December 21, 1916 To Christmas in Owen Sound

December 21, 1916

I came up to Owen Sound today. I haven’t written for a few days because I was busy working on my canvases and getting ready for the trip. With the season, the trains are busy, the tickets are more expensive and Union Station is a constant crush of trains and people, even worse than usual.

I was considering remaining in Toronto for the holidays. It’s not that I didn’t want to visit my parents in Owen Sound, but I was short of cash. My painting – Hardwoods, I had hoped it would sell in Montreal ($300) but it didn’t. Nothing much sold in that show because of the wartime thrift. People aren’t buying paintings because it’s viewed as being frivolous. It now seems that any spare money that people have is going into war bonds or life insurance. It was a disappointment that a sale didn’t come through as the cash would have kept me going until springtime. I didn’t want to, but I might have to take on commercial work, and that meant going to an office. I couldn’t bear that thought.

Word of my plight must have gotten to Dr. MacCallum. He came by on Tuesday, and started sifting through my sketches and pulled on one out, “I have a buyer in mind for this one, 25 dollars I’ll give you.” He also took a look at my canvases, “The one with the first snow on the cedars, I want that one for my house, I’ll give you an instalment of 50 dollars and we’ll figure out the price later.” His brief visit ended up with 75 dollars in my pocket and my worry about not making it to Owen Sound for the holidays went out the door too. As in other times, The Dr. seemed to have an advanced telegraph for trouble situations, getting us artists out of a bind before it got too bad. He did that for Jackson up in Georgian Bay. He offered his cottage to Jackson in the late fall so he could continue his painting. If he hadn’t done this, Jackson would have gone to the States, and left Canada altogether.

I had to prepare my things for Owen Sound. I was working on a couple of sketches for my parents. I finished them up and mounted them on frames I had made from windowpanes I salvaged from an old storm window I found in the ravine. One pane was broken, but the other five were fine. Judging the quality of the window, it came from one of the well-heeled households. I couldn’t fathom why these houses were still dumping their rubbish in the ravine. It was most likely the doings of the hired help, and despite it being in the ravine there was good chance that pickers from the poorer neighbourhoods would fetch it away sooner or later. I just happened to come across it during the night when I was snowshoeing. Had I waited until next morning it would have been gone.

I wasn’t worried about the leaving the shack over the holidays. The pickers would take stuff from the neighbourhoods, but there was an unwritten code to leave the residences unmolested. Before I departed I made sure the fire burned out in the stove. I was sure my sketches and canvas were safe not just from fire but from thieves too. Nobody would touch anything anything during the time I was up North, and during the holidays, no one would have the occasion to come in – there was nothing of value to steal, except my sketches, perhaps, for use as firewood. If that was to be the fate of my art, so be it. In the other part of the shack (the unheated part), I had fashioned a root-cellar into the wall where it butted up against the dirt embankment,  I had about 20 lbs of potatoes, numerous turnips and onions. I covered these up using burlap bags to act as insulation. If it didn’t get too cold, they should be fine, as I was going to be gone for almost two weeks.

Although being in the middle of the week, Union Station was still a crush of people and trains. It’s always busy now. The crowds are rife with pickpockets, so I made sure I could feel my wallet in my inside vest pocket as I pushed my way through the throng. I could see long rows of freight trains were being loaded on the westerly platforms. Judging by the boxes and the sentries milling about, it was munitions for shipment to Halifax and then overseas. With all of these shipments, Halifax had become the centre of the munitions universe. Closer to me, the passenger trains were coming in from Buffalo, Montreal and Ottawa. It was not unusual to have three or four trains arriving at once, adding to the constant surge of people. A Grand Trunk train, with an especially black smoke pillar was coming in from Montreal. I could see it was full of returning veterans. My mind slipped away from the present for a brief moment – I’d be taking a Grand Trunk if I was going up to the Park, but today I was taking the CPR  to Owen Sound.

Then the present snapped back. The black soot from the Grand Trunk engine, now in full-stop, was wafting across platform. As I turned around to make my way to my train, a young women came up to me tried to hand me a white feather while acting out a self-important flourish. I stared at her. She was expecting the crowds to part and watch the spectacle of shame bestowed upon me, but that was not to be. Before I could react, the feather was intercepted and snatched away by a soldier who just had stepped off the train. From the look in his eye, I could tell he was a veteran. Vimy, but likely Somme.

“Young lady, you don’t know the half of the stupidity of what you’re doing!” The soldier wasn’t looking at me, I don’t think he noticed me. He glared at the feather, tossed it aside, and it floated up to disappear into the cloud of black soot

“You don’t have a bloody clue how pointless it is over there.” He glowered at the girl. I did not exist. He turned to one side, he was missing his left arm. I was expecting a dramatic confrontation to unfold, but the young women, like the white feather into the soot, disappeared into the  crowd. I was pushed along by the flow of people coming off the training and I lost sight of the one-armed veteran. In the chaos, I managed to get on my train. I was shaken up, and it wasn’t until the second smoke of my pipe that I began to feel right again. The train had departed, and it wasn’t until we were passing the slaughterhouses and stockyards in the west end that conductor checked our tickets.

The rest of the trip went went without incident. The weather was clear coming out of the City and we managed to climb the curve on Caledon grade without slipping on the rails. Horseshoe Curve, as the grade was called, was a switchback up the steep hills. It had gained a notorious reputation back in 1907 when a train from Owen Sound, going too fast, left the rails at full speed. Seven people were killed, and over a hundred injured. It was the fault of the engineer, after a drunken night in Owen Sound, he fell asleep while on the engine.

Over the highlands the weather started to turn for the worse by Dundalk. The elevation here is nearly the same as the Park. It’s colder here, and with no trees to break the wind, it is a miserable place to be. I had heard that soil is poor and the drainage bad. The surveyor of these parts, a Roman Catholic, would reserve the poorest lands to be named after Protestant Reformers. The township here was called ‘Melancthon’, after Philip Melancthon, who specialized in lost souls plagued with guilt and confusion.  The fate of anyone who tried to farm in Melancthon.

We made it to Owen Sound, and I walked through the town to my parents’ place. They could see I was tired, and after a perfunctory conversation, I retired to the room they kept for me when I visited.  I didn’t know how tired I was until I woke up the next day, and it was well into the afternoon. Back at the farm, I was never allowed to sleep past 7 am, no matter what happened the night before, but this was different, they lived in town now.

I know what’s in store during my stay. Aside from the Christmas celebrations, we’ll be talking about the War and what I’m going to do.

 

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