“Elderberry Cottage” by James Reaney

Elderberry Cottage

’s windows, last night, rain wrote upon,
And Bobdog, while we slept, was miles away,
Beating the bounds, our frontier nose-spy
Reporting back at dawn.
We reward him for knowing about
Quarrels in lover’s lane,
Thieves on the prowl and other such
Canny protector, I pray you:
Bark always when strangers come nigh.
Yes, we cannot smell trespass
Nor hear it, as you can.
Piss a ring of fire round our house,
Our curtilage, my land, my concessional lot.
Lead me safely at last
Under this township to my last cot,
And when Elderberry is a ruin,
Guard my grave from the academic wolf,
The curious professor
With his fine wire-brush
Who would dig me up again
From my happiness, your kingdom.

James Reaney, 2005

“Elderberry Cottage” is from Souwesto Home, a collection of James Reaney’s poems from 2005 and published by Brick Books.

Listen to Jeff Culbert perform “Elderberry Cottage” and other poems from Souwesto Home here.

Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005
Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005
Elizabeth Cooke (James Reaney's mother) with Bob dog at Elderberry Cottage, March 1976. Photo by Wilma McCaig.
Elizabeth Cooke (James Reaney’s mother) with Bob dog at Elderberry Cottage, March 1976. Photo by Wilma McCaig.

Twelve Letters to a Small Town

Here is the Eleventh Letter from Twelve Letters to a Small Town, a suite of poems James Reaney wrote for composer John Beckwith in 1962.

James Reaney’s Twelve Letters To A Small Town (1962)

ELEVENTH LETTER — Shakespearean Gardens

The Tempest The violet lightning of a March thunderstorm glaring the patches of ice still stuck to the streets.

Two Gentlemen of Verona On Wellington St. an elegant colonel-looking gentleman with waxed white moustachioes that came to tight little points.

Merry Wives of Windsor The Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Orange Lodge marched down the street in white dresses with orange bows on them.

Richard III At last all the children ran away from home and were brought up by an old spinster who lived down the street.

Henry VIII Mr. White’s second wife was the first Mrs. Brown and the first Mrs. White was the second Mrs. Brown.

Troilus  & Cressida “Well, I haven’t been to that old Festival yet but since it began I’ve had ten different boyfriends.”

Titus Andronicus Young Mr. Wood to-day lost his right hand in an accident at the lumber yards.

Romeo & Juliet Romeo & Juliet Streets.

Timon of Athens Old Miss Shipman lived alone in a weatherbeaten old cottage and could occasionally be seen out on the front lawn cutting the grass with a small sickle.

Julius Caesar Antony wore a wrist watch in the Normal School production although he never looked at it during the oration.

Macbeth Principal Burdoch’s often expressed opinion was that a great many people would kill a great many other people if they knew for certain they could get away with it.

Hamlet A girl at the bakery took out a boat on the river, tied candlesticks to her wrists and drowned herself.

King Lear Mr. Upas was a silver haired cranky old individual who complained that the meat was too tough at the boarding house.

Othello At the edge of town there stood a lonely white frame building—a deserted Negro church.

The Merchant of Venice When my cousin worked for the Silversteins she had her own private roll of baloney kept aside in the refrigerator for her.

Henry V The local armouries are made of the usual red brick with the usual limestone machicolation.

Twelve Letters to a Small Town was first published in 1962 by the Ryerson Press. In the Afterword to the 2002 facsimile edition, James Reaney wrote that after it was published, “Many Stratford residents said they saw on paper for the first time their memories of the town and wrote to me to say so.”

Among the shows currently on at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario are The Tempest, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and The Comedy of Errors.

Colours in the Dark premiere July 25, 1967

July 25, 1967 — Fifty years ago today, James Reaney’s play Colours in the Dark had its first performance at the Avon Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, part of the Stratford Festival‘s 15th season. Described in the press as a “play box of colours and fantasies”, Colours in the Dark won favourable reviews and enjoyed a standing ovation on its opening night.

Directed by John Hirsch, the actors were Sandy Webster, Barbara Bryne, Douglas Rain, Martha Henry, Heath Lamberts, and Mary Hitch along with 12 Stratford children and four singers. Eoin Sprott designed the projected images used to create the set, and Alan Laing wrote and performed the music.

Douglas Rain as the Father, Martha Henry as the Mother and Heath Lamberts as the Son in the 1967 production of Colours in the Dark. Photography by Peter Smith (Courtesy Stratford Festival Archives. Reproduced with permission.)

Barbara Bryne, Douglas Rain and Sandy Webster in Colours in the Dark, 1967
Photography by Peter Smith & Company
(Courtesy Stratford Festival Archives. Reproduced with permission.)

Carol Johnson of the Stratford Beacon Herald interviewed Elizabeth Cooke, James Reaney’s mother, and Wilma McCaig, his sister, about the play and about the notion that the play is like a “play box” from his past and the past of the Stratford District:

“There’s a big chest upstairs that comes from Ireland. It has his first manuscripts and his first puppets in it. I don’t know if that’s what he calls his play box.

He didn’t have measles as a child. The experience in the play was like my experience with measles, except I didn’t see colours in the dark. I kept books under my pillow… I read when I wasn’t supposed to.

He used to listen to the radio all the time. Little Orphan Annie, that’s in the play, was one of his favourite programs… the Singing Lady, that was another one. And one early space program that used to make the windows shake.

[…] Flying kites, parades, puppets, glass Easter eggs, drawings, bicycles, Sunday School pictures — all of the things his mother and sister spoke of in James Reaney’s past, they placed in his work today, most in Colours in the Dark.

Jamie wasn’t a religious boy. He’d sit in church in one of the back pews. Someone told me once, there was Jamie reading while the minister was preaching.

He’s always painted. You’d call him for dinner and he’d be upstairs painting water colour portraits on the whitewash.

He’s made puppets since high school.  In Red Riding Hood he was the wolf, a plastic bag, who eats the grandmother, who’s a teapot.

James Reaney writes about the things he knows from his childhood, the way he knows them as a man.”

[Source: Excerpted from Carol Johnson’s article “James Reaney’s ‘play-box’ mother talks about his childhood”, Stratford Beacon Herald, July 28, 1967, page 7.]


Note from Susan Reaney: Elizabeth Cooke (née Crerar) did indeed keep books under her pillow; see “Her reviews were pithy” by James Stewart Reaney in the London Free Press.

Allan Stratton tells us that James Reaney’s marionette plays Apple Butter and an adaptation of Red Riding Hood were performed July 3-15, 1967 at the Stratford Arena before Colours in the Dark opened, so this might be where Elizabeth Cooke had the chance to see them.

The Alphabet Players with the marionettes from Apple Butter, Stratford, Ontario, July 1967. James Reaney (centre, seated) is holding some of the Red Riding Hood marionettes. Allan Stratton (far right) is holding Apple Butter, and James Stewart Reaney (second in on the left) is holding Solomon Spoilrod.


For more about Colours in the Dark, see “The Music Lesson from Colours in the Dark”, “Colours in the Dark and Mr. Winemeyer”, and the March 2017 production by the King’s Theatrical Society.

For more about James Reaney’s childhood influences, see “James Reaney: Reflections on Food, Shelter, and ‘When the Great Were Small'”.

Grateful thanks to the Stratford Festival Archives for permission to reproduce the photos from the 1967 production of Colours in the Dark, and also to the Canadian Theatre Collection at the University of Guelph Archives for reviews and articles about the play.

Colours in the Dark by James Reaney is available from Talonbooks.




The Music Lesson from Colours in the Dark

March 2017 in Halifax: King’s Theatrical Society’s production of James Reaney’s Colours in the Dark. (Photo by Erica Guy)

The Music Lesson scene in James Reaney’s 1967 play Colours in the Dark (Act II Scene 5) borrows from an earlier poetic cycle about Stratford, Ontario: Twelve Letters to a Small Town (1962).

Pages 6 and 7 from Twelve Letters To A Small Town (1962). Drawings by James Reaney.

CBC Radio commissioned Twelve Letters to a Small Town and John Beckwith composed music to accompany the poems. In the Eighth Letter (subtitled “The Music Lesson”), James Reaney pays tribute to his Stratford piano teacher Cora B. Ahrens.

The Eighth Letter “…  depicts a piano lesson in which the student, after playing a few exercises and a set piece called ‘The Storm,’ is asked to display his progress on another piece called ‘A Year in the Town,’ by playing each of the four sections (representing the four seasons) first one hand at a time and then with both hands together. Both ‘The Storm’ and ‘A Year in the Town have appropriate spoken texts to which the music corresponds.” [Source: John Beckwith on “James Reaney and Music” November 5, 2016]

From Colours in the Dark (II v) The Music Lesson: PUPIL: Miss Miller. Tell me the truth. Are you really Mr. Winemeyer in disguise? Are men and women the same? (Photo by Erica Guy, King’s Theatrical Society)



(The GRANDMOTHER is the music teacher; the FATHER is her pupil.)

TEACHER: That will do for your scales. Now play me your piece. Play me “The Storm.” What shall I set the metronome at?

PUPIL: Set it at summer and pink and white and yellow bricks sunlight with blue sky and white feather dumpling clouds.

The cast enters and assists orally.


A cloud and a cloud and a cloud
Came into the blue afternoon room
A cloud and a cloud and a cloud
And a cloud and a cloud
a cloud
Mac Leod
A Cloud
And a cloud and a cloud
Down down down came the cloudy
With a windowpane shudder
And mirrors for your feet
People running into stores
Darkness in the library
Umbrellas blossom
Church is nearer through the rain.
A cloud and a cloud and a cloudy
Came out of the yellow garage
Joseph MacLeod in a many-coloured vest
Danced to the music dying in the west.

This whole piece should have the feeling of yellow and “Chansons sans Paroles” by Mendelssohn.

TEACHER: Why are you looking so sad?
PUPIL: I’ve lost something. I’ve lost a piece of the star Mr. Winemeyer gave me. I was trying to kick it all the way into town and it disappeared in the dirt.
TEACHER: Here – as a reward for playing “The Storm” so well.
She hands him the star.
PUPIL: But Miss Miller. How did you get hold of this? It’s my piece of the star… that I lost while kicking it into town.
She sits down at the piano and begins to play.
TEACHER: Now here’s the next piece of music I’d like you to learn.
She plays him the same piece of music the Hermit played, “On Wings of Song.”
PUPIL: Miss Miller. Tell me the truth. Are you really Mr. Winemeyer in disguise? Are men and women the same?
She smiles and continues playing. The light fades. The Wind and the rain doll pass with their branch shadows. The GRANDMOTHER exits. The GRANDFATHER, still playing the Hermit, crawls onstage. The BOYS run over to him.

((( ♦ ))) For more about “The Music Lesson” in the “Eighth Letter” section of Twelve Letters to a Small Town, see composer John Beckwith’s talk on “James Reaney and Music” at Words Fest 2016. 

((( ))) For more about the play, see Colours in the Dark and Mr. Winemeyer” and the March 2017 production by Edie Reaney Chunn and the King’s Theatrical Society.

John Beckwith at WordsFest in London, Ontario, November 5, 2016

Apple Butter at the Kingston Fringe

Congratulations to Helen Monroe and Jewel Weed Theatre Company for their successful adaptation of James Reaney’s children’s play Apple Butter at the Fringe Theatre Festival in Kingston, Ontario this week.

Originally conceived as a marionette play, this adaptation uses “actors, puppets, masks and a touch of magic” to bring the story of orphan Apple Butter and his sojourn at Hester Pinch’s farm to life.

Jennifer Brook designed the puppets and masks, and Peter Jarvis composed original songs for the play. The performers are  Nicola Atkinson, Adrian Beattie, Kayla Farris, Connor Marois, and Reanne Spitzer.

Part of this year’s Storefront Fringe Festival, the show runs from June 23 to July 1. Order tickets here.

Director Helen Monroe has shared these photos of designs from the play:

James Reaney’s play Applebutter at the Storefront Fringe in Kingston, Ontario, June 23- July 1, 2017.

“Tree Wuzzel” design by Jennifer Brook.

Design for “Moo Cow” mask by Jennifer Brook.

“Rawbone” puppet design by Jennifer Brook.

The Box Social and Other Stories

On May 30, 1996, “An Evening with James Reaney & Friends” was held  at the G.A. Wheable Adult Education Centre in London, Ontario to celebrate the publication of The Box Social and Other Stories, a collection of James Reaney’s short fiction.

Authors Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, and Colleen Thibaudeau attended, and Margaret Atwood spoke about her discovery of James Reaney’s writing in her college days:

I was a student at the University of Toronto in the last years of the 1950s, and James Reaney — who had been cutting an odd swath there several years before — was still an oral tradition. He was known as an enfant terrible who’d published a scandalous story called “The Box Social,” which dealt with gynecological matters unmentionable at that time, and dealt with them in a shocking fashion. (Inside the box of the title — supposed to contain a lunch — there was a fetus.) Nobody seemed to know where this story could actually be read, so its reputation was in consequence tremendous. (I’m happy to say it has now finally been republished.) Reaney was also remembered as having staged  a production of Beowulf in which Beowulf himself turned out to be the monster who was murdering and eating his own faithful followers. The more you think about that, the more plausible it becomes.

I was in the Honours English course, and as a consequence we read almost no Canadian literature; but my older brother was in Honours Biology, which included a Canadian literature course. You may ponder the logic of that — why them and not us? Maybe the biologists took CanLit because it was thought to have a lot of animals in it. However, I was in the habit of reading my brother’s books, and it was in the first Robert Weaver short-story anthology that I came across Reaney’s story “The Bully.” It made a big impression on me — it seemed a way of writing about Canadian reality that did not confine itself to the strict social realism that was mostly the fashion then. I went on to read all of Reaney’s poetry available at the time: here was a fresh, brilliant, and quirky literary landscape in the process of being formed and, I should say, against considerable odds…. [Excerpted from Margaret Atwood, “Remembering James Reaney”, Brick Issue 82 (Winter 2009), page 160.]

Note from Susan Reaney: The event was part of the For the Love of Literacy Writers Festival organized by London educator Win Schell to bring local writers to the school.  (James Reaney: Listening to the Wind, a film biography of James Reaney produced by Nancy Johnson of Lockwood Films, was to have had its premiere that night, but had to be delayed to the fall.)

After the introduction by Margaret Atwood, James Reaney had planned to read “The Box Social” for the audience, but decided not to and read “The Bully” instead. We were disappointed that he did not give voice to the long-lost story, but a friend from school days said that “The Bully” was an entirely appropriate story to read in a high school.

See also “Southern Ontario Gothic and James Reaney” from June 2015.

 More about Southern Ontario Gothic:

“James Reaney’s plays — Colours in the Dark (1969), Baldoon (1976), and The Donnellys (1974-7) — as well as his short stories “The Bully” and “The Box Social” (reprinted in The Box Social and Other Stories in 1996), also assume Gothic elements of the macabre rooted in nightmarish families and uncanny action. […]

What makes this locale so prone to Gothic tales is the failure of communication between family members or social groups. In the absence of communication, strange projections and psychological grotesqueries spring up and rapidly grow to unmanageable proportions. Malevolent fantasies are the source and sustenance of the Gothic tradition.”

Michael Hurley and Allan Hepburn in The Concise Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, pages 593-594. William Toye, Ed., Oxford University Press, 2011.

The Box Social and Other Stories gathers together nine of James Reaney’s early and more recent short stories and is available from The Porcupine’s Quill.

May 30, 1996 in London, Ontario — James Reaney with Margaret Atwood, “An Evening with James Reaney & Friends” (Photo courtesy London Free Press)

May 30, 1996 in London, Ontario — Writers Colleen Thibaudeau, James Reaney, Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, and producer Nancy Johnson of Lockwood Films.

James Reaney: Reflections on Shelter, Food, and “When the Great Were Small”

In his November 2016 lecture on “James Reaney and Music”, composer John Beckwith recalls James Reaney writing that “My experiences of opera were scrubbing kitchen floors on Saturday and hearing the Met broadcasts as I did.” What did Reaney mean, John wondered, his kitchen had more than one floor?

James Reaney's childhood home near Stratford, Ontario
James Reaney’s childhood home near Stratford, Ontario — Summer Kitchen entrance.

Yes, it turns out that “scrubbing kitchen floors” plural is accurate because the farmhouse where James Reaney was born in 1926 had two kitchens – a summer kitchen used May through October in the newer part of the house, and a winter kitchen used November through April in the older part of the house.

In his 1992 autobiography*, James Reaney reflects on “Shelter” and his first home:

[From his diary:] “Tuesday, January 3, 1939 – Wind: east, a sleety and very cold wind. Weather: very cold, snow deep, hard to get around.” Two months before we would have moved the stove and ourselves into the winter kitchen; a constant house-in-winter image, therefore, was passing through the summer kitchen, all cold and deserted, on the way to the pump or the barn. […] [p. 297]

On the topic of “Food”, he describes making toast in the summer kitchen:

“The summer kitchen would be filled with smoke resulting from our toasting of thick bread slices over, top of stove lifted, lids and all, open fire. As we sat down to breakfast, the kitchen was transformed by big, blue sun ladders coming in the east windows and slanting down to the linoleum.” [p. 296]

“Asked to name first foods that impressed me almost to the point of saying ‘dietary gods,’ I should have to say OATMEAL, MILK, WATER, TOAST. By many a mile, oatmeal comes first although the hard, hard water from our hundred-foot well is hard to beat.” [p. 295] […]

Now, the farm actually produced oats, a beautiful crop to watch turning from blue-green mist to yellow curved spikelets to dead-white ripe spilling into the granary from the threshing machine pipe. But the pursuit of status symbols prevented us from slipping backwards into primitivism, and my parents shopped for either Quaker Oats (not instant, long cooking; instant is an abomination) or rolled oats (plain brown paper bag). Sometimes in summer (see Alice Munro) we hereticized to Puffed Oats, shot from a cannon and supported by a radio serial called “Sunny Jim.” We even backslid to Kellogg’s Cornflakes or even Rice Krispies – again a radio programme tugged at us, in this case Irene Wicker’s “Singing Lady”; and for a box top from either of the above you could obtain a booklet called When the Great Were Young [sic] – stories of Michelangelo, Giotto, Bach − filled with notions of how to escape if need be from the farm one day. […] [p. 296]

James Reaney's copy of "When the Great Were Small: Childhood Stories of the Great Artists and Musicians as Told By Kellogg's Singing Lady", 1935 booklet for The Singing Lady radio programme, copyright Kellogg Company. Image courtesy Western University Archives, James Reaney fonds AFC 18.
James Reaney’s boyhood copy of “When the Great Were Small: Childhood Stories of the Great Artists and Musicians as Told By Kellogg’s Singing Lady”, 1935 booklet for The Singing Lady radio programme, copyright Kellogg Company. Image courtesy Western University Archives, James Reaney fonds AFC 18, Box A12-082-029.

* These autobiographical excerpts are from James Crerar Reaney, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 15, pages 295-297, Gale Research Inc., Detroit, 1992.

James Reaney, age 1 1/2 years, on his front porch, January 1928.
James Reaney, age 1 1/2 years, on his front porch (summer kitchen side) January 1928.

Butterfly decoration by James Reaney, September 1947 (ink on yellow paper)
Butterfly decoration by James Reaney, September 1947 (ink on yellow paper)

Goodbye to the Farm

August 2010 -- James Reaney's birthplace and childhood home near Stratford, Ontario.
August 2010 — James Reaney’s birthplace and childhood home near Stratford, Ontario.

August 15, 2015 — a sad day — we learned that the old farmhouse where James Reaney was born has been torn down. Our thanks to Laura Cudworth of The Stratford Beacon Herald for covering the story: http://www.stratfordbeaconherald.com/2015/08/22/the-childhood-home-of-renowned-south-easthope-author-james-reaney-has-been-torn-down

Fondly remembered by the Reaney, Cooke, and Chamberlin Franken families, here are photos of the farm as it was. If you remember the farm and have a photo to share, please get in touch.


Summer 1937 -- teh reaney farmhouse and the old barnyard (Photo by Elizabeth Crearar Reaney)
Summer 1937 — The Reaney farmhouse and the old barnyard.  The original barn was built in 1869, and the house was built in 1875.

Summer 1937 -- James Reaney's cousin Kathy Smith by the front garden (ECR)
Summer 1937 — James Reaney’s cousin Kathy Smith by the front garden.

ge 4) with his cousins, Elsie, Kathleen, and Mary, Summer 1930 near Stratford, Ontario.
Elsie, Kathleen, and Mary Smith with their cousin James Reaney (age 4) at the farm, Summer 1930.

James Reaney in the garden at the farm, July 1985 (Photo by Wilma McCaig).
James Reaney in the garden at the farm, July 1985. (Photo by Wilma McCaig)


The Story of North Easthope by James Crerar Reaney

From the 1982 Illustrated Historical Atlas County of Perth, here is James Reaney’s history of North Easthope. (James Reaney grew up in neighbouring township South Easthope, and his mother, Elizabeth Crerar (1898-1981), was born and raised on a nearby farm in North Easthope.)

The Story of North Easthope
Sometimes pronounced NORTHYSTOPE
and for reasons of space herein called N.E.

Prepared by James Crerar Reaney, 1982

They named the township after Sir John Easthope, a Canada Company director. Although he also owned a British newspaper called The Chronicle, I doubt if Sir John ever found out what farmboys in his township liked to do on Sunday afternoons in the 1890s. They’d go down to the Huron Road [Hwy. 7 & 8] to fight with their South Easthope contemporaries about which township was better. Picture them lined up on either side of the boundary exchanging stones, scoffs and fisticuffs. Well, whose is the better township has still not been decided. Born in the southern one, I say this: they’re very different from each other. With road names like Porkstreet and Hessenstrasse, musical instruments brought over from Germany such as pianofortes and trumpets, S.E. feels like a gently rolling part of Germany: with its steep roads going up into higher and even bluer hills and also with its kilted pipers at picnics, N.E. seems like a translation of Scotland.

Map of Perth County courtesy The Canadian County Atlas Digital Collection: http://digital.library.mcgill.ca/countyatlas/default.htm

But N.E. is not just Scottish; it was settled and still is made up of two racial groups, one Highland Scots and one Hessen Darmstadt Deutsch, originally about equal in size. One of my maternal great grandparents was born in Schiffelbach (Hessen) and another was born in Glenquaich, Perthshire. Their backgrounds are almost exactly the same as those of the groups mentioned above.

The cairn by the highway at Shakespeare commemorates such N.E. Highland settlers as Stewart, McTavish, Crerar, Scott, Fraser, Fisher, et al. They were crofters in Perthshire whose laird said in 1832 “Get out. I need my land back to raise sheep and you do nothing but distill illegal whiskey and marry your first cousins.” Be that as it may, there was, just before they came, a big fight with excisemen who tried to intercept a shipment of whiskey on its way to Breadalbane. When they came to N.E., some of them had their distilling equipment with them already to start again, but there was more money in growing wheat with no landlord to skim off the profits. Descendants have returned to Glenquaich (glen of the drinking cup!) and come back with snapshots of ruined cots and empty heaths. Such recent formations as a N.E. Pipe Band in the 1950s and an Easthope historical group in the 1960s responsible for making Brocksden School into a museum show that this group has no identity problems.

In 1835, Reverend Proudfoot of the London District sleighed past the new settlement and wrote: “50 Scotch families, most of them Highlanders”; he also describes the Dutch settlers around Helmer’s Tavern on the east border of the Easthopes as having “noble farms” and as holding “no man a preacher who is not inspired by the Holy Spirit and if he get his preaching talent so easily he needs no pay.” By “Dutch” Proudfoot means the Pennsylvania Germans of Wilmot Township, Mennonites, some of whom were settling in N.E. But what his statement also reminds us of is the fact that the Canada Company not only advertised local land for sale in Glenquaich, Scotland, but also in Bremen, Germany. In 1842, the company’s agent in Stratford issued 60 location tickets for N.E., most of them to settlers with such names as: Eidt, Erb, Faulhafer, Henkell, Herman, Hoffmeyer, Wettlaufer, Nafziger, Neeb, Paff, et al. Family tradition has it that avoiding conscription was one reason for leaving Hessen-Darmstadt. A persistent story is that their fathers sometimes held a boy’s foot under the horses’ hooves so he would be lamed and not grow up to march away as cannon fodder. To both groups then, Canada represented a release from unpleasant European constrictions, particularly poverty and repression. They were soon much better off in North Easthope. Descendants go back to tiny villages in Hessen-Darmstadt and return with snapshots of timbered, medieval farmsteads, still run by relatives as they have been for hundreds of years. How do you write a historical sketch about people who left Europe to get away from history?

In a sense nothing happens to happy people, but in N.E. what does happen in another sense is – “plenty”. Here in 1850 is what a hundred acre farm produced:
♦ wheat – 1,000 bushels, barley – 30, peas – 20, oats – 500, potatoes – 50; 12 tons of hay, wool – 100 lbs., maple sugar – 60 lbs., fulled cloth – 50 yds., flannel 50;
♦ supported 12 oxen, 7 milch cows, 10 calves, 5 horses, 35 sheep, 30 pigs, 200 lbs. of butter, 50 of cheese, 4cwt of beef and 20 of pork; also 10 people!

Katherine Fisher, who went to New York as a home economist, points out the drudgery involved: “Housework involved much heavy manual labour for our older sisters and rule-of-thumb methods invited contests with Lady Luck.” Also unpleasant must have been the strictly kept Sabbaths and Rev. D. Allan’s bringing up of young people before the session for their immorality in going to Stratford on Saturday nights. However, Lloyd Herman remembers “when we drove to Berlin to celebrate the change of name to Kitchener. My dad stopped off at Seagram’s Distillery in Waterloo and bought a five gallon jug of Rye Whiskey for $10 to make sure he had enough ‘medicine’ for the kids when they got bad colds in the winter time.” F. Addison Brown remembers a drive with his father down the Sawdust Road (Concession X) “through the little crossroads hamlet of Hampstead with its old-time tavern kept by the Peter Hoffman family, on west on our road bordered by rail fences, stake and rider fences and now, before reaching ‘The Gravel’ we traverse ‘The Sawdust Road.’” What one would not give now when making a journey to Stratford, as they were, to make it on a noiseless road of pine slabs covered “with a deep layer of sawdust from nearby mills.” Minnie Thomson, whose son named his famous artifact museum after her, tells of mischief in her corner of the township – near Ellice and the Irish School, the one part of N.E. neither Scots nor Deutsch:  “Young David Clark dearly loved playing tricks. One day he sauntered along – espied Mary Gillan’s chopping block, the axe and her cat basking in the sun.” Young Clark chopped off the cat’s tail and ran, but its eccentric Irish owner hit him with a heavy sled on his way home from school so heavily that he was in bed for months.

These and countless other anecdotes represent the real history of the township, but the political and economic context should be sketched in although it’s not much different from that of sister townships: the council meets at the township hall, rebuilt in 1963 beside the Hampstead-Amulree-Shakespeare road, the political centre of the township. Mention Ross McGonigle who held the position of township clerk for 25 years, retiring in 1975 and you get some idea of the community’s stability, not to be outdone by the father and son, A.M. and J.D. Fisher, who were clerks for almost 75 years.  Nearly every family has, through the generations, been involved in serving the township whether in political or in public service, the latter represented by such projects as school fairs, Junior Farmers, Women’s Institutes, agricultural fairs and plowing matches. For a long time, grassroots politics could best be observed at the annual meeting of the ratepayers to select three trustees for each of the eight public schools:  “The aim was to maintain the most basic cost of education possible in an atmosphere of seeming generosity.” In 1967, eight one-room schools – Brocksden, Bell’s, Clachan, Hampstead, Ratzburg, Irish, Burnside, Gadshill – were centralized into a township elementary school at Clachan. For further context, you should know that the township’s present acreage is 43,725; it has 335 farm residences, 303 non-farm residences and a population of 2,106, almost what it had in 1850.

A further surface history of N.E. would go something like this: 1835 – only five men own enough land to vote at Goderich against the Family Compact; 1837 – at the Little Lakes Militia parade, some N.E. settlers beg off for reasons of health.  Because they’re Mackenzie sympathizers? 1850 – James Trow starts to build up a power base from buying cheap land at tax sales which sends him to parliament and a manufacturing career in Stratford; 1855 – Crimean War produces wheat boom – up go stone houses and big barns; 1870s bring in cheese factories which take pressure off grain production; 1880 depression makes 1,000 leave for Michigan and Southwest Manitoba; 1905 – hydroelectric towers march across to Stratford, but no power for farms till 1938.  W.W.I. produces N.E. names on Stratford Cenotaph; veterans sally out in the early thirties to prevent a returned soldier’s farm from being taken over for the mortgage; 1939 – the Tweedsmuir books initiate historical research in the Women’s Institutes, a local, kitchen history movement instigated by a local woman; W.W.II, the end of the hunting clubs going up north for deer in the fall, margarine ends creamery cheques, more tractors after gas-rationing ends, no horses, bigger and bigger farm machinery, bigger fields, bigger all-the-same crops, i.e., corn. What next? How much farther can you go with mechanical farming? Back to 1850? Horses? Hay’s cheaper than oil?

But underneath, here is a real history contained in things that I have heard township people say:

“There were two kinds of gipsies used to camp in the bush. Scottish and Russian. The former sold lace.”
“Indian Sal used to pull flax. Drank vinegar.”
“Never played baseball at the Irish School. Always cricket when I was there.”
“If there’s enough blue sky to make a Dutchman a pair of trousers, then it won’t rain.”
“When it snows, there’s an old woman up in the sky plucking her geese.”
“I’m not pro-German, I’m real German.”
“25 men attended her coffin; she’d been midwife to their mothers.”
And in the Beacon for June 1, 1851 – “Queen’s Birthday at Shakespeare – 10 horsemen tilted for the gold ring.”

On Sunday, June 6, 1982, I attended the Annual Decoration Day Service at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, one concession up from the township hall, the oldest kirk in N.E.  My mother and her ancestors are buried there. As I put flowers on her grave using a juice can, I noted others doing the same – some with theirs wrapped in tinfoil. The church was packed, many young people and children in evidence. The Minister in charge was Rev. Sandy Fryfogel, scion of the first settler in the county. As I look over the programme now I see many Scottish names and also German ones; the programme mentioned a hymn sing that evening at Lisbon United Church, which originally was a United Brethren Church brought to N.E. by German settlers. Also mentioned was the coming 125th anniversary of the Presbyterian Church at Shakespeare. The singing of the psalms was loud, clear and enthusiastic; the sermon excellent – on the balance between the past and the ever-present, as a matter of fact. As we drove back down to Shakespeare, we saw the sheep on Bell’s farm. In 1832, David Bell was the very first settler in North Easthope.


For further background to Glenquaich, see Walter Scott’s Waverley, Annie Swan’s novel, Shelia, and Douglas Stewart’s Mactalla/More Scottish-Canadian Poems (Toronto, 1974).

See The Proudfoot Diaries, Militia Lists, and other early records at the University of Western Ontario Regional Collection. Also see Perth County Archives where James Anderson provided the notes and quotation for the political context paragraphs.

For information on German settlers, see Stafford Johnston’s “Hessian migration to the Canada Company’s Huron Tract” (Ontario Genealogical Society). Alice (Paff) Watkinson has compiled a book containing names of all Wilhelm descendants.

Katherine Fisher (Concession II, Lot 33) became Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute. See their Cookbook (New York, 1942).
Lloyd Herman (Concession II, Lot 10), “Memories,” 12 June, 1982, The Beacon Herald.
F. Brown (Nithburg), letter in Perth County Archives, 1935.
Mrs. Minnie Thomson, Avon W.I. Archives, 1947.

There’s a great deal more, both written and spoken. I hope some young N.E. historians get to work on the fuller account this great township deserves. J.C.R.

January 2, 2017 — Note from Susan Reaney: For more about Perth County and the early days of the Huron Tract, see Scottish emigré George Elmslie’s 1834 diary about his encounter with Perth County settler Sebastian Fryfogel: https://wcma.pastperfectonline.com/archive/7CFF3DD7-5CEE-4D84-801F-665918049019

“The Fryfogel Tavern” by James Reaney, 1962

“St. Anthony’s Chapel” by James Reaney, 1990 (St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church, a pioneer cemetery, is near Shakespeare, Ontario.)

The Royal Visit

Here is a poem James Reaney wrote about the 1939 Royal Visit to Canada by Their Majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

The Royal Visit

When the King and Queen came to Stratford
Everyone felt at once
How heavy the Crown must be.
The Mayor shook hands with their Majesties
And everyone presentable was presented
And those who weren’t have resented
It, and will
To their dying day.
Everyone had almost a religious experience
When the King and Queen came to visit us
(I wonder what they felt!)
And hydrants flowed water in the gutters
All day.
People put quarters on the railroad tracks
So as to get squashed by the Royal train
And some people up the line at Shakespeare
Stayed in Shakespeare, just in case—
They did stop too,
While thousands in Stratford
Didn’t even see them
Because the Engineer didn’t slow down
Enough in time.
And although,
But although we didn’t see them in any way
(I didn’t even catch the glimpse
The teacher who was taller did
Of a gracious pink figure)
I’ll remember it to my dying day.

Their Majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on board the royal train, May 31, 1939.

For more about the 1939 Royal Visit, see the Special Trains page at Library and Archives Canada.


The Royal Visit is included in James Reaney’s first collection of poems The Red Heart (1949). The poem also appears in James Reaney’s 1967 play Colours in the Dark, where it follows an actual letter a child wrote to his father describing how the Royal train failed to slow down on that day (see Act I Scene 13).