Though I’ve seen her often at church, I didn’t know Gertie McArthur before I went to her home with Mary Greenlees to interview her for the Chronicles. I left reluctantly, four hours later, bulging with tea, chocolate chip cookies and a hefty chunk of cake, touched by the memories and laughter of these strong women, who have endured so much more than I.
This article is not crammed with details about Gertie’s past. Indeed, our conversation kept returning to people in the present, like a well-made boomerang. I got the feeling that Gertie lives for now, as actively as possible; walking, visiting, keeping up with household tasks, maintaining her property, and heaving wayward lawn tractors out of trick places.
I was happy to relax in Gertie’s home, surrounded by paintings and photographs, hand-knit cushions, a colorful hand hooked rug. Fireside skills that I admire, but have forgotten from my grandmother’s teaching, and haven’t the patience for anyway. I enjoyed listening to Gertie and Mary reminisce; enjoyed watching them – that sparkle in the eye, flurry of hands, frown of concentration to recall a name or story, and a burst of schoolgirl giggles at some whimsical memory.
Gertie was born in 1910, one of six boys and three girls, in a house on Walkers Line that still exists, the same house her father was born in. Her parents ran a mixed farm on one hundred acres. An expansive stone house with wide roomy windows one could sit in and a wooden bench behind the kitchen stove where the kids would huddle to warm up on chilly mornings. Gertie’s mother, of course, did the inside chores, the baking, preserving, sewing, and butter churning. In those days laundry was formidable – the whites were boiled on the stove with bluing, the other clothes washed in one of those manual wringer style relics. Gertie’s father worked the land and over the years bought farms to start his sons into farming and family life. Only one of the sons declined farming and became a mechanic.
Gertie attended the Zimmerman Schoolhouse on Appleby Line, a three or more mile walk from home (through mountainous heaps of snow!) when the family moved to a house on Highway 5 (then a muddy stone road), Gertie attended a log schoolhouse at the foot of Cedar Springs Road. When this became too crowded, she moved to a school on Guelph Line. Gertie still communicates with one of her teachers, who calls now and then from a nursing home in Brampton. Hard to forget, by her own admission, Gertie was more than a little mischievous.
She got a lickin’ quite regularly, a teacher’s stern leather strap on the hand, when she returned to her seat classmates would set her to giggling again and back up to the teacher’s desk she’d go. The teachers then were young and single and usually boarded near the schoolhouse. They looked after forty or fifty children and made about eighteen hundred dollars a year. Though some of the teachers could inspire genuine fear, it was the school inspector and his despotic visits that Gertie remembers everyone waiting to hide from. Gertie loved those spelling bees and grammar lessons best, subjects that seem to have lost their prominence over the years in a more varied curriculum!
In addition to school lessons, Gertie loved music and went for lessons at the Smoke’s house with her sister. A two or three mile walk to play an old pump organ every Saturday afternoon. Knowing how much the girls longed for a piano, Gertie’s father bought one during a trip into Hamilton. The girls were so excited with the news when he arrived home that they danced on the kitchen table. Gertie’s appreciation of music hasn’t faltered (though she probably doesn’t dance on tables anymore); she was the organist at Kilbride United Church for several years, and also a member of the choir for a time. Now and then Gertie still plays a hymn on the old organ at church. In addition to her musical leadership Gertie was secretary for the U.C.W. at Kilbride Church, and a lifetime member, for which she received a special pin. (The U.C.W. raised funds, catered banquets and weddings, and helped with other important events).
Gertie married Eric McArthur on June 10, 1933, at the parsonage in Appleby. Eric took her home from a baseball game (he was third baseman) and the courtship began! They were partners for forty years before Eric’s sudden death of a heart attack twenty-four years ago. They spent most of their married years in an old farmhouse down the lane behind the house on Twiss Road that Gertie lives in now. She watched workers tear down the familiar farmhouse and barn, transforming the dirt lane into a road, the land into a new subdivision
Eric was a dedicated farmer and lover of horses; he often helped out neighbours with his team and sleigh, especially in the winter when the roads were treacherous. Gertie recalled the time Eric drove Dr. McDonald through heavy snow to an emergency maternity call. A local newspaper article from 1968 cites the incident. “When the doctor got the call, he phoned Eric, who hitched up his team to the heavy farm sleigh and set out to fetch him, the road filling in behind him as he went. The distance between George Coulson’s home and Kilbride is less than three miles but it took almost three hours to get the doctor that far. One of the neighbours drove his car towards Kilbride to try and keep part of the road open. They did a lot of shoveling through the heavy drifts and the doctor eventually got to the Coulson residence. It was an anxious all-night vigil for the neighbours and their wives but toward morning the welcome news came that beautiful bouncing twins around nine pounds each had been added to the Coulson family.”
On another wintery day Gertie and Eric drove the horses to their wood lot on McNiven Road to cut wood for a neighbour who was sick and had run out. Neighbours supported each other more in those days, in order to survive and make a decent living. Silo filling, thrashing, and wood bees were typical events that drew the community together. The men would gather at one farm to fill the silo with corn (a task that required several toiling hands); the women of the house would cook for all the labourers. Then it would all happen again at the next farm. (It sounds like a welcome way to get things done – too bad we’ve let the tradition slide; there could be some interesting adaptations to the modern age!)
Gertie and Eric did not have any children of their own, but the neighbourhood children often spent time at the McArthur farm, hanging around the barn, learning about horses from Eric. Debbie Serneels and Cindy Watson were two of those kids; they learned how to ride from Eric, and rode his horses all over Kilbride. He also took kids for carriage rides into Campbellville for ice cream.
Gertie has had to manage on her own for many years now. She appreciates help from friends and neighbours, and the satisfaction that comes from working hard and keeping busy. That must be one of her secrets for a long healthy life. Her remarkable memory must come from being such an avid listener; one of the aspects that stood out most about Gertie at the interview. I only hope that when I’m in my eighties I will listen and live with such gusto.
Contributing Author: Sandy Amodio
Source: Kilbride Chronicles, Issue 10, page 14
Transcribed by: Lyndsey Innes