Friday, January 8, 2016

The Lansdowne Letters: Dad Makes a Life-Changing Decision

During freeze-up in Northern Ontario a half century ago,
people in the scattered and remote communities 
hunkered down and waited for the ice to thicken
on the countless lakes in the land of beautiful waters.

The Stillness of the Remote Northern Ontario Winter

Some wrote letters during this difficult time 
and waited for the day when the ski planes could land 
bringing welcome mail and flying their accumulated letters out.

My father was not writing a stockpile of letters to fly out 
when the first plane broke Lansdowne House's profound isolation.
He was busy dealing with other things.
The loneliness of the subarctic boreal forest,
magnified by the lack of communication with the Outside,
drove my father to a life-changing decision for our family.

My mother and we five children in rural Nova Scotia
had no inkling of what my father was thinking and doing, 
cutoff as we were from all news from the North.

My mother struggled with the same heartache 
and loneliness of separation that my father faced, 
a fact that Mom, being Mom, protected us from.
As late November stretched into December
she calmly sorted through our daily mail
hiding her increasing hope and then increasing disappointment
when Dad's distinctive handwriting didn't appear 
scrawled across an envelope in the pile.

My first tangible clue of what was to come 
arrived in a letter from my father's friend Maureen McRae. 
When it appeared after its long journey from the northern bush,
it shook up our sheltered, ordinary lives
and filled romantic me with excitement.

A Letter from Maureen
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

On Friday, December 2, 1960 
Maureen McRae wrote to my mother:

Dear Sara and Family,
Well it sure was nice to get your lovely letter.  
Glad to hear you’re all fine.

My have we ever been busy lately.  
Lord what will I do when I have as many children as you and Don. (I want six).

Everything happened to me today.  
First Duncan and the highchair
took a very graceful fall
to the floor – face down.

Baby Duncan and Maureen
Photo by Don MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

After I had got him pacified, I tripped, 
then we had sausages for lunch and Duncan C. can’t stand them.

Then Duncan C. brought the pilot up for coffee, 
and my kitchen looks like we had World War II fought in there.  
Oh well – one of those days you can’t make a penny.  

On top of that my mum’s letter cheered us us immensely –
Duncan’s Uncle Rod had died and another aunt is in the hospital.
So it was rather nice to receive the pictures and your cheery letter.

Well baby Duncan has two teeth now and is starting on his third. 
We sure are pleased with him.  
He is more fun than a picnic.

I know Christmas will seem awfully lonely without Don.  
I understand cause Duncan and I celebrated
our first anniversary about five hundred miles apart.  
I had to go out to Winnipeg to have baby Duncan.

When I was out friends of my mother’s
were constantly saying that I was such a poor dear, 
and so brave being so many miles from civilization.  
But I love it, and I’m sure you will too.

Maureen McRae
Father's Island, Lansdowne House
Roman Catholic Church, Windcharger, and Dad and and Uno's Shack in Background
Photo by Don MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

December 6, 1960:
Wash day today, great fun.  
Hi! I got sideyracked for about four days, 
but here I am again.

Don was over yesterday, Sara, and he’s very lonely.  
Not that I blame him.  
I would have been climbing the walls by now if I were him.

Nothing beats having your family with you – your wife especially.
So he said he was writing to ask you
if you and your brood would come up in January.

We certainly would love to see you come up here.
You would be staying in the Forestry house – 
It is small, but I’m sure you could manage.  
You would have a propane stove to cook on, 
and there is lots of cupboard space in the kitchen.

The Forestry House
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Your front room windows would give you a lovely view 
of the lake when spring comes, 
and I’m sure you wouldn’t miss the ocean that much 
when there’s such a lovely lake out front.

Lake Attawapiskat
View from Outside the Forestry House
Lansdowne House, Developed in August 1961
Photo by Don MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Now in the way of clothes, 
I brought everything with me except my formals.  
It is so nice to have a good dress to put on to brighten you up.  
For winter as long as the kids have warm boots 
and snow outfits they’ll be warm.

If I were you, I’d bring your personal things, knicknacks, 
an extra tube of lipstck, your iron, lots of clothespins 
(I can’t spell at all today), bedding, linens, and such.  
If you have some scatter rugs, bring them cause 
they sure are nice on these floors.  They’re chilly.

Oh!  You would need curtains for your livingroom windows.  
The Indians have a tendancy of looking in at night.  
If you like, I could send you the measurements 
and you could make them.  
Mine are dark cloth, anything would be fine 
as long as you can’t see through them.

If you come, we would be getting the drier right away so that would help.  
We’re seeing about a propane gas one right now.

The girls could sleep on the bunkbeds in one bedroom, 
and Roy could sleep on the davenport in the living room   
I don’t think he’d mind.  My brother did it for years.  
He’d sleep in mum and dad’s bed until company left,
and then Dad would carry or walk him into his bed.

There are good-sized closets in the bedrooms, so that would come in handy.  
The utility room could be used as a combination washroom and bathroom.  
The oil burner would keep the house real warm.

We sure hope you’ll come.  I’m sure you could manage, 
and I’ll gladly give you a hand when you move in if you’d like that.
Oh please come!

Now I’m trying to think of more things to bring that you’ll need.
Oh, a small first aid kit will come in handy.

Also the house was just built a year and a half ago, 
and it’s in good condition.  There’s tiles for the floor too.

I’m sure you’d like this place.  
The women are quite nice (all four of us), 
and we’re all very easy to get along with.
I’ll write again when I think of other things.

Well!  You can imagine the excitement this letter caused!
I had a very different reaction from my mother, I'm sure.
I was headed into the North, into the wilderness!
My siblings and I were going to be the only white children,
except for three small babies.
I was going to go to school with real Indians!
Not that our local Mi'kmaq weren't real Indians,
but they were, well, ordinary Nova Scotians.

My mother was reading between the lines of Maureen's letter:
a tiny house with no electricity or running water,
and the "bathroom" was a chemical toilet 
that had to be dumped daily in the community repository.
Perhaps she hadn't realized what the "bathroom" was yet,
but she certainly understood the challenges of
taking five young children into the northern bush
and of the work required on her part to make it happen.

Some women would have
quailed at the thought,
and perhaps Mom did briefly,
but she had the heart of an adventurer,
and as much as I longed
to experience the North,
she longed to every bit as much and more.

Photo by Don MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

A Hint of Things to Come
On the Shores of Lake Attawapiskat
Roy, Gretchen (dachshund), Me (Louise), Mom (Sara) and Bertie
Photo by Don MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

Beautiful Cove on Long island,
in the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Links to Earlier Posts:

TLL: Heading for the Winter Traplines

TLL: Lessons with Father Ouimet

1.  The McRaes:  
     Duncan C. worked for the Department of Transport,
     and his duties included running the DOT Weather Station.
     He and his wife Maureen were staunch friends of my father.

2.  Land of Beautiful Waters:
     "Ontario" is a corruption of the Iroquois word Onitariio, meaning beautiful lake,
     or Kanadario, variously translated as beautiful water.
     Ontario has some 250,000 lakes and over 100,000 kilometres (62,000 mi) of rivers.  Wikipedia
     The myriad of lakes in Northern Ontario is the most distinctive feature of the Boreal Shield.
     To me, the area around Lansdowne House seemed more water than land.

For Map Lovers Like Me:
Surrounded by Water
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Lansdowne House, Ontario, Canada


  1. What good advice your mother got. Moving there was almost like the pioneers who moved to the west having to take everything with them that they might need. Just to know there were welcoming four of talk to must have been somewhat of a comfort. The isolation up there must have been terrible for your father at times and to anticipate his family coming I'm sure cause him great joy.

    1. Happy New Year, Peggy! "All four of them" cracked me up! Of course there were plenty of Ojibwa women too, but they didn't socialize under most circumstances. Dad was overjoyed at the thought, but he also knew he was asking a great deal of my mother and life in the bush was hard and potentially dangerous. There was a lot to weight. I'm sorry I haven't gotten by. I had major computer problems after Christmas, and I've been distracted by all the holiday festivities and preparations for our upcoming Arizona trip. Slowly I'm getting on top of things, and I'll be by soon. Wishing you, Don, and your family all the best! Hugs!

  2. Back in the day I remember those snowsuits, and they were very warm and comfortable! So nice that your father had a family visit to look forward to, Louise.

    1. Dad needed us badly, Linda. My most vivid memory of snowsuits and boots was trying to stuff my sister Barbie into one a couple of years earlier. She was a toddler and didn't get the concept of pushing her feet through the legs, not to mention pushing her feet into those bitty boots. It was like trying to force a casing on a sausage. Our dachshund was much easier to get into his boots and coat. Have a lovely Friday, my Montreal friend. We have had about four inches of snow since last night, heavy wet snow, and it's cold all right! Hugs!

  3. It was rough I'm sure, but what an opportunity. I'm sure you kids soaked up everything. Even if you had to dump the toilet water every day.

    1. It was an amazing opportunity, Alex! It certainly changed my life forever. The time I lived in Lansdowne House had more of an impact on my young life than anything previously and much that came after. And it was I who landed the daily chores of dumping the chemical toilet, pumping the oil for the oil burner, hacking out the ice that froze over our waterhole each night, and hauling water for our family and school. And, and, and ... And I loved it! Have a great weekend, my friend!

  4. This post reminded me of my parents, Louise. When they bought their first (and only) house in 1950's rural Manitoba, it had no running water, no indoor plumbing and was also heated by an oil burner. But it DID have electricity, because by gawd that's where my mother drew the line. She was NOT going to do without electricity, no matter what my father said. We finally did get indoor plumbing and a central furnace by the time I was 8.

  5. Like you had your jobs, so did I as a child on our farm. Chooks, feed and collect eggs, school hols, help in the cowshed, feed out hay or silage, and one August holiday, for 3 weeks, a young man and I ( maybe I was 15) ran the farm when Dad was laid up in bed with a back injury. I thought nothing of it, even when the cows had bloat. Drove the Fordson Major tractor, then finally when we came in late, to my Dad's thinking, for breakfast, " Is everything all right" he would ask. Oh, to be there all over again. And I guess that shaped me, to cope with the day to day stuff, pitch in and do what you have to. Do you remember the cold? All I think of about the weather were the really hot days when making hay.

  6. Blah to dumping the toilet water all the time haha sure a ginormous change that not many would take on. Quite the adventure it had to be as she faced it head on.

  7. How exciting! Well, except for the toilet part...LOL... But adventure was calling and it was time to take it on. Plus, your parents were missing one another terribly. Oh, I can't wait to read more about this!

  8. Oh, my! I'd be so excited and so afraid. I'm eager to read about planning the trip.


  9. What yearnings your parents must have had to be together and what an opportunity presented itself it seems out of the blue. I can understand that your mother was keen no matter what the hardships would bring and no wonder you were all for it too for obvious reasons including the prospect of an adventure. Wishing you and your family a happy new year, Louise.

  10. Louise, I can only imagine the excitement that you all experienced the day Maureen's letter arrived and was read!! How fortunate you were/are to have had parents with this adventurous spirit.
    i am certain that you kids have thanked them often throughout your lives for this gift.

    Another wonderful and enticing post/letter, Louise. Thanks for sharing this.

  11. WOW! Your Mom is a brave, brave woman! I can just imagine how hard that was for your father to be so alone and isolated and how exciting it must've been to have his family coming to join. I look forward to hearing more about your Mom's experience going there with five children!!! XOXO, Audrey

  12. I don't know if I'd have done it. Moving north at all seems like a crazy idea...but that may just be because it's winter. ;)

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