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Katherine Wallis (1861-1957) Remembers Growing up at Merino

February 9, 2023

Katherine at Merino

Katherine Wallis had the privilege of growing up in very comfortable Peterborough family. In an era when most immigrating families were struggling to get by, many lived in shanties, and most everyone faced a lifetime of endless manual labour, just to meet their basic needs, the Wallis family was in a position to enjoy many luxuries. The Wallises moved from Scotland to Ireland after the Battle of the Boyne, owned Drishane Castle and the Maryboro Estate in Cork. With many tenants living on their estate, they received regular rental income. Her father, James, was a younger son, so he moved to Canada in search of his own fortune, and ended up partnering with Robert Jameson (grandson of the famous distiller John Jameson) to develop Fenelon Falls. He built Maryboro Lodge (a lodge, not a house by the standards of the British elite) where he lived for a few years. Jameson & Wallis quickly amassed 23% of Fenelon and 9% of Verulam Townships, including the townplots of Fenelon Falls and Rosedale, hoping to resell the land at the profit. Having bought the parcels from the Crown, it proved difficult to find buyers who were willing to pay a higher price than the government rate and the land venture ended up being liquidated in the 1860s.

In the meantime, Wallis was rescued by his family’s fortune back home. In 1842, he inherited Maryborough, Cork, and also another estate, Coombola. At about the same time he built Merino, a beautiful home just west of Peterborough (Peterborough has grown substantially—Wallis Drive and Merino Road are named for the family property), where he raised his family with Louis (Forbes), who was a wonderful singer. He became the gentleman farmer and steamboat captain, commissioning the Ogemah in 1852 (gimaa is the Michi Saagiig word for chief—Wallis liked to say that he was the gimaa of Fenelon Falls). James spent much of his time being a gentleman farmer, hence the name of his estate Merino, for purebred sheep that were a conspicuous sign of progress at the time.

By all accounts the Wallis family enjoyed a very pleasant domestic life, Katherine recalled as a two-year old, “trotting beside my baby sister’s perambulator [a large wheeled baby carriage] and watching my Father drawing out geometric designs on the grass for the colourful flower beds in which he delighted. To this day, I never see Ageratum without a pang of remembrance; he so loved its little soft lavender tufts as a border.” Louisa and James both appreciated high culture. The family often entertained other prominent families—the Moodies, Stricklands, Traills, Langtons, Haultains and Isabella Valancy Crawford. These guests had great talents in the arts and letters, and Katherine had the opportunity to learn much from at these gatherings.

The family valued creativity, and as a child Katherine was encouraged to nurture her interests and talents. Her father and one of his friends created the ‘Beast Hall’ which was filled with stuffed birds and animals, representing Canadian fauna. Friend Catherine Parr Traill made great contributions to cataloguing the flora she encountered as an immigrant. Katherine showed remarkable artistic abilities at an early age, and was given every opportunity to develop her skills.

 “Merino was entirely remodelled when I was about ten or eleven. I am almost afraid to say how far back these memories take me but I see clearly across the long vista of years a tall, fair, blue-eyed boy stooping to kiss me in my crib—my brother Jimmie who died at sea when I was thirteen months old. And I see the old white-capped nurse whom we ordered around about till her endurance reached its limit. Then we were summoned before our Mother and severely corrected—never slapped or whipped, which she believed to be humiliating for a child, but sometimes shut up alone in a room whose easy access to the sloping roof and a ladder proved irresistible temptation to this youthful sinner. Those sloping roofs, almost surrounded the house. There was a verandah on the west, north and east; and above the kitchen to the South, to which we clambered from the backstairs window; and, on the long hot afternoons, filled ourselves with the grapes that flung themselves up from the sun-heated stone wall.”

Katherine was very fond of Billy and Bess, two “black ponies who drew the carriage; and when Billy was not in harness, we had him saddled and one or the other cantered about the countryside. Sometimes there was a wild gallop across the fields in the early morning. When Billy was not available, we would go with a halter and an apple in the fields where some grazing horse, attracted by the apple, was noosed by the halter and led home to be saddled for a good canter. My father disapproved of trotting. ‘My sister never trotted, it is not the proper thing for young ladies,’ he told us; and so, in this also, our inclinations were modified from Home. My Father loved the horses and they loved him and nosed his pockets for lumps of sugar, but he was a careless driver; and chatting pleasantly with his companion, he left the horses to their own guidance, with the result that on one occasion, of a broken collarbone and ribs, which did not entirely teach him prudence. On many a Sunday afternoon, accompanied by a tribe of dogs and children, and with pockets filled with apples and lumps of sugar, he would pay visits of affection and inspection to the grazing horses; and an occasional snap from a jealous dog would cause a wild melee of flying hooves. The dogs, however, recognized their master; and no farm dog ever ventured to show himself beyond the farm gate till the day the master lay dying. Then the black collie came and sat in front of the dining room window; and raising his muzzle in the air, made this accompaniment of long howls to the passing spirit.”

It seemed that Katherine’s family was constantly entertaining their friends, relatives and associates. Guests often stayed at their home, and as she matured, Katherine was expected to help with all of the work that was entailed in maintaining social graces. As a young adult these responsibilities would consume much of her time. “One of the great events of the year was the New Year’s lunch for which preparations were made weeks ahead. The traditional dishes were a huge round of spiced beef, a boned and jellied turkey and a boar’s head with beet-root eyes and a branch of juniper in its mouth. All of these dishes were prepared entirely by my Father and Mother. In those days it was the custom for every man to call on his lady friends on New Year’s Day and in some of the great houses, such as ours, the ladies whose homes did not permit of large hospitality, came to spend the day and receive the Happy New Year of their male friends.”

“My brothers and their friends had always a four-in-hand for the occasion and proclaimed the coming by blowing a silver horn. The visits began towards eleven in the morning and continued till seven or eight in the evening and every visitor had a glass of quite potent ginger wine or sherry with which to wish the ladies a Happy New Year. The liqueur was often accompanied by little sugared cakes called cruller, made specifically for New Year.” On the occasion of feasts, “the great sunny kitchen” was filled with “incredible piles of pies and cakes!”

At the time, the Anglican Church was closely associated with social standing, practically being a state church in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Wallises and their friends were pivotal in establishing St. James Anglican Church in Fenelon Falls, then went on to become great contributors to St. John’s in Peterborough. “On one occasion, which almost became historical, the grounds of Merino were thrown open for a bazaar to raise funds for St. John’s Church and all the conveyances of the house and farm plied back and forth from Peterborough to bring purchasers and participants in the many contents, one of which was a ploughing match. That was not the only ploughing match that Merino saw: for sometimes, when a great field had to be converted from arable land, the young men from all the neighbouring farms came to contest.”

Her father loved his farm, importing purebred stock, like the namesake Merino sheep, “and black pigs of which he was immensely proud and one of which, an old black sow, followed him like a dog.” As a gentleman farmer, he had labourers to help with the back-breaking parts of the job. “It was a great sight to look out on the ninety acres which lay to the north of the house and see the long, rich, brown furrows stretch in their regular beauty where the rough dry grass of the hayfield had been, and the stalwart young men, with their bare, brown necks and arms, guiding the teams of horses with the look of somewhat resigned determination.”

The Wallises also had domestic help, a nurse, who had “come to my mother at the birth of my brother John, whom she always called Johnnie, and adored. She lived at Merino till her death at an undetermined age. Calculate as we might on thirty years in the West Indes; thirty years with her husband in Peterborough, no one ever found out where, and when she was born. Frail little old woman as she was, she didn’t lack in spirit or courage; and I well remember her spreading her skirts to defend her little nurslings (my sister Adah and me), from a crazy man who ran at us with a gun. This was in the days when the Fenian raids and the Ku Klux Klan were the bogeys of the country; and all the big boys (my brother Charles at their head) got uniforms and guns and drilled.”

“My father often used to say, ‘When Mrs. Cowan dies, you won’t have anything to talk about!’ She was a great character, a wonderful cook and needlewoman to whom Sunday was always a wearisome day. After gathering a good sprig of ‘old man’ in her weekly visit to the garden with which to scent her fluted white caps, she found the day intolerably long without her sewing, which would have broken the Sabbath. And ‘one very short Psalm, my dear’ was the only reading she could endure!”

“But as a rule, the farm men and maids were of Irish descent, for in the early days, my Father and several of his friends of Irish birth and descent, adopted whole families of starving Irish. [Katherine grew up shortly after the Irish Potato Famine.] The family of his adoption, a widow and her sons, lived in a little log house which was intended to be the lodge at the entrance gate. The sons did very well and became professional men. I do not think he ever lost the feeling that he belonged to old Ireland and was in direct line with the forefathers mentioned in the History of Cork as having greatly improved agricultural methods and, in so doing, helped the peasant population.” At Merino, James carried on, modelling improved livestock of the day.

Each summer the family threw unforgettable parties for the birthdays of Katherine and her sister Adah. “There were long tables under the trees of the little grove which led to the house, and I can still recall the piles of strawberries and jugs of cream; and the many games and contests, for which a good supply of five-cent pieces (before the day of the nickel) was provided. I do not remember that presents played an important part in our birthday celebrations and I think the children of today would find it hard to understand what a wonderful event a new toy was to us.”

As children, Katherine and Adah enjoyed many hours exploring the farm, enjoying the simple pleasures of country life. “We children loved it when new land was to be broken. The stumps of the trees were left and we could spend the long autumn afternoon making fires in these natural hearths and roasting corn, apples and potatoes. Coming home, only when the night had long fallen, the collies circling round to protect us.”

“The last of the merino dogs was Caro, a little King Charles not quite thoroughbred, but all the more beautiful for that lack. He used to sit on the back of my Father’s high-backed armchair, with his forepaws on his dear master’s head. From that vantage point he could survey the distant avenue and gate leading to the road. Caro never attempted to follow the carriage on the almost daily trips to town, but should our intentions be turned countrywards, he knew instinctively, and no power could keep him from following. He sometimes took excursions on his own account, and was more than once found after perhaps two days, in the little log shanty of the old woman some two miles away from home. What the basis of this friendship for the old dame was, it is impossible to say but he had a certain coyness about it and if you said ‘Oh, Caro, where is Nannie?’ he would go and hide.”

Though as members of the local elite, Katherine Wallis enjoyed a comfortable childhood in relative terms, she grew up in an era before running water, modern hygiene and without today’s medicare. Rich or poor, a large proportion of children did not live to adulthood, as the childhood diseases that are unheard of since the advent of hygiene, modern medicine, mass vaccination, took their deadly toll. Her family was struck by typhoid fever, with sisters Mary, Adah and Katherine all ill at the same time. “I was so heavy and sleepy that it soon became evident something very unusual was the matter. I rapidly became so ill that my life was despaired of. Among the four doctors called in, only one gave the faintest hope of my living—‘but she will never be fit for anything.’ When he left in the morning, he gave orders to pack my body in ice as I could not live through the day—yet here I am, writing these reminiscences fifty years later! My sister Mary succumbed, however, and Adah—though much less ill than we were, feels the consequences to this day.”

“My parents never got over this terrible ordeal and I do not think my Mother ever sang again. She had a most beautiful voice which had been compared favourably to Jenny Lind’s [a famous Swedish opera singer] in her youth, and I think [famous Australian opera singer Nellie] Melba’s was the only voice I have ever heard like hers. No one who ever heard He Shall Feed His Flock from the Messiah as sung by Mother, would ever forget it. She gathered about her all the musical talent of the country and often from much further.”

When family members fell ill, they were cared for as best they could at home. Despite her parents’ best efforts to shield their children from the harsher realities of life and death, there was no denying what was happening.  “I can hear, in memory’s ears today, the dismal shrieks that seemed to come from a far corner of the lawn as my Grandmother Forbes (many years earlier than my Father) lay dying. The whole awestruck household assembled, in silence, to listen; and we children were told it was a bird; which, needless to say, we did not believe. At the very moment of her passing, the watchers heard, the sounds of a heavy carriage, perhaps the ghostly coach coming for the parting spirt; certainly no material one, for we were far from the public road or railway. Both my Mother and my Grandmother were what is called today, psychic and I have little doubt that, had my mother lived at present, she could have developed into an excellent medium. She always regarded supernormal phenomena with a certain fear and avoidance; and did not wish us to know of them.”

Dutiful daughters, Katherine and Adah cared for their parents as they were in their declining years—neither hospital care nor nursing homes were then a norm. Being there for their parents, was a difficult period in their lives, lasting through Katherine’s twenties and into her early thirties. Katherine did not marry, and her life centred on the comfortable domestic life that she had been born into. The sisters did their very best as nurses and “to keep up the old hospitality.” Her mother passed first, then they cared for her father for six years. “When Father passed away, it seemed as if my life was finished—for I was tired out, physically and mentally.”

While the death of her parents brought her comfortable childhood experience to an end, it was also a new beginning.  Her brother, Charles Stayner Wallis (Attorney General of Manitoba) suggested that Katherine and Adah take their governess, Miss Buchanan on a European Tour. When they visited the Museum of Naples in 1893, she found that “I was facing something more living and with a higher beauty than anything I had seen before. Sculpture had made its first real impression on me. It is the Art of Arts!”

Years before, family friend Anne Langton had advised her that, “When I was your age, Katie, I too had a dream of becoming a professional artist. If you wish to attain your dream, you cannot stay here. Canadians are and will be for some time hewers of wood and carriers of water.” Katherine followed the advice, and enrolled to study sculpture at the South Kensington School of Art, in London, England. Her talents soon became apparent, and within a few years she became an internationally known sculptor. While working from her Paris studio, she was elected Societarie, Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts—the first Canadian to be so honoured. She served as a nurse during the Great War, but as Europe was descending into another great conflict, she emigrated, and subsequently set up her studio in Santa Cruz, California.

To learn more about Katherine Wallis, check out Gail H. Corbett’s book, Katherine Wallis.

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