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People, History

A Rural Story

Curated by Judy Daniel

April 26, 2022

The libraries are full of books of fiction, auto-biographies, non-fiction books, all sorts of stories. Through the years, I have many times said that it would be wonderful to read stories of the families that live next door. Every person’s life is different and so often those lives are so very interesting.

I always thought that my life, in comparison to my friend’s or my neighbour’s was pretty boring. But once I really looked into my past, I discovered I really had a story to tell as well. My Dad and Mom lived extraordinary lives and I thought perhaps that story needed to be told. I am the youngest of their 9 children and the keeper of our family history.

Our Dad, Simon Thomson (son of John E. and Esther Thomson) was born in 1900 and our Mom, Annie Charlton (daughter of Edward and Emma Charlton) was born in 1910. They grew up in rural East Williams Township (now North Middlesex) in Middlesex County, just down the country road from each other. Both families were farmers. Edward Charlton was also a bee keeper. Ironically, Mom was allergic to bee stings and had to have a shot of whiskey if stung. Emma Charlton died when Mom was 12. Knowing that she would not live long, Grandma Charlton had taught her many household tasks, baking, cooking, canning, medicinal remedies, sewing. Lessons that would be needed because upon Emma’s death, Mom would be running the household and helping to raise her 6 year old sister Myrtle. Mom told stories of her youth, playing baseball, taking the buggy or sleigh to church every Sunday, walking to a one-room school until 8th grade, playing with Indigenous children. Indigenous families would come to help harvest flax and Mom would play with the children, in the fields near their encampments. WWI brought heart ache to the family. Mom’s first cousin was the first man to enlist in McGillivray Township and he was killed in battle. One of their horses, Pete, was sent off to support the troops and she recalled seeing him led down the lane, knowing he would never come back.

   Simon & Annie’s wedding photo & Lot 8 Concession 12 home farm before tornado
Simon and Annie's wedding photo

Dad and Mom were married in 1930. They made their home at Lot 8 Concession 12 East Williams Township. My Grandfather John E. Thomson had bought the farm from Mitchell Roberts in 1919, and rented it out through the years, until Dad and Mom bought it. They borrowed Dad’s Uncle’s car for the honeymoon trip to Niagara Falls. Married life was hard in those days. It was the 1930s and they were poor, but then as Mom would always say, “everyone they knew was poor.” The house was cold in the winter; frost would form on the walls. Besides field work, barn chores, the upkeep of buildings Dad, along with his brother, would cut wood for a dollar a day. Some of the logs cut were used by the government to build the railroads through the area. They would hunt rabbits, squirrels and raccoons. Pelts from the raccoons would provide money for much needed necessities for their growing family. Their daughter Grace was born in 1934 and Florence was born in 1935.

Home farm Lot 8 Concession 12 East Williams Township.
Home farm Lot 8 Concession 12 East Williams Township.

In 1936, Dad was a juror member in London, for the trial of the John Labatt kidnappers. In 1936 and 1937 a teacher at their local one-room school, boarded with Mom and Dad. She wrote weekly letters back to her family who lived approximately 30 kilometres away. In 2005, this lady’s daughter gave me 12 of the letters. They are one of my most prized possessions. They are filled with the happenings of my parents’ household, community events, the antics of the school children she taught, the neighbourhood, the weather, transportation, prices of household goods, seed, feed, livestock, a gathering for their barn raising. We have a glimpse into our parents’ early married life. The difficult and uncertain times but also the happy occasions while living in a farming community that relied on predictable weather, good health and a close-knit community to raise a family and enjoy life.

Their family grew through the years. Dunc was born 1938, Ruth 1940, Carol 1941, Carlyle 1943, Colin 1945 (died at 6 months), Dorothy 1947 and myself Judy 1950. In the 1940s the barn was struck with lightning and burned down. With help from neighbours and extended family a new barn was built. Life was difficult, but the family was surrounded by good neighbours and a large extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins. Mom did all her own canning, baking, cooking, cleaning. She helped at the barn and in the fields. She fed harvesters, builders, strangers and family. She sewed all our clothing. A friend would be in London and bring home adult clothing from Good Will. These Mom would rip apart and make over into clothes for the younger children. She would only get to town about every 3 months. They bought flour and sugar in 100 lb bags. She canned bushels of peaches, berries, tomatoes, put aside bags of root vegetables and preserved their own meat. My brothers and sisters all had chores both indoors and at the barn but they worked together as a family, leaned on each other and thrived. There were lots of good times. Their home was always open to anyone that enjoyed an evening of fiddle and piano music, a card game and good conversation.

Mom & Dad (Simon & Annie) photo taken at their daughter’s wedding September 1952.
Mom & Dad (Simon & Annie) photo taken at their daughter’s wedding September 1952.

Family picture was taken a couple of weeks before the tornado May 1953.
Family picture was taken a couple of weeks before the tornado May 1953.

By 1953 Dad was Reeve of East Williams Township. He had been instrumental in the building of the East Williams central school in 1952 and coordinating a system of school buses for the area. Grace the oldest had been married the previous September, Florence was away teaching school and Mom and Dad were discussing some kitchen renovations for the house. Thursday May 21 was a very hot humid day. Around 6 p.m. Dad came running from the barn, yelling for all of us to get out of the house. Everyone ran as a tornado barrelled down out of the west. Everything on the farm was destroyed except the silo. Dad and Dorothy were killed. My brothers and sisters were scattered throughout the field to the east of the house. Mom and I went through the kitchen floor into the water cistern. The air was still, as gradually neighbours started arriving to access the damage and help. Mom and Ruth were taken to St Joseph’s hospital in London. Our closest families arrived and we were taken into their homes. I don’t remember the day or aftermath, I was too young (about 3 years old). I have been told that for a long time I constantly asked for Dorothy. My brothers and sisters must have been traumatized beyond belief. We stayed with our aunt and uncle Charlie and Myrtle Fox and their children, until both a new barn and a new house were built. Mom came home from the hospital in October and we moved into our new home. Many people advised Mom and my older siblings to move into town. But they were determined to stay on the farm. My oldest brother Dunc was only 15 and a lot of the work and planning fell on his shoulders. But he always has said that his brother Carlyle and sisters Ruth and Carol helped and worked hard right along with him. The neighbours gave good advice, the local seed company worked with him and eventually they were able to make a good living. The girls got married and moved away, Dunc married and bought a farm down the road. One evening in November 1966, while cattle were being unloaded, the barn was destroyed by an electrical fault. The barn was replaced in 1967 and the community enjoyed 2 barn dances that summer to celebrate before more livestock was brought in.

An aerial photo the day following tornado.  The line in photo that goes through the centre is a crease in the original photo.
An aerial photo the day following tornado. The line in photo that goes through the centre is a crease in the original photo.

Once I started to school Mom started working at the Nursing Home in Parkhill and later moved from the farm to town. She rose through the offices of the Emerald Rebekah Lodge and always was part of her church community. She became a Certified Health Care Aide at the age of 65. Her home was always full of visiting grandchildren and friends and family were there daily. Mom died at the age of 92.

Dunc’s sons now run a large farming operation in East Williams and the surrounding townships.

Carlyle lived his whole life on the home farm, which in 2019 became a century farm, in the Thomson family for 100 years. More acreage has been added through the years and today Carlyle’s grandson farms the land and lives on Lot 8 Concession 12, in the house that was built in 1953.

The last aerial photo is how the home farm looks today
Home farm in 2020

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