Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles
The Alexander Story
Volume 10, page 4
Compiled by Sheila Strang
Based on an article written by the late Gladys M. Bearman with additional information supplied by Mrs. Mervyn Craig (nee Hazel Alexander)
In the sheltered valley shadowed by the Gatineau Hills surrounding Old Chelsea, lies one of the oldest cemeteries in the area - The Old Chelsea Community Cemetery. There the dates on many of the crumbled headstones give, briefly, an outline of the storied past of pioneer settlers, covering almost one hundred and eighty-three years.
In the late 1800's, Mr. and Mrs. James Alexander moved from the 3rd line of Huntley, Ontario to Meech Lake, Quebec. She was Mary Graham of the same area. They had nine children, four boys and five girls. James Alexander died in 1903 and his wife Mary in 1906. Their graves are in the pioneer grave-yard north of Chelsea, now owned and managed by The Historical Society of the Gatineau. One of their daughters, Bertha, was married to Pte. RR. Thompson, the only Canadian to have been awarded the Queen's Scarf of Honour for bravery in the South African War. They are both buried in this same cemetery. Andrew Allen Alexander, one of the four sons of James and Mary, about whom this story is recounted, was born on 20 November 1880.
Emma Findlay, daughter of Maria Jane Davis and James Findlay, was born January 19, 1880 at Breckenridge, Quebec. On September 22, 1908, she married Andrew Alexander at Beachgrove, Quebec, and the couple settled at Meech Lake on a hillside overlooking the water, about one-third of a mile from the foot of the lake.
The story of Emma and Andrew Alexander belongs to an era of the early nineteen hundreds which oft-times depicts courage, perseverance and achievement comparable to those same qualities which predominated in the lives of the pioneers of the early 1800’s.
Twice, Mr. and Mrs. Alexander left the lake to reside for a few years at Kazabazua and Breckenridge, Que., where Mr. Alexander, a well-known millwright throughout the district, had, before operating his own mills, worked for the Gilmour Lumber Company and a number of other mill owners. When the Alexander mills at Breckenridge, together with their home and possessions were all destroyed by fire, the family, with their two children, returned to Meech Lake in 1913.
There, on a point of land, over which tumbled a turbulent hillside brook, Andrew Alexander, with the courage inherited from his Scottish ancestors, did, that same summer, build his third sawmill - the first such mill to be erected at Meech Lake. The land covered by this old mill site is now owned by Mr. Maurice Menard and Dr. Terry Orlick, and, on their lawns one can still find protruding pieces of the old foundations of the mill.
The life of the Alexanders was a strenuous and busy one. Andrew Alexander had many employees at his mill and, besides caring for her family, Mrs. Alexander, known the country over for her delectable cooking, prepared the meals for her husband's mill-hands.
When the Alexander children were of school age they attended the Meech Lake School together with children of other families in the district, including the McCloskeys, Marshalls, Nelsons, Childs and Ryans. The school building has since been demolished by the N.C.C. Among the school teachers who taught there at various times, the names of Miss Hazel Christie, Miss H. Williams and Miss Janet Hudson are recalled. Miss Hazel Christie was a great skier and lived with the Alexanders as did other teachers. When the first three children were older, Andrew would drive them to the Chelsea train station. Here they would travel by train to Ottawa to go to school. He would pick them up at the end of the day.
The first Alexander home was temporarily vacated in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War. At this time the Alexanders moved to the hill overlooking the foot of the lake and there opened a summer hotel known as “Meech Lake House" - the home of the late Thos. Cowden, where for some years Mr. Cowden had kept the Meech Lake Post Office. This property was bought by Mr. M. J. O'Brien for some of his staff. Later, the N.C.C. bought the property and demolished the building.
In the early days there were few cars on the gravel roads of the Gatineau, but as far back as 1915 Andrew Alexander owned three touring cars which he personally kept in condition and these he used to meet the daily train at the Chelsea station, almost six miles away, to transport the visitors to Meech Lake House. He had Johnny Dunn of Old Chelsea and Edmund McCloskey to drive the cars as well as himself. At that time the cars were resplendent with much brass and were always kept shining.
In those days, keeping summer guests comfortable and happy was no easy task. Food was rationed and there was no electricity, running water or telephones. But this spacious rambling old home, with Mrs. Alexander as its kindly hostess, was, from its opening day, filled to capacity with summer vacationers who revelled in the swimming, boating, tennis and hiking amid the beauties of the picturesque Meech Lake. Guests would arrive as early as May and the last ones would end their holidays by October.
At the close of the war in 1918, the Alexanders moved back to their own home, and in the summer of 1919 a new house was built with the help of Paddy Dean, a well known carpenter of the district. Here again the Alexander hospitality continued to be enjoyed by summer guests and, in the winter, by ski lovers. Every one from near and far knew that “The Alexanders" was the place where one could be sure of excellent meals and a homelike atmosphere, with Emma doing all her own work. The ski enthusiasts would, many of them, travel by train from Ottawa to Cascades, ski across country to Meech Lake, dine at the Alexanders and then proceed to Camp Fortune. Many returned by the same route, while others preferred to ski down to Chelsea station and take the train for Ottawa, or ski all the way back to Wrightville, through the beautiful Pinks Lake and lronside districts, now so easily accessible via the Gatineau Parkway.
Mr. and Mrs. Alexander and their family were among the first native skiers in the area in the early days of that sport. Their skis were expertly made by Mr. Alexander for his family and provided as much speed and as many thrills as do the elaborate ones of the present day. The fittings were made from the leather belts from the sawmills. Another winter activity was to cut ice at the lake and store it for the coming summer. It was cut in big blocks, loaded on a sleigh and hauled back to be piled in the ice-house and covered with sawdust. The only way they could travel in the winter was by horse and cutter or sleigh. Andrew had horses and one cow. If they wanted to visit Emma’s sister, Mrs. Ormond and her family at Breckenridge, they would hitch up the horses to a sleigh and drive over the mountain. In the summer they would drive in a Ford touring car via Kingsmere and down Lauriault Hill. It was narrow and steep. Returning at night the children would have to get out and help push the car up the steep hill.
No snow tires were available then and Mr. Alexander built a snowmobile, the first in the district. Many were the trips made by this vehicle to and fro over the snowy miles, and many friends enjoyed these rides. At the end of the cold drive a warm welcome and delicious meal was prepared by Mrs. Alexander. After dinner at noon, skiing and tobogganing were enjoyed and then they would be returned to Chelsea.
The Spring of 1929 brought the depression and the resulting difficulty in obtaining work. The Alexanders therefore decided to accept an invitation to travel West to Prince George, B.C., where Mr. Alexander's brothers, Alfred and Freeman, offered work at their sawmill. So, in early May, having rented their Meech Lake home, this courageous couple, with their five children, the dog and camping equipment, set forth on the long trip West, in their 1926 McLaughlin Buick touring car with the old style open trailer, and $200.00 in the family purse.
Camping en route, they arrived June 3rd with $35.00 of the original $200.00 still in the purse! Gasoline in those days ranged from .18c a gallon in Chicago to .45c in the Cariboo. Mrs. Alexander was in frail health at the time, having recently undergone an operation, but this plucky little lady managed to keep her family well nourished during the trip. The weather was splendid for travelling, the car held out and all arrived at Prince George in excellent spirits. Work was plentiful there at first, but by mid-August the depression hit the West, the mill closed down and the Alexanders had to pack up and begin the homeward trek. Upon arrival at their beloved lake they found that their home had been ill cared for, and during their absence the grass lawns had grown to hay.
By the next Spring, on March 17, 1930, more ill-fortune befell the family when their home, with all their possessions, was destroyed by fire. Because of the high insurance rates, difficult to meet during the depression, the insurance was reduced by one half before they started their trip to Prince George, B.C. However, a new house was started that summer while the family lived in a cottage by the lake. By Fall the house was ready for occupancy. Paddy Dean helped to get it built. The next few winters were spent in Ottawa. In the fall of 1932, Andrew, a strong, healthy man, never sick a day in his life, became suddenly ill and passed away October 25th. His grave is in the cemetery in Old Chelsea.
Emma, with her family, was left to carry on. Eventually, the girls all married and moved away. Melbourne, who never married, still lived on with his mother. In January, 1963, Mrs. Alexander passed away and is buried beside her husband in the Old Chelsea cemetery.
Melbourne still resides on the family property at Meech Lake and has inherited the work ethic of his parents as well as the inventiveness of his forbears as a builder and mechanic.