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Sunday, December 30, 2012

A-frame visit, December 30, 2012

       The Bells

Freezing time on the lake
listening to little bells
in the dark
Later ice is three feet thick
and cracks like the world
breaking apart at the rectum...

Al Purdy
Poem for all the Annettes

Thoughts on the beginning of winter
Ameliasburgh, December 30,2012

Friday, December 28, 2012

Hearing Music on a Tombstone

Owen Roblin 1806-1903

Al Purdy and Owen Roblin would likely have liked each other. I imagine Roblin to be like Al's grandfather Rid - a work-toughened man who lived life as he saw it. Uncompromising.

Al Purdy remembered this ambitious pioneer's life in several poems. I enjoy Music on a Tombstone because it honours some of the buildings Roblin brought into being.

the Ameliasburgh millpond

"In Roblin's Mills old Owen Roblin
came almost fully awake in his lifetime once
owned six houses and built an octagonal one"..

and describes Roblin dreaming of his
industrial empire, "his potash works and the sawmill hearing only the hard tusked music of wheels turning"

Most of the buildings associated with Owen Roblin are gone today, but a few remain to recall when Roblin "built a gristmill and a village gradually grew round it and the deep woods vanished..."

selected lines from Music on A Tombstone (The Cariboo Horses)

Although Owen Roblin's mill is gone, he made an enduring contribution to Canadian letters through Al Purdy. Their gravestones lie closeby each other, in the old valley cemetery in Ameliasburgh, near the original townsite which once stood by Way's mill.

Al's memorial to left

Thursday, December 27, 2012

December 19 at Roblin Lake

"Seeing the sky darken & the fields
 turn brown & the lake lead-grey
as some enormous scrap of sheet metal
& wind grabs the world around the equator"...

Winter at Roblin Lake
The Cariboo Horses
Alfred Purdy

Friday, December 14, 2012

My cousin Don

As I launched into the paragraph in 'Reaching for the Beaufort Sea', I got goosebumps. Resonance. I read: "During my years of exile from cities I renewed my acquaintance with my cousin Don Ross, whose father used to bring us apples at Christmas. Don now ran the orchard farm between Wellington and Bloomfield"... (I can see the fine old farm in my mind's eye and will have to travel by someday soon.)

Lou Ross and "likely Don and Claire or Jean" - Eurithe
Al tells the story of his cousin Don in his autobiography.
Sure, not the happiest of stories.
A hard story of many men damaged by who continued to suffer and wound.
Al made a poem about his cousin Don, the son of Lou who was his mother's brother.
'My Cousin Don.'
Of Don, he says " I remember the small boy: he had grace, whatever grace is, in an orchard in Prince Edward County."

One of my dearest oldest friends is Don's eldest daughter. Only in adulthood - Naramata, BC, 1979 - did we really "meet" each other, although we had attended high school together in Picton the previous decade. We learned for the first time that we had actually met before...we were born the same morning, in the same hospital, thirty-some years earlier. My friend's mom was my favourite English teacher - she was brilliant. She left us this past January.

Oh yes, and maybe 'we' met even earlier.

My ancestor Patrick was a simple soldier with the Royal Highland Emigrants, a little known British/Scottish/American UEL regiment during the American revolution. Although the regiment served mostly in Lower Canada, and scattered on disbanding, a few of them landed with Archibald Macdonnel in 1784 in Grog Bay, Marysburgh (today's Prinyer's Cove) in Prince Edward County. I have a copy of the list of men who landed. On it was my ancestor Patrick Pierce. Below his name I see Alexander Ross and William Ross. And I wonder.

Thanks to Eurithe Purdy for the loan of the photo.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Uncle Lou Ross

left to right: Eleanor (Al 's mother), Lou, and siblings
 As Christmas season approaches, I recall being a shy introvert child with a dread of boisterous cousins and teasing aunts who descended on my quiet day when I would have preferred to enjoy my presents in solitude. In this, the solitary child Al Purdy might have been a kindred spirit. He writes:

" And every second year, the advent of my Uncle Lou Ross, Aunt Edith and their three children, Jean, Claire and Don. Uncle Lou was my mother's brother, a craggy man with a Roman nose, his domineering character quite the opposite of hers. He owned a farm near Wellington...

They were hearty people, all of them, exuding Christmas cheer like skunk perfume. I disliked them cordially. ...Uncle Lou was hearty, Aunt Edith was hearty, Jean, Clarie and Don would obviously be hearty when they grew older....
Lou and Edith Ross

More than that, they were beautiful people, physically beautiful, and they got along well socially with everyone they met. Other people liked them. That was intolerable to me, a solitary pale child who was obviously a dreaming mother's pet as far as they were concerned...." (Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, p.34)

Thanks to Eurithe Purdy for the loan of these Ross family photos.

Walking the Streets of my Hometown IV - Old Rid

I'm reading When Giants Fall, by Gary Long and Randy Whiteman. It's the story of the Gilmour Logging Company,  a c.19 lumbering giant in eastern Ontario. Their Trenton operation was one of the world's largest in the 1880's.

I have often wondered about this Trenton building. I have a hunch  it's the headquarters of Gilmour Logging Co. A photo from 1900, on page 183 of the book, shows a tree-lined street with a single horse and buggy, and a building facade very similar. The book describes the headquarters on Dundas street, just 600 metres from the sawmill. The river is nearby, across the street from the building's sunny side. Good spot for a sawmill. An archival photo reproduced on page 40 of the book shows the massive mill and lumber yards occupying the eastern shore of the river mouth, just behind this building. (I'm including this photo to encourage you to purchase this outstanding local history book.)

Eleanor, Al and Ridley Purdy

What's this got to do with Al Purdy? His grandfather Old Rid, who features prominently in all of Al's work,  was a Gilmour logger.

"Trenton had been a lumbering town in the days before dams were built on the river, when sprawling log booms floated downstream and coal oil lamps lighted the houses. In my grandfather's era the Gilmour Lumbering Company provided much of the town's prosperity. Potash, lumber and squared timber were shipped outward by sailing ship from the rivermouth harbour in the nineteenth century....(p.32, RBS)

Hmm. Wonder if the current tenants would like a plaque?

Walking the Streets of my Hometown III

looking north
Views of Trenton from Mount Pelion.
To the right, a view of the railway bridge spanning the Trent River. At the foot of this bridge, Al Purdy found a fecund source of reading material at Merker's junkyard.(p.17, MS)

Of Mount Pelion he writes:
"Trenton had a population of about six thousand in the 1920's. The town was divided into two halves by the wide, black Trent River flowing under an old iron bridge; and dominated by an oversized molehill, Mount Pelion, with an old Crimean War cannon on its crest". (p.10, MS)

looking down
Mount Pelion. Any relationship to its namesake in central Greece is purely accidental. I haven't figured out the origins of its lofty name. In reality, it's a hill overlooking Trenton. Several old residential streets run up to the base of the hilltop park; one zigzags up to the parking lot. My first visit was a disappointment - the place appeared to be the headquarters of the local disaffected bottle-smashing crowd.

But times change, and some very fine improvements have been wrought. Great steps. A bench and viewing platform. The view is unchanged - quite breathtaking actually. Interesting to compare the healthy river and its parklands with the pictures Al Purdy paints of the creosote-rainbowed river and industrial wasteland that occupied the area, unchallenged by the any nascient environmental awareness.
looking east
Mount Pelion figures in each of the autobiographical works of Al Purdy. It was to this refuge that young heroes of the semi-autobiographical novel A Splinter in the Heart pushed their wheel-chair bound neighbour and her frail husband, to escape the waves of explosions from the 255-acre site of the British Chemical Company which self-destructed the night of October 14, 1918.

For the true story of the (now almost completely forgotten) explosion that almost wiped Trenton from the map in 1918, read Explosion: Trenton Disaster by John Melady, Mika Publishing Company, Belleville, 1980.

Walking the Streets of my hometown, Trenton II

Still along Front Street. Today a park by the Trent River. The sprawling tree on the right is a willow tree. It could well have been one of the hardy types who planted themselves among the industrial sites along the river, happy for the closeness to the water, unconcerned about its quality.

Al Purdy noticed these hardy trees.

"Reddick's Sash & Door Factory across Front Street overlooked the Trent River. Lumber and heavy planks were piled in sheds where thick-bodied willows leaned over the water, their red roots waving under the surface like drowned girls' hair. I went there to be alone, sitting on the sweet-smelling lumber, trying to get used to being alive."  (p. 11, MS)

Maybe it's time to name this park?

Walking the Streets of my hometown, Trenton

In the 20th century, we are turning our faces back to the waterfronts of our towns and cities. Waterfront property has high prestige and matching taxes. Communities are turning former industrial slums into community parks and walking trails. Those properties beyond repair are fenced off, too contaminated for now.
This happened slowly. For the first peoples, then the UEL's who settled the Quinte area, the Bay of Quinte and the Moira and Trent Rivers were the highway. Settlers took a generation or so before they ventured far deeper into the bush than 'the front' of their townships. Human- and wind-powered craft navigated the waters. The waters were in control, exacting their toll of human life on shoals, in storms.
location of Al Purdy's childhood home, 134 Front St. Trenton

But mankind took revenge. The welcome early water-powered grist and lumber mills were replaced by increasing numbers of factories running on coal and steam. Environmental awareness was non-existent; waste products drained into rivers and lakes - convenience and progress the bywords. Shipping expanded - sail gave way to coal-powered steam, to petroleum based fuels. Railways developed parallel to the waterways to increase transportation capacity. Industrial development continued to expand beyond nature's capacity to heal itself. Human needs for coal, for petroleum based products, for space, trumped natural beauty.Waterfronts of towns and cities became vast industrial districts as factories and foundries became larger, more powerful, more toxic. Old photos of Ontario towns show industrial wastelands, with poor people struggling to survive amid them like the willows that somehow managed to plant themselves among coal sheds, manure piles and heaps of rusting iron.

Al Purdy's Trenton of the 1920's was this kind of town. In his memoir Morning and it's Summer (MS), his autobiography Reaching for the Beaufort Sea (RBS) and his novel A Splinter in the Heart (SH) he takes the reader along on his neighbourhood walks with his grandfather, his escapades as a boy, his long distance runs as a struggling adolescent - through the very neighbourhood that I drove around last week. On a particularly raw, cold, unlovely day.

We'll start here.

The photo is the empty lot where the house once stood, where Al Purdy and his mother Eleanor moved when Al senior died in 1921 and Al was 3 or 4 years of age. The Front Street house overlooked the river. Well, not exactly. Here I quote:

"The B.W. Powers coal sheds filled nearly a whole block on the river side of our street. I watched great teams of drayhorses struggling out of the sheds, their wagons loaded with canvas bags of coal, delivered by black-faced sweating men to the town stoves and furnaces." (p. 10 MS)
"Walking the streets of my hometown, Trenton....McLean's pumpworks across the street is a ghost building, although I can still visualize its tin-covered walls...Trenton Creamery is gone; so are B.W.Powers coal sheds." (p. 27, MS)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in...

This unprepossessing building was Al Purdy's writing room.
The gabled section was a found shed, moved onto the Roblin Lake property.
Al and Eurithe (likely aided and abetted by the Parkhurst clan) built the flat roofed section.

This building is likely one of Canada's most famous writer's retreats.
Al housed a remarkable collection of Canadian writers' work here.
And created the poetry which many say defines Canada and Canadians.

Just recently, Matti the contractor, with a remarkable baritone voice suited to intoning poetry, fixed the hole in the roof. Actually, he replaced the roof entirely. Needed to.

This is exciting.
This marks the beginnings of a renaissance.
Some day very soon, the dreams of the Al and Eurithe Purdy A-Frame Association will be realized.
This writer's home will become a writer-in-residence location.
And Al and Eurithe's home will live on.

The title?
Not Al Purdy this time.
Lennon & McCartney.
Now I defy you not to hear the melody in your head.

Wild Grape Wine

wild grapes eluding harvest, Macdonald Farm/Sandbanks PP
The delightful and energetic Jean Baird hit it:
"Al was making wine in Prince Edward County long before the vineyard and winery days."

Quite rightly.

And a delightful link forms between the irascible impecunious poet on Roblin Lake in the 1950's and 60's, and the new generation of  upmarket wineries enticing visitors into this the loveliest of counties.

 Al's wine clearly made an impression (if not a durable stain) on many who partook. Stories abound of nights of poetry and history made profound by copious amounts of beer and Al's homemade wine.

"I am picking wild grapes last year
in a field
         dragging down great lianas of vine
tearing at 20 feet of heavy infinite purple..."

                                               The Winemaker's Beat-Etude in Wild Grape Wine (1968)

I spotted these high-flying wild grapes along a farm lane near my campsite at Sandbanks Provincial Park. The farm was sold decades ago for part of the campgrounds, but some of the fields are still cultivated. And some of the old fence-lines are still small-mammal wildernesses. It was along such fence-lines that Eurithe and Al collected the grapes for the legendary wine.

Hearing voices

Some time ago, in my architecture history blog 'ancestralroofs' I posted Hearing voices, doesn't everybody?
It talks about that feeling that a place conjures, that invitation to pause, to time-travel, to connect with its history, its earlier inhabitants. I describe it as resonance - the associations bring strong emotions. Goosebumps.

Echoes. A sense of place.
Maybe everyone does it.
I grew up thinking of it as a character flaw.
I remember our sensible farmer's wife mother upbraiding me, in my 'Gauloises-candles in dark rooms-Highway 61 Revisited' phase: "You think too much."

the old Valley Road, Ameliasburgh - now Purdy Lane
Now with the literary tour project I get to do this with permission.
Sorry mom.
Jean Baird thinks it might be a good fit.
And I think Jean Baird is a good judge of people.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

No red barn, no maple tree

Today I met Eric Lorenzen, that remarkable physics teacher at Trenton High School, who was behind the alchemy which brought into being the Purdy library at Al's old school, Trenton High School (fortunately for today's students, it's a different building).

I contacted Eric a while back. I wanted to know if 134 Front Street, Al's childhood home, was still standing. It's gone. But Eric, as is his wont, was aware that the plain old house was vulnerable, and had been watching this space.

Eric took photos, preserving a memory of the last three residences in this area of Front Street. He even came back after the demolition team left, and collected a few old red clay bricks. One's now in a showcase at THS along with an impressive collection of Purdy memorabilia and signed books.

Today 134 Front is an empty lot just south of the parking lot for the new LCBO. Al might have had something to say about that.

134 Front Street, Trenton (middle house)
But even without the old brick building, the house exists still in Al's work. Trenton features prominently in Purdy's autobiography Reaching for the Beaufort Sea and is a main character in A Splinter in the Heart, a novel of growing up in gritty 1920's Trenton, that parallels Purdy's own life. Campbell Monuments, the blacksmith shop, Reddick's Sash and Door, the creosote streaked river and an alarming number of places associated with childhood mischief live on in Al's writing.

Sincere thanks to Eric for the use of his photos - his thought to record the building was a most prescient one. His photos of the Quinte Hotel, burned recently have also become 'keepers'. He's still trying to figure out how to obtain a relic of that storied watering hole.

An expression used often by my parents suggests itself. "Al Purdy will never be dead as long as Eric Lorenzen lives." With so many places associated with the poet living only in photos, we turn to folks like Eric Lorenzen and the staff at THS to help us link the work and life of this Al Purdy with the landscape around us.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"Eleanor was a Ross"

Eleanor (Ross) Purdy, Al's mom
In this UEL country of deep roots it is no surprise to find entanglements. As even friendly dogs exchange sniffs to establish identity and catch up on the news, so local folk like to settle their family links first-off. Seeking the known; the common bonds, experiences, values, memories. Establishing the connection. Then they can move on...and just be.

No "OMG!" cocktail party discoveries for them. No wild public excitement in discovering those 6 degrees of separation.

Insular small county, isolated for generations until well past the 1950's. George Bowering's 1970 description of Prince Edward County and Belleville was as accurate as it was unflattering. (I'll quote it for you when I receive my Abebooks copy)

As I grew up, I got tired of hearing that phrase "Oh, yes, she was a ...." as women nattered about who was related to whom. As I get older, of course, wanting to pull out and examine the handiwork of generations, mourning the lost women who kept the history, I find comfort in those conversations that start with "she was a ...." and self-consciously join in.

That is why, as I looked at old photos with Eurithe Purdy ("get the names on the back" Jean urged) I was curious to know the ways in which we might be connected via that A-frame story.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


This church spire rises above a small Ontario village.
Unlike many village church spires dating from the c.19, someone is still maintaining the place well.
Nice Gothic window. Someone's painted not long ago. Nicely clad steeple.
But though I am a student of old buildings, and hungry for the details that tell their story, I didn't go closer.
Didn't take photos. Didn't consult my favourite local history books to find out the who/when/how.

Because all I needed to do was to see that church steeple, across this body of water, to hear this:

"Across Roblin Lake, two shores away
they are sheathing the church spire
with new metal. Someone hangs in the sky 
over there from a piece of rope
hammering and fitting God's belly-scratcher."*

I do this a lot. Search for resonance, as I call it. Connections. Listen for old voices. The way it was, how  folks thought and dreamed. Old places, old photographs take me time-travelling (and I find many of you there too). Mom raised me to listen for "the stories that house could tell".

Jean Baird, 'she who makes things happen' suggested I might like to create a 'literary tour of Al Purdy country', finding the links between Al (and Eurithe, and the writing) and the local area - Trenton, Belleville and the country north of it, Prince Edward County. Hmm, let me think about that, got a nanosecond? And the local resource for this local girl? None other than the indomitable Eurithe Purdy.

* Wilderness Gothic (Wild Grape Wine,1968)

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Sit down and "have a read"

In a flagrant example of "I've already told you that"
and to cut corners as I populate this new blog
I would like to invite you, gentle reader, to visit me at 'ancestralroofs', my on line history of architecture journal.

The month of November has been Purdy month for me
for a score of good reasons which will become more clear to me
as time goes by.

I wrote these three letters to Al - "Love Ya, Al"Can Lit Kilroy,
and Flowers for Al, and I would like to share them with you.

Roblin's Mills school 1848

Sometimes things that are meant to happen, still take a long time to materialize.

Such was the case today, when I finally got a PEC library card. My brother, who works as I.T. Coordinator for the library system, mentioned it some time ago. Several times, in actual fact. I certainly do wear out my welcome occasionally at the Archives. Should at least join up!

ancient sash windows-free WiFi
 As a warm group of A-framers left the cold shores of Roblin Lake late this morning, I took the opportunity to stop at the Ameliasburgh library - first time I'd found it open - got my library card, and borrowed a Purdy novel I had not read.

And got warm...for not only was the librarian endearing, but the little old Roblin's Mills school-house was just toasty.

Just the spot to spend some time over photos of Al I had not seen, and to wonder at the OOC medal and other honours. How must our reprobate poet have felt about all that fuss?

And because this little tribute to Al Purdy blog is not ancestralroofs, I am under no obligation to say much about this little building. Except to say bravo to PEC for designating this 1848 stone/stucco school-house - and keeping these very old sash windows!

High School Poetry class

Today I entered Al and Eurithe Purdy's A-frame on the shore of Roblin Lake. As I do in anyone's home, I wandered to the bookshelf.

The first book that caught my eye, because of the familiar bumblebee colours, was this one - Poems to Remember. When I got home, I pulled my own copy off the shelf. It was a high school textbook, from my Grade 10 year many lifetimes ago.

I checked. Nope. No Al Purdy poems between those black and yellow covers. The front promises to take the reader away to enchanted places with knights and ladies, and medieval castles. Right. Al wouldn't have wanted to be there anyway.

Funny, some Prince Edward County kids might have appreciated a PEC poet*. Cariboo Horses came out in 1965. My buddy Larry knew.

Another first, on this bookshelf visit, was meeting face to face with warm and committed A-frame people I had only previously communicated with by email or phone. One of these folks was Michele, a local high school English and drama teacher who has been for years, the enormously dedicated guardian of the A-frame. A practical as well as literary type, she brings her Purdy Society students here for writing workshops, and for yard cleanup bees prior to the annual Purdy Day April 21.

Michele, a believer in coincidences like I, was delighted to discover a violet still blooming under the bare apple tree on this mid-November day. Perhaps it honours new energy and next steps, and the enormous committment of so many people to A-frame Trust's goals for the Purdy property.

*In fairness, looking back, I must say I had the best English teacher in the world, Mrs. Ross. Coincidentally, her daughter Ronnie, another dear friend I see too seldom, is visiting this weekend from Vancouver. The occasion is the scattering of her mother's ashes, on the farm of one of the boys. There's a connection to Al here too. One day perhaps we'll share it.