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Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles

The Old Homestead

Volume 19, page 36

Elizabeth Stevenson Rutledge

The Stevenson farm was cleared and settled by Thomas Stevenson who came from Northern Ireland. In I837 he married Anne Pritchard. and one of their ten children was Thomas Andrew, whose son Charles Stevenson married Sarah Timmins in 1898. Elizabeth, their daughter, (1901-1974) wrote this article in 1967.

Tonight my thoughts keep going back to the old homestead where I was born in 1901, and where I spent the happiest years of my life. It has been the Stevenson homestead for some 130 years, and five generations of the family lived and reared their families there.1

Nestled in the Gatineau hills across the river from Wakefield, it was typical of many homes of the day. A big rambling house with fourteen rooms in all, the walls were hung with great, enlarged pictures of our ancestors, the men bewhiskered and the ladies with hour-glass figures. The floors were covered, not with broadloom, but with handsome rag carpets, truly works of art.

I remember, too, other great large frames on those parlour walls, containing wreaths of dainty flowers fashioned from dyed feathers, human hair and coloured yarns, interwoven with very fine wire. Usually a photograph of some deceased member of the family rested in the centre of these wreaths. But most of my memories of the old homestead are connected with the activities of our family during my childhood.

The kitchen table was twelve feet long and generally groaning with food, and always filled to capacity with hungry people. My mother was noted for her culinary art, and very often travellers stopped for a meal or a night's lodging, and none was ever turned away. Year after year there was the school teacher to board, and the cheese-maker. There were hired men and grandparents, and all of us young ones, truly enough to make a mother's hair turn grey.

Some of the wayfarers whom we were always glad to welcome were German farmers from the Poltimore district 25 miles away. They came with team and sleigh once each winter to have a load of wheat ground into flour at the Wakefield grist mill. On towards spring, when the roads were hard-packed, almost nightly we would have one of these old gents in his bearskin coat come driving into the yard just at dark. The sleigh would have a high runged railing, or rack, to keep the bags of wheat piled high on it from sliding off; the horses would be tired and frosty. Then mother would hustle round and set another plate and the good man would eat his fill. Afterwards there was much wagging of tongues as the men exchanged news and views, and we children listened, spellbound, until we were sent off to our beds. In the morning our friend would continue another three miles to the village where his wheat would be ground. and where he would buy a supply of yarn and bales of woolen goods to clothe his family. Then he was off home with his flour, or perhaps he would spend another night with us before starting his long journey home.

Stevenson homestead
The Stevenson homestead: circa 1910. (GVHS 2728.19/49)

I am also reminded of the old brick bake oven at the back of the house. In this oven Mother made dozens of great, high loaves a couple of times a week. This was done by making a fire right in the oven, using long hardwood sticks. When they had burned down to coals they were raked out on the ground, leaving bricks that were hot enough to bake the bread. What a delicious, golden crust it had! When all the bread was out, in went a batch of pies, and maybe a cake or two. The yeast for the bread was made from hops which grew on high vines running on the neighbour‘s old log house. This same neighbour bought his bread from us for years, paying fifteen cents for three giant loaves.

Another highlight of those days was the visit of the old harness—maker each winter. He was a farmer from the district, but in winter he went from house to house to make and repair harness for his neighbours. Many and varied were the tales he told as he plied his "waxed end", the length of heavy waxed thread he used for this task. How I loved to sit and watch and ask questions! And all the little scraps of new, shiny leather went into my little red cardboard box. If I got in his way he'd gently jab me with his needle and slyly say. “Whoops, did I jab you? Well, stand back a little."

A not-so-pleasant memory is the smell in the room over the kitchen. That is where the deer hides were soaked in a strong soap solution in preparation for tanning. After they had soaked for several weeks they were draped over a peeled pole in the yard and scraped with a blunt instrument to remove the hair. Then they were washed and dried with much stretching and rubbing through the hands to make the leather soft and pliable. Later, night after night my father would sit and work by coal-oil lamp, cutting and sewing the hides to make splendid moccasins and mittens, a skill he had learned from his father. His deerskin products were much in demand from people in the community, and we children always wore them. Sometimes Mother gathered up the smaller pieces and pieced them together to make deerskin linings for our coats.

This brings back memories of the deer-hunt in the fall. “What an event that was! My father was a very hard—working little man, and about the only holiday he ever took was the week he spent hunting up the Lièvre River. Mother would cook and bake for days, getting him ready for the trip. There were about ten men in the hunt club and everybody brought along food; from the amount Dad took, it seemed to me that he must have furnished at least half of it! At last he would be ready, blankets and food loaded into the express2 not forgetting the guns and hounds. Then, off he'd go as excited as a small boy going to the circus. Then we'd count the days till his return, eagerly anticipating fine, juicy venison steaks in the weeks to come.

And I'm thinking tonight of the little boiler house which sat in the middle of the yard, with its big rusty stove where all messy work was clone. The pig's feed was mixed and boiled here, as was the soap. The soap was made with lye, which was the liquid off the barrel of hardwood ashes that sat under the drip from the roof (or, perhaps, in a dry time, a pail of water was thrown on them). Anyhow, this lye was dark and strong and made the best soap ever when mixed with waste fat and water. It was in this little boiler house that grandfather often worked on a winter's night, melting lead and pouring it into moulds, to harden into bullets for his guns. Often this lead came from the lining of the big chests in which tea was packaged in those days. Then in the spring there was the busy time when the maple trees were tapped and great jars of golden brown syrup were made and stored away for future use. We all loved maple syrup pie!

The farm's two big orchards had apple trees of every kind, as well as yellow and red plum trees, and currant and raspberry bushes. When these orchards produced their bounty we kids ate so much it's a wonder that we could eat our meals at all. We always had a can of sugar hidden in the loft where we took our stalks of rhubarb. We would sit idly dipping the stalks into the sugar with our ears cocked for the younger children, lest they discover our hideaway and tell Mother where her precious sugar was going. In spite of our raids on the garden and orchard, by autumn the cellar shelves would be filled with jars of fruit preserves and jellies, pickles and canned food. By the time the snow melted in March so did the supply of food in the cellar.

Getting to church on Sundays took a great deal of time and planning, yet I don't remember ever missing Sunday morning worship. First, there were eight children to get dressed. The church was located in the village of Wakefield across the Gatineau River, and there was no bridge across the river there at that time. In summer we all piled into the double rig and drove to the river, where neighbours from near and far would be gathered. Most of the men tied their teams to the fence, but a couple of teams and rigs were put on scows and rowed across, along with men, women and children. Then we would travel the mile and a half to the village church, the older women and small children getting a ride while the others walked. In winter we crossed the river on the ice, and what fun it was. We were all bundled up in fur caps and gauntlets our mother made for us, the frost nipping our noses and sleigh bells jingling. If it was too cold for Mother and the new baby, then we went in the cutter with its little green plush seat against the dashboard for us youngsters, where we sat with the reins gently caressing our cheeks.

In these bygone days all the family's food preparation for Sunday was done on Saturday. Potatoes and other vegetables were peeled, the meat cooked, and dessert made. Often on Sundays the dessert was a shimmering mound of blanc-mange smothered in wild strawberry preserves and topped with thick cream.

My dad used to travel to Ottawa's Byward Market every second week with a team of horses to pull his load of butter and meat. Many times I went with him and always found the trip thrilling. We'd arise shortly after midnight, eat a good breakfast, and start off. At first it would be monotonous, all dark and nothing to see, but then day would dawn, lights appeared in the windows, people were getting their cows in for milking, and the woman we had nicknamed “Old Kitty" would be out along the road gathering kindling wood. wearing her white night cap. And then, at last, we'd reach the market with its funny assortment of people and interesting produce. The customers would count out their quarters and fifty-cent pieces, and before buying would scoop out a hunk of butter to taste. And I remember the stylish lady who would argue that we must have coloured the butter because it couldn't be that yellow. But finally, the load was sold and the shopping done. Off we'd go on our homeward journey feeling very sleepy and vowing never to go again, but we always did!

Remembered guests at the homestead included the beloved minister of our church, the Reverend Robert Gamble, along with his stately wife. He had ministered to the people of Wakefield and district for thirty years and was respected by one and all. When he and his wife came to dinner, the silver and cut glass were brought out, as was the very best food possible. For that occasion nothing was too good.

Another remembered guest was a youngster who later became our village doctor. His mother brought him to the farm to visit, and placed him on a chair beside her. Being of a curious nature, he leaned over to inspect a big can of churning cream, which was covered with a cheese-cloth, and then proceeded to fall in on his head.

I was always called “Tommy” in those days, which was short for tomboy, and that is just what I was, being brought up with five brothers. But the boys could play sissy games too. Almost every day we had a fling at playing "missus" in some wonderful playhouse we would construct. Furnished with broken dishes and furniture, with green moss for carpets, toadstools for cakes and huge puffballs or stones for bread, and dressed in some finery from the ragbag, no "missus" ever looked more lovely or talked more sweetly. And, of course, there were dolls for babies.

Another game we liked was one Mother played with us. It was called "Jennie under the sofa". She would dress her hand and arm to look like a rag doll. Her hand was padded to form a head. Eyes, nose and mouth were painted on the cotton and a handkerchief tied around it for a bonnet.

Charles Stevenson family
Charles Stevenson family: circa 1920, Elizabeth in front row at left

Then a skirt or dress was made by fixing another big white handkerchief on her forearm. She would crawl under the sofa when we were not looking, then we'd be called in to see Jennie. By placing her elbow on the floor just outside the sofa flounce all we could see was this quaint little lady standing all by herself. We would ask Jennie all sorts of questions and she would shake her head ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If a more detailed answer was needed she would answer in a very high, lady-like voice. Of course, the older kids could see through the hoax but kept up the pretence for the sake of the others.

In those days we seemed to do a lot of playing and not much work; however, there was one chore we always did. That was to clean the kitchen knives, which were non-stainless. We sat on a pile of white sand at the side of the house and dug the blades in and out until they were bright and shiny.

When I was about eight years old my parents bought me a wonderful piano. A song book of “Old Favourites" came with it. Even at that age I could sing quite well and knew many of the songs in the book. When it arrived, for two hours without let-up I thumped away on the piano with my dad standing behind helping me sing. Later, I found out that one had to hit certain keys to play tunes. What a good laugh they must have had behind my back!

Other than church services, the only social events the family attended on a regular basis were the annual Christmas concert at our church, with its visit from Santa, and the July 12th picnic, if it happened to be held in Wakefield.

Yet, we needed nothing more. We were happy, always having fun. Content with what we had. And I'm glad it was this way because three brothers and a sister died while they were still young adults, and I like to think that their days at the homestead were happy and carefree.

  1. The farm was sold to a land developer in 1974. At that time, the sixth generation of the family was living there. The first dwelling on the farm was a log house. The second farmhouse, constructed in 1870, still stands, although its original kitchen wing and many of the farm's barns have been dismantled or destroyed by fire.
  2. The express was a kind of two-seater buggy, drawn by a team of horses.

List of articles - Volume 19