South Lancaster Revisited - Over Fifty Years Later
Alex, I was nine years old in 1942
37168 Schooner Way Pender Island BC VON 2M2
December 3, 2010
Email address: kroyo @ shaw.ca
Mr. Alex Fraser
420 Harmston Avenue Courtenay, BC V9N2X2
Dear Mr. Fraser,
I seem to end up on your web page very often while searching for information about Glengarry County and more specifically, South Lancaster which, during the War, we referred to as simply- Lancaster.
The years that I spent in Lancaster during the War stand out in my memory more than any other part of my life because it was a time I had great fun and also a time of sadness, loneliness and worry when I thought about my two teenage brothers who were overseas, my mother in Montreal and my father who was in Ontario guarding German POW's.
I have written a great deal about my life during the War to pass along to my brother's and sister's children. They seem to enjoy reading about the tough times we went through in those good old days.
I have tried unsuccessfully to find old playmates we had in Lancaster. We had the Skippen family who lived nearby to play with every summer day. They taught us how to run in bare feet on the gravel roads of South Lancaster without pain. I can find no trace of any of that family now unfortunately.
I recently bought a very interesting book, The Rivermen - Echoes of Lake St. Francis by Roy Lefebvre and Norman Seymour. I found it to be a wonderful book and recognized many names he writes about. It's a great history book of the area. I believe Roy still lives in South Lancaster.
I am writing to you on the chance you might like to read something about how I spent my summers from 1942 to 1946.
A Small Miracle
In 1998, my wife and I visited my brother and my wife's cousin in the Montreal area. I had planned in my mind to revisit a little village just over the Ontario border, South Lancaster. I spent the summers there during the War while my two brothers were fighting in Europe and my father was a member of the Veteran's Guard of Canada guarding Prisoners of War in Northern Ontario. My mother worked in a munitions plant and felt I would be better off staying with the family on Lake St. Francis where I would be cared for and where I would enjoy the summers.
The family I stayed with had four daughters. Two worked in Montreal and used to come out to South Lancaster each weekend as did Mr. Ashen while Mrs. Ashen looked after the house and all the kids, two of her own and two borders, me and Bryant Haas.
The day I visited my old stomping grounds, my wife and her cousin dropped me off in the little village and left me to wander around and arranged to pick me up in time to get back to Montreal for dinner.
I wandered around looking at the places we used to play and the wharf we used to dive from. I looked for the bushes where we used to pick chokecherries, the orchards where we used to steal apples and the places we used to hide during our games of hide- on-seek. I knocked on many doors asking if anyone knew what ever happened to the Ashen family but nobody had any leads for me.
When I arrived back on Pender Island, I wrote three thousand words about my visit and stuck my story in a file. A year later, I pulled it out and decided that it should be read by the people of South Lancaster. I sent it to the Glengarry Newspaper and they printed the whole article.
I heard nothing for a year. One morning, I received a letter in the mail. I did not recognize the name in the comer of the envelope at all. It was from Nepean, Ontario.
When I opened the letter, I discovered it was from Olive Ashen who was my age and one of the daughters with whom I spent those summers in South Lancaster.
A friend of Olive, who did not buy the paper regularly, had picked up a copy to read while her husband drove her the hundred miles to Nepean for a visit. As she read the article, she said to her husband, "Here's a story about South Lancaster where Olive used to spend her summers. I'll bet she'd like to read it." When she arrived at Olive's house, she gave her the paper and Olive nearly passed out when she read the name of the author. She was pleased at how I had described her wonderful family. She called the paper to get my address and sent me a letter. We kept in touch often and Olive and her husband, Jim, came out to Pender Island in August to visit me and my wife. What a wonderful time we had reminiscing! What a lucky break it was that her friend picked up the paper that day!
South Lancaster-Over Fifty Years Later Printed in the Glengarry News, Alexandria, Ontario June 13, 2001
Recently, I returned to South Lancaster after more than a fifty year absence. While my wife, Kathy, and I planned a trip to Montreal to see my brother and to visit my wife's cousin, I secretly thought of making a side-trip to see my old stomping grounds once again. Although Kathy had never been to South Lancaster, I had told her many stories about my summers there when I was a child. Over the years, I have often caught myself day-dreaming about visiting South Lancaster. Now my dreams would come true.
Back in the forties, during the War, my mother rented a cottage near the lake at which my sister, her baby and I were to spend the summer holidays. During the following four summers, my mother sent me to a boarding house near the cottage. There were two other children who boarded with the family. Mrs. Ashen, who ran the house, and her two young daughters stayed at the house for the summer while Mr. Ashen and two working daughters came from Montreal on weekends. There were always enough children willing to go for a row, to go fishing, to cycle or to play games. We rode our bicycles around the area and explored the roads to Summerstown, Williamstown and Lancaster. The Railway Station was always a place of interest to us. Each of us would place an ear against the track to hear if there was a train coming or not. If we felt any vibration, we would wait around until the train arrived and then watch the action which took place at the station. It would be a very busy place for about five minutes and then the train would leave.
It was a beautiful day when Kathy's cousin drove us along Highway 401 to the road which leads to South Lancaster and the Lake. I had butterflies in my stomach as we turned off Highway 401. Along the road, which was once the main highway from Montreal to Toronto, I saw many buildings where farms had flanked the road in the forties. But as we entered the little village of South Lancaster, I was delighted to find it was almost as I had known it over fifty years before.
I directed Kathy's cousin to the lane where the little cottage is located and was delighted to find it still standing. Not only was it still standing but it has been completely refurbished and made into a year round home by the Bignells who live there now. But I still recognized it as "Sunnyside" cottage. As I walked around the property, Mrs Bignell came out and called suspiciously, "May I help you with something?" Realizing that I was trespassing, I explained why I was there. After my explanation, Mrs. Bignell and I had a very pleasant conversation and she directed me to other people I might find interesting to meet. Then I carried on to trace the footprints I had made so very long ago.
Close by, the boarding house still stands but it is in poor condition. Plastic tarpaulins are spread over the roof to stop the leaks. But the weather has taken its toll and the tarpaulins have deteriorated and are not doing the job for which they were intended. It would be a shame if the house were lost due to lack of interest.
Outside the boarding house, the two large pine trees we used to climb are now gone and have been replaced with other trees. The lattice-work around the verandah where I slept and which protected me from the rain has now gone. From my bed, I would peep through the lattice and watch the fireflies light up during the dark nights. Instead of counting sheep, I counted fireflies! The swamp behind the house has now been filled in. The swamp was one of our favourite hiding places but we had to be careful not to step into the swamp water where the bloodsuckers lived. The bulrushes, dipped in kerosene made wonderful torches when we had wiener roasts at the bonfires which were always supervised by Mr. Ashen when he came on weekends. We toasted marshmallows on the bonfire for another treat. Mr. Ashen was very good at telling ghost stories as the bonfire died down. I was always glad that I didn't have far to go to my bed after those stories. On those nights, I pulled the blankets up over my head and found the distant train whistles to be a comfort.
Across the road, the thick cedar hedge which guarded the apple orchard has been thinned and the remaining trees are now giants. How many times did we sneak through the hedge in the pitch black night to steal apples from Mr. McIntosh? ' How did he ever guess it was our bunch who stole his apples? Perhaps the dozens of apple cores strewn about the house gave us away! The chokecherry clump around the comer is now a thing of the past. Each of us would take a drinking glass from the kitchen, fill it with ripe chokecherries, sprinkle them with salt, then pour them from the glass into our mouths. After squeezing off the meat in our mouths, we spat the stones at a convenient target such as one of the other children. After that doubtful treat, our mouths were puckered for hours.
Mrs Patterson's house at the end of the, road is still there and was being cared for by a young lady wielding a paint brush. The young lady is a Francophone so I had to delve into my High School French to hold conversation with her. I was happy to see her looking after the old house and I told her so. She then gave me free rein to wander around the property. I walked across the lawn where we used to gather "night-crawlers" which we used as bait on our early morning fishing trips. From the lawn, I could see the Cairn on Monument Island. How much nearer the Island looked compared to what it did when I was a little boy! Near the shore were the three big rocks we used to sit upon to splash and sun ourselves. Next to the rocks is the same boathouse in which Mr. McIntosh kept his motor boat, fishing gear and duck decoys for hunting during the War.
Across to the left, I could see the same row of boathouses on which we used to climb to dive into the lake. Many times we sat on the hot tin roofs to get dry. The wharf has changed somewhat but it is still there. There was a diving board on the wharf in those days. We used to dive from the board, swim to the bottom, grab a handful of mud and bring it to the surface to show how brave we were. The water was about ten feet deep at the end of the diving board. I also fished from the wharf, often catching bass and perch which Mrs. Ashen cooked for me .. The lake still looks clean too, much cleaner than other lakes closer to Montreal.
Now I had to see Raisin River. As I turned the comer, the bridge carne into view.
My heart sunk! There is no longer an ironwork bridge with a sidewalk. Now, it is a wide, flat, uninteresting bridge. From the top of the ironwork of that bridge, my friend, Leo, would jump into the river if someone offered to give him a nickel. That very dangerous feat was well worth the nickel to see! Near the bridge where I used to feed stolen apples to the horses, a marina has been built. There isa motel along the road where we used to sit under a big maple tree to watch the Smith Transport Trucks go by. Now, the trucks use Highway 401 which must keep South Lancaster quiet. I'm sure the residents are happier because of that fact.
I traced the steps I used to take to fetch two pails of water for the household use every day. It was very heavy work for a small boy and I hated the job. At the end of the summer, I had callouses on my palms from the bails which made my hands so sore for much of the summer. Another of my chores was to fetch the coal oil to light the house and to fire the cookstove. The Post Office was located at the General Store and the village pump was behind the building. That well had the best water around and everyone seemed to use it.
The Post Office-General Store building is now a private residence. When I knocked on the door, a young man answered. He knew the history of the building and assured me that I had found the correct building. We had a long conversation before I carried on my way to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Bethune who Mrs. Bignell had suggested I visit. Although Mr. Bethune had been away in the Army while I was roaming around South Lancaster, he knew most of the names I dug up from the past. Mr. and Mrs. Bethune seemed to enjoy our conversation about the good old days.
On my way back to the lake, I suddenly remembered that the road I was taking was the scene of a runaway horse pulling a buggy. I was just corning out of the Post Office with the mail when I saw the horse galloping across the road, kicking up gravel and much dust and throwing off the driver. It was exciting to see. The driver survived, the horse calmed down and the road became quiet again. The road is now paved.
As I turned down the road to the wharf, I was confused because there was no sidewalk as there used to be when I had to struggle along with two pails of water. Also, the cemetery which we used to walk by hurriedly during the day and ran by at night, is much farther away from the road than I remembered it to be. I was happy to see that the stone wall which surrounds the cemetery is still in good condition.
I still had time for another look at the Cairn before the car carne to pick me up so I headed back to the Lake. I took a few photographs then I knew my visit was over as the car carne into sight.
On my way back to the Highway to Montreal, I missed seeing the old red brick schoolhouse we used to visit on hot days to sit under those old trees and to dare the school doors to open and gobble us up for a boring day of school.
On leaving South Lancaster, I felt the same sadness I used to feel on Labour Day weekend when our Summer freedom would be brought to an end. We were then to face ten months in the captivity of a classroom. But I knew that I shouldn't be too disappointed at leaving because I can always return to the little village on the Lake which
holds a million memories for me. When I mentioned to some of the residents that South Lancaster hasn't changed much and that it still had charm, the common remark. was, "We're trying to keep it that way!" I hope they do!
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