Jeff Green | May 28, 2015
Don Lee says that he is not as sharp as he used to be, his memory is not as good, he can't hear that well, can't see out of one eye, and he has been slowed down by a stroke several years ago. At 95 he still remembers a lot of stories from the past, “but I can't really tell you what happened yesterday,” he says.
Since we were interested in the past, that wasn't much of a problem. We also found out after the interview, which took place in midwinter, that Don still operates a chainsaw, and can even use up two full tanks of gas before putting down the saw.
Don was born in 1920, in the house where he still lives, on the Ball Road, on a farm that fronts St. Andrews Lake.
His father bought the next property over in 1879 and lived in a house there, but this property had the advantage of road access, and after purchasing it and extending the farm to 200 acres, he built a house in 1912. Don was the youngest child in the family, and he attended school at Kennedy school near the family home until he graduated grade 8 at the age of 12. In the midst of the depression there was never a thought of him going on to high school, which would have involved boarding in Sydenham throughout the week.
“There was too much to do on the farm and besides money was not easy then,” he recalls.
The land in the vicinity of his farm is still covered in open fields, even though there are few operating farms left.
“Every farm had cattle when I was young. You could look out the window and see cattle across the lake, the place was clean, there was no brush at all. If land could be worked at all, it was cleared and used. Our whole ambition was to get grass for cattle.
Although all the land in the region had been covered in White Pine, which had been cleared for the most part 50 or so years before Don Lee was born, he does remember there were some of the majestic trees left when he was a boy.
Mostly it was hard work on the farm in the 20s and 30s. “We had cattle, and sheep and we always had a few pigs,” but they rarely if ever ate beef or lamb.
“My dad would slaughter a sow in the fall, and we would preserve the meat in brine. We ate salt pork all winter, which I was not really partial to, I can remember that.” They ate potatoes as well, which they grew in a large garden that was overseen by his mother.
“We would put by 25 to 40 bags of potatoes each year, Green Mountains or cobblers, not the small bags but the 100 pound bags, and we grew turnips and carrots and everything else.”
They also grew corn, and in the fall they removed the kernels from the heads onto old sheets or old bags and “mother would set them out near the stove for a day or two until they were good and dry and then we would hang them in bags off the rafters for the winter. We did the same with apples.”
The day always began with milking and delivering the milk to the cheese factory a few miles away on White Lake Road in a horse drawn wagon.
“The milk had to be there by 8, we had to get an early start. But we never got much money for it, just pennies really. My dad used to say that if, when the fall came and he had the money he needed for taxes, and we had four bags of flour for bread and a bag of sugar, he was happy because he knew we would be able to get through the winter all right.”
One thing that Don remembers fondly, beyond all the hard work and hardship, was the way people looked after each other back then.
“People are pretty good now, I can tell you, but back then we were together all the time. If someone was injured, the neighbours showed up with food, we went out to cut wood, we did whatever had to be done and never thought anything of it at all.”
An example of the co-operative economy was the way wood splitting was done.
“There was always someone who had some sort of machine to saw up wood. Everyone would bring in wood all fall and winter and pile it up in lengths. In the spring the guy with the machine would come by and say he could make it for a week at some time. Everyone would get together at one farm and work for 6 or 8 hours. They would haul the logs up on a platform where the saw was set up, and they would throw the pieces off it afterwards. Some of the women would gather in the house and put a meal on at noon for everyone. Then we would move to the next farm, and the next, until everyone had their wood cut up, ready for splitting.”
In 1934, two things happened to Don Lee. He got his first job, and his first glimpse of a curly, dark haired girl.
The job he got was plowing a field for a neighbour, although he had to convince his father that working for someone was a good idea.
“When my father was young, his family went through hard times, and he was sent to work on a farm when he was 8. They fed him, but not too well. He told me he used to get ahold of a clean piece of straw and keep it in this pocket. When he milked the cows in the morning he would pull out the straw and sip some milk from the pail when the farmer wasn't looking. So he wasn't keen on me working, but when I told him I was going to be paid 50 cents a day, he said that was all right.”
As far as that curly haired girl is concerned, families used to ask Don's father if they could come on to the farm to have picnics on St. Andrews Lake, and he always said yes. One day, as he was fishing with another girl from a nearby farm, he saw a family from Bellrock out on the lake having a picnic.
“There was a girl there, she was only 12, but she was a pretty girl, with dark hair just as curly as you can believe.” It took another two years for Don Lee to get to know Gladys Reynolds, but it turned out that she remembered that summer picnic.
“I saw you out there,” she told me, “you had another girl with you. What happened to her?”
(to be continued)