An Evening with Donnie & Blanche Coulson

Since my recent visit to Donnie and Blanche Coulson’s house I keep dreaming of quilts. Grocery bags stuffed with fabric scraps in my basement beckon like a beloved old book found in a forgotten box. Maybe one day, when mu kids are grown, I’ll shale out those bags and begin a quilt like the patchwork know Blanche created from colourful scraps saved by Donnie’s mother.

Blanche has hand stitched many lovely quilts, some traditional patterns like the Wedding Ring, Double Irish Chain, The Star, the Bear Claw, the Basket, the Medallion, and some of her own patterns. She works in her dining room with some new quilting tools that for many years she managed without.

Blanche leaned to be resourceful from her childhood – one of nine children raised by her mother after her father’s early death at forty-six. They lived in Toronto, and under the wing of the United Church, managed to make ends meet. (They ate a great deal of porridge!) In the summer Blanche helped out by working at a friend’s farm in Kilbride, market gardening. She vividly recalls planting onions, hundreds of them, in rows. One hot day, fed up, Blanche dug a hole and buried a pile of them. When the boss spotted them sprouting in an odd place she had to dig them up and replant them!

When she was fourteen, during one of those Kilbride farm summers, Blanche Fraser met Donnie Coulson. She noticed him while she was out prospecting with a friend; coming down the street in a jaunty suit and fedora. In her own words, it was love at first sight. When she returned to the city whey corresponded and kept writing letters until they were able to date.

Unable to afford the costs of attending high school, Blanche went to work at the Blue Ribbon Tea and Coffee factory, where she filled spice bottles. She remembers the delectable smells of coffee and chocolate in the rooms of that building. Then she got a job at a cotton mill, threading bobbins on a huge machine, for 75 cents an hour. Cotton sheets and uniforms for the army were the major products then. Blanche stayed at the cotton mill after she married Donnie until she was expecting her first child.

Donnie moved to Kilbride on May 14, 1935, when he was six years old, with his parents and his two brothers. He attended school at the old Kilbride schoolhouse, taking part in his share of mischievous pranks! Sneaking upstairs to where the heavy school bell was stationed, Donnie and friends would turn the bell over so the teacher couldn’t ring it. The same teacher gave Donnie the strap when he played hooky with classmates to go play in the apple evaporator that used to me where the Kilbride service station is now, and when they absconded from the school yard to watch a local barn fire. The students also played tricks on each other; the older kids told the younger ones that if they wanted to pass into the next grade (upstairs), they would have to ride down the steep school stairs in a rickety wooden box.

After grade eight, Donnie went to work for Eric McArthur: plowing, haying, and cutting wood. He also worked on his father’s farm, delivering milk to the neighborhood in glass quart bottles (5 cents per bottle) and helping with the market gardening. At age 15, Donnie went to work for P. L. Robertson, a factory in Milton, then to Red -D Mix Concrete in Hamilton, and finally to Cooke Concrete in Burlington. Donnie worked at Cooke for 50 years as a truck driver, diesel mechanic and maintenance supervisor, retiring four years ago.

“Times were tough back then,” recalls Donnie, “but we had enough to make do.” He remembers eating a lot of soup, made from ten cent bones that his mother would stew. Sacks of flour, sugar and tea were the main food stables from the general store. In addition to market gardening, making maple syrup to sell was a major source of the family income. Donnie remembers tapping the large maples on his father’s twenty two acre property, and he has given us novice syrup makers many useful tips.

Donnie and Blanche married on July 29th, 1950 at Donnie’s parents’ farm; forfeiting a church ceremony because of a close friend who was ill and unable to sit in a pew. (Such respect for friends and each other is what I noticed most about Donnie and Blanche). They lived at Donnie’s parents farm, initiated into married life with a “shivaree” given by a group in the community. (A shivaree us a serenade played for a newly married couple using pots and pans and horns, etc.) This shivaree included dragging the bed out to the barn, rolling it in the hay, and butting Scotch thistles under the blankets for a piercing surprise! Soon after this Donnie and Blanche began planning the building of their own home on Cedar Springs Road. The pine and hemlock timber was cut from a wood lot in Carlisle, planed at Pegg’s sawmill, and stacked for a year to dry out before building. Donnie paid about nine dollars a thousand log foot; the whole house costing about seven thousand dollars to build. (oh, if that was possible today!) They moved into their new home close to Christmas 1951, one of about twenty five houses that made up the village then.

The old community hall was the hub of Kilbride when Donnie and Blanche began their family. Community events, dances every two weeks, showers; everyone took their turns preparing and serving meals at theses activities. (If you didn’t serve ice cream when it was expected, you were in trouble!) Frank Twiss, the local fiddler, sometimes played at the dances; then the Powell and the Miller orchestras. Fun times that brought everyone together; the hall was missed when it was torn down.

Baseball was a favorite pastime of Donnie’s very Saturday afternoon behind the school, hardball teams from Kilbride and surrounding communities would play; another regular event that brought people closer. And every Labour Day for years there was a Kilbride Garden Party, with “The Happy Gang” of radio performing, a community talent show, great food, and other festivities that Donnie and Blanche were a part of.

In addition to raising four children (Beverly, Johnny, Patty and Donald), and summer camping in a rather crowded tent trailer, Blanche taught Sunday School and led Girl Guides for many years. Donnie was involved in the Boy Scouts; Chairman of the group committee that organized the Kilbride Section of Cub Scouts. They are both still very active in Kilbride United Church, helping out however they can; fundraising, baking pies, Donnie hunched over a barbeque, Blanche singing in the choir. Her love of music began early, from attending church in Toronto, and learning to play the accordion; all of her siblings also played an instrument at one time! Donny also enjoys building bird houses and feeders to accommodate the variety of birds in his backyard, and to keep the hands of his young grandchildren busy! He likes to plant a garden every year and harvests enough to feed the neighbours well!

I am grateful for Donnie and Blanche’s familiar faces in the community; for the strength of their roots here, amid such a transient, changing world. They have many more stories about people and places, and about living in Kilbride than I would ever be able to write about here. During my brief visit they showed me a special calendar Blanche’s sister had made for Christmas from old photographs; a gift of sacred memories, scenes of family and friendship, like bright squares of fabric stitched together…

Contributing Author: Sandy Amodio

Source: Kilbride Chronicles, Issue 11, page 12
Transcribed by: Lyndsey Innes