Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Survival Instinct

 We just spent a week at Bon Echo Provincial Park, camped in a cathedral of white pines, on a hill overlooking Mazinaw Lake, watching the sun in its travels change the face of Bon Echo rock. That rocky presence emanates energy, geological time made manifest, aboriginal passages recorded in enduring ochre on the flat planes of the cliff.  All around, traces of the Dennison's early c20 literary coterie in the outdoors.

We visited an outstanding small museum in nearby Cloyne, "town" for the duration of our stay. There the enthusiastic  summer staff helped me with research on summer lodges like the Dennison's Bon Echo Lodge - more on that later.

 What struck us both were the displays on the logging era (1850 to late 1890s.) I'll check that in The Mazinaw Experience by John Campbell (Natural Heritage Books, 2000)  - there's always a book, yes?

Someone said the pines above our heads were 150 years old. That makes sense. The logging era in the Mazinaw area peaked between 1870 and 1890. What the mind cannot quite grasp is that all the land around us was once entirely denuded of trees, stripped by loggers making profits for people who viewed the vast forests as a limitless resource to plunder. The hills above the lake were called the Bald Hills.

The majestic pines were thought to have been about 400 years old, according to Campbell, stood 38 metres high with a diameter of about a metre (imagine that?), growing 250 to 400 per acre.

The men in the logging camps lived and worked in appalling conditions,  doing dangerous often deadly work. What they did to the countryside around them, in the interests of economic growth and trade, and in the firm conviction that nature was there for the taking, was equally appalling.

The majestic pines were converted to square timbers of enormous length (up to 100 feet in length) and size (nothing kept smaller than 12" square.) Imagine what was left behind. Slash it was called, littering the landscape, and tinder-dry, putting any community in the area at enormous risk of fire. Lots and lots of fires.

That's what happened in 1903, in Vennachar, just north of Mazinaw Lake. Fire destroyed the complete village, leaving just this little church. It was an immediate eyecatcher for its location on a wooded hill, its home-made steeple and Gothic windows, and its humble insulbrick siding - and the artificial flower bed out front.

But it was the message on the sign which brought such powerful images - of people struggling to establish communities in a hostile land, then seeing everything disappear in minutes in an inferno. The sign explains that  Vennachar Community Memorial Church (1875) was the only survivor of the 1903 fire.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Sisters in the Viewfinder

Charlotte Gray's Sisters in the Wilderness brilliantly captures the literary lives of two sisters, transplanted from genteel Sussex country life, into the wilderness of the Lakefield area in the early 1800s. Their husbands, retired military officers on half-pay, were as unsuited to the rustic life of pioneers as were the ladies.

Those ladies, however, managed to make a literary name for themselves, with works that resonate even today. These lady pioneers were Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie.

Most memorable amid Catherine's formidable literary output was The Backwoods of Canada, (the full title adds Being Letters from the Wife of an Emigrant Officer, Illustrative of the Domestic Economy of British America) a how-to guide for roughing it in the bush, published in 1836.

Her viewpoint has been described as "perennially optimistic." Certainly she put a brave cheerful face on a very difficult life. Her saving grace may have been her love of the nature around her. She was an amateur botanist, and published several studies of plants including Studies of Plant Life in Canada.

 Recently I managed to capture her literary home, something I'd been meaning to do for ages. The house in Lakefield had proved elusive until a  road trip for lunch in Buckhorn with our lovely aunt, and a return via Lakefield, address in hand. While my two favourite people cooled off near the river, I wandered up to take a few snaps of the shy frame farmhouse hiding in the trees. This site has some additional views and some text, if you can ignore the zippy animations.

The house is Westove, Catherine's home after the death of her husband in 1862, until her own death in 1899. There's a lovely contemporary image of the house on this dandy site.

 Catherine's sister Susanna Moodie may be better known. She wrote two works about the emigrant experience: Roughing it in the Bush(1852) - the title describing pretty much how she felt about the pioneer life - and Life in the Clearings(1853) - which expresses her relief and relative contentment, upon their move to Belleville in 1840, where her husband Dunbar served as Sheriff of Victoria District /Hastings County from 1839 to 1863.

No excuse for taking so long to photograph this fine stone house, which has evolved over the years from a pleasant Regency cottage. (I'm sure I saw a photo of its original form once.) Susanna (Strickland) Moodie's Belleville home is a short hop across town.

Although I know the owner, I haven't yet seen the interior. You'll recognize the doorcase in this 1866 photo at Collections Canada.

At right, Susanna's final resting place in bucolic Belleville Cemetery, by the tranquil Bay of Quinte.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Steeple Chase

Wesleyan Methodist Church, Actinolite (1864)
There's a knack to it. I don't appear to have it.
I love looking up, trying to capture the communion of steeple - windows, roof treatment, adornment - and sky,  in that moment just before I fall over backwards.

Hazzard's Methodist Church (1857)

The photos don't do justice to the places, and certainly don't capture the Heaven-reaching of their spires, and their church congregations.
Nevertheless, I'll share these photos of some I've encountered lately, and add a reflection.
Burnbrae Presbyterian Church, est. 1836

These are very old churches.
The lives of the people who built them were enormously challenging.
Their faith sustained them through the heart-breaking work of clearing the forests, wrestling livelihoods from uncooperative land. They lost wives in childbed, children to simple illnesses, husbands to cruel accidents, precious livestock to predators and homes to raging fires.

St. John the Baptist Anglican Church, Madoc (1865)

But they built churches. Early on they gathered in homes. Sometimes they met in their rudimentary schoolhouse built for their children's better future. As early as they could, using what they had at their disposal, they built churches.