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Kathleen (Coulter) Armstrong, Nancy (Johnston) Martin and Catherine (Walker) Junkin Remember Growing Up in North Verulam

July 7, 2023

Kathleen Coulter, Esther Coulter, Janice Johnston, Nancy Johnston, Arleene Coulter

Kathleen, Nancy and Catherine grew up on adjacent farms in North Verulam just south of the hamlet of Bury’s Green. Kathleen had six brothers and sisters (Victor, Ken, Wilbert, Arleene, Esther and Eric) and lived on the East Half of Concession VI (now Fairbairn Road). Nancy and her older sisters Marilyn and Janice, lived on the west half of the same concession, while Catherine and her older brother Murray were across the road (now Walker’s Road). As they came of age in the mid-twentieth century, farm families lived and worked in close-knit communities, and spent much of their time near to home.

While all of their families had cars, driving to town was not an every-day occurrence, and because Kathleen grew up in a larger family, they could not all travel together at once. “There were 7 of us, so we couldn’t go to town at the same time. It was a big thing to make it to town on Saturday night to walk around. That was the weekly ritual and it was the one big highlight. Otherwise, if you got from Lamb’s School over to Fairbairn, you would think you had been to Toronto.” Her family often didn’t even make it to town to attend the fair.

As a youngster, Nancy’s family often visited Kriger’s Store (on the north side of Francis Street, just east of Colborne), where “mom would sell our eggs, and we really looked forward to an ice cream cone before we went home. While Mom was shopping, Dad would sit on a bench and chat with his friends. The kids just tore up and down the streets. There would be other kids you knew. Parents didn’t really worry about you, they just let you go.” By the 1970s, this weekly tradition was dying out.

Farm families often got by making the most of what they had. “It was just the bare necessities,” Kathleen recalls. “There were no toys, other than a sleigh that my Uncle Bill Brokenshire had made us out of wood, with metal runners. We would go up to the barn door, and then slide down and around. One day, my brother Victor managed to split his nose open, when he slid into the corner of the barn… Just the bare necessities really would describe our childhood. We survived.”

Most young girls had a doll, while boys might have a toy. As a boy, Murray’s toy was a wooden truck. Many families had a red wagon, that led to hours of fun as they towed loads and each other around the yard. All three families had a dog—Pat (the Dog) was Catherine and Murray’s pet growing up, while the Coulters had a Collie that would help as Kathleen’s oldest brother Victor would round the cows up at milking time. “A lot of time was just with your family,” Kathleen explains, “you just had to make your own fun.”

Though children were expected to help as soon as they were able, they also occasionally had the free time to visit one another. “Marilyn, Janice and Nancy were just behind us,” Kathleen recounts. “To visit them, we would just walk across the field. But I don’t remember walking as far as Catherine’s,” which would have been about a mile away. Kathleen and Catherine were about the same age as Nancy’s oldest sister, Marilyn. When they did find the time to play together, many of the games required them to use their imagination.

One time, when the Johnston sisters were over visiting Catherine, they decided to go swimming together. Without a significant water body close at hand, the farm would just have had ponds, which were shallow and murky, especially where the cattle were pasturing, so they decided to take a dip in the cement watering trough on the south side of the Walker barn. As they swam, they displaced a fair volume of water, and when Catherine’s dad realized what they were doing, their next activity was to refill the basin, with a hand pump and buckets. Over at Kathleen’s, there was a little stream where her family swam behind the barn.

Their parents also made much of their own entertainment, whether it was telling stories, recalling the history of the neighbourhood, or hosting house parties. Neighbours would share their musical talents, as everyone would get up and dance. Kathleen remembers, “my brothers, Victor and Ken trying to get me up to dance, but now I wouldn’t get off the floor. I guess I was shy.” Once, when her family was arriving at Maud Smith’s for a party, they heard that the fiddle player had died, “so we had to turn around and leave.”

Because the Coulters lived on the next road over, they attended Fairbairn School, while the Johnstons and Walkers journeyed over to Lamb’s School on the next concession to the east. While in summer they could just walk across the field, it was more of an adventure in winter once the snow drifted in. Nancy’s older sisters used to ski to school with Murray and Catherine. But since Nancy was 11 years younger than Catherine, by the time she was old enough to attend school there was no one to ski with, “I would start going through the Walkers’ Farm, but it got to be too hard, so I would walk up the road to where Jean and Joan Wright lived. Dorothy and Eleanor Lamb lived next door. Once I met up with them, we would walk through the field at their farm together. Or sometimes, Dad would take me with the horse and sleigh.” Though most families had cars, there was no machinery to plow the roads, so they used the horse and sleigh in the winter. When they arrived, there were separate entrances for girls (left) and boys (right).

In summer, some of the older students had their own bicycle. Catherine and neighbor Vera Griffin served as caretakers in Grade 7 and 8, and saved her money to buy her own bike. “Rather than walking, I would ride my bicycle around the concession.” Catherine did a lot of work to earn a bicycle, “Jean Jones made sure that we did not miss one bit of dust” as they cleaned. While Nancy too, had the independence of biking around the concession, over at Coulters, “we had just one boys’ bike,” Kathleen explains. “We had to learn to share because there was just one of everything.” Since the bike was the right size for her older brother, “we younger girls had to put our leg in from the side, underneath the top bar. Going down the hill from the house, I thought I was getting good, but I ended up skinning my knees. We didn’t use the bike to go visit other people, we just went to the end of the lane and back again.”

A few years before the girls attended the institution, Lamb’s School had burned, and classes were briefly held in a small wooden outbuilding beside neighbour Orville Beggs’ house (since converted into a hen house then horse stable). After the fire, Lamb’s School was rebuilt as a modern, red-brick structure, which was “an elite school,” Nancy remarks, “because it had an indoor toilet. Most others had to use an outhouse… But, there was no running water for the washroom. It went into a holding tank underneath. Every once in a while it was pumped out, but it smelled to high heaven. When we went down to the basement to use it, it was a great stench, though it didn’t seem to smell too bad upstairs in the classroom.”

Without running water, the students had to go and fetch a pail of water just down the road at Archie Flett’s (now Sam & Maria Beggs). As at most local one-room schools, wood was the only heat source, and the pupils at Lamb’s school helped to feed the wood stove. “At many other schools they had to go outside to get the wood,” Nancy says, “but at Lamb’s School the wood was inside. Each year the trustees would bring in the wood that was needed for winter. When I was in Grade 8, I was the school janitor, so it was my job to keep the fire going and sweep the floor.” The students also cared for the gardens, Kathleen recalls working the soil in skirts and dresses at Fairbairn School

The Christmas concert was one of the most anticipated annual events. “The trustees would build a stage and put up curtains for the performance,” Nancy recalls. “There was a lot of music, one of our teachers could play the piano and the banjo. The school would be right full of neighbours, a lot of people would come even if they did not have kids.”

As at many local schools, baseball was one of the favourite games at recess—every child, large or small could have a turn at bat. “The odd time we would come over the Lamb’s school to play baseball,” Kathleen notes. “That was quite the adventure.” At Lamb’s School, they also enjoyed tag, Duck Duck Goose and Bolly Over. For this game, the students divided into two teams, and stood on opposite sides of the school. One side would throw a red, white and blue sponge ball over the school, where the other would try to catch it, and students would get points for each catch.

In another popular game, if a leader yelled “BLUE!,” the students would run one way around the building, and the opposite if it was “RED!” “We didn’t play hide and seek because there was no place to hide in that yard,” Nancy explains. “In winter, if the weather was good, we would climb the fence to go skating on the ponds. Then we would let on that we didn’t hear the bell ringing, so we would be a little late coming back.”

Going to church was a memorable outing for each family. Fairbairn had a church while there was St. Peter’s Anglican and St. John’s United (formerly Presbyterian) at Bury’s Green. “On Sunday morning we left half an hour before Mom and Dad to go to Sunday School at Fairbairn Church,” Kathleen explains. They faithfully attended every Sunday, “and hung around a little afterwards to talk to our neighbours—there might have been 20 total at the church. Afterwards we would get a ride home in the car.”

As teenagers, Marg Quigley, the student minister at the local three-point charge, took the girls of the neighbourhood camping at Graham’s Shore, near Sturgeon Point. “That was our first camping outing,” Kathleen recalls, and having grown up where they had done their swimming in a small creek (or the watering trough” “we were so anxious to get into the water and we never dreamt that it would just drop off. Several of us nearly ended up drowning.”

Most of the ministers in the neighbourhood were students, and typically boarded with one of the families. Walkers had spare bedroom, and often hosted the minister. The minister often had a bicycle to travel to the three churches, preaching at Fairbairn at 11, Bury’s Green at 2 or 2:30 and Eden at 7. By the time the minister got home after the last service, it was often getting dark. Sometimes, Catherine’s father, Henry, would give the minister a ride. The student ministers often came around the middle of May and left in September. One year Doug Willis gave Catherine’s Mom (Myrtle) a hymn book to thank her for her hospitality.

While Christmas was a joyous celebration, it had nothing of the excess that families take for granted today. “Once I got red and black rubber boots,” Kathleen remembers. “I thought I had the world by the tail. One Christmas I got a new snowsuit. We did not give presents to our brothers and sisters, it was just whatever Mom bought for us. The presents were always very useful, there were no toys, and typically we would get clothes.” Some families would have a Christmas treat of an orange, and it was much the same over at Walkers, where year after year, Murray got long underwear for Christmas. One year, during the great depression, Myrtle sold the stone out of her engagement ring so her family could have Christmas, having it replaced by a fake diamond. Later in life, when money was not as much of a concern, she had the diamond replaced.

Most families did have a Christmas tree, but in the age before electricity, there would be no lights. Kathleen recalled, “one year Lila Coulter (a cousin) wanted us to come and see her Christmas Tree, and she had put tinsel about every inch out on every limb.” Often the kids would make decorations like paper chains at school.

The Johnstons raised geese and chickens, and every Christmas Nancy’s Mom (Lila) would cook a big chicken and wrap it up for the journey to visit Dad’s (Cessil) family in Haliburton. “Dad would get a brick hot to keep our feet warm in the car, because there was no heater back then. Twice we had to turn around on the way to the Christmas gathering because of the weather. One year, Dad got out to try to clean the snow off the window and lost his hat, and then we had to go home. For New Years, we would visit the Walkers across the road, and Mom would always roast a goose.”

Before she was married, Lila had been a teacher in Essonville, and she even had her own car. “Once she got married they wouldn’t let her teach, and she had to sell the car. Boy she really lost her independence!” She didn’t go back to teach later in life. Once, they needed a teacher in the neighbourhood, but she was expecting a baby.

The neighbours were born before the electrical grid reached Bury’s Green. When their community was connected, the line ran through the Johnstons’ farm, and they were given their connection (but not the monthly bills) for free, in exchange the easement across their farm. Before the advent of electricity, “we sat around the table with an Aladdin lamp in the centre,” Kathleen remembers. “You couldn’t see to go to another room without taking the lamp.” When these students had homework, they often did it with their siblings, around the table, by the light of the lamp they shared.

Switching to electric light was a moment that few rural families would forget. “We got hydro in 1948, when I was 12,” Kathleen explains. “When we turned on the lights, Mom (Amy), Dad (John) and all of us, walked out to the road together to see the house all lit up.” Over at Walkers’ having lights was so exciting, that it was like a game, turning the lights on and off, just to see the wonder of electric lighting.

Soon after, household appliances followed, as it was no longer necessary to fire the cookstove year round. “While at first we did not have much to run,” Nancy explains, “My aunt and uncle owned a Firestone store in Haliburton. Dad wasn’t long in getting a fridge from them. Then mom got an electric stove. But I didn’t have an indoor washroom until after I was married.” Catherine continues, “we didn’t have a washing machine for many years, we just used the washboard. I remember when we got the first washing machine with a ringer.” In the 1960s, many homes in the neighbourhood got a television, tuning in for popular shows like The Lawrence Welk Show, I Love Lucy, and of course, Hockey Night in Canada­—which many families had originally enjoyed on battery powered radios. 

Telephone was a much older utility, as the Burnt River Telephone Company had served Bury’s Green since the early years of the twentieth century. While Bell had been around since shortly after the invention of the telephone, they did not have the capital to service rural communities across Ontario, so independent telephone companies sprung up, to serve their local region. In 1912, Catherine’s grandfather was paying $1.50 per month for telephone service—a significant expense in those days.

“There were 7 or 8 families on our party line,” Catherine observes. “There were a couple of ladies in the neighbourhood who were really good at listening, so you really had to watch every word you said, because it would be gossip all over the neighbourhood the next day if you made any comment that anyone could pick up.” Kathleen continues “I can’t imagine listening in on someone else’s conversation, but it was entertainment I guess. You would never say anything about anybody that you wouldn’t say if you were looking them in the face.”

Each family on the party line had their distinctive combination of rings that would allow the others on the same line to connect directly. For someone further away, “we would ring Verlie Chalmers in Burnt River and tell her to ring so and so,” Kathleen remembers. “She knew everybody’s number.”

The personalized bedrooms that kids today take for granted are very different from what these neighbours experienced as kids. “We had a straw tick,” Kathleen recalls, “and when the straw got down so there wasn’t much height to it anymore, we took it out to the mow and stuffed it again…. When it was up it would be a good sized mattress, maybe 12 inches thick. If you wanted a higher mattress, you just got more straw.”  Over at Walkers’, the kids had beds, but Catherine’s room was so small that the head and foot of her bed touched opposite walls of the room. The largest bedroom, of course, was reserved for when the student minister was boarding with them.

In those days, bedrooms typically did not have closets—there was no need, a few hooks on a wall would be more than adequate. “We had our Sunday best and work clothes,” Kathleen explains. “Often when you washed your clothes, you put them back on again. And if you wanted to have a bath, it would be in a galvanized tub, with sides a couple of feet high. We had a pump in the corner of the kitchen from the cistern, and heated the water on the cookstove. It was so much work that everyone would use the same water. You wouldn’t sit in the tub and relax, you just got clean and got out.”

The house was often cold in the winter. “Things would freeze in the house,” Kathleen says. “Even the water pump. Dad was always up first to get the fires going and it would be warm as long as you were near the cookstove. But you could only put so much wood in the cookstove. We also had a stove in the living room for the winter. I wouldn’t say we were cold—but it wasn’t like it is today. We were used to it, and didn’t expect any different.”

In the Bury’s Green farming community, the diet was very monotonous by today’s standards, except in summer, when fresh fruits and vegetables came in season. For a few weeks each year, there were many treats to look forward to, as gooseberries, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, currants, rhubarb and apples came in season. But once the harvest was over, pretty much everybody got by on meat, potatoes, carrots, onions, turnip, and the preserves they had carefully set aside for winter.

“Supper was potatoes,” Kathleen recounts. “Dad always killed a pig, but we never had beef, so it would be some kind of pork. Dad even had potatoes for breakfast, often with eggs. When I was going to school, our teacher asked why we didn’t bring a frying pan in so we could fry an egg over the stove that heated the school. It was quite a treat to have a warm egg on our sandwiches. My mom had to make two pies for each meal. The boys would get 2 pieces of pie, it was said because they were working harder. We never were hungry, but it never seemed like there was any excess.”

At dinner time at Kathleen’s, “We always had to sit at the same place at the table, and we weren’t allowed to all be yacking away at the table. We had to be quiet when we were eating, that was one of the rules. If you had 9 people talking around the table at once, it would have been a bit much… Today, there is not the respect that there was back when we were young. You wouldn’t sauce your parents, we were not allowed to, and you never even thought about doing it.”

Though meals in the summer were a feast compared with winter, and though most families had a summer kitchen where Mom would be roasting as she cooked dinner, the whole building was hot in the summer. “But you never even thought of a way to cool the place,” Kathleen remarks. For women in those days, there was a lot of cooking to do, over a woodfire, in the summer heat. Like many of their neighbours, Nancy’s family had a big vegetable garden, and “Mom would spend half the summer canning and preserving.”

As they grew up the neighbours were always ready to help each other out, whether it was raising barns or getting in logs. “When my mother went to the hospital to have me, my sisters were staying across the road at Walkers’. Dad phoned to tell my oldest sister Marilyn that she was going to have a little sister, but Marilyn replied that I was supposed to be a boy. She had it in her mind that she wanted a brother.”

From the time they were old enough to help, children did their best to help their family get by. In farm families, the two-month summer vacation from school was not a time to relax and travel, it was a season of helping to get the harvest in. “Dad’s line was that they kept me for 10 months, so I could help him for 2 months,” Catherine recounts. “Even after I went to summer school, I would come home to help with the harvest or whatever was needed. For many years I drove the horses, and sometimes pulled the binder with the tractor. “Once I remember Dad yelling ‘STOP’ and I thought there was an emergency, but it was just that he had dropped his tobaccy, so we had to look in the dust for his chewing tobacco.”

Kathleen’s experience was much the same. “Once I could reach the brake and clutch, I would be out driving the tractor, or on the binder cutting grain. We had a hay loader where the bales came up on the wagon. The tractor was a brand new McCormick—he said just get on and drive it. At first I thought I would end up going right through the fence, because I didn’t know how to drive it.”

Even a lot of play was practical. “After school we would go down to White’s Creek,” near the school that Kathleen attended, “and we would catch suckers there. I don’t suppose mom knew where we were, and it was a 2 mile walk home.” After one of her successful fishing trips, Kathleen had her picture taken holding two suckers at neighbor Mabel (Tiers) Smith’s gate on Fairbairn Road.

As teenagers, many of the girls in the neighbourhood were talking about getting summer jobs. Kathleen’s first job was cleaning rooms at Horsley’s, Nogies Creek. Later on she and her neighbor Janice both worked at Fenelon Falls’ Sundial Motel. The six-mile journey home from Fenelon Falls was a long way for young adults, who did not have a car, so the neighbours stayed together in a little cabin by Norm’s Lunch, where they wouldn’t have to pay much rent. At the time, Kathleen would have been about 16. She also worked with Catherine at Locust Lodge in Bobcaygeon. “We stayed in a little building out behind. We were being paid 75 cents an hour, and when I got a raise to a dollar, I thought I had the world by the end.”

As young adults, these neighbours still lived in a very close-knit social world. It was often said that in going around the farm block where Catherine grew up, a traveler would pass 22 Mrs. Fletts, including her own mother, Myrtle (Flett) Walker—this counted both wives who were born a Flett and those who had taken the name at marriage. Unlike many of their ancestors, two of the three married outside their neighbourhood.

Both Nancy and Kathleen got to know their future husbands while visiting Fenelon Falls on Saturday night—both were offered a ride by the future husband. It was a way that a lot of rural couples got to know each other—it was picking someone up in a literal sense. Though Doug had grown up about four miles from Nancy as the crow flies, the wetlands around Hawker’s Creek tended to divide the communities. Kathleen’s future husband, Claude, grew up at Bury’s Green, and attended Lamb’s School with Catherine’s older brother Murray. Though he lived just a couple concessions over, Kathleen explains “I sort of knew him. We got to know a few people over there through Young People’s. The local ministers would help us get from Fairbairn’s to Lamb’s, and we would visit Eden too. Though it was just a few miles away, it was a big outing to make it to Lamb’s School.”

As these neighbourhood girls moved, married and began their adult lives, they did not forget where they came from. While Nancy’s older sisters moved to distant communities, she became closer friends with her neighbours, who had been much older than her as a child. A group of neighbourhood chums, who had grown up together near Bury’s Green, would be friends for life, “it has been the same 10 or 12 people since we were kids,” Kathleen explains. The relationships that were formed in this close-knit community would endure through all the changes that these friends would experience over the years.

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