Tuesday, May 26, 2020

A Yankee in the Canadian Bush -- Roots


Housekeeper and kitchen helper Jessie Keesic and my mom, Del
Chapter 9

That couple of months living at McDougall’s were hard times for sure but nothing my mom couldn’t handle. Born in 1918 in The Plains, Ohio, Adelpha Maxine Adams had seen plenty of lean times. She was the oldest of seven children and grew up on a subsistence farm which was, of course, common for rural folk in the 1920s and ‘30s.
Her dad, Archie Plummer Adams, was also born in The Plains. His father had worked in a local coal mine and was killed in a mine accident. He had been a union organizer and there was suspicion that he was always given the riskiest work by the company. He left behind a large family and so when he was killed his oldest son, Archie -- but known to me as Poppy -- had to quit school and take his place. He was just 12 years old.
Child labor was not uncommon. The coal companies actually preferred children as workers because they were small and the coal seams they were mining were often only four feet high. Adult miners had to work on their knees.
Coal mining in the Hocking Valley Coal Field was in its heyday in the late 1800s. Coal had been discovered there in 1748 and by the beginning of the 20th century coal from the Athens, Perry and Hocking counties supplied 40 per cent of Ohio’s needs.
Poppy’s responsibility was to go underground, blast the coal loose using dynamite, then shovel it into a cart which was pulled by a tiny pony to the surface. To keep the mine shafts from collapsing the miners left pillars of unmined coal until they reached the end of the seam, then they backed out taking down each pillar. The company would not allow any coal to be wasted. The same couldn’t be said about the miners.
For two years Poppy worked in the mine, turning over all of his pay to his mother, just as she instructed but all the while the wheels were turning in his head. There was no future in being a coal miner. If you weren’t killed in a cave-in, explosion or fire, then you died from black-lung disease. The meager pay you earned went right back to the coal company for rent and for food from the company store.
One day Poppy disobeyed his mom and bought a mule and wagon from the local doctor. He rigged the wagon with a seat on each side and used it as a taxi to ferry miners from the townsite to the mine and back each day. He never worked a day underground again.
Poppy and his delivery truck
He also used the mule and wagon to sell extra vegetables, eggs and milk, door to door. Years later he would do the same thing in Willoughby using a truck. One winter when we were visiting from Red Lake I got to be his helper. We would go to farm auctions where Poppy bought eggs, bread and vegetables from the Amish. Then we drove around the communities of Willoughby, Eastlake and Mentor where I would run to the doors of Poppy’s customers and deliver their orders. Poppy paid me each day in silver dollars.
When they were still living at The Plains, Poppy’s older brother, Sam, got a job at an estate up on Lake Erie and sent for Poppy and his wife, Opal Marie Ponn. The Town of Willoughby needed a roads supervisor and in particular, it needed someone who knew how to use dynamite. For the next 30 springs Poppy would walk out on the ice jams at the mouth of the Chagrin River Harbor, placing sticks of dynamite in the crevasses between the shifting ice chunks. The first sticks had long fuses. The last had short ones. The far side of the river would be exploding sky high as Poppy came to shore on the near side.
Tragically, not far from the river's mouth in the early 1960s, Poppy's brother Sam drowned while working as a commercial fisherman in a rowboat.
My mom, Del, graduated high school in Willoughby. She was the first person in her family to do so. In the 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, she was offered a scholarship to study business at Ohio University at Athens. However, she then met my dad and her business became raising a family. She asked Poppy one time where she got the name Adelpha. From a mule, he said.
The Adams family had been in North America and especially the Ohio Valley area for a long time. Poppy’s great grandfather’s brother was a founding father of the U.S. – John Adams, who became the second president. Then his son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth.
Poppy and Granny Opal raised their seven children in Willoughby on a rented farm which produced food for the family while Poppy worked as roads supervisor. They had their own milk cow and would raise a couple of hogs each year to turn into bacon and hams which after smoking hung from the ceiling in the screened-in porch.
Reeves historic home, Willoughby, Ohio
After Granny Opal died, Poppy bought a small parcel of land across the road from the Reeves Farm nearer the lake. The old farm had been bought by my uncle, Ervie Kitzel, who was my dad’s best friend and also his brother-in-law. Ervie had married my mother’s sister, Ruth.
The farm once bordered a large swath of the Lake Erie shoreline when it was one of the estates in the Connecticut Land Reserve. This was land given to Connecticut land owners who fought in the Revolutionary War and lost their homes to the British.
When Uncle Ervie purchased the farm in the late 1950s, it had already mostly been carved up for housing developments as part of the Cleveland suburban sprawl. Ervie’s piece was still large by standards at the time and might have measured 30 acres.
The farmhouse was majestic compared to the boxes in the housing developments. It had a stone basement, 10-foot-high ceilings and most interestingly, its own natural gas well.
An enormous gas-light chandelier hung in the living room. Aunt Ruth despised it. She was a clean freak and found dusting the hundreds of crystal prisms dangling around the gas lights too much. Also electricity, not gas, was how the home had been illuminated for decades. So, while we were staying in the house the winter after we left McDougall’s, Dad and Ervie took down the chandelier. Dad separated all of the gas lights and packed them in a box to be taken to camp. After being dark for most of a century, the gas lights from a Revolutionary War soldier's home would blaze again at Bow Narrows Camp on Red Lake in Northwestern Ontario.

...to be continued

Saturday, May 16, 2020

A Yankee in the Canadian Bush -- Wolverine

Me, age 8, with wolverine

Dad with wolverine that was mounted life-size in L&F office
Chapter 8 

The spring of 1961 changed us forever. So many incredible things happened to us at the camp as the ice was breaking up that none of us could ever go back to our former lives.
Bill arrived in the middle of the second day and apologized for locking all the cabins. The ice had gotten so bad, he just figured we weren’t coming until after breakup.
During the next couple of weeks, Bill and Dad prepared the wooden boats for launching and also, when the ice had melted sufficiently, took a boat down the shoreline about a mile to where Bill wanted to build his new cabin. The two men worked felling trees, clearing brush and placing wooden posts to be used as a foundation.
Meanwhile, Mom and I were thrilled by the ice-out process.
One day the ice just seemed to magically start coming onto land. Almost imperceptibly it moved up and over the rocks, shattering into icicles as it did so. The whole shoreline tinkled with the sound of a million icicles falling together. We would learn it was the wind farther out on the lake that was bringing the ice sheet to shore.
The first place to have “opened up” was just north of the camp where the narrows makes a sharp turn. The current as it goes around the bend prevents the ice from freezing deeply in the winter and in the spring makes a pool of open water that grows in size daily.
I wandered out onto a rocky point by the pool one day and was just standing there when I suddenly hit the deck. It was an instinctive response to something I had heard many times on the Pickerel River – a military jet screaming at hundreds of miles per hour just above the tree tops. The jets, coming from an air base not far from the Pickerel and practising low-level flying, would give little warning. There would just be a hint of a roar, followed by a whoosh, then ear-splitting thunder.
So, at the first bit of roar and whoosh, I fell to the rocks and covered my ears. The thunder never came. Instead, when I looked up, there floating in the water in front of me was a little brown duck with a  brilliant gold eye. Just then, another duck arrived. It came flying in so fast I thought it would go right over the pool but it abruptly tilted its wings backwards and to my astonishment made the loud roar and whooshing sound. It had just been air vibrating through the duck’s feathers! This duck was mostly white but had a blue-green head with a white spot. These ducks were Goldeneyes.
My eight-year-old Buckeye ears were fooled another time as well. I kept hearing a pack of dogs barking off in the distance. They sounded like hounds, I thought, and didn’t think much of it until it finally dawned on me that there weren’t houses with dogs here like in Ohio.
The dogs always sounded so far away. I looked down the shoreline in each direction. Nothing. Then I looked at the big hill across the narrows. No dogs there either but as I followed the hill to the top – and then above – I spotted them, in a V. Geese! They were flying thousands of feet off the ground, just specks against the blue sky. Although decades later geese would be common everywhere, in 1961 they were an oddity and I had never seen them before.
The lack of bird life all over North America was explained  the following year, 1962, by a biologist  named Rachel Carson. She wrote a book called Silent Spring about how pesticides were killing all of the birds, insects and even wild plants. It would be a decade before I heard of her work.
If the ice, ducks and geese weren’t interesting enough, one day I walked down to the point in front of Bill’s cabin, peered into the clear water and couldn’t believe my eyes. There were northern pike, by the thousands, swimming nose to tail, just a few feet off shore. Mostly they were single file but occasionally there were twos or threes. They were moving steadily to the north. Every hour another thousand would pass by the point. The spectacle lasted for days.
Of course, Mom and I quickly got our fishing rods and tried to get the pike to strike on spoons and spinners. None would.
We asked Bill for an explanation.
“They are all headed to Dean Creek to spawn. You can see them in there with their backs right out of the water. There are thousands and thousands of them.”
Dean Creek was about a mile away to the Northwest. The pike were apparently coming from Trout Bay, more than a mile away to the South. It was a fish mass migration. After a pause of about a week the whole spectacle happened in reverse but this time the fish were more spread out. They still would not bite.
Meanwhile we made another discovery -- there were nightcrawlers in the yard. We caught a bunch, put them in a can, and. Mom, who was an alpha angler if there ever was one, immediately rigged her fishing rod with a hook, sinker and bobber. No sooner would the red-and-white plastic bobber hit the water than it would be pulled under by a fish.
Her first many catches were whitefish, a species new to us. They were good to eat, said Bill, so we had a few suppers of them.
Then Mom got a lake trout which surprised Bill as he did not believe they could be taken on a worm.
“Now you have the best-eating fish in the lake,” he said. “Let me bake it and you will see for yourself.”
Bill baked it in the oven of his wood-burning cookstove. We marveled at its taste but privately Mom, Dad and I decided we really preferred northern pike, a fish that Bill absolutely abhorred.
“I call them hyenas,” he said. “If muskies are the wolves of the water, then I figure northerns are the hyenas. HaHaHa.”
Eventually the narrows was totally clear of ice and Dad and Bill took off in Bill’s 14-foot aluminum boat for the town of Red Lake, expecting to be gone all day. Instead they were back in just 30 minutes.
Incredibly, while dodging ice packs in Wolf Narrows they had struck and killed a wolverine.
Dad had thought they were extinct in Northern Ontario, and he wasn’t far wrong. This was the last one, at least for the next 30 years.
Bill, who had been trapping at Red Lake nearly his entire life, had never seen one before. Since wolverines were a protected species he wanted to just leave it right there in the lake for fear the authorities would believe he trapped it. Dad, however, thought it a shame to leave the animal to waste. It was a very large male wolverine and probably weighed 40 pounds.
He talked Bill into letting him take it to the Department of Lands and Forests. Maybe he could get a permit to have it made into a rug, he thought.
They came back to camp because the lake was still blocked with ice beyond Wolf Narrows. Bill calculated that with the strong south wind that was building, the lake would be clear the next day.
We took photos of the wolverine and put it on ice. Sure enough, the next day, the lake was open enough for Dad and Bill to boat to town and for Dad to take the wolverine into the Department of Lands and Forests office at Red Lake.
“Absolutely not!” long-time conservation officer Bert Colebourn told Dad when he asked if he could get a permit to send the animal to a taxidermist in Winnipeg.
“This wolverine isn’t going anywhere,” said the warden.
Instead the Red Lake District L&F had the creature made into a life-size mount which has been displayed in a glass case at the office ever since. That was a far better way of honoring the old wolverine, Dad agreed.

...to be continued

A Yankee in the Canadian Bush -- Roots

Housekeeper and kitchen helper Jessie Keesic and my mom, Del Chapter 9 That couple of months living at McDougall’s were hard times...