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Remembering When with Gladys Suggitt: Author of Roses and Thorns

June 15, 2023

By Ernest Hills

Originally Published in the North Kawartha Times, February 4, 1986

Gladys Suggitt becomes animated in a discussion of the pioneer spirit she so ably captured in her book Roses and Thorns. She is more than an historian of the region, she is also a shaman who listens to the growing of the corn and understands the balance between man and nature.

She has spent all her life on the family farm, in a part of the Township known as Baddow. She is the heart and soul of a generation, which is which is passing into obscurity, more often than not unable to pass along a kindred feeling for the land. “A real farmer can walk out into his pasture, the sun warm upon his skin and the cattle lying content under the trees, and he’ll sit and appreciate the beauty; he’ll feel the warm texture of the soil, and he won’t think once about money, or where the next dollar is coming from.”

Despite her keen interest in the pioneer heritage of Baddow, Gladys Suggitt never intended to write a book. The beginnings of Roses and Thorns goes back to the mid-to-late 1950s. Miss Suggitt’s mother was in her 95th year when she passed away. She was in failing health and somewhat hard of hearing, when a young Kathy Potter entered a school essay contest, and asked for her assistance. The contest was sponsored by Lakeview Women’s Institute, between the Baddow and Fell Schools. Owing to the senior Mrs. Suggitt’s difficulty hearing, Kathy Potter sought to retrieve some of her valuable recollections in the form of written notes and questions. Those jottings were to become the first of many accumulated over 15 years of research by Gladys Suggitt.

Much of the thought and deliberation which went into the book occurred while she was involved in doing the chores. “It’s remarkable what thoughts come to you while you’re milking cows,” she quips. Another valuable source of material came courtesy of the Women’s Institute when, in the course of being asked to speak on certain topics, she would undertake to thoroughly research her material. “I would always jot down information on the different subjects.” The material she accumulated over the years “was just a jumble, when friends encouraged me to put it into book form. The first task was to separate it into chapters.”

Janet Ellis, a friend of Miss Suggitt, helped to edit the manuscript, which was originally hand written. It was later typed by another friend, Edith Watson. The problem for Miss Suggitt and her supporters was that there was no money to get the book published. Their first course of action was to approach local councils. “Somerville Council turned down our request for financial assistance with the publishing, so we turned to Fenelon Council. We made five trips to attend Council meetings, but never did meet because the meetings kept getting postponed. So we quit that route.”

Just when things looked pretty bleak, a local farmer, whose family had provided a good deal of material for the book, requested the loan of the manuscript, to show a friend who had a cottage on the lake. Ed White presented the manuscript to Mr. Stanley Leek, who asked to have the manuscript for two weeks. Leek was later to call Gladys Suggitt. He said he put up the money to publish 3000 copies. His only request was that it be published at a little place in Peterborough, which he knew was in financial trouble.

“When we enquired it was going to cost $10,000 to print 3000 copies, so we suggested to Mr. Leek that we cut back to 2000 copies, but he said no, and insisted on 3000. The deal was we’d pay half, $5,000 on delivery and the other half in six months. Mr. Leek didn’t need to put up the second $5,000. Enough books had sold in 6 months to cover the expense. To date we have sold 6000 copies.”

From the outset, Miss Suggitt, who has lost 4 nieces and nephews to cystic fibrosis, agreed that half the proceeds from the book would be donated to the Cystic Fibrosis Association. To date, $10,000 has been donated through sales of Roses and Thorns.

When she recalls the research a little anecdote comes to mind. “I couldn’t find much material on the O’Brien family, but I knew there was a cousin in Rosedale who put me on to Silas O’Brien who farmed north of Coby, who told me to write to a sister in Toronto, who in turn gave me the address of a half-sister in Winnipeg. And that’s how I pieced together the O’Brien story.”

She explains that the cover for the book was designed by Bill White, the son of Ed White, who made the initial contact with Stanley Leek. People mistakenly identify her with the elderly lady in the photo which forms the front cover, however, it is a picture of Mrs. Purdue, one of the pioneer families from the Baddow area.

“It was community spirit which made pioneer life a success,” she notes, recalling the difficult times on their own farm when neighbours and friends would lend a helping hand. Today, as yesterday, she continues to compile information between the daily routine of the farm chores. When the next volume of her labour appears, not surprisingly, she’d like to title it, The Romance of Farming.

Unfortunately, Gladys became ill with cancer, and died unexpectedly the following year, before she could finish the Romance of Farming. Gladys is fondly remembered by the families of the Baddow area, and Roses and Thorns is a much appreciated local history.

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