Before She Passed, My Grandmother Shared Her Childhood Memories of the 1920s
Her family was among the early settlers in North Bay, Ontario, which meant land had to be cleared before work could begin on a new house.
This is a story about my grandmother Veda Ramsay née Storey’s childhood when she and her family moved to North Bay, Ontario, for her mother’s health. She related it to my mother, Donna, who typed it out before it was lost forever. Here are my grandmother’s memories in her own words.
My Northern Home
On September 1, 1922, when I was 11, my parents, older brother, four younger brothers and sisters and I moved to the North Bay area (eventually we would be nine children in all). My mother was in poor health and needed to go to a drier climate for her lungs. My father had heard of government land, north of North Bay, which could be bought cheap for the clearing of partly burned forest. He talked my two uncles into going along, so they agreed to take up three sections.
My father rented a boxcar on a freight train for our furniture, cow and team of horses, as well as my two aunts’ furniture—just the things we really needed such as beds, tables, chairs and stoves. My older brother had to go in the boxcar to look after the horses and cow on the trip. On the passenger train was my father, mother, me and my brothers and sisters, two aunts and their children. My two uncles had gone on a few days ahead to be there to meet us. We got off the train in Feronia, seven miles from where our land was located. My uncles were there with the wagon. We put the younger children, trunks and bedding on the wagon, while the older people walked behind. We were 19 in all.
We put up three tents in a small clearing near an old, falling-down log shack. Each family slept on mattresses on the ground inside the tents. The men built a long, narrow shelter, which was really only a roof, and placed wooden tables down the middle beneath it, where we all ate. There was a stove without legs on the ground to cook on. This was home until the three men cut roads, cleared land and built houses. One of my cousins and I had to stay at the tents and look after the younger children, while the women went along with the men into the forest to cut logs. We were frightened at first as the wind howling through the burned out stumps sounded like wild cats.
Our house was the first one built because of my mother’s illness. It was one storey high, with a flat roof and chinked log walls. As it was only one big room, we had blankets strung on wires between the beds at one end of the room. It was built on the fork of the river where moose would come down to drink.
We had to cross one fork of the river to visit our two aunts. The bridge was made of two trees, one fallen from each side of the river. You walked down one tree and up the other one. At first we used a raft and a cable but it was too dangerous, especially in spring when the water was high.
By now, winter had set in and one aunt’s tent was banked in snow. It kept the women busy knitting socks, mittens and toques to keep warm. My mother started to gain weight and strength, and in time was completely well again. We had a good time at Christmas that first year, even though we had few gifts.
The men cut wood and each day my father went to North Bay, 15 miles away, with a load of split wood to sell. He’d bring back a load of supplies for the three families. We ate venison as there were lots of deer around and no game wardens. The road the men built was logs laid down in some places, with dirt shoveled over them. They brought the furniture that had been stored in Feronia over these log roads as each family’s house was built.
It was tiring work to clear the land, burn the logs and then pick up the partly burned pieces to re-pile and burn again. My mother made us aprons out of jute bags to try and keep our clothes clean.
We had no school for two years. My mother finally wrote to the minister of education telling him about us not having a school for the 13 children. They came to see us and my father and uncle built our first schoolhouse. We older children handed the lumber up to the men for the roof.
We got a teacher from Cobourg, Ontario. My brother and I went to Feronia to meet her train. We took the lumber wagon with straw in the back to put her trunks on; where the roads were log underneath we had to stand up it was so bumpy. We thought she was the prettiest person we had ever seen and her clothes were so nice.
Our family had built our second house by the time the teacher came—we always boarded the teacher for the time we lived there. Our second house was made of pulled logs on the outside and framed inside. It had four bedrooms and we thought it was a mansion when we first moved in.
My father acted as a land guide for the people coming in to take up land the same way we did. A man would arrive in Feronia by train and stay at our place overnight. My father would take him to see his land the next morning and he would catch the train back again that day.
About two years later, my father built a general store, which supplied the families in the mill camps. My mother baked all our bread and some for other people as well. When we started getting bread in the store, it came in clean, new jute bags. Things like raisins and prunes came in wooden boxes. I had to dig them out and put them in paper bags, five pounds for 25 cents. The school kids came in for a cent worth of candy at noon hour.
My brother John and I often walked to Feronia with a haversack on our back to carry in groceries and get the mail. My older brother Floyd had to work with my father and uncles. The older boy in the other family went away to school and became a teacher.
We started having Sunday school in the schoolhouse and then a student minister began coming a couple of times a month. The school was near our house so we always had the minister for dinner and most times had to go to meet him and take him back as we had a car by this time.
In winter, we never saw North Bay or any town from Christmastime until spring and then only in the latter part of the eight years we spent there. We had to put the car away in winter on account of the deep snow. My older brother and I thought nothing of walking or snowshoeing two or three miles at night to visit friends. Sometimes, I’d step on the back of his snowshoes, when the wolves sounded close with their howling.
I remember the first time I went to North Bay, I rode on a load of wood with my dad. It was -40°F when we left at 4 a.m. At first I walked behind to keep warm. In town, he let me off on the main street and told me to stay on the block between the restaurant and Woolworth’s so I wouldn’t get lost. He had to go to market and sell the wood. He was to meet me at the restaurant for dinner when he finished. I was so pleased with all the stuff in Woolworth’s that I stayed there most of the time as it was too cold to stay outside. We ate at the restaurant; it was the first time I was ever in one. We got home after dark that cold night. I never asked to go again.
My father continued to work hard. He cleared 35 acres of land, raised cattle, built roads and a bridge, bought another woodlot and logged. We boarded surveyors and river drivers, who drove logs down the river to lumber mills. Mom and I fried bacon and eggs in dripping pans on top of the stove at 4 a.m. for their breakfast. I also remember entire families staying at our place for a few days while their homes were being finished.
There were times we had terrible forest fires. I remember firefighters and even the army camping in tents around our house. They had water haversacks to carry the water. You could see to write a letter by the light from the fires at night. One of my aunts heard the fire was coming, so she took her fur coat and just walked out of her house. The fire burned her home. Her hens were still alive in the clearing afterwards, but she had to kill them as their feet were so badly burned. Thankfully, as more people bought, settled and cleared more land, we had fewer forest fires.
Legacy of Love
I have such amazing memories of my grandmother, a kind, loving woman who treated you like royalty when you visited her home. Her experiences in North Bay, and as the eldest daughter in a family of nine children, made her someone who loved deeply, putting her family’s needs ahead of her own. Both she and my grandfather are missed to this day, but their legacy of love and sacrifice lives on.
Next, find out what Prairie life was like during the Great Depression.