OLD TIMERS Poem about Port Bruce by Violet Reid Reavie


Violet Reid Reavie, 1961

Port Bruce, Ontario, as it was in 1896

Edited by Bruce C.Johnson Jr.

Revised and formatted for the Internet 20 November 2002

Fisherman and nets at Port Bruce circa 1900

This poem of Port Bruce, I’ll try hard to tell
My Dad, John Reid, rented the old hotel.
It was sixty-five long years ago,
Some passed quickly, some very slow.
The old generation have long been at rest,
Very few of the ones in mine are left.
It was a big fishing village then
And many of the legends, I’d like to pen.
The hotel would ring with laughter and cheer
All the young people would gather here.
It had a ballroom full forty feet long.
They could dance, play games, sing the old folk song.
The kitchen was big, with wood stove, table and chairs
There was Mother and Dad and six hungry heirs.
My sister Louise kept it cleaned and bright
The floors of pine were scrubbed till white.
I never was allowed inside the bar-room
But I well remember the old spittoon.
Sometimes the room was blue with smoke,
When the men would gather to exchange a joke.
Some would chew tobacco and sit
And see how far each one could spit.
In the dining room linen so spotless white
Made the tables look so cheerful and bright.
Both Mother and Sister Louise knew how to bake
And the meals they served were tempting to take.
Such meats and cakes from an old wood stove
Brought the week-end Aylmerites in a drove.

Sundry visitors from a U.S. yacht club in uniforms white
To the natives of Port Bruce, were a wonderful sight.
They filled the village with laughter and fun,
From the time they arrived till the set of the sun.
Their monkey, I held on a chain to catch spiders and flies,
While visitors ate fish dinners and lemon pies.
When everything else was so trim and neat
Dolf Dennis would wander around in bare feet.

I liked to go out in the boats, Uncle Tom or Enterprise
And watch the men lift fish in every size.
Sometimes I would get drowsy and fall asleep
But George Young an eye on me would always keep
Often the boat would would roll like a log,
I would come home seasick as a dog.

We had a crow and he was a black sneak.
He would steal anything bright he could hold in his beak.
He had a few words not in the Golden Rule,
He could laugh, “Ha, Ha,” and say “You old fool.”

Then there was the tale of Dead Man’s Woods
All I could picture was white sheets and hoods.
I tried to be brave and break the bad habit
But I would always slither by like a scared rabbit.
I don’t know the story of the woods to this day
And I never have heard what the old folks say.

On the lake’s beach I loved to stray
And pick up pebbles so bright and gay
And watch the waves roll over my bare feet.
All this to me was a wonderful treat.

Dave and Ellen Shephard’s Maggie, my best friend
With dolls we played “Mothers to pretend.”
How well I remember the cook stove’s high oven
And the pound cakes made in it. How we did love ‘em.
When I was about seven and loved good things to eat
I asked Mother Ellen how she made the wonderful treat

Nellie Young had the first bicycle at that time
A beautiful red and cost many a dime.
When I saw her coming my eyes opened wide,
As the shimmering beauty, past me would glide.
The girls of her age learned to ride on the ball-room floor
One on each side to prevent going out the door.
If by chance they should fall, I’d giggle with glee,
And many a mad glance was cast at me.
Louise asked how she looked, (What a shock)
Sarah Smale replied, “Like dirt on a rock.”
If the others wanted to laugh they hid it inside,
But I shrieked and got nearly shaken out of my hide.
I was just a small kid and chock full of fun.
I didn’t mind being called a little son of a gun.

The tall old grain elevator I remember well
But in my time it contained no grain to sell.
It was a home for rats and bats and cats
And for us small kids without caps or hats.
We would climb to the top and slide down the shutes
One after the other lickety skoot.
The board had been polished by sliding wheat,
So no chance of a sliver in your seat.
Didn’t know if you’d land head, bottom or feet.
We were all mixed up in a great big heap.

Capt. Thompson and two nieces lived on the hill,
Jennie and Lizzie Gibson are saints to me still.
The place was a castle made of gray stone and glass
With large friendly doors inviting people who pass.
A grand spiral stairway led to a lookout on top,
Where the old Captain with his telescope would stop.
To view the lake vessels that went to and fro.
They bring to him memories of long, long ago.
The old lake Captain liked to visit and chat
While his little white dog was teasing the cat.
Twice a day he would call at the old hotel
And his only swear word was. “Damn Hell, Damn Hell.”

Down the hill again, I’d run,
Stop and see Mina and Levi Young
They had kids three,
Edna, Bruce and wee Marjorie.
If you’d meet Levi going to or from,
All you could hear was “H’m, H’m, H’m.”

On down the road called Pigtail’s Run
I must say hello to Sarah Young,
She always had something nice to say,
Like, “Violet, what will you have to-day.”
A pat on the head, I’d give the dog,
And say. “I guess another saw-log,”
I never had much money to spend
But I could share the candy with a friend.

The boys left me alone and let me go free.
I’d dare any to beat me climbing a tree.
Out on a limb I’d go like scat
And over and over I’d skin the cat.
I could turn handsprings or stand on my head.
If I tried it now I’d sure drop dead.

There is Abe McQuiggan’s Laura and Daisy
We always thought Abe a wee bit lazy.
But he sure knew how to bow the fiddle.
He’d play “Turkey in the Straw”, or high diddle -diddle.

I want to go back to the beach and sand,
In my bare feet ‘twas a hot place to stand.
They had traps to bury the insides of the fish
And it was not a very inviting dish.
When they would empty into a big sink.
Lordy oh Lordy, how it would stink.

Sometimes the men would shoot the rats,
One escaped and ran up Indian Pete’s pants.
I didn’t know about Indians, but what I had, read,
But he squeezed the crazed rat until it was dead.
He danced and whooped and ran up and down
I laughed and laughed at the excited clown.

In my memory I can recall sturgeon full six feet tall.
Gave the men plenty of work from spring to fall.
Big holes in the nets, the sturgeons would tear
It took many skilled hands to make the repairs.
Then on the reels put them out to dry,
All ready again for the sturgeon to try.

See Mr. Puddin’ Murdy with his palm fan
He was very short and a very fat man.
He was graceful and light as a cork on his feet,
And a great surprise to people he’d meet.
But he would almost keep me in a trance,
When he taught me how to waltz and do a tap dance.
He would go around the room, weave in and out
Till Mr. Puddin’ Murdy was all tired out
But I liked to go there, I loved the old man,
With his very red face and old palm fan.
He wore a straw hat the whole year round,
With a string fast to his coat to keep it off the ground.
He hated the startling sounds of loud pop guns.
He called the boys, my brothers, the rum sellers sons.
            (At the same time he was selling booze.)

My sister Pearl was so sedate,
Wouldn’t go barefooted or wade in the lake.
She wouldn’t walk fences or climb a tree.
She left all that for a tomboy like me.
She never got dirty or tore her dresses.
I had dark hair, she had blond tresses.
She wouldn’t catch turtles or a lively frog.
Or walk out on rocks or a slippery log.
She hated the sight of a rat or a bat.
Or cared too much for a dog or a cat.
The pet coons we had worried her some more
When she saw them coming she would slam the door
Mother kept us dressed like a pair of twins
And I can’t even feel bad at my terrible sins.
The both of us were taught the Golden Rule
But I’d rather play hooky than go to school.

The men had to cut ice in the winter to keep.
It must be at least eighteen inches deep
‘Twas packed in sawdust with lots of care
To keep out the sunshine and the warm air
With water they would clean off the ice they brought.
To pack around the many fish they caught.
Then put on the boat for Port Stanley next day,
To be shipped to the U.S.A.

On one side of the fish house, row on row,
Were kegs and cases of sturgeon roe,
The public hadn’t acquired the expensive taste
That now is featured in caviar paste.
The sturgeon are gone and so is the roe
And the exciting days of long ago.
And the rough, kindly, friendly fisher folk
Who chewed tobacco and spit at my feet as a joke.

Next to Mannie Smale and his family of ten.
Must have taken bushels of food and many a yen.
There was Jim, Edwin, Frank, Sarah and Nora,
Irwin, John, Cecil, Effie and Cora.
When they’d gather round the organ for an old folk song.
It’s one of the memories I’d like to prolong.
No doubt they had lots of family scraps then.
(John has passed away since I wrote this poem)

Old Elvira and Jack Nichol were friends of mine too.
She kept boarders, could bake and make good stew.
She was small, just a tiny wee mite,
But could fly around like the tail of a kite.
If anyone over her clean floor would steal,
She would glare at them and say, “Dirt to the heels,”
She hated spiders and detested lies,
And with the dish cloth would swat the flies,
         (At the same time would say – work or die, darn it)

When Elvira helped Mother she stayed for dinner
And as sure as fate I would act like a sinner
One time she licked a drop off the catsup bottle
The giggles inside me I couldn’t throttle.
Mother was shocked. From the table I was led,
Got a good spanking and was put to bed.

One of the very Old Timers was Venie Young
Never knew him to hunt with a rod or a gun.
But he could spin yarns of long ago.
That always thrilled me from head to toe.
He kept catfishes in boxes along the creek.
Very often someone a fish would sneak.
I think he was a native of the Old Sod.
His favourite expression was, “Um God,”
He and his wife lived retired on Pigtail Run.
To all us children he was lots of fun.

Nellie Young’s brother Percy loved the water and his dog,
He could paddle a punt or an old floating log.
Sometimes on a picnic with us kids he would go,
With baskets of lunch and some tricks for a show.
We’d cross the creek and up the steep hill.
Never tried to step on a thing we might kill.
We would play many games of give and take
And often look down on the beautiful lake.
Then back home across the creek he would row.
‘Twas another happy memory of long, long ago.

I had three brothers Amos, Wilmot and Bill,
Who helped me to clammer round many a hill.
Wilmot and Amos, one day sat down on a log,
Smoked their first cigars and were sick as a dog.
Brother Wilmot took good care of me,
Liked to see his sister dance with laughter and glee
To the berry patch often with him I would go.
He would help me over a fence, walk logs very slow.
We would pick the fruit without stem or leaf.
This gave our busy mother some relief.
With our pails of berries, heaped, black or red
I was tired out, exhausted, almost dead.

Bill taught me to stand on my head, walk on my hands,
Then flip over backwards and on my feet stand.
To twist myself up and roll in a ball.
It’s a wonder there’s anything left of me at all.

The old bathing suits, then, are hard to describe,
But you, with much modesty, your beauty would hide.
They had bloomers, a short dress with a sailor collar,
Trimmed with braid. Must have cost a whole dollar.
Some wore black stockings to cover their legs.
They now would be spattered with rotten eggs.

Bob Fishleigh lived over on Lime Kiln Hill.
How it got its name I don’t know, still.
Mabel and I went to school together. She was my chum.
Her brother Tom was a wee bit dumb.
Fred and Maria Rolfs’ children three,
Elgin, Clarence and sister Aimee.
They would walk around on the tip of their toes.
Maria had a wart on the side of her nose.
Elgie was sweet on my sister Louise,
And tried very hard her hand to squeeze.
With a broom she would chase us out of the door,
Being teased by him made her very sore.
He liked her cooking and thought it delicious,
He always helped wipe the Sunday dishes.
This all happened over sixty years ago,
When old Port Bruce was all glitter and show.

The old church didn’t have a steeple
Just a place of worship for the fisher people.
No stained glass windows or high wall,
To us now ‘twould look more like a hall.
On each side it had brackets that held oil lamps,
Didn’t have a carpet with pattern stamped.

The women thought a chandelier would give more light
To us kids, then, it was a wonderful sight.
One member said when people would sing,
Didn’t see why money they’d had to bring,
To pay for such an outrageous, frivolous thing.

Each Sunday to Sunday school, Pearl and I went,
Whether we liked it not, we were always sent,
Our shoes were kept shining and bright.
My feet squeezed into ones much too tight.
Our dresses were pretty with Eaton Jacket
But the shoes made such a terrible racket.
I would wiggle, twist and turn about,
Always glad when we got out.
The grownups considered it a terrible thing,
When I carried the shoes home by the string.
We always enjoyed our supper Sunday night.
The meal mother served was such a delight.

To Mother Wonnacott, the one I loved best of all,
Every Saturday I would go from Spring to Fall.
She would always make dishes of good things to eat.
And would find for me a very special treat.
She had two sons named Loran and Mert.
Mert was small. They called him Little Squirt.
I like the white hairy dog they called Nipper.
If anyone touched me he would bite through her slipper.
Her boarders were Fred Rolland, Jack Whittam, Deac Lee.
Deac had the habit of saying, “Holy Gee.”
Mom Wonnacott made cream cake, fried fish golden brown,
And she’d tell me of when Doc. brought wee Loran to town.
She asked Mert if they’d keep him. He said with a frown,
“Naw- Throw him in the creek and let him drown.”
She was loved by more than the Wonnacott clan,
And was known years later as dear old Nin-nan.

The Stephens brothers Billy, Hugh and Joe
Wore high top boots with copper toe.
They had a farm on the side of the hill,
And a yoke of oxen the land to till
Mrs. Poquet their sister, lived with them too.
She could wash, mend, bake and make a good stew.
The brothers wore pants covered with patches.
Didn’t look like much but kept out the scratches.

We will now stroll down the Wonnacott Road,
Where hopped many a warty old toad,
To the cottage of Maggie Elliot and husband Ed.
They loved to feast on sturgeon fish head
He would smack his lips as up he stood
And say, “Mon days Moggie, ain’t this good.”

Cleve Mowers, his mother and father, Bill,
Lived across the creek not far from the hill.
They used to drink and get rip roaring tight
And end up in a family free-for-all fight.
They were both big people and of strength didn’t lack.
Sometimes they’d tear the clothes off each others back
She would go away and leave him then come back to tackle,
The old demon again for another big battle.

Jim Burwell was one of Port Bruce’s fisherman,
About him I have very little to pen,
One thing to remember, he had a few bad teeth.
With a chew of tobacco, he could split a maple leaf.

The old school stood at the foot of the hill,
Where many a kid got a thrill and a chill.
The old box stove, the pointer of hickory wood,
Made the big boys laugh and the small ones be good.
I had a long way to walk with my dinner pail.
And my first teacher was Sarah Smale.
How well I remember the old desks and ink wells.
The chestnuts we would sneak in and shell
The map of Elgin County hung on the wall.
On the bench a water-pail, one dipper for all.
In the winter we would sleigh-ride down the hill.
Lots of good fun and many a spill.
With Aunt Delia Davis, up on the hill
Lived nieces, Addie and Amy. I love them still
The quaint home had flower gardens with flagstone walk,
A garden seat where old friends could sit and talk,
Inside the home were antiques galore
And there must have been a dozen cats or more.

Aunt Delia gave me a marble trinket, precious as gold,
It must be at least a hundred and thirty years old.
I still have the old treasure of marble art,
Another souvenir, with which, I hope never to part.

Colin Hutchinson lived with them and worked the land,
And drove a high stepping horse with a skillful hand.
The black open top buggy was always clean and bright,
To ride with Colin was my supreme delight.
He carried a whip but never used it on Dan.
He always wore gloves and the gloves were bright tan.
Colin enjoyed a few drinks from the bottle once in a while,
But he would always meet you with a bow and a smile.

Then one day tragedy smote the town.
Will Anderson and Ted Burroughs both were drowned.
When a heavy storm swept over the lake,
They were blown off the scow, their lives to take.
With Ted’s Bertha and Jessie I went to school,
When tragedy walked in their lives to rule.
His boy Cecil was Ted’s only son.
Cecil gave his life in World War One

One great day Uncle Tom’s Cabin came to town,
Cruel Simon Legree and his terrible frown.
He ruled the slaves with his lash whip in hand.
They were afraid to sit down and afraid to stand.
Poor old Uncle Tom would do no wrong.
He had finger nails full one inch long.
His back was bent and he carried a cane.
He had snow white hair, he was crippled and lame,
Eliza was distracted when she had to part with her child,
The pitiless separation drove her almost wild,
She took a chance, over the ice flowe, to run away.
They turned the bloodhounds loose to catch her that day.
The hounds always looked hungry as the dickens.
They got out one night and ate all Dave Shephard’s chickens
Little Eva, her pale face and beautiful blonde curls
Didn’t look much like the Port’s little girls.
Uncle Tom loved her and would tell her fairy tales
About the magic carpet and the dancing elves dales.
She would listen and smile, her eyes all aglow.
But sad was the day when from this earth she had to go.
It nearly broke Old Uncle Tom’s heart.
With the one he loved best, he had to part.

The medicine man who went with the show,
Could cure your ills from head to toe.
One dollar a bottle, He sure was a stinker.
People swallowed his gab, hook line and sinker.
He sold bottles and bottles of his cure every day.
If it helped anyone I never heard them say.

In the winter there was fun for both young and old.
No one complained about the severe cold.
They held skating parties from early till late.
Even a poor skater could cut a figure eight.
Huge bon fires were built each side of the shore
The kids kept them burning bright with crackle and roar.
While the skaters were doing sashays and dashes,
We kids were roasting potatoes in the hot ashes.

Then off to the hotel ball-room floor,
They would finish it off with a square dance or more.
Waltz, two-step, schotische and old folk dance
While we kids up and down the hall would prance.
The old oyster suppers made me smack my lips.
If you didn’t like oysters remove them with spoon tips.

There’s a good big hill right in the town,
Where you could have a good, bob-sleigh, ride down.
You needed someone to guide the sleigh straight.
Or you might end up in someone’s gate.

Port Bruce then could boast of many a sport.
Bicycle riding from Aylmer to Port,
Over dirt roads and down a steep hill,
Where a many a lad got a bad fall and bad spill.
We had two kinds of bicycles. The old fashioned kind
With the big wheel in front and the small one behind.

The teenage boys wore knee length pants,
Long home-knit socks to cover their shanks.
The little boys and girls all wore long dresses,
Long curls or short, they called them tresses.
The old baby buggy with the parasol on top,
Over the rough dirt roads took many a hop.
The women folk were busy to keep the family fed,
Wash, mend and sew and make their own bread.
Skim the cream of the milk pans, make their own butter,
Clean the old oil lamps, they had not time to putter.

The beech nuts and hazel nuts are now hard to find.
But recall pleasant memories to my crazy old mind.
In the fall, with a lunch and a good big sack,
To the woods we go and bring our winter treat back.
It took a heavy frost to make chestnuts fall.
The burrs that held them were as big as a ball.
The walnuts and hickory nuts took many a shake,
But the meats tasted good in candy or cake.
On the flats where the butternut trees grew so tall,
Their meat had the most delicate flavour of all.
gone are the hazelnuts and the old beech trees,
That made many a home for the honey bees
To us kids the winter time was swell.
With the old wood fire snapping and crackling,
We played games and fun was never lacking.
The nuts we would crack on a block of wood.
And the maple sugar, oh boy, was it good.
The pans of apples Dad brought from the cellar,
With those things the girls caught many a feller.

The old frame building not mentioned before,
Was the post office and the village store.
Of the things, there, I remember best of all,
Were the candy jars, brooms and big China doll.

Port Bruce then had picnics galore.
From Aylmer it used sixty horses or more,
To haul phaeton, buggy, democrat, carryall
The men folks played quoits, ran races, played ball.
One fellow called Paupst pulled kids in a democrat,
Nine miles – Aylmer to Port Bruce – without mishap.
The women folks visited, told about their homes,
At that time we had no wonderful telephones.
The kids played games then gathered in a bunch,
For the best time of all, a picnic lunch.
They had sandwiches, cake, tarts and pink lemonade,
Didn’t matter if they sat in the sun or the shade.
The cottages there now are neat and low,
They don’t look like the cottages long ago
Listen now to the car horns, laughter and din.
The old hotel is now Rocabore Inn.
The three old cottages on the beach made little show,
Just a memory to me of times long ago.
Times have changed. All the old places sold
Today, tomboy Violet is seventy years old.

Violet Reavie
[Violet was born 1888 and died 1967]

Since writing this poem of Port Bruce, I am told
Sarah Young still lives and is over one hundred years old!

Violet Reavie

Once again, I am sad to say,
My old friend Sarah, has passed away.

[My great great Aunt Sarah Young Smith died at St. Thomas, 21 May 1960]