Our History, People, Our Creativity, Environment
Log Cabin Muse
Curated by Cathy Wilson
Storyteller: Cathy Wilson
October 13, 2021
In 1967, my parents built a full-size log cabin in the basement of our modern bungalow on a rural road outside of Kemptville, Ontario. It had a profound impact on my life. Mom and Dad asked relatives if they had any family heirlooms that needed a home, and the searching of attics began. Soon the artifacts were flowing in, and our basement resembled Upper Canada Village, my parents’ inspiration.
Upon walking downstairs to the basement, you immediately entered a stylized barnyard leading to the log cabin. Inside the cabin we had a spinning wheel, butter churn, solid brass bed, pump organ, and more, but what really interested me was what was in the old trunks! I loved opening them to see the braids of human hair that great-great-aunties had cut off in the 1920s, pantalettes (women’s underwear) worn in the mid-19th century, the bodice of my great-grandmother’s dress, upholstery fabric made of horsehair, and little red leather children’s boots. Touching these was like touching the past. I spent much time in the cabin entertaining friends and doing homework by the coal oil lamp and crackling fire in the old woodstove. My historical imagination was ignited. I wondered about the long line of relatives who had vanished without my ever really knowing who they were and how they had lived.
I think my ancestors would be happy that I treasure their possessions and stories. Various branches of the family tree had migrated from rural Ireland in the 1790s and 1860s, settling in the eastern Ontario counties of Stormont/Dundas and Grenville, respectively. The Wilsons were farming folk. The Dougalls were involved in lumbering and farming. In 1961, my parents built their bungalow near Kemptville, in Grenville County, on a property that had been a farm. Dad was a large-animal veterinarian, and I sometimes accompanied him on his farm visits when my mother needed a break from my chatter. I spent my holidays with cousins who lived on farms. I loved it when Uncle Jack took us on horse-drawn wagon rides to the sugar shack, when I saw the deer carcass that Uncle Bert had hanging in the barn, when I boisterously swung my partner at the local square dance, and when the hungry threshers piled into Aunt Shirley’s kitchen for dinner.
My curiosity about daily life in the past was inspired by pleasant hours in our basement log cabin and these farm holidays. When I enrolled in the history program at the University of Guelph, I was surprised that most history was urban and that, except for the “pioneers,” nothing was taught or known about rural life. I wanted to research rural history and bring it into the grand narrative of Canadian history. Since 1989, I’ve taught rural history at the University of Guelph and written books about immigration, settlement, and the strategies rural families used to maintain themselves and their descendants on the land.
My passion for rural history was further fuelled when my mother, the loving keeper of our family heirlooms, shared another treasure I had never seen – my great-great-grandmother Lucy Middagh’s diary, dated 1884–87. At that time, Lucy was a farm woman in her sixties and the mother of 11 surviving children. Her diary had a green marbleized cover and still smells like sweet woodsmoke from her kitchen. Reading her daily entries transported me to another time and place. I had never experienced the past in such an intimate way. I asked myself: Could I transform my enthusiasm for her diary into a scholarly analysis? I wrote an article based on the diary, about reciprocal work bees (barn raising and quilting bees) and was amazed when unknown distant relatives contacted me from Australia and Washington State to say they had other diaries belonging to Lucy. It was too good to be true.
At first it was a little disappointing to find that her diary held no juicy personal secrets. Like most rural diaries, it was a daily account of the activities of everyone in the household, their work, buying and selling goods, visiting, and caring for the sick. As such, it was precious because it captured the rich texture of the daily life of the home, farm, and neighbourhood. To my delight, some of the material objects that she mentioned in her diary – a quilt and her photograph – were objects that we were displaying in our log cabin.
Lucy’s 1884–87 diary inspired two projects. Her entries were so rich in detail and potential value to historians that I began searching for diaries written by other rural men and women (farm and non-farm) in archives and museums across Ontario. In 2015, I created the first project, the Rural Diary Archive website, with the generous financial support of the Francis and Ruth Redelmeier Professorship in Rural History and the technical help of the McLaughlin Library at the University of Guelph. The Rural Diary Archive is a repository for Lucy’s and others’ diaries. It continues to grow as archives, museums, and private individuals donate diaries and dedicated volunteers make the diary contents accessible to all by transcribing the handwritten words into readable, searchable print. It currently profiles over 200 Ontario diarists, some writing as early as the 1830s, and a growing number of 19th- and early-20th-century diaries are available in full text for the public to read and transcribe for free. The project is also timely because some diaries are now too fragile to withstand much handling, and typed words are so much easier to read than Spencerian script that might be sloppy and faded. People enjoy reading and transcribing. Together, my relatives in Seattle and Australia and I have transcribed our great-great-grandmother’s diaries online and have come to know each other. Visitors are also discovering their family and local history in a way that makes them feel as if they have stepped into the past and are sharing time with the diarists. The website is inspiring new scholarship too.
With so many diaries to draw upon, my initial article on work bees has grown into a book entitled Bee-ing Neighbours (McGill-Queen’s University Press, Fall 2022). The book delves into the daily lives of more than 100 farm families, 1830 to 1960, and how they gathered like bees in a hive to raise barns, thresh grain, quilt, pluck geese, husk corn, fill silos, spread manure, and complete other tasks. Their exchange of labour, known as “neighbouring,” and the feasts and festivities that followed – even the occasional murder or fatal accident – helped define their neighbourhood’s membership and its code of neighbourly behaviour. In writing the book, I learned a lot about the workways of rural people and their daily lives. Neighbouring was essential in sustaining family farms through decades of change and was a major component of rural culture.
So, as you can see, though my family and I live in the city today, the years have not taken me away from my rural roots but have in fact deepened my connection with them and my dedication to preserving those old trunks and other artifacts. Starting with the family heirlooms in our basement log cabin, I have been rooted in a chain of relationships and a span of time that extend beyond my own.