris came from a wealthy family and was generous with it, especially when it came to helping his artist friends.” The builders’ plan saw six apartments providing living accommodation for artists who planned to work in the Studio for some time.

“At the time it was constructed, it was big news in Toronto,” continues our guide. “Not because of its purpose but that people thought it was ugly.  Critics in 1914 called it a ‘factory-looking building.'”

“I know that Tom Thomson lived here for a time, but he didn’t paint inside,” I question Abe. “Yes it’s true,” he answers and points out the area at the back of the building where Tom Thomson’s  “shack” sat. (see photo of area and of shack) -“Thomson much preferred the outdoors to the inside and felt his creativity was stifled in the modern and comfortable environment of the Studio Building.”

So, Group of Seven lore tells us that Harris and McCallum (the patron of a number of artists) located a suitable one- room shack and moved it to the back of the property for Thomson’s convenience. Lore tells that “renter” paid “landlord” $1 a month rent.

“And when spring came, Thomson cleared out for Algonquin Park where he spent the summer,”says Abe.

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Thomson’s shack “explored,” we climb the stairs to the Studio Building’s main floor and enter a studio.  I’m stopped in my tracks by the effect of the strong January sun shining on the rich wood floors and furniture. “I’ve admired the huge windows from the outside,” I offer to Abe, “but they can’t even begin to convey the effect of light from the inside.”

“Light,” says Abe “was the whole purpose.” Harris left much of the design of the building to his architects, but he was firm about one feature–the windows. They had to be big, allowing the maximum light into the rooms.”  Six massive north-facing windows over the 3 floors of the building measure 3 meters (approx 10 feet) high by 4.5 meters wide (approximately 15 feet). On this sparkling January day, the effect is magical.

I close my eyes and images of A. Y. Jackson, Franklin Carmichael, J.E.H. MacDonald and Harris himself filter by. “I can’t believe I’m standing in the very spot where members of the Group of Seven painted,” I say, with reverence,  as a shiver runs up and down my spine. Abe laughs. “I live here and I still feel that way.”

Passing out of the first studio,  my eye is drawn to the numerous paintings on the walls. A fan of artist David Milne, Louis stops to admire several of his works. I’m an A.Y. Jackson fan and am not disappointed either as I move on.

“It’s obvious that cooking and eating wasn’t tops on the artists’ list of priorities” says Louis, as he peruses the small utilitarian kitchen on the main floor.

In 1948, Harris sold the Studio Building to artist Gordon McNamara. On McNamara’s death in 2006, his son James Mathias inherited it. It was designated as a National Historic Site in 2004. Mathias, a successful underwater photographer spends most of his year in Fiji and resides in the historic Studio Building for only a few months a year.

I speculate to caretaker Abe that keeping up such a historic building surely cannot be inexpensive. He agrees, noting that all the windows and doors have undergone recent replacement. “And it was a huge expense.”

And what does the future hold for the historic Studio Building? “Maybe someone wealthy with a last name of Thompson will buy it?” I suggest. “Or maybe it’ll be turned into an office building?” Images of other proud historic buildings now neglected and crumbling  leave me troubled.

National Historic Site “The Studio Building” is not open to the public.

 

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“By Invitation Only” The Arts and Letters Club of Toronto

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You’ve seen the photo a hundred times and somehow never tire of scanning the faces again. Seen through the smoky haze of a dimly lit room, seven men–a cultured lot, in conservative dark suits with perky pocket handkerchiefs showing, are seated round a table. They’re clearly relaxed in each other’s presence, sharing a beverage or two in congenial conversation. 

On closer view, it’s plain that a few show discomfort, even hostility towards the intrusion of the camera into their social time. One, craggy-faced, with a “take no prisoners” attitude stares belligerently at the camera’s eye; two respond with faces cast downward; a fourth, of finer features adopts an embarrassed grin.

Taken in 1920 at Toronto’s  Arts & Letters Club, the photograph  captures the faces and personalities of six of the seven members of the Group of Seven.  It marks the only known photograph of A.Y. Jackson, Fred Varley, Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, Franz Johnson  and Arthur Lismer together.

Over the next century, the venerable “members only” club, devoted to the artistic fellowship and promotion of Canadian literature, music, and the arts would welcome other icons including novelist Robertson Davies, eminent orchestra conductor Sir Ernest MacMillan, and Sir Edmund Walker, banker, patron of the arts and founder of the National Gallery of Canada.

Almost 100 years later, a walk through the National Historic Site Arts and Letters Club of Toronto continues to reverberate with Canadian artistic and creative history. Come on along; let’s discover more.

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Founded in 1908 by Toronto journalist Augustus Bridle,  the Arts & Letters Club, moved in 1920 to its present quarters at St. George’s Hall on Elm Street, Toronto. 

Founded with a mission to promote the Arts in Canada, the Arts & Letter Club quickly became the favoured meeting point for the aesthetically inclined of Toronto society.  They included journalists and writers, musicians, painters, poets and publishers.

The Club’s best known members remain the Group of Seven who, according to later Group member AJ Casson “luncheoned there daily.”

The collegial setting allowed these artistic pioneers to gain strength from each other, to strike out on their own artistic journey, rejecting the premise that Canadian art must copy the well-worn path tread by European painters. Instead this Group of Seven patriots would celebrate the distinct landscape of Canada.

Group member J.E.H. Macdonald served as Vice-President of the Club for four years and designed its crest. Madonald’s design, still the Club’s logo, shows a Viking ship with sails billowing against the rising sun. Macdonald’s artistic mission was to “remind members of the open seas and great adventure.”

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In the 1920’s and 1930’s, one of the Arts & Letter regulars would seem, at first glance, out of place in a meeting place devoted to the arts. He was Dr. (later Sir) Frederick Banting, co-discoverer of insulin and Nobel Prize winner.

But this scientist was a closet “Artsie” too, an amateur painter, on friendly terms with members of the Group of Seven, and  a frequent sketching companion of  A.Y. Jackson.

And while the eminent doctor was said not to participate in many of the songs and skits presented regularly by talented Arts & Letters Club members at lunchtime gatherings, Dr. Banting was  known to be “a good companion at table, for he loved the singing, the story telling and the good drinking of men relaxing .” (Michael Bliss, Banting: A Biography,  page 168).

A sketch of Banting by Group of Seven member Arthur Lismer reveals the affection by which the artists felt for their medical friend. The admiration was no doubt mutual. Banting biographer Michael Bliss speculates that that the time spent with friends at the Club was a pleasant change from the “stuffy formality of the University.”  

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And for artistic women? Sorry ladies. Women were not invited to become members of the Arts and Letters Club until 1985. Even then, outraged protests from male stalwarts were heard. One hardliner protested vigorously against the ground-breaking change, fearing that there was little doubt that “women’s superior acumen and intuition would in the end take over the club leaving the male members with no opportunities to develop their limited skills. “

When all was said and done, the vote saw 64 in favour of women; 38 opposed. Given its usual membership in the hundreds, clearly many men abstained from voting.

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In 2017, Arts and Letters Club membership hovers around 600. It includes both men and women of all ages, “for whom the arts are an essential part of life—a place to pursue creative expression, engage in the free and vigorous interchange of ideas and opinions, and enjoy good conversation and the companionship of kindred spirits.”

In addition to fellowship of kindred spirits, members use the venue to promote their own, and other artistic ventures.     

While the club is closed to the public, arrangements to visit are welcomed by calling Club Manger Fiona McKeown at 416-579-0223.
 

 

 

 

Chiefswood: Ontario’s House of “Royalty”

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Chiefswood: Ontario’s House of “Royalty”

It’s a delicious spring day and the Silcox National Historic Site bus is on the road. We’re heading to Brantford—the First Nation Reserve of Oshweken to be exact. Our destination is Chiefswood, the ancestral home of poet and performer E. Pauline Johnson.

As we approach the Site on the banks of the slow-moving Grand River, snippets of Pauline’s  best-known poem “The Songs my Paddle Sings,” are called up from the depths of my six-decade-long memory.

West wind, blow from your prairie nest,

Blow from the mountains, blow from the west

The sail is idle, the sailor too;

O wind of the west, we wait for you!

Now you remember her from your own school days, don’t you—this half First Nation princess; half proper Victoria lady. And your memories aren’t that favourable are they? Like me, you were forced to study her poetry in high school and we found it sickly sentimental and flowery.  Too bad the English teachers of the 1960’s didn’t tell us about the woman herself.

“Pauline Johnson was before her time,” I remark to my chauffeur. “She lived generations before social media, but still Pauline knew how to get attention.   She was mysterious; she was beautiful; she had talent; she had chutzpa; but more than all this, Pauline Johnson knew how to court the media,” I add.

My driver,who doubles as navigator, dog-handler and purser agrees whole-heartedly.

We’re both hoping to get more insights into her larger-than-life character before we leave Chiefswood for home.

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Born in 1861, Emily Pauline Johnson was the child of a mixed marriage. Her English mother, Emily Howells had married Mohawk George Henry Martin Johnson.  Four children including Pauline were eventually born.

Now George Johnson was no ordinary mortal.  Descended from the great Hiawatha, he was known in diplomatic as circles as Teyonhehkon, (some sources name him Onwanonsyshon)  the esteemed Chief of the Mohawk Confederacy. As such, he was afforded the respect that few of First Nation blood achieved.

As the children of “royalty,” Pauline and her siblings were educated at home in the English tradition. Her diary entries detail her growing infatuation with the romantic poets– Keats, Byron and Shelley. She began to write poetry herself and in her teens, her verse was published in the literary journal Gems of Poetry.

Much to her parents’ chagrin, by her early 20’s, Pauline had begun giving recitations of her poems.  But no run-of-the-mill Victorian poetry readings were these. The first part of the evening’s entertainment would see the night’s attraction  reading poems in her persona as the finely-bred English lady, Pauline Johnson.

Audiences politely applauded but remained restrained. They were waiting anxiously for the main act!

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After a quick wardrobe change–out of hooped skirt and demure long sleeves into buckskin, beads and feathers, the main event returned as Indian princess Tekahionwake. Her verse reflected her altered persona. Birch-bark canoes and brave warriors had replaced flowers and singing birds. Crowds cheered and begged for more.

Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake was soon in demand across Canada, the United States and Great Britain. She became a veritable celebrity and enjoyed the status that this gave her. This included rubbing shoulders with the literary and artistic crowds of the day.

Two of these luminaries were artists Carl Ahrens and Homer Watson. The artistic trio had also been drawn together as spiritualists who met regularly at séances (usually at the Watson Kitchener-area home) hoping to  seek contact with those who had moved on to the afterlife.

One spiritual tall-tale tells of  Johnson and Ahrens on an evening canoe outing paddling down the Grand River.  Suddenly they are ambushed by a war canoe carrying a vengeful Iroquois hunting party. Only Tekahionwake’s skilled canoeing skills save them from losing their scalps to the vengeful foe.

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Sadly Pauline Johnson’s life was to be a brief one. In 1913, she died of breast cancer in Vancouver where she had relocated in the early 1900’s. she was only 52. 

Time has not been a friend to Pauline Johnson, poet. The writer of 13 books of verse, she is now rarely studied in school. Her name is more associated with overwrought emotion and Victorian angst than outstanding verse. Critics have also dismissed her performance legacy, calling her  nothing more than a savvy “entertainer;” one whose fame was based more on “showmanship” than literary talent.

Still, some with broader perspectives, treat Pauline Johnson with  more respect. She’s lauded as the woman who opened the door for succeeding female Canadian writers and performers.

In 1992, Chiefswood was designated a National Historic Site. Set on a hill overlooking the Grand River, the property is well worth a visit. If only to see the photographs displayed of the Mohawk Princess in buckskin, feathers and beads.

 

The Kingston Penitentiary:Murderers,Serial Killers and Childen

li-kingston-pen-istock-6201954_riot.jpg.size.xxlarge.promor-KINGSTON-PENITENTIARY-CLOSE-large570Constructed in 1835 during Queen Victoria’s reign, and occupied continuously until 2013, the Kingston Penitentiary once held a dubious distinction.  K.P. as it was known in the corrections system remained among the oldest of North American prisons to house criminals in the age of computers, space exploration and smart phones.

On a fall visit to the lovely and historic “limestone” city of Kingston, on National Historic Site adventuring, Louis and I  had “The Pen” on the top of our “must see” list.

On arriving at the massive 8.4 hectare site, we were disappointed to learn that the doors to the Gothic fortress remain bolted shut. “You’d think Corrections Canada could make a bundle having public tours,” I suggest. He agrees.

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Kingston, Ontario once reigned as Penitentiary King of Canada. At one time 9 jails, including the Kingston Women’s Prison, held society’s law breakers in the province of Ontario.  

One Joseph Bouchette was the first criminal sentenced in 1835  to serve a penitentiary term at Kingston. His crime “Grand Larceny.” His punishment 5 years. 

The youngest inmate to arrive at K.P. was 8-year-old Antoine Beauché, a pick-pocket. Even at that young age, the court described him as an “old offender” and an” experienced pick-pocket.” The lad’s sentence was 3 years.

Records show that within a week of arriving, Antoine received the lash. Over the next 9 months he was lashed on 47 other occasions for: “staring, laughing, whistling, giggling, making noise in his cell, having tobacco and idling.”

Bad Girls Too

The adjacent Kingston Women Prison opened in 1836, thanks to the labours of their male “neighbours.” Three women, sentenced on the same day, were its first residents. All from the Hamilton area,the women had been convicted for the crime of Grand Larceny (theft).

The youngest female inmate to occupy a cell was 9-year old Sarah Jane Pierce. She was sentenced to 7 years of imprisonment for housebreaking and larceny. Among the items that the little girl was found guilty of stealing were: a quilt, a ladies hat, a towel, some beef, raisins, biscuits, tea and sugar. 

Larceny was by far the most common crime for which men, women and children were sentenced. It takes little insight to see poverty and empty bellies as the motive behind such crimes.

Too Tired to Cook up Trouble

Riots and escapes—successful or failed, go hand in hand with prisons. August 1954, saw an uprising at K.P. involving 900 inmates. Guards, reinforced with RCMP assistance got the situation under control within a few hours.

The inmate riot of April 1971 was more destructive. Two prisoners were killed during the 4-day rampage.  6 prison guards were held captive and much of the prison was heavily damaged.  

The 1971 riot is notable for its use of the media to publicize the prisoners’ grievances. Prison leaders used newspaper, radio and television to air their grievances.  A lack of recreational time and little meaningful work time were tops on their complaints . Too much time spent in cells was another “bone to pick.”

K.P.’s  “Walk of Fame”

Kingston Penitentiary has housed many of the most infamous of Canadian criminals. They include: James Donnelly of the murderous Black Donnelly gang who terrorized the London/Lucan area in the mid-19th century. Donnelly was awaiting hanging in Kingston but was spared the noose after his wife circulated a petition to spare his life.

The notorious bank robber, “Red” Ryan also called K.P. “home” in the 1920’s.  A personal story illustrates just how daring the flame-haired criminal was.

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Several years ago my services as writer were requested to complete the biography of an elderly woman who was born and grew up in the Kingston area in the early 1920’s .

Then only a child, she was living with her family on an isolated farm outside of town. Suddenly they heard an unexpected pounding on the door. Fearful of who would be out on such a stormy night, the family held together as my client’s father answered the door.

On the step were two rough-looking men, one with flaming red hair. “They wanted food and shelter for the night,” my elderly friend recalled. “So my father told them they could sleep in the loft of the barn. And my mother gave them some bread and meat.”

By the morning the pair had gone. “It wasn’t till later that we realized that our visitors were the escaped bank robber Red Ryan and his accomplice,” she recalled. “It gave us the chills thinking about how it could have been much worse for us.’

Political prisoners such as Tim Buck, leader of the Communist Party of the 1930’s also “broke bread” with hardened murderers and rapists.

Modern day criminals and social deviants Paul Bernardo, serial child killer Clifford Olsen, Michael Rafferty (convicted of the death of 8-yer-old Victoria Stafford), former Canadian Armed Forces Colonel Russell Williams, and “honor killers” Mohammad and Hamed Shafia also resided at K.P

Through a Hole and Over the Wall

The stuff of Hollywood movies, escape attempts often catch the public’s attention when they occur. Prison records show 26 escape attempts from the the date of opening in 1835. Only a handful, including Red Ryan succeeded. None remained at large for long.

In 1999, one escape had a different outcome than most. Prisoner Ty Conn, on the loose for more than two weeks had been traced to a Toronto hotel room. Seeking to tell his story, Conn had contacted the CBC.  As Toronto police were surrounding the hotel, Conn was on the phone to a CBC reporter. Suddenly the reporter heard a deafening roar. Conn had put the gun to his head and fatally shot himself as she listened.

Despite its archaic conditions and dubious reputation, the end of the road for the Kingston Penitentiary didn’t come until 2013.  Prison reform advocates called K.P. “a dumping ground for bad guards.”   

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Although the doors to Kingston’s Penitentiary remain closed, across the road Canada’s  Penitentiary  Museum allows a glimpse of life behind bars. The Museum houses prison artifacts such as leg irons, shackles, straight jackets, as well as escape equipment–knotted bed sheets, knives, spoons and small trowels .

The Curator of the Museum is Denis St. Onge who has written a book on the prison, “One Day Gone.”It is for sale in the gift shop.The book is dedicated to the 34 Corrections officials included guards who lost their lives on duty. li-kingston-pen-istock-620li-kingston-pen-istock-620 

 

 

The Sad, Sad Tale of the Shickluna Gas Station

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With the New Year of 2016 on our doorstep, and a newly-elected federal government promising change, it seems timely to put the spotlight one of Canada’s most unusual National Historic Sites. It’s the former Shickluna service (gas) station in the town of Port Colborne in Ontario’s Niagara Region.

What’s the connection, you well might ask, between a small-town gas station and our newly-elected federal government? The answer comes in one word–“history.”

Shickluna has the distinction of being the only service/gas  station in Canada to be named a National Historic Site.

And while this designation alone is cause for praise, the future for the L.J. Shickluna Site is a clouded one. It joins at least two other National Historic Sites in Ontario–the former Bowmanville Boys’ School and the once gracious Bellevue House in Amherstburg on the historically-endangered list.

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 Let’s travel back in time first to the island of Malta. One of the smallest nations in the world at only 122 square kilometers, Malta lies in the Mediterranean Sea, 80 km south of Italy.

It’s in this nation of mariners, that the Maltese Shickluna family had made their fortune in the ship-building industry.   

The Canadian connection to the Shickluna clan finds its beginning in 1808. In that year, one Louis Joseph Shickluna was born into the powerful family. Following tradition, it was hoped that one day, Louis would take over the family business.

But this young man had other plans.  At age 23, Louis boarded a sailing ship for the British colony of Canada. Adventure was tops on Louis’  list of priorities.  

Disembarking at Quebec City, Louis first found work at a shipbuilding company.  By the next year, he’d moved on to Youngstown, New York.

But not for long. By the mid-1800’s Great Lakes shipping was booming, thanks in a large part to the opening of the Welland Canal in 1833. Seeing his long-term future here, Louis returns to Canada.

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He chooses the Niagara area, along the shores of Lake Erie  to make his mark and founds his own shipping company.  Over the next half-century the Shickluna shipyards work at full-throttle, producing some the most advanced Great Lakes sailing ships of the day—some 140 in total.

In the process the Shickluna name became synonymous with wealth, power and innovation in the Canadian shipping industry.

On Louis’ death in 1899, his son Joseph stepped into his father’s large shoes. But the great age of shipping was inevitably  drawing to a close. If the Shickluna dynasty was to maintain its financial and social standing, they would need to diversify.

That future seemed to point to the automobile.

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With car ownership growing exponentially across Canada and the U.S., in the early years of the 20th century, gas and service stations were springing up across the nation.  In 1924, third generation Canadian Louis Shickluna joined the entrepreneurial crowd and planned to open his own business.

He’d chosen Port Colborne just east of the town of Fort Erie to start his business.  But this would be no ordinary “get your gas and grease job here” type of commercial establishment. Young Louis Shickluna had plans for something special.   

Working with the Imperial Oil Company, Louis brought built a fair measure of architectural flair to his proposed business establishment. It would be designed in the California Mission Revival architectural style—one that drew its inspiration from the Spanish missions in California.

Gabled pediments, massive supporting pillars, broad overhanging eaves and red Spanish tile roof define the decidedly southwest American style.

(One of the best-known examples of California Mission architecture is featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo which is set north of San Francisco. )

California Mission  architecture was a rarity north of the 49th parallel.  No doubt  Louis Shickluna’s gas station must have caused more than one driver to do a double-take.

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Early September 2015 sees your intrepid National Historic Site explorers heading southwest from Waterloo Region to the Niagara Region along the Lake Erie shore.

The area is home to a number of Sites, including the previously profiled Point Abino Lighthouse and several Sites connected to the War of 1812-14. But we’re most eager to see NHS Shickluna, surely one of the most curious Sites in our travels across Ontario.

Historical research has little-prepared us for the sad reality of Canada’s only  gas station National Historic Site.  Standing on a weed-choked property, with derelict rubble propped against the building,  Shickluna is  boarded and closed. Its white stucco paint has peeled and the exterior is vandalized with graffiti.

 “It doesn’t even have a plaque indicating what it is,” I comment to Louis. We leave with no fond memories of Canada’s gas station tribute to the California Mission architectural style.

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A chat with local residents following our Shickluna visit gives us was no solace. It does reveals Port Colborne’s mood about the town’s only National Historic Site.

“It’s an eyesore,” says one resident. “And right on the main street. It makes the town look bad.”

Another puts blame on the National Monuments and Sites Board for allowing a “national treasure” to deteriorate so shamefully.

Still another shares the Shickluna buzz around town.  

“A developer bought it a few years ago and is just waiting till there are enough complaints that the town will order it torn down as a hazard and eyesore.”

He continues the Port Colborne scuttlebutt. “The word is that demolition is what the developer wants in the first place– National Historic Site or no National Historic Site.

“You mark my words,” our “mole” predicts. “You’lI see high- priced condos on the property in 5 years. “

Under 10 years of Conservative government, Parks Canada which oversees National Historic Sites, has been stripped to the bare bones, both financially and with respect to resources.  History lovers hope that a Prime Minister with a history university degree will be kinder.

If you feel that preserving Canada’s heritage is a priority for the new Liberal government, let your MP know. I have.

The former Shickluna Service Station in Port Colborne was designated as a National Historic Site in 1995.  

Look to the Sky and feel the Wonder: Gillies Grove, Arnprior

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“It’s a reverential place,” I whisper to my companion. “You seem to leave the outside world behind when you step onto the path.”

He agrees. “It reminds me of when the Pevensie children stepped through the wardrobe into Narnia.”

Indeed Gillies Grove National Historic Site in Arnprior is a magical and otherworldly place. It is surely one of only a handful of Ontario’s National Historic Sites where man plays little part.

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Dense forests, Canada’s First Nation people and abundant wildlife greeted French explorer Samuel de Champlain when he ventured into central Canada in 1613.

The French explorer had crossed the sea to the New World, then turned his sights on the daunting St. Lawrence River. This massive waterway would lead him into the heart of Canada. Halting at the turbulent rapids at Lachine, the adventurers traded ship for canoe and set off into the unknown.

Algonquin guides led Champlain and a number of his crew westward along the Ottawa River—a landmine of rocks, rapids and shoals.

For the French explorers, the view must surely have been awe-inspiring. Dense virgin forest grew on either side of the fast-flowing Ottawa River. Sugar maples, yellow birch, American beech, eastern hemlock and basswood trees stretched as far as the eye could see.

All were dwarfed by magnificent stands of the Eastern White Pine. One of the tallest species of tree in Canada, a mature White Pine can tower over 50 meters.  

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Fast forward now  to 1823. Scottish-born land developer Archibald McNab has petitioned the Canadian government to grant him land along the Ottawa River west of Ottawa. McNab’s aim was to become wealthy by selling plots to the influx of Scots, English and Irish who were flocking to Canada at the time.

As McNab’s plan went forward, expanses of forest land was cleared for farming. The trees provided raw materials for barns and houses. And soon the forests became a memory.  

The Eastern White Pine had a different fate than homesteaders cabins. It was especially prized in both France and England. With trunks that grew long, straight and strong the trees provided perfect raw materials for the masts of sailing ships.

And so, the Eastern White Pine gradually disappeared from the eastern and southern Ontario landscape.

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The decimation was halted by lumber magnate Daniel McLachlin, who had acquired an expanse of land outside the town of Arnprior. While most of McLachlin’s purchase was razed for lumber, he preserved  22-hectares for family picnics.

When McLachlin went bankrupt, the 22 acre site was purchased by another lumber king—David Gillies. Gillies prized the land and stated his wish to preserve the forest reserve after his passing.

With Gillies death in 1967 and his wife’s in 1980, Gillies Grove was willed to the United Church of Canada. Church administration turned the bequest down and the property went on the market.

In 1986, it was purchased by the Ottawa-based Roman Catholic Oblates of Mary Immaculate for $100,000.

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By the early 2000’s Gillies Grove was on the market again, with the Oblates declaring the property too expensive to maintain. Arnprior buzzed with rumours that their beloved Grove was about to be sold to a developer who would raze the property for building lots.

It’s reported that the howls of protest coming out of Arnprior could be heard as far as neighbouring Pembroke!  

It was conservationists to the rescue. Gillies Grove was purchased by The Nature Conservancy of Canada in 2001. The organization continues to administer the property with volunteers from the Land Preservation Society of the Ottawa Valley.

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Let’s take a leisurely stroll ourselves through the Grove. It’s a mere hop-step-and jump from the fast-running Ottawa River.  

As is customary, we’re accompanied on our National Historic Site adventure with our Golden Retriever, Hailey. Given the time of year (late fall) and the weather (cool and rainy) we are the only visitors to Gillies Grove. We allow her the privilege of exploring off-leash.

Seemingly awed like us by the experience, she stays close. Her nose confirms that there are other species than trees and plants in the Grove.

A number of birds—many now rare in populated southern Ontario lure dedicated bird-watchers to the Gillies Grove site. They include the uncommon scarlet tanager, red-shouldered hawks, pileated woodpeckers and barred owls.

If you stay long enough and show patience, visitors may be treated to the acrobatics of flying squirrels leaping from tree to tree. Look down too and if you’re sharp-eyed, you may spy red-backed salamanders scurrying along the forest floor.  

A dazzling array of plant species changes according to the season. Spring flowers include hepaticas, violets, red and white trilliums. Summer brings white baneberry and the Indian pip plant.

But today, we’ve come primarily to see the Eastern White Pine. And  we are rewarded. The pines stand shoulder-to-shoulder near the centre of the grove. So high are they that from the ground it is difficult to see their top-most branches.

In May of 2015, the Nature Conservancy announced that the tallest tree in Ontario finds its home in Gillies Grove. Measuring 47 meters (147 feet) high and more than 100 cm. in breadth, this magnificent giant stands taller than a 13-story building.

Estimated to be between 150-200 years old, the pine has been added to Forest Ontario’s Honour Roll as the province’s tallest tree.  A bench has been placed beside the gentle giant to invite tree-huggers to rest a spell and look up—look way, way up!

Gillies Grove was honoured as a National Historic Site in 1994.