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Summers on Chelsea Island
Chelsea Island and Dam
William Lyon Mackenzie King and his dog Pat, Kingsmere in Gatineau Park

When the Gilmours’ sawmills on Chelsea Island closed, the row house formerly occupied by the mill workers and their families were rented as summer cottages. My father arranged for one of them.

As far back as I can remember, we spent our summers on the Gilmours’ island. We usually went up around the beginning of May, returning to Ottawa after Labour Day. These moves depended on what stage we were at in school, varying slightly every year.

It was an exciting experience getting to Chelsea in 1910 and 1911; Mother packed a large trunk containing bedding, towels, linen and kitchen necessities. Other suitcases held clothes, and boxes were crammed with assorted items such as shoes, rubber boots, raincoats, diapers, medical supplies, books and toys. All these preparations were undertaken for a summer stay of two adults, two children and a toddler!

It was Daddy who arranged for Landry’s Cartage, on Byward Market, to pick up the luggage by wagon and take it to Chelsea. He usually accompanied the load. Mother arranged for a “taxi”—a horse and buggy—to take us from Argyle Avenue to Union Station in Ottawa, where we boarded the C.P.R. train going to the village of Chelsea. Upon arrival we were taken by horse and buggy to the island. At the cottage Mother unpacked, made beds and soon had everything in place for our stay, while Daddy looked after us—and helped, too.

We were lucky; our cottage was at one end of a row of four. It became quite a gathering spot for the neighbouring children. I remember many details of the place. Once Daddy put up a swing on a tree near the picnic table. As we grew older we didn‘t use it just for swinging; we would climb the tree it hung upon and zoom gleefully to the table and back, to the horror and screams of Mother!

Cooking meals was done on a wood stove, the kitchen becoming very hot in the process. As a result, all our meals were eaten outside in fair weather. (I can still recollect the smell of the new oilcloth cover on the picnic table...)

Mother did a washing every day in a washtub, using a washboard for all her scrubbing. She used sad irons heated on a wood stove to press the clothes, but although she ironed father’s shirts his stiff white collars were done in Ottawa. We children wore overalls during the week. My sister Mary and I had to look after John, and later on, little Jessie, while Mother performed the household chores. It was a lot of work for all the mothers in the island community.

Across from our cottage row there were the Mays, the Blyths and the Greens. The cottages were all comfortable and quite cozy on the wet days when we coloured, cut out or played games. (Mother was a kindergarten teacher). Of course, birthdays were an excuse for parties and were celebrated with our friends.

It was a case of early to bed and early to rise for us. Saturday night was bath night, taken in a galvanized tub. There was plenty to do in the area for young and old: tennis, lawn bowling, baseball and horseshoes.

Shortly after arrival at the cottage a daily routine developed. All those not on holiday had to be up early to go to work, leaving at 7:30 to climb the long hill to the station to catch the 8:15 train to the city, either Ottawa or Hull. We all had breakfasted together before Daddy left. Mother then undertook the daily chores before we all set off to the river for a swim. The swimming place was below the falls and as the current was strong, a designated area was used. Mother would sometimes bring a lunch that we had on the shore. Afterwards we built sandcastles. Returning home for a rest, the babies slept while the mothers gathered for a chat and the sharing of a pot of tea or a jug of lemonade. Following this we returned to the river for another swim before having to prepare dinner to be ready for the arrival of Father, usually about six o‘clock.

Over the weekends, Daddy taught us to swim, and by the age of eight or nine we could all swim like fish. We were fond of exploring the island on our way to pick up the weekly block of ice from the icehouse. (I remember how very cold it was inside.) The ice blocks were stored in sawdust; our block had to be washed off before placing it in the icebox, where there was always lemonade and Jell-O to tempt us.

Sundays we girls were all dressed in our white starched dresses, hats and gloves. Mother wore her long skirt and blouse with leg o’ mutton sleeves and a large hat. We set off across the bridge, walking beside the chain link fence of the Gilmour Estate, through the woods to the Presbyterian Church, which we called “the Little Church in the Wildwood,” for Sunday School and the service. Mr. Dewar was superintendent of the Sunday school and I can still remember the taste of the candy he gave us. I think it was horehound, a remedy for coughs. Later on my father became the superintendent in his place.

On Sundays we either had lunch at home before we left or took it with us to the “Lookout.” It overlooked the river where we were fascinated by the logs tumbling and jumping over the rocks like matchsticks. During the spring and early summer the sound of the falls was deafening. We were often asked how we stood the noise, but we hardly heard it after a while.

As an alternative, we would take lunch to the “Grove;” a lovely grassed clearing on the way up to the railway station. It was a popular spot for Sunday school, school and other group picnics, often being used by people from Hull or Ottawa. They came on the Sunday morning train for a day’s outing, visiting the chute and enjoying what the area had to offer. Sundays were always busy days on the island and we had lots of company. Sometimes we arranged visits to Meech Lake where a rowboat was rented to take us on exploratory voyages.

There were many activities to keep us busy. My brother liked to cross the bridge to watch the big glass jars carboys, being filled with pure spring water at the bottling plant and loaded on wagons for shipment to Hull and Ottawa. The water coming out of the rock amazed us.

Each week a variety of merchants came to the island to sell their wares; one had a cart loaded with bread, buns and other goodies; another man came with milk, cream, eggs and fresh vegetables; and the butcher appeared with fresh meats. Some days we walked to the village to shop at the Dewars‘ store. As you can tell, although my father did bring staples in from the city, most of our food was “local.” We also collected our mail from the village post office, but Daddy brought the newspaper home every night.

When going to the railway station we passed close to the Gilmour Estate, which was just up the road on the left, across from the bottling works. The well-groomed lawns and landscaped garden were surrounded by a chain-link fence. Little Valerie Gilmour, in her pastel smocked dress and white shoes used to come to the fence to see and talk with us. I felt she would have liked to play but was not allowed to do so. For our part, we were a little envious of her pony and cart!

July was raspberry picking time. On Sundays, people came in droves from the cities to the hill behind the Clarks‘ house. Our family set off early in the morning, on weekdays with a pair of 10-quart pails one of which held lunch. There were smaller pails for Mary and me. We picked until noon, when we had a leisurely lunch. By three or four o‘clock we headed home with our pails full, in spite of nibbling. Somehow on these excursions I managed more than once to step on a hornet’s nest—you could have heard my howls in Ottawa! In reminiscence I can still hear the people talking and calling to one another as they picked. Nobody ever got lost in spite of covering quite a distance up the hill. We sure liked the jam, tarts and pies Mother made for winter consumption.

Near the end of August, the Recreation Association of Chelsea Island held its annual Fair Day. The ladies had a bake table and lunch was available. Eddie Bambrick from the village played for the Minstrel Show. Mother used to dress as a gypsy and tell fortunes in a tent either by teacup or by palm. She seemed to have a real gift for fortune telling. The wonderful day included such delights as ice cream cones with “real” ice cream along with races and games.

The fair signalled the end of summer for many, especially those with school-aged children. Others stayed behind and commuted by train to the city. Eventually we arrived home, as brown as berries and well rested, ready for school or business activities.

Other memories include the absolute “must” excursion to the “Ex.” In the morning, armed with lunches we went by train to Ottawa looking for excitement. We saw the animals, displays, and went on the rides, spending most of our “dollar for the day” before returning home with our bags of goodies from the Pure Food Show and other stalls.

Never to be forgotten was the friendly train conductor who patiently waited for stragglers as we ran across the fields or down the road. He caused the train whistle to be sounded to hurry us along. One always made it as time could be made on the downgrade. Also to be remembered was the cheery reminder, “Don‘t forget your children, parcels or umbrellas.”

Our beautiful island summers came to a sad end in the mid 1920s when the Gatineau Power Company built a power dam at Chelsea. The river waters covered up our paradise forever. Most of us determined to remain in the Gatineau, however. My father bought the Dewar house, which eventually became the manse of the United Church in Chelsea. Others settled in Old Chelsea, Tenaga, Gleneagle, Kirk’s Ferry, Larrimac and Farm Point. We met during the week as we travelled on the train together to school or work for many more happy summers “up the Gatineau.”

Dale, Ida W. (nee Currie), Summers on Chelsea Island, Up the Gatineau! Vol. 14, 20–24.

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