The Gleaner
Arts & LifeHistory

Mother Sellar, age 88, reminisces: An excerpt from a Christmas insert sent out by The Gleaner in 1948

“‘Mother, write me an editorial for September 15.’
‘No! I’m too old.’
‘Not for that issue.’
‘Alright, it will be reminiscent. I’ve written few in my day but have proof-read and criticized many.’”

What does it feel like to be old and have lived almost ninety years in the same locality? Not bad, if you are not over-powered by fear of the future and have guarded against lonesomeness by adding to your list of friends some of the younger generations, and learned to entertain yourself and exercise charity and patience.

In fourscore years, have we advanced within our homes, in our environs, and in character? To the first and second, I answer positively, yes. Of the third, I’m in doubt.

Before the introduction of furnaces, the houses were so cold in winter. In my father’s manse there were five stoves, but on cold nights water froze in the bedrooms. We burned excellent hard wood, but fires burned out in the night, and anyhow economy had to be exercised, not of money only but of labour in cutting and carrying it in from shed to wood-box. The best of hard maple three feet long cost $3 a cord, but the total income in many cases was not over $300 a year. A man’s daily wage was $1 and good house servants cost $3 a month or less.

Is it any wonder our clothes differed greatly from those of today? They were planned for durability and warmth. Sewing machines were few, and it took time to make a garment by hand, but when made, it would pass down the line of juniors as it was outgrown. When the paper pattern industry developed, the Huntingdon women did not overlook it. Generally, the stockings were home-knit for everyone, and often the wool came from local sheep. Not always pretty, but warm, and the summer hose were knit from cotton.

The food was mainly home-produced and homemade yeast and local flour did not always produce sweet, good bread. Fruits and vegetables were not trucked to our door – we grew them in our fields and gardens. One of the nicest gardens in my day was Mr. Morrison’s in the centre of what is now Chateauguay Street. As there were no self-sealers, jellies and preserves and dried things were eaten. In summer, little fresh meat was used. Dan Miller could supply the weekly wants of the village from a big basket carried on his arm. The pickle barrel was the source and supply of dried meat, smoked hams and bacon, eggs and salt herring and an occasional fowl or fish.

A treasure to most families was the cow; so much good variety was provided by her milk. Many a lad’s pocket money was made by his driving a string of neighbors’ cows to and from pasture at 25¢ a month for each.

Another big improvement was the introduction to many houses of water cisterns. To fully appreciate that, you need to live for a spell in dependence on the rain that falls, and [that] you can catch, and the well that may freeze in the winter or go dry in the summer, or the snow you can melt; a supply barrel in the corner of the kitchen in the winter was a troublesome comfort.


Original caption: Mrs. Mary Watson Sellar, widow of the late Robert Sellar, who at 88 years of age wrote the accompanying guest editorial in the 85th anniversary issue of The Gleaner on Sept. 15, 1948.


Then, when water came in, soon better drainage followed and there were cleaner back-door premises and some fortunate women got washing machines. They may have been crude compared with the electric ones today but were a long step ahead of the washboard.

Big improvement No. 3 was “light”. When the tallow candle gave way to coal-oil lamps, the eyes of that day were satisfied, but Canadian oil that reached Huntingdon was not well-refined. It smelt and it dirtied the lamp chimneys every night. Small wonder there was smuggling from the U.S. and when electricity became a reality, homes and barns and roadsides became like day for all progressive enough to install it when the centres were established and lines laid. Other great indoor comforts that have come one by one are screened porches in which to sleep or eat or sit, comfortable chairs, electric stoves, irons, radios, telephones.

When we explore outside the home and go to the barn, we find one big one taking the place of a colony of individual buildings, and there the farm labor goes on in light and convenience. The herds of cattle have increased, but horses decreased. Shortage of hands to work in recent years has forced some to return to the small herd, others try more machinery. Fewer women go to barn and field, but in English homes there are fewer to go, for families are much smaller. Since the horseless carriage arrived and comparatively good roads followed, there is much more road-travel; sometimes one might think a heritage might be forfeited for gas, or a bank-account vanish. If the first Caza drove to-day past the fields of his descendants, or the first Fraser met his descendant sitting in his automobile in comfort with the big herds of cows and the dog before him, on the way to be milked, probably by machine, both pioneers would smile.

Yes, industry and a will to work with intelligence can work wonders. Farms are not the whole of Huntingdon. The hamlet has been followed by village and town, to which all sorts of products come daily by railway, truck, or mail, and local mills or factories produce many. Wooden sidewalks have given place to cement, and the deep ditches now have tile drains in them and are on level with the walk. One of my babies was once jolted out of his carriage into the deep ditch on Bouchette Street near the Pringle, Stark & Co. store.

In the olden days when a fire broke out, the bucket brigade got lively. The hand-engine was a revealer. When a rough-and-ready swearer found himself next to the parson on the handrail, he found his limitations. The night the Rev. Mr. Wallace was killed he was in the river with the bucket brigade at the mill fire and stepped in the wrong direction. The bridge was down and the concourse to his home had to use the back road. It will be well for this generation to learn to pay its taxes cheerfully and add a few hours to their day’s labor to earn them.

My last point is “character” and I’m incompetent to judge, because one must mingle with men in church, politics, business and socially if he is to see many sides. But there are rotten spots that declare themselves, such as women drinking and having liquor in their homes for social refreshment. Women deserting the steady oversight of home and family, for the sake of variety, money and divorce. Mental unbalance of men and women.

Almost all the early settlers had initiative, otherwise they would not have been here. A goodly number of them were educated; as their families increased, the push came for churches and schools. There was no lack of stone and wood, but architecture and equipment left much to be desired and qualified teachers and preachers were often lacking. It was a great day when the Academy as built. It was high school for the Valley.

Its maintenance was no joke. One source of revenue was the annual soirée, at which with tolerable regularity the local dancers and gang from Burke would try to start a dance and be foiled by the directors, some from conscientious scruples, others from fear of damage to the building — which still stands firm and strong. For a good many years the dancers have won out, and the school dance at the end of term is recognized as an honourable performance and watched by the dignitaries.
Mary Watson Sellar

Editor’s note: Many thanks to Karen Douglass Cooper, whose mother worked as an editor and correspondent for The Gleaner in her youth. In 2021, Karen donated several pieces of archival documents and photographs to The Gleaner, including the insert in which we found this editorial. We hope to publish more such material in future editions.

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