Memories of T. Alan Clifford
For years I thought I caused the great depression. I was born in Oct. 1929. At age two and a half we moved to Queenston from Oshawa. This was probably due to the fact that my father may have lost his job at General Motors because of the depression or it may have been that my Grandfather had died and the farm needed someone to run it. Whatever the reason it was where I would spend most of the next twenty years.
Somehow, I seem to remember the streetcars stopping in front of the Lowery stone house where we lived but the memory is not very clear. Perhaps I just imagine it.
My first real memories begin when I was about five or six: the airplane swing my father built; the farm animals in the barn and the barn cats that would not come near me. The farm animal I remember most was the German shepherd watch dog, Prince, that was kept at the packinghouse. One of my early encounters with Prince, a very possessive dog, was the day I walked into the barn yard with a new pair of overalls on and to my surprise he growled and made a lunge at me to the end of his chain. This was a lesson in handling a dog; speak to them or let them smell you, don't expect them to recognise you by sight. He was very apologetic once he heard my voice. Learning to milk a cow was an interesting experience. Fortunately, I wasn't required to do it on a regular basis. We had a cow once that regularly kicked over the milk pail while she was being milked. They had to tie her leg to get a full pail. I recall weaning a calf by letting it suck on my finger in a pail of milk. I thought it was going to take off my finger. The pigs we raised for slaughter in the fall were interesting creatures as well, as were the two horses, Mack, the lazy one and Bill, the wild one. These two were soon replaced with a tractor.
On our property Prince was an excellent watch and guard dog. People would drive into the yard and not get out of their cars until he was secured or told they were friends. If I took him walking into the village he was an entirely different dog protecting me of course but tolerant of people and other dogs. Once there was a group of men (the Great Depression Years drifters) outside the fence of our property near his dog house. He ignored them despite their taunts. Finally, when one of the men threw a stone at him, he had had enough and jumped the fence and bit the man on the leg tearing his pants. Despite the fact my parents gave the fellow medical attention and a new pair of pants our small hay stack beside the barn was set on fire that night.
Years later Prince became very ill because of a fire at Levit's blacksmith shop in a shed that kept pigs. The pigs died in the fire and Levit left them to rot. All the dogs in the neighbourhood, including Prince, were attracted to the place and many became sick. Prince never really recovered from the incident and died soon after.
During these years dogs could roam the village freely and two I remember well. One was Bob Longhurst's dog named Bo and the other was an Irish setter named Mike owned by the Robertsons. These two dogs were the best of friends, Bo was the leader and Mike was the follower. They could often be seen out in the fields hunting together. The most memorable incident, however, made everyone wonder if they really were great buddies. During a friendly bit of dog play in front of Robertson's house, Bo got a hold of Mike's tongue and would not let go. Mike's howling and agony could be heard all over the village and people came to see the commotion and each offering suggestions on how to separate the dogs. Pails of water had no effect. Finally, Mrs. Robertson dumped a box of pepper on them and it did the trick. If dogs can laugh I'm sure Bo was, once the sting of the pepper was gone. Mike was the first dog I ever saw go under water. He would chase rocks which had been thrown into the water at the dropoff of the river. If the rock went over the drop, Mike would go after it until he totally disappeared from sight. He seldom gave up without bringing out the rock. Mike was also known for his travels. It was not uncommon for him to take the Cayuga to Toronto and return on the next boat. I personally thought he was enticed by some of the crew.
In the early years I was forbidden to go near the river as it was deemed a very dangerous place. This was probably true for there were many stories told of people who had drowned there. One was my Uncle Reg Sheppard's brother and another was a boy I knew. He was pulled by the current between the sandsucker, Cadwell, and the shore while it was unloading sand at the sandpile, the swimming spot on the river. This place was unofficially called the B.A.B. or bare ass beach. Occasionally, I did venture close to the river and could not figure how my parent knew despite how careful I was not to be seen. In later years I learned of the telltale sign that tipped them off. It was the red shale that clung to my shoes and clothes and it was found only near the river.
The sand pile, just up stream from the dock, (now the boat launch site) was where I learned to swim, despite the swimming lessons my mother took me to at the Jepson Street Pool in Niagara Falls. It was easy at the sand pile. You could dive in from shore over the drop and dog paddle back. It was a place for the guys but occasionally several mothers from the village would come and then we all had to find bathing suits or swim in our shorts. It was always interesting when the Cayuga left the dock and we were at the sand pile swimming. Most of the guys sat on the sand and covered up but there was always a few who said "to hell with it" and paraded around boldly in the nude with passengers on the boat admiring the view, or so the guys thought. Some years there was an old steam shovel sitting at the sand pile and it would get fired up by the boys and the bucket raised out over the water. It made an excellent diving platform until the owner caught on and threatened to have us all thrown in jail. The water in front of the sandpile was a back eddy and if you swam out into the river you could end up at the dock or go from the dock to the sandpile using the current. But there were dangerous undertows in some places.
You had to be very careful what you did in the village since absolutely every one knew who you were. I remember once accepting a cigarette from one of the Pearson boys (really bad guys that lived in a derelict house on the Parkway at Dumphries). No one used the Parkway in those days during the war so I was sure I would not be seen but when I got home the first thing my father said was "you've been smoking". I, of course, got strapped but for days wondered how he knew. I also did a bit of smoking with a fellow named Stanley Stuart from the Larkin Farm. He used to pick up butts from the road and roll the tobacco into cigarettes with tobacco paper he stole from his father. I was a bit more sophisticated and bought a pack of ten taylor-made Players from old man Kilkenny in his little store on front street (now South Landing Inn). Kilkenny had been the teacher and principal of the school when my mother attended. He wanted to know who they were for and I told him one of our hired men but I'm sure he didn't believe me. Stanley and I left school at lunch time and sneaked into the hollow to smoke. Not being an experienced smoker and rather ignorant of the process at the time I soon discovered these things could easily make you sick. I gave all my cigarettes to Stanley and declared my smoking days were over.
The hollow was a fascinating place. I had been told that years earlier boats had been built there and could never figure out how they could have been until we discovered the tunnel. The tunnel told us that the land had been filled in, probably when the power plant was built. A steel grate had covered the end near Willowbank but it had been removed by someone. We used to walk, bent over, through from one end to the other. I can also remember riding my wagon through it but that was difficult since the tunnel was round. It was a scary thing to do for a number of reasons. It was a long way to go and very dark; for a while there was a spot where it had caved in and, worst of all if you heard running water it meant someone in the nearby houses had flushed a toilet, or so we thought. This idea probably originated from the slimy mess at the end of the tunnel where it emerged from the hollow at the river.
I had a wagon. I don't remember getting it but I do remember its demise. It served me well collecting plates and spikes from the road when they tore out the old streetcar line. I collected enough scrap metal to almost pay for a new two wheeler, all twenty eight dollars of it. My father chipped in with a few dollars. I clearly remember the end of my wagon. The new road through the village followed the old streetcar line in front of the Mackenzie building. The old road around the back of the building was never torn out and made a great run with my wagon down to Clarence St. Unfortunately, the unused road was full of pot holes and one day I hit one and the front wheels of my wagon came off as I sped down the hill. I laid a streak of skin for a considerable distance.
I was happy to see the streetcar rails removed as was every bicycle rider in the village. They had been asphalted over but emerged menacingly back to the surface in many places. One morning I was speeding to school down the hill on my old bike. I had just installed a rear view mirror on the handlebar and was checking the view when I crossed a rail at too shallow angle. I went "ass over teakettle" and ended up in the mud in front of the Baptist Church (now the library). I sat in pain at school until noon and went home for lunch. My mother, I’m sure, thought I was faking the pain but let me stay home in the afternoon. Finally, about four she took me to the doctor only to find out I had broken a bone in my foot. A lot of pain can keep ones memory vivid. I was in a cast for about a month.
As any older person will gladly tell you the winters in the forties were different; colder with a lot more snow. I remember, after a major snow storm, the men from the village working to clear the road by cutting out blocks of snow with shovels. Of course in those days there were no big snowploughs or trucks spreading salt; just Pendergast's farm truck with someone on the back shovelling sand off onto the road. Sometimes, if John got out too early, we had to go home and get brooms and sweep it off so we could still sleigh ride down Queen Street. The usual run was from the store (it was beside the present post office) straight to the school or into the hollow. On occasion we started further up at the Mackenzie building or even up at the monument (Brock’s monument) but the walk always seemed too far for the ride and some of the corners hard to navigate. We owned a large bobsled that my father had built. It had a steering wheel on the front. At least ten people could sit on it comfortably. The Fleckneys had one a similar size but without a steering wheel. Frank Sheppard had one also but much smaller and, of course, just about everyone had a small personal sleigh. These were great social times and lots of fun. We sometimes got adults out to join us but usually avoided that because their presence could dampen the snowball fights while going down the hill side by side or trying to run another bobsled into a snowbank. Pulling people off another sled was also frowned upon. It was not uncommon for the United Church Young People's group to have bobsledding parties with refreshments afterwards but I was never part of that group. I was too young to belong when they existed.
Bright’s hill (Willowbank’s front lawn) was a popular spot when there was snow but usually only small sleighs or toboggans were used. Skis were not common but I do remember someone trying barrel staves with a piece of wire over the top for your toe. The carriage path made a wonderful jump for those brave enough to try it from the very top. Accidents did happen with people hitting a tree at the bottom of the hill. The land around the tree had been filled in and the tree base was about three feet lower. If you came close to it you dropped into the hole with devastating results.
We, at the south end of town, usually did our sliding at the Little Park (the one that marks where Brock fell). It was closer to home and the run down the edge of the Parkway was much steeper. On rare occasions we did our tobogganing on the Red Onion. It was a great hill but it had a wire fence at the bottom that spoiled the run and a lot of snowsuits.
Snowsuits in those days are worth mentioning. They were big, bulky and warm but made of wool. The snow clung to them in hard cakes and if it was a warm day the material became wet which of course meant you frequently got wet inside. Besides, when you went home and the snow that clung to the wool melted it could take days for the suit to dry. Consequently, you stayed out as long as the cold would let you and you came home with fingers and toes frozen, or at least so it seemed when they began to thaw out. My mother often greeted us at the door with a basin of water for our hands in anticipation of the tears that came as the finger thawed and she always said, "Why did you stay out so long?".
Christmas varied from year to year. I do remember going to my Aunt and Uncle's house in Niagara-on-the-Lake. He was a doctor and had two sons considerably older than I. These were boring affairs because I spent my time there with adults only. I was brought up in the days when children were to be seen and not heard and consequently sat and had no fun at all. They had wonderful dinners with a lot of people there but I felt lost in the crowd. At our house it was a little different but there was still a lot of adults. My Uncle Jess Ruley always went for a nap after the Christmas dinner and then woke up just in time to go home. He also always had to have mince-meat pie and was usually the only one who ate it. It was my job to get the Christmas tree. I usually cut the top off one of the spruce trees on our property along Kent St. We had a nine foot ceiling in the stone house so a large tree was required. My sister always got to decorate it because she said I didn't do it properly. On Christmas eve we were allowed to open one gift. I always opened the one from my Aunt Marguerite Rigg because she gave me fascinating presents. My parents usually gave us practical gifts. Once I got a lamp that I had seen in our attic.
Other forms of entertainment for us was the usual cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians stuff, along with the fort building that seemed to be needed. We had cap guns and rifles that went pop and the usual arguments over who had been shot and who had missed shooting whom. I had a great cap pistol that was a five shot revolver and took special round caps. But some of the best times as kids was spent on warm summer evenings playing hide and seek or, more often, kick the can. The can was always set up under a street light usually on the curb at the corner of Queen and Clarence. The territory was around Frank Sheppard's house. The game could keep us busy evening after evening and probably out of a lot of trouble. I also recall making paper airplanes and throwing them from the top of Brock's Monument. We would then run down and try to catch them before they hit the ground. No one ever caught one but sometimes they landed in the village and we were able to retrieve them. Mr. Bowles, the school caretaker was custodian at the monument and he would let us go up for free as often as we wanted.
I should explain my reference to "we". There were two groups of guys in the village. Ours included Walt Sheppard (He was called Pee Wee but grew up to be about six feet tall), Frank Sheppard, Bruce Potter, the Laidman boys who lived at the other end of the village and myself. There was another group that consisted of guys from the centre of the village. There was no rivalry but we seldom mixed. Probably social differences kept us apart more than anything. They did their thing and we did ours. Sometimes we played ball together against local teams but not much else.
We seldom did things that would get us into trouble but on occasion we did ring door bells, sometimes with a bottle of pee or water leaning against it. I vividly remember knocking on Mrs. Merritt's door and running across the street into the ditch just to listen to her rant and rave and tell us she knew who we were and was going to tell our parents or call the police. We always picked on the people who reacted best. One of the favourite tricks was to get a spool of thread, some rosin, and a thumb tack. The string was fastened to the tack which was put into the window frame of a house (usually the McFee's in the Mackenzie building). We would rub the tightened thread with rosined fingers making it squeal some what like a pig. The noise resounded in the house. We picked the houses where we could watch the activity inside from a safe spot outside. The Mackenzie building was perfect. We never got caught using our squealing pig.
My younger years were fairly carefree since I had few chores to do and was not obliged to work on the farm. We had a maid in the house; a farm girl from the West named Isabel. She had quite an influence on me during my younger years, continually challenging me to more than I thought I could. Some of her brothers came East and worked on the farm for a while. During the depression years there was always men looking for work. Some that we hired were fascinating people. I remember one who could do math with lightening speed. He could count the number of baskets of fruit ready for shipment faster that anyone. Even my father was amazed.
Most drifters who were desperate always received a good meal at our house. We never turned away a single person but we were careful who we hired on the farm. A few men, those who were deemed trustworthy, were allowed to sleep in a room in the packing house but this was not a common occurrence. Oddly enough, with unemployed men around we never locked the doors of our house. We did lock the packing house mainly due to the fact that we had a gasoline storage tank and gas was a rationed commodity during the war and in great demand. We had several break-ins and gas was what was stolen. The gasoline for farm use, during the war, was coloured purple so it could be traced but none of the break-ins were ever solved.
I remember asking our maid, Isabel, if one of her brothers would send me an old hat that they wore on their farm in the west. I, of course, had visions of them being cowboys and expected to receive an authentic cowboy hat. I was very disappointed to receive a battered and worn, old, dirty, yellow, straw hat that must have collected dust for years in their barn.
As I got older, about age ten, I was expected to work on the farm and started at ten cents an hour working in the packing house. At first it was half days but soon became full days doing menial tasks such as, moving baskets, boxes and putting tissue paper in the compartments of our cell boxes for peaches. What a boring job. But soon I graduated to driving the tractor and hauling fruit from the orchard. I was fortunate they let me drive the tractor for my first lesson was a disaster. I didn't know that by putting down the clutch the tractor wouldn't stop on a hill, you also needed to apply the brakes. I almost put the front end of the tractor through the big doors of the packing house. I do remember cultivating with the tractor and a big set of discs in the small peach orchard near the stone house and getting the discs caught on an iron bar. I pulled the bar out and throught it away. Later, my mother told me that the bar was there to mark the spot where General Brock had fallen in the Battle of Queenston Heights. I suppose, now I am the only person who knows the exact spot where he did fall.
During the pre-war years we had an extended Italian family who came and worked on the farm; the Romano family. I was referred to as " da biga da boss" and thoroughly enjoyed the whole family. In fact at about age eight or so I fell madly in love with their daughter Virginia. She was eighteen and beautiful and also very kind for she never discouraged me which I'm sure would have been devastating. I recall asking her to marry me and her reply was that I was a little young yet but she would wait for me.
As the war continued and farm help was in short supply we often had soldiers from Niagara-on-the-Lake come and pick pears since school age pickers were no longer available in September. These were not the best help and constantly gave us problems. Finally, one of the Romano boys, Frank, agreed to come and supervise them which he did very well and the problems were solved. Frank had a way with people and the vocabulary to go with it. I learned a lot from Frank and a lot of new words.
Eventually, with an acute shortage of farm help the YWCA opened up what became known as Farmerette Camps. The Y recruited young girls from some of the better boarding schools in Toronto and set them up in camps in the Niagara area. What a windfall for all the guys who were in their teens at the time. There was a camp (South Landing Inn) of sixty girls a block away from our house, sixty more a mile down the road and another sixty at St. Davids. It wasn't all a bed of roses for me. We had a hired man on the farm at that time that wanted nothing to do with managing girl pickers on the farm. I was given the job. It was really tough to get these girls to pick fruit all day and then try to take them out a night. As I recall the only lever I had to get them to pick was to threaten to send them to work in the packing house where my mother was in charge and they did not like working for her.
Without a doubt my teenage years were fantastic. I always had a vehicle to drive, usually our 1938 Ford pickup truck but on special occasions a car, for we had two at the time. With all these girls around one was never without a date. The local girls were neglected during the summer and we frequently suffered when the season was over. However, the summer love affairs often continued by making trips to Toronto. Some of my friends ended up marrying girls they had met as Farmerettes. I narrowly missed that fate. We did have great times with corn roasts, visits to Crystal Beach, going to the movies and many other things best left untold in this narrative. But one that can be mentioned was a trip down into the Whirlpool Glen. It began about seven in the evening for a wiener roast. Unfortunately, no one took a flashlight so when the time came to come back up it was pitch black and almost impossible to find our way. The girls had to be back at camp by eleven or they would have been grounded for being late. We did arrive late with skinned knees and elbows from falling in the dark and with this bit of evidence convinced the camp mother that indeed we did try our best to get the girls back on time. They didn't get grounded. It was of great concern because if they broke the rules too often they could be sent home.
It probably appears that these years were all fun and games but actually I worked very hard on the farm. It was not uncommon to be up at six to pick up workers in Niagara Falls and not finish until all the fruit was loaded on the Cayuga which left about nine at night. Due to the shortage of men on the farm the government allowed fourteen and fifteen year old to get their driver licenses earlier so I was often the "goffer" hauling pickers and fruit. Many days were fifteen or sixteen hours of hard work. Weekends were no exceptions, for we picked fruit sometimes seven days a week. Our farm had a cold storage which could hold almost a day's picking so there was little rest during the summer months. Besides that my father worked in Toronto for the government during the week and came home week-ends and expected me to help him when he was there. It was difficult squeezing in my social life between all that worktime. Having a driver's license had another inconvenience. I had an uncle who had a heart condition and a cottage in the north. I was chosen to drive him, my aunt and their boat to their cottage and help them open it. My parents considered this trip to be my holidays but in fact opening a cottage, chopping wood for the summer, etc. was far from being a holiday. Fortunately, I did get in a bit of fishing providing my uncle considered the fishing calendar to be in the correct phase.
The Cayuga was more than a boat that carried our fruit to Toronto, it also carried cars and passengers. I believe at one point the Cayuga was licensed to carry two thousand, eight hundred people. The number of cars was also considerable since gasoline was rationed during the war and the boat was a short cut from Toronto to Niagara. Its evening arrival in Queenston, and probably much the same in Niagara-on-the-Lake, was an event. Each evening residents would walk to the dock to watch it arrive, be unloaded, and loaded and then depart. It was a daily ritual for most village people. On weekends hoards of passengers disembarked to board busses to take them to the park or to Niagara Falls for the day. They returned for the late trip back to Toronto. Many large companies in Toronto had picnics for their employees at Queenston Heights Park. The weekend schedule was different than the weekday one. During the week there were two trips daily arriving around ten in the morning and again in the evening. On weekends the morning trip existed but the evening trip was referred to as the moonlight cruise. It left about six and returned at midnight. Frequently a live band was on board and there was dancing providing the weather wasn't too rough. In the earlier years there were two boats the Chippawa and the Cayuga. I don't remember the Chippawa too well but I could distinguish between the two because the Chippawa was a side paddle wheeler. Before the war the boats also stopped at Lewiston but this was terminated because of immigration difficulties once the war started. Our family acquired border crossing cards and we frequently went over the river and purchased items that were rationed in Canada but not in the U.S. The custom officers, many of whom lived in Queenston, were very lenient.
At one time streetcars came to the dock but that was before my time. But I do remember the busses and the bus drivers many of whom were real characters. Sometimes the busses would be lined up from the flats down the hill and along the dock area past the spring. They would leave and proceed around by the hollow and up Queen Street in a long noisy procession. A policeman was often posted at York Road to stop traffic for them to continue up the hill on the Parkway. Some of the busses seemed ancient things and barely able to make it up the hill. At one point, tractor trailer busses were used. Trailers were fitted with seats and windows and pulled by regular trucks. I never rode in one but I was told the ride was horrible.
I do remember the end of the season ritual for the Cayuga. On the last trip of the season the Captain, Jimmy, (I can't remember his last name.) came down onto the dock to say goodbye to the dock staff and in particular Walt Sheppard the dock manager. They made a great todo about how sad they were and when the boat pulled away from the dock, Walt got a towel soaked in water, rang his tears from it while the Captain laughed and blew the whistle in long, loud blasts.
We had riding horses when I was in my early teens, my sister had one as did I and we boarded one. My horse was named Jenny, Helen's was Jinx and the boarder was Goldie. I frequently got into trouble with mine. A friend and I once rode the horses out into the country and stole some water melons. The owner saw us and chased us in his Jeep. We led him on a merry chase through fields and rough dirt roads then when we tired of it all we jumped a large ditch and left him behind. Once we thought it would be fun to jump the hedges at the school and we really got reprimanded later for chewing up the school lawn. My horse did not like other riders and I really got in trouble when a city cousin came to visit from Detroit. I never did like him and when my father insisted that I take George riding; I gave him my horse. Along the parkway where we rode, beside the farm, was a ditch that we had to jump with the horses. I knew exactly what Jenny would do at the ditch with George on her back and she did not disappoint me. Jenny stopped dead and George went over her head into the ditch. He came out covered in mud. Despite my pleas of innocence I was punished. We also did some serious riding and usually entered the St.Catharines Horse Show. I remember winning some ribbons for seat and hands but I'm not sure what the others were for.
My Grandfather had had a lot of driving horses and the barn still contained a great quantity of harnesses. In the packing shed there was an old cutter (Santa like sleigh). Jenny had been trained for a harness so in the winter I frequently got the cutter, harnessed her with all the fancy harness I could find, loaded her down with sleigh bells and drove around the country roads. There was even a buffalo skin and a hotstone to keep you warm.
Unfortunately, the cutter met its fate at the hands of my sister. I was playing hockey in a foundation at the Larkin Farm when my sister and her friend arrived with my horse and the cutter. The harness she had used was not complete and was missing the britchen strap which is the strap that goes around the back of the horse and allows the horse to hold back whatever it is pulling. I told Helen to wait and not go home but Miss know-it-all didn't believe me that she would have a problem. Going down the hill from the monument, the cutter, of course, came up on the horses heels, it ran faster and faster until it was in a full gallop. At York Road it turned toward St.Davids then at Levit's blacksmith shop it turned in and my sister and her friend ended up with the smashed cutter in a manure pile outside the blacksmith shop door. The horse went home to the barn. I was happy when the horses were sold because I was the one who did all the work seven days a week, feeding them each morning and night, exercising them every day, cleaning out the stalls and grooming them. It had been decreed by my father that these were my jobs and Helen refused to help. Our hired man also refused to look after them unless I was ill and, unfortunately, I was usually in good health and very poor at faking illness.
The village school, Laura Secord Public School, was a two room school that, according to my mother, my Grandfather Charles Lowrey had been instrumental in having it built. I was told the stone used to build it came from his quarry at St. Davids. My Mother had attended the old school at the turn of the century. She also travelled by streetcar to Niagara Falls to attend high school at Niagara Falls Collegiate. At some point in time she was sent off to Alma College in St. Thomas. My memories of attending Laura Secord are still quite vivid. Four grades in one classroom seemed normal and we just assumed the lack of teacher attention meant we were free to do a bit of mischief. I remember getting strapped in grade three. Just why I don't know but whatever it was, I recall, I didn't do it. Back in those days there were students who today would be termed mentally challenged. One I remember was a very nice fellow named Barney. He was about six feet tall and in grade three. In those days if you couldn't do the work you didn't get promoted. His knees came up past the desk top by about two feet. He didn't do much all day just sat there. I felt very sorry for him and remember defending him when the other kids called him Barney barn smell. We sat at desks in rows that had lift up tops. These were great when you wanted to do something that you didn't want the teacher to see. We also had ink wells. Girls with pigtails always got them dunked in the ink, by accident of course. At the end of the year every one had to recite two hundred lines of memory work before you got out for the summer. This was a tough assignment. Sometimes, you could get out a few days early to pick strawberries for a local farmer. The pay was only a cent or two per box.
Much of the school yard was covered in cinders from the coal burning boiler which heated the school. A fall on these in the yard always meant torn flesh from which cinders had to be picked out. At recess the boys played baseball or soccer in season, caught frogs in the pond beside the yard, tried to start fires with magnifying lenses, built forts from which to throw snowball, or rode our bikes. No teacher ever supervised the yard. Occasionally, the principal, Miss Corman would come out to stop a fight but the teachers usually spent recesses in the library having tea. On rainy days the whole school would be sent into the hall for recess which ended up being a screaming bunch of little kids running around making a lot of noise and dust, while the senior kids sat around on benches or the front of the stage and tried to get as close as possible to the girl or boy they liked best. The school then, as was quite common, had separate boys and girls entrances. These were handy for some couples to disappear into after school for what I can only guess.
Teachers rang a hand bell at times but the school had a bell on the roof which was rung from inside in the hall separating the two classrooms. To ring it you pulled on a rope that emerged from the ceiling. Care had to be taken not to pull too hard and flip the bell over. If that happened someone had to get a ladder, go up into the attic, into the cupola on the roof and flip the bell back over. There was a door on the cupola that opened onto the roof and it had a latch on the inside. One Halloween we decided to play a trick using the school bell. Bruce Potter was the chosen school bell ringer so he intentionally flipped the bell over before Halloween so he could go up and unlatch the cupola door. On Halloween night we went up on the school roof from outside, tied a string to the bell, fed it out through the cupola and across the street where we hid behind the stone wall of the Bright's place (Grey Stone Manor) and rang the bell from there. Some nearby members of the school board assumed some kids were in the school and came to investigate. We watched as they went through the school turning on lights and searching. We then waited until they departed and rang it again. The whole process continued, to our delight, until it was time to go home. No one ever did discover who had rung the bell.
Back then Halloween pranks were just that, pranks. No real damage was ever done. Wagons were brought from nearby farms and left in inconvenient places, chairs were hoisted on top of the school flag pole, outhouses were pushed over, windows got soaped and other types of pranks were dreamed up and carried out. One that backfired on the boys that did it involved an old Reo truck that was on our farm. I had nothing to do with the prank but I did know who did it. A bunch of guys took the truck, flat tires and all and pushed it down to the dock. My father found out who they were and had a OPP officer round them up. He made them push it all the way up the hill and back to where they got it from on the farm. He was quite fair to the boys because he let them fix the flat tires first. It really was quite humorous watching these guys inching the truck up the hill on Dumphries St.
The stone house where I grew up was an interesting place. It had two foot thick stone walls. In these walls were small tunnels which I assumed were there when it was built to help dry the mortar. These made great runways for rats and mice. It was not uncommon to hear them during the night scurrying through the tunnels and around the window frames. I, of course, would have to put out poison to get rid of them. The poison looked like peanut butter and it was spread on bread. The rats liked it. We had hot water heating with big radiators and a huge furnace in the basement that burned wood from the farm until Christmas and coal from then until spring. The wood was a job I hated. The hired man brought it from the farm in our truck. I had to unload it, throw it through a window into the basement and then go into the basement and carry it across the basement and pile it near the furnace. It could take a whole Saturday to do just one load of wood and a lot was needed to heat our place until Christmas. The coal was easier, it went from the coal truck, down a chute into the coal bin right beside the furnace. I could never understand why my parents insisted on burning wood all fall. Burning coal was always interesting. If you didn't load the furnace properly and leave a small flame burning, coal gas would build up and the furnace would explode. This was always an exciting event especially in the middle of the night. We had a summer kitchen attached to the house and in it was a large wood burning range. It was my job to always have the wood box full to keep it going. There was also another kitchen in the house with an electric stove. I was never sure why there were two.
Our drinking water, before the Queenston water system was installed, came from a well beside the house. It was my job to always have the drinking water pail full. The pump that brought it from the well was a devil in disguise. It was called a Boston pump and consisted of a chain of cups that dropped into the well when you turned the handle and rose on the other side and dumped into a spout and out to the waiting bucket. A great invention that resembled the workings of irrigation equipment employed by Egyptians along the Nile. There was just one thing wrong with the dam pump. The little dog in the gears that kept the process from going backwards didn't always work and the handle frequently spun backwards with the weight of the water and almost always succeeded in taking all the skin off your knuckles.
The house had a large attic full of mysterious trunks and other things. Occasionally, on rainy days, when we must have been driving our mother crazy, my sister and I were allowed to go into the attic to play. There were wardrobes full of long dresses and hoop skirts in which we dressed. There were steamer trunks full of old books, others full of old tin-type pictures, wash stands with bowls and potties and pitchers, piles of gilded picture frames and lots of walnuts that the squirrels had stored. There were several old clocks that we wound up and got chiming. We would leave them working for our parents to stop, hopefully in the middle of the night. On the front of the building was a two story veranda. My father had screened in the upper story and on hot summer evenings my sister and I would sleep out there on cots. I can remember how we would watch the lightning storms with their vivid displays while lying in bed. We had a fruit cellar in the basement that stored canning and some root vegetables from the garden. It was not uncommon to have hundreds of jars of canned fruit and vegetables stored there for the winter. Before the water system in the village we drew water for the house from a cistern near the house. This had to be cleaned occasionally by emptying it and then going inside and shovelling out the decayed leaves and hopefully no dead animals. It was a smelly job but a great one on a hot summer day.
We once had a spectacular fire in Queenston. A large three story double, frame, house burned to the ground. It was the home of the Longhurst family and the school principal, Miss Corman. I was the first to discover it. I was walking down the street and saw a large glow at the back of the part where Longhursts lived. I called to Bob Longhurst who was in front of the store that his house was on fire. He came running and said his father was inside. I boosted him up to the front veranda on the second floor where he broke in a door. He soon emerged with his father and we helped him to the ground. Jake Sheppard arrived and went to the Sheppard house across the street (Laura Secord House) to call the fire department. The fire was so spectacular it was seen in Lewiston across the river. They sent a tanker truck from their department to come over the bridge and help. The old Queenston bridge could not carry the weight of the truck so they went to Niagara Falls crossed the Lower Bridge came down the Parkway and arrived at the fire well before the fire truck from St. Davids. As it turned out Jake Sheppard had not been able to call because, he said, someone was on the party line and he couldn't get through. It never occurred to him to tell them there was an emergency. I was almost killed after the fire. The building had a large chimney that remained standing after the building had burned. As I stood looking at the burned out building I was suddenly engulfed in dust. The chimney had fallen and missed me by only a few feet. It wasn't often we had excitement like that in Queenston.
We skated a lot in the winter in a variety of places. There was an arena in Niagara Falls that had general skating but more often we did our skating in small ponds in or near the village. The frog pond was one such place. It has now been filled in but it did exist along the streetcar line near the Parkway and York Road. The pond at the school, now also filled in, was another place as was a wooded area in the back of Reg Sheppard's farm near the present Shalamar property. For a few years we played hockey against boys from St.Davids on a rink they had constructed on the Four Mile Creek. The water was from the spring above St.Davids and it made poor flaky ice. One of the best spots for hockey was the one mentioned earlier on the Larkin Farm. In later years the firemen helped by making a rink at the school. I can remember flooding it into the wee hours of the morning and sitting in a cold shack across the road waiting for the ice to freeze so we could flood it again.
The Laidman boys, Ken and Larry, operated a gas station and snack bar at the corner of the Parkway and York Road. York Road at that time was a major highway, an extension of #8, and called #8A. A lot of traffic passed along it because of the old Queenston-Lewiston bridge. The gas station became a focal point for us and somewhat of a retreat for me. Of course, some of the Farmerettes gathered there as well. The Laidman boys had to be there and we joined them to talk and help as well. We also build model airplanes there that flew and radio controlled ones that all too often crashed prematurely. I suppose it got us through the gang age years without ever getting into trouble. We found it quite fascinating to talk to the Americans that stopped for gas who seemed to know very little about Canada. We had some who came with skis in the summer looking for snow; one who had just come clear across Canada from Detroit and one whose vacation we completely spoiled by telling him he could not go to Montreal in the morning and be back for lunch and then go to Winnipeg in the afternoon. I'll always remember the expression on a man from Texas when we told him that Ontario was two and a half times bigger than Texas.
During these years there were two churches in the village; the United and the Anglican. Any Roman Catholics had to go to Niagara-on-the-Lake or Niagara Falls. I must confess that there was a bit of religious prejudice but it did not interfere with people's relationships with each other. My mother's bridge club had women of all three denominations in it and they were all the best of friends. I attended the United Church and even received medals for good attendance at Sunday School. I recall when I was about eight or nine being all dressed up by my mother in a blue suit, shirt and tie, shiny black shoes and a blue fedora hat with a red feather and parading with the family down the street to the church. I suppose it was all in fashion at the time. One of the big events in the year was the church picnic at Brock's Monument. I don't remember them too well but the races were fun and the ice-cream that came in big canvas bags with dry ice to keep it cold was always welcome. We would take the dry ice to the wading pool and put it in the water to watch it boil. A large building on Front Street called the Fisher Block existed in these years. Some of it was a sort of a low rental apartment and this was reflected in those who rented. I recall being warned by my mother about a lady named Rosie who lived there for a while. I received a little speech about the birds and bees and the dangers therein. The building also contained the Imperial Bank branch. I remember going there to open an account on the day they closed it and moved to St. Davids. I managed to open the account and kept the same account number, 326, until the bank finally forced me to change the number because the computerized system could not handle it. The building was in a poor state of repair and was eventually torn down.
The war did not affect us very much. The rationing was a problem for many but living on a farm meant we had lots to eat. A shortage of sugar seemed to be one of the biggest problems especially at canning time. The detour around the Hydro Plants was an inconvenience when you went to the Falls. We had blackout drills in the village. As a boy scout I was one of several boys given a British army helmet and sent out on our bikes during the blackout to check on lights shining from houses. We were considered messengers. I still have the helmet with an "M" on the front. There were a few soldiers around but they were not too visible. The reserves were used to guard the Hydro Plant and the hydro canal. One of them used to call on a maid that worked for us in the house.
Queenston did have a very active Cub and Boy Scout Troop to which I belonged for many years. Reeser Laidman and others were the leaders. We had weekly meetings and worked at acquiring badges for our uniforms. I suppose I learned a lot but one thing I remember very well was a Halloween party in the basement of Wally Armstrong's house on the Parkway. I recall being blindfolded and having to put my hand in a bowl of someone's brains. They also made me sit in a tub of water that only seemed to be there. Probably, the greatest value of Cubs and Scouts was the social aspect which bonded and guided a lot of young boys through our formative years.
These were great years in which to grow up and the village provided a wonderful environment in which to do so. There was so little pressure on us to do what was right and stay out of serious trouble. Some of the local boys did spend time in jail for breaking into Bright’s house but those events were very rare. The use of drugs, and alcohol were not thought about and the fact that everyone knew who you were kept us from committing serious misdemeanors.
I actually spent a lot of time in Toronto since getting there was just a matter of getting on the boat. You could even come back the same day on the boat. Going to the C.N.E. became an annual pilgrimage. With my father having a place for me to stay in Toronto it meant I frequently spent weekends there. This was very convenient to extend a summer romance, in fact one continued for quite a few years. Shopping trips to Eatons and Simpsons were made possible by the Cayuga. Being dragged through these stores by my mother while she shopped was not something to which I looked forward. It became a long, tiring day. Despite the fact that I grew up in a rural village, frequent trips to Toronto probably keep me from becoming a country bumpkin; that and being sent off to boarding school at Ridley College in St.Catharines. I do remember learning how to leave a streetcar when accompanying a girl when she told me I had to leave first and take her hand. I had always thought it was ladies first.
In 1944 my parents shipped me off to boarding school. I'm not sure just what the reason was but I suspect it was to keep me from being influenced by some undesirable peers in the village. My years at Ridley are looked back upon with mixed feelings, I thoroughly enjoyed my time there especially the sports and the comradery. But in retrospect, I'm not sure I received a great education in some areas and it took several years for me to sort out who I was from a social aspect.
I suppose most people, when they have grown up, consider their home town or neighbourhood to have been a wonderful place. I certainly do and there is not much I would change if I had to do it again. I feel fortunate to have had a childhood in such a wonderful setting; the village of Queenston.