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Ruth (Almas) Simmons Remembers Corson’s Siding and Fair Havens Bible Conference

October 24, 2023

Jane, Ruth and Grace Almas with Pat the Dog in front of the Barn at the Parsonage, Corson's Siding

Corson’s Siding was founded in the 1860s by Captain William Henry Corson, a sailing captain from Hamilton. Corson decided to enter the lumber business and opened a sawmill on Raven Lake, while acquiring a block of land between the Laidlaw Estate and Coboconk. He was successful in securing a contract to supply rail ties for the Toronto & Nipissing Railway (which in reality only stretched as far north as Coboconk), another to supply charcoal for Gooderham & Worts Toronto distillery (used to filter whiskey), and in marketing much cordwood in Toronto.

But he had a hard time finding enough labourers locally, so he brought sailors north for the winter. As these men enjoyed plenty of whisky and their prostitutes, many locals were scandalized, and the settlement became known as “Hell’s Half Acre.” The name Corson’s Siding reflected its place as a railway siding on the Toronto & Nipissing Railway.

In the Dirty Thirties, the boom years of the rush to get out the forest resources of North Victoria County had ended and the colourful characters who had worked in the woods were becoming a distant memory. Ruth’s parents came to Corson’s Siding from Burlington, just across the bay from Hamilton, where Corson had operated his shipping business. Evelyn was a practical nurse, while her husband, Ross Almas, had trained to be a minister. They had planned to become missionaries in Africa, but after the stock market crash of 1929, that endeavour no longer seemed possible. Instead, Ross accepted the position of Pastor in the small, independent Gospel Church in Corson’s Siding. Their church in Burlington encouraged them and gave some financial support.

Ross and Evelyn Almas set out to serve at Corson’s Siding on a journey that still had the feeling of being an adventure to a less developed region similar to the time when the Captain had trekked north two generations earlier. Burlington was a prosperous community on the shore of Lake Ontario, surrounded by well- established farming communities. “The Siding” in Bexley township, on the other hand, was located on the fringe of the Canadian Shield, with the shallow soils interspersed with the alvars of Carden Plains and Indian Point. Farming in this neighbourhood was much more challenging than on the prime agricultural land surrounding Lake Ontario. In that era, the roads heading north were rough and unpredictable especially in the winter.

Once Ross and Evelyn arrived, they had to adjust to a new way of life. There was no indoor plumbing, telephone, or electricity. Heating and cooking were done with wood stoves. The congregation at the home church in Burlington helped in many ways. They often sent boxes of clothing that would be distributed to “the folks up north”. Ross preached at the Corson’s Siding Gospel Tabernacle. He also travelled to preach at local schoolhouses, including Uphill and Head Lake.

“On a good Sunday there would be about 35 people at the church, but smaller numbers at the schoolhouse meetings. Often on a summer Sunday, a cat, dog or chicken would join service by walking through the open door. Most of the congregants were farmers from the vicinity, not many of the attendees were from Corson’s Siding itself. Two of the ladies took turns playing the pump organ for the singing,” recalls Ruth.

Even with the support that came from the congregation back in Burlington, being a preacher at Corson’s Siding was not an abundant livelihood. Like most of the families in the area, Ross and Evelyn had to diversify to get by. Ross came from a family of market gardeners and used these skills to plant a large garden each year. When he wasn’t caring for his congregation, he travelled to the cottages on the north shore of Balsam Lake to peddle vegetables.

Evelyn put her nurse’s training to good use, doing what she could to help the families in the area. She often worked with Dr. Anderson from Kirkfield, helping to deliver babies. Babies were born at home in those days.  Ruth remembers, “At one delivery, the childbirth went well, but then they heard some bangs in the back yard. One of the older kids had been playing with some bullets and blew two of his fingers off.”

As a nurse, Evelyn took an interest in improving the local diet. “She worried that the diet of mostly meat and potatoes left children somewhat undernourished. “Dad grew vegetables such as celery and cauliflower, some of these were new to the people in the region.”

In Corson’s Siding, people picked small wild strawberries, which they preserved for winter. “Whole families would go berry picking, and not just for strawberries.  Many travelled north of Uphill for blueberries and huckleberries.” When Ross came to Corson’s Siding, he introduced cultivated strawberries. They were not known in the settlement, so he had his family send up plants from Burlington. His family in Burlington would also send a crate of strawberries along with sweet and sour cherries. Evelyn preserved these in quart sealers. “Every family had a cellar where they stored their preserves for winter. My mom spent many hours canning fruits, vegetables, and making jams and pickles.”

Ruth was born at Corson’s Siding in 1934, the second of five children. It was very important to her mother that the children were vaccinated. Evelyn had grown up in an era when many children contracted infectious diseases that led to their deaths. The development of vaccines prevented these tragedies. “Mom made sure we went to the doctor in Coby (Coboconk) to get the needles for diphtheria; she knew kids who had died from it. It was a series of three needles that really hurt. They were thick and not very sharp— but we didn’t get diphtheria!”

Because her Dad was a great gardener, there never was a shortage of food. In 1934 Ruth’s parents purchased a white faced Red Hereford cow named Rosie. “Rosie kept us well supplied with milk, cream, and our own homemade butter for many years.” Most people had their own cows and made butter and cottage cheese from the milk. Since there was no electricity the milk was kept cool in an ice box. “We were well cared for. I had a happy, carefree childhood. We certainly didn’t have much money, but neither did anybody else.”

When she wasn’t nursing, Evelyn had all the work to do that came with looking after her own family. “Mom made a lot of our clothes. Her aunt worked in fabric mills at Galt, Ontario, and often sent the end rolls of fabric to Mom. She used these to make smocked dresses and other outfits for us.”

Entertaining was a big part of life in their parsonage home. Visitors for meals were a regular occurrence. Her mother baked pies every Saturday morning to be ready for Sunday dinner. This special meal was usually roast beef with potatoes and vegetables that were put in the oven before church and pie with whipped cream for dessert. “Her cherry pies were renowned in the neighbourhood!”

At Corson’s Siding, Ruth spent much of her time with her family and the same familiar faces from the settlement. In those years there were seven houses in the community, two of which were uninhabited. Many of the buildings were clad in shingles, most had weathered to a dark grey, but the church and parsonage were painted red.

“When I was a kid, Levi and Kate Richmond lived with their son in the first farm house. The Hutchinson family lived next door with three children, all the same age as my sisters and me. I remember learning a swear word from Ralph  Hutchinson— which ended with me getting my mouth washed out with soap.” The church and parsonage were next.  Nellie Corson’s house was on the other side of Ross Almas’ garden. “It was the former inn from Captain Corson’s era and vacant in our day but it was a source of great mystery to us. When we were brave enough we would peek in the darkened windows and then run! … There was another house, then the railway. Across the road right beside the rail tracks, was the station house. The Grant House was next, just across the road from our house. A small lane went between the Station house and Grant’s place; it led to another Richmond farm behind. There were Kate and Levi’s relatives, George, Ray and Granny Richmond, the mother. That was it! The village of Corson’s Siding!”

In the fall, one of the fascinating events to watch was the threshing bee. Each farmer had stored bundles of grain in the barn earlier in the harvest season, ready for the threshing engine to come. The owner of the threshing engine, a big huffing and puffing steam engine, would travel around the countryside from one farm to another to thresh the grain. Everyone from the neighbourhood would come to help. The host family would serve supper.

There were also wood cutting bees. The owner of the motorized saw would travel from place to place and the neighbours came to help. This was very important because the homes were heated with wood cut from nearby wood lots. Again, the host family served dinner to the workers. “I remember when the wood cutting bee came to our house. One of the old farmers would eat with only his table knife…no fork! We were mesmerized by this and had to be sent away from the table for ogling. Mom’s cherry pies were always a big hit at these dinners.”

“One of our favourite late afternoon activities was to go and get the cows. Our Rosie used to pasture with Levi Richmond’s cows down in the field behind their barn. We would take Pat, our collie dog, follow the cow paths until we found where they were feeding and chase them home, ready for the evening milking.”

As a minster, it was important to Ross to help members of his community with their farm work. “He was hard working and he liked to spend this time with his people. He was very close with the Wires family. I remember him going down to the Wires’ farm before Christmas to help them butcher and prepare their turkeys for the Christmas markets.”

Raven Lake was located just down the Talbot River from Corson’s Siding. In the early years of the twentieth century, the Raven Lake Portland Cement Company was manufacturing this new building material. Though the plant had closed in 1914, the old kilns remained a local landmark. “The kilns were empty and stood there like big ghosts. They had been abandoned for years, and when I was a child they seemed very spooky. We sometimes hiked down the train tracks with the other kids to play around these ‘ghosts’.”

One year the Grant boys, Hector and Dan, found wild leeks growing nearby. “They made my sister and I eat them. I can remember Mom being cross with them—for the smell of the wild leeks on our breath and the danger posed by eating unknown plants.”

It was a special event when a new face came to the Siding. Once a year, an apple farmer would come from Lindsay with apples. His goods were much appreciated and many families would buy several bushels to keep for the winter. Sometimes missionaries came to speak at the church. “They usually stayed with us. I remember being fascinated by their typewriter, which they would be set up on the dining room table.”

The thirties brought hard times generally. “One man, who dropped in at meal time every now and then, we called ‘the Hobo’. He didn’t live in the area but just seemed to pass through. One night we were having hard boiled eggs when he arrived…one for each person along with potatoes and other vegetables. He took two, so my sister Grace, last to be offered the bowl, did not get one. No one said a word. We just carried on with the meal. We were taught to be very polite, especially with visitors.”

Weldon Neal operated a family general store in Victoria Road. His sister, Vina Neal, frequently served as a nurse with Dr. Anderson (as did Ruth’s mother, Evelyn). “‘Neal’ had a truck that he drove around the neighbourhood on Saturdays and once more during the week. He would open the sides of his truck, and there were the staples: flour, sugar, bread, canned goods, etc. He also had boxes of penny candy. We would get two pennies to spend. You could buy a lot of candy for a penny back in those days.”

“Our neighbours were mostly struggling farmers who did not have a lot of cash. What shopping they did, was often through Eaton’s catalogue. They mainly drove older model cars. No one had a tractor. A few still travelled by horse and wagon. At Egypt School Concession 9 and Hwy 12, Gamebridge (Thora Township) we had a Grade 8 debate at the school: ‘Which was better horses or tractors?’” (1945). I don’t remember which side won!

The Corson’s Siding teacher typically boarded with Ruth’s family. The Parsonage was not a large house. “On the second floor there were three bedrooms, a small room that was Dad’s study and an open area in the centre that we called the ‘landing’. We always slept two to a bed.

During the war the family that had lived on the opposite side of the church moved so the husband could be employed in the war effort. “A new teacher and her son stayed in their house. The teacher’s husband was also away due to the war.”

The shingle-covered one-room schoolhouse (located at the corner of present-day roads 45 and 48) had a blackboard across the front of the classroom and windows along one side. The “library” was a large bookcase at the back. “One day we found a nest among the books with a frightened mother mouse and a whole group of tiny babies. This caused lots of excitement as the older kids dealt with the situation!”

Before school started each September, Ruth and her sisters had a shopping trip to the Five and Dime (Ten Cent) store. The list of school supplies bought there included:

-a grade Reader (different for each class year)

-a box of crayons

-a couple of scribblers

-some pencils

-an eraser

-a new ruler

The school was heated by a wood stove. During the day, the older boys looked after the stove. “I remember Donald Wires walked up early in the morning to get to school in time to light the fire so the room would be warm when the rest of us arrived. His family farm was down on the Balsam Lake road.” The school amenities included a water pump, a bucket of drinking water with a dipper, and cups. The bathroom was an outhouse that stood behind the school.

In the winter, the favourite recess/lunch hour activity was making caves in the snow drifts that formed along the rail fence beside the schoolhouse. Another winter game was Fox and the Goose. “In the fall and spring we often played ‘Ante-I-Over the Shanty’. For this game, the students would gather in two teams on either side of the woodshed. One side would throw a ball over the roof, and if the other team caught it they could run around the building to tag those on the opposing team who then became part of their team. The team with the most members when the bell rang were the winners!”

Baseball was very popular because every child, big or small, could have a turn at bat. “My oldest sister, Jane, loved baseball and was a good pitcher. She would make us walk quickly to school so she could be there to pitch in the baseball game.” Ruth and her friends also played skipping. Getting a new skipping rope was a big deal. Ruth adds, “The younger girls would sometimes scratch hopscotch into the dirt. Boys never played hopscotch!” She doesn’t remember anyone at Corson’s Siding having a bike. “The families in those days did not have money for expensive toys.”

During the war years, enrollment at the “The Little Red Schoolhouse” at Corson’s Siding dropped to about eight or nine students. By the early forties, the school closed.

Though Corson’s Siding had just five inhabited houses, it continued to be a stop on the railway. “The locomotives primarily hauled freight; likely lumber or cord wood from our station. We called it ‘The Coby Shunter’. It came up from Lindsay 3x a week: Saturday, Tuesday, and Thursday. I remember rushing home from school on Tuesday and Thursday to watch it shunt the lone box car from the siding beside the station house. The end of the line was Coboconk.”

Sometimes family members would take the train from Burlington to Toronto and then to Lindsay and connect with the Coby Shunter. “Meeting them at the train was very exciting!”

One of the family’s favourite places to visit was the lift locks at Kirkfield. “‘Wash’ (Washington) Irwin, the lockmaster and his wife (Hattie McNish) were good friends of Mom and Dad.” They had nine children. The older kids looked after Ruth and her sisters while the adults socialized. “We ran all over the locks…up to the wheel house and across the gates. No one ever wore a life jacket and there seemed to be no fear of falling in! This pre-dated ‘helicopter’ parenting. Guardian angels seemed to be sufficient!” The Irwins often came to church at Corson’s Siding. She remembers Mr. Irwin would have a pocketful of peppermints, which he handed out generously.

In the 1940s, many churchgoers had strong feelings about playing cards. As a  child growing up, “all we knew was that cards were evil—we didn’t know why. I remember Kate Richmond hiding her cards when I dropped in. She didn’t want the preacher’s kid to see her cards! Instead we played snakes and ladders, Chinese checkers, crokinole and other board games. We did have cards for the game Snap; that was acceptable.” On a Sunday evening Ruth’s family would often gather around the pump organ after supper at someone’s home for a sing song of hymns and choruses.

During the war, the Almas family kept a battery powered radio. One day their neighbour, Kate Richmond, was visiting the house to listen to a broadcast from the UK. On the program, she heard Big Ben chime in the background. Not having heard ‘him’ since she her childhood in England, she was moved to tears.

“I remember one Sunday afternoon Mom and Dad were glued to the radio because something terrible was happening.” It was the broadcast report of the attack on Pearl Harbour.

Her parents always listened to the noon news on CBC and checked their time by the one o’clock signal from Ottawa. One of the evening programmes they liked was ‘Fibber McGee and Molly’, but that show was aired too late for children. “We

were not allowed to stay up.” Yet, Ruth remembers she and her sisters would hurry home from school to hear a drama called “Hop Harrigan”, featuring the adventures of a fighter plane pilot.

In 1941 the Associated Gospel Churches organization purchased Five Bay Lodge, which was located on the Talbot River/Trent Canal near Bolsover. Ruth’s father was hired as groundskeeper and caretaker to the renamed Fair Havens Bible Conference property.

As always, “Dad had a big garden there, too.” In addition to his duties at the 167-acre church property, Ross Almas continued to lead services at Corson’s Siding on Sunday afternoons. In addition, each Thursday night he drove to Uphill for another service. In the summer season, he often substituted for the Presbyterian minister whose circuit included Kirkfield, Bolsover, and Glenarm.

Fair Havens’ summer program offered visitors the chance to attend a conference, enjoy chapel services, Bible study, and lots of outdoor activities. The camp served meals and offered furnished cabins, complete with linens. The recreational activities included volleyball, lawn bowling, and swimming (except on Sundays!). The attendees were typically from the Associated Gospel Churches in the Golden Horseshoe. Many came year after year. As teenagers, both Ruth and her older sister worked at the camp. Ruth worked in the kitchen and was a waitress for two years. With many guests, the summer conferences were busy times.

The Almas family resided in a brick farm house at Fair Havens throughout the winters. The running water, indoor plumbing, and electricity were appreciated. On such a large acreage, with many outbuildings, there was never a shortage of work to be done, no matter the season. Her father would keep the snow shovelled off the cabins, drain the water pipes, and looked after all the maintenance. Ruth remembers Fair Havens as a great place to live.

In 1945 the family moved to Gamebridge to be closer to a high school. Ruth’s older sister Jane was to begin Grade 9. At this time, after the war, the Canadian government started the new Baby Bonus benefit scheme. This was an advantage to many families, hers included. “Mom and Dad decided that this money should be designated for piano lessons. All of us, five by then, benefited from this decision.” Piano lessons were available in Beaverton, and two of Ruth’s sisters travelled by train each weekend to their appointments. This investment was fortuitous as piano skills were required for Ruth to later become a Kindergarten teacher.

After Ross and Evelyn Almas had spent two decades working at Corson’s Siding and Fair Havens, his mother passed away, leaving them a house in Burlington. Ross decided to find a new job and they returned to Burlington, along the shores of Lake Ontario. By then, Ruth was just finishing secondary school. The move made it possible for her to attend Normal School in nearby Hamilton. She fondly remembers her childhood in Victoria County and the Kawarthas. “It was a great time. We could roam around and explore. We were free range kids in many ways although we had clear directions for the behaviours expected and responsibilities to fulfill. It was just a very happy time.”

This story is a memory and nobody’s memory is perfect. Sometimes details get a little mixed up, things get forgotten or overlooked, and the perspective is inevitably subjective. If you notice something that not right, have something you would like to tell us, or a memory to share the museum would be happy to hear from you: curator@maryboro.ca

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