So much of our past is lost.
This week Good Reads honours the lovers of history. These are the tireless researchers who love to collect up seemingly idle talk, dig through abandoned trunks and sift through piles and piles of supposed junk in order to discover the three sheets of moldy paper that help us fill in a tiny portion of the past.
Take Ammi Parker, born in Vermont in 1802. Upon reaching his teens he began his professional life as a clerk. But he soon decided a life of paperwork was not for him. Instead, he followed in his missionary father’s footsteps, and went to theology school. Parker even travelled to the Eastern Townships to spread the good news, as his father had also done. But unlike his father, Parker ended up settling here.
In 1834 Parker was installed as the first pastor of a Congregational Church he struggled to help establish, in Shipton — now known as the town of Danville. The shepherd cared for his sheep and collected their stories, also — sharing in their day-to-day lives, their struggles for survival, their family tales. Parker’s history of the Townships is a delightfully written collection of anecdotes and analysis, comprised of three different works:
– a history of his Danville congregation
– a memoir, billed as the “state of church life in Canada”
– and an odd little piece titled “Write this for a Memorial in a Book.” It was never finished, but it has “considerable literary charm,” writes the contemporary editor who himself helped find these various manuscripts and arranged them for publication.
That editor is Nathan H. Mair, and Ammi Parker’s Pioneers Of The Eastern Townships was published as a sort of extended pamphlet by the United Church of Canada in 1985. It’s a typewritten booklet that’s a joy to flip through.
“Why do I write?” asks Parker. “Let the present generation, and those who are yet to come, know at what cost the inheritance was achieved….
“Why write from memory? Because no records, either municipal, educational or ecclesiastical, are extant which might tell us what we desire to know of the matter now in hand. Wanting all such records, if any definite knowledge of the past is to be furnished for the future, it must be from histories which unwritten remembrances volunteer to supply. In this attempt to furnish a worthy record, be it understood that not only are the offices of my own poor memory invoked, but very much of the material I employ has been furnished by the old patriarchal settlers, nearly all of whom are now away across the boundary which divides this from the ‘dominion’ beyond. Having been a resident on the ground since the autumn of 1828, I have heard from the lips of many of the old men, and from their sons who came as boys and lads in those households, some things which I desire you should know.”
Read this wonderful book.
A PAINTER’S LIFE
Mary Catharine (Minnie) Gill was an artist of a different sort; not a writer, but a painter. She was forgotten at her death in 1946. But bits and pieces of her life and works silently survived because of the meticulous record-keeping of religious and educational institutions, later to be rediscovered by Townshippers such as historian Monique Nadeau-Saumier.
Townships And Charlevois Landscapes is a catalogue/narrative for a 2008 exhibition sponsored by the Lennoxville-Ascot Historical and Museum Society. It’s a short 14 pages, and before putting this booklet away you’ll want to flip it over to the translated, French side, where a different set of full-colour reproductions of Gill’s work is presented.
We do know a bit about Mary Gill’s life. Gill’s mother eventually remarried after her first husband’s death, and the family moved to Lennoxville. Her stepfather had been appointed dean of Divinity at what was then the University of Bishop’s College. It was a prestigious position, charged with the institution’s candidates for the Anglican priesthood.
Gill arrived here in 1887, at the age of 26.
Miss Gill settled in Lennoxville, teaching and painting landscapes. The booklet offers tidbits on the local art scene at the time, as well.
LAHMS president Lillian Rider’s introduction notes: “What we know of her as a woman artist, whose career had its peak at the turn of the previous century, unhappily confirms the rule that the works of these women, whose paintings and sketches won prizes at agricultural fairs and were deemed good enough to be shown in the Spring Exhibitions of the Art Association of Montreal, are today unknown or ignored. For most of them, a large part of their art production has been destroyed or scattered, and the material documenting their art and lives, either forgotten in some dusty attic trunk or discarded.”
Ammi Parker, by the way, does mention women in his memoirs. “They are deserving of more than honorable mention,” he states in a three-page section titled “women’s work.” Schooling was not available to them, and women spent long days cooking, sewing clothing and otherwise working their own fingers to the bone.
The Lennoxville Library’s Eastern Townships collection can be found in the back of the library, near the conference table. Those interested in local history should also check the section numbered 971 in Adult Non-Fiction, where you can find books on Compton and Kinnear’s Mills, for example.
LAHMS and Uplands
Our present becomes the past. The Uplands Cultural and Heritage Centre (at 9 Speid Street, which shares space with LAHMS) hosts a vernissage on Feb. 3 from 2 to 4 p.m. for the photography exhibit, Quelque part sur la 20 (Somewhere on the 20). The show is up until March 10. Entry is free.
– Eleanor Brown, February 1, 2013