How I spent my summer vacation
By Mel Robertson THEN I WAS A PUPIL at Burford Public School many years ago the first task each Fall was to write an essay on "How I Spent My Summer Vacation." This did not produce many exotic descriptions of trips to Mesopotamia or Outer Mongolia as people (and particularly children) did not travel far in those days. Consequently teachers must have grown bone-tired from readinq essays about trips to Mohawk Park or Port Dover that constituted our summer fun.
I realize that this is only May and that summer vacations have not started and thus cannot be described. However, it is a short time after Mothers' Day and while this article describes a summer vacation of the 1920s, it is really a description of the love and care shown by a couple of mothers that, perhaps, was not appreciated at the time.
It all began in the Spring of a 1920s year when I was very young. Summer was not yet upon us but visions of campfires and camps that had been conjured up from winter reading and story telling began to fill my mind and that of my sister Emilie and her friend Helen Everett. This was not unusual for most children's books of the time were about the activities of children at "camp". Books such as "Bobby Blake -First Class Scout" and the "Girl Guides at Lonesome Lake" had camp settings that were most attractive to young children. Consequently, as soon as the snow was gone we began to pester our parents to take us "camping."
Going "camping" in the 1920s was not the easy thing it is today for there were no trailers, trailer camps, electric lights, portable refrigerators, folding beds, folding chairs and convenience food.
The first thing was to find a place to camp, for although the creek was only a mile away camping places were not easy to find. Some farmers were very hostile to anyone entering their flats. One family opposed any incursions by throwing children into the creek. Another farmer thought nothing of kicking the bum of any child caught swimming in "his creek." We were fortunate in the fact that Mrs. Everett's brother Norm Wilson owned the flats east of the bridge on Maple Ave. North and he was glad to have us. A place was selected at a bend in the creek where the waters of the past had created a little terrace. Nearby was a large spring creek and a big ironwood tree provided shade. It was an ideal spot for a camp as there was a good view up the creek, no deep spots to menace children and, since cattle were pastured on the flats, the grass was park-like.
The next problem was to find a tent
large enough to accommodate two families. This was solved by our fathers asking the local militia commander for the loan of an army tent and this was provided with no complicating red-tape. It was a large mess tent with head-high walls in which there was ample room (after a canvas divider had been installed) for two families. It was rather circus-like in appearance. Its transportation to the creek involved Norm Wilson's horses and wagon and its erection took uptneDetter part of an afternoon and evening.
With the tent in place there was the question of equipping it and since there was no folding tent furniture available ordinary house things had to be provided. Sleeping accommodation consisted of double beds for the parents and "stretchers" for the children. For those who are not familiar with the word "stretcher1 it was a single cot with folding legs. Its frame was of solid wood on which was fastened a set of closely woven springs. Mattresses were of straw. The "stretchers" and beds took up most of the tent space but there was still room for a couple of clothes cupboards and a table. Light was provided by coal-oil lanterns. Everything else was outside. There, as a protection from sun and rain, our fathers erected a canvas-covered canopy under which was an ordinary drop-leaf table, kitchen chairs and a big coal-oil stove. The only sign of comfort was a couple of rocking chairs and if you wanted to relax you lay on the grass and if it was wet, you flopped on a bed.
The preservation of perishable food such as milk did not present a problem for a big crock was installed in the spring creek, this served as an ideal refrigerator until it was found that bull frogs liked to sit on the tin plate that covered the crock. Then, at Norm Wilson's suggestion, a hole was dug in a bank where a little spring ran into the creek. In this a butter box with a hinged lid was installed and an ideal refrigerator was created with the ice-cold spring water keeping everything fresh.
Toilet facilities consisted of a large packing case from one of our fathers' stores. This had a hinged door and was reasonably mosquito proof. It was not a place where one could contemplate the wonders of Eaton's catalogue but the provision of an antique commode chair probably put this place on a par with the outhouses that about 97 per cent of Bur-ford people used.
Moving all this equipment to the campsite took time and its movement through the village, on Norm Wilson's wagon, must have given the impression that we were a family of settlers bound for
the West, our passage was greeted with hoots of derision from Hotel loungers whose idea of summer relaxation was to have Ernie Hydes rack up pool balls for them. Settling in at the camp took the better part of an afternoon and the combined efforts of five adults. We children contributed to this work by getting in the way and making useless suggestions.
The first night at camp was a memorable one for all three of us had been raised on stories told, or read, to us by parents or aunts. Imagination ran rife and the snuffling of curious cattle conjured up so many fanciful thoughts that sleep came slowly.
A day at camp always began with a big breakfast prepared on the coal oil stove by mothers who believed that children should start the day with full stomachs. Then after "our stomachs had settled" and the grass was dry, there would be a "hike" to some place along the creek where interesting things could be found. We were fortunate that the dam which controlled the water for the Red Mill (Jack Whitehead's property) was under repair and thus we were able to cross the creek at spots that normally were covered by water behind the dam. Mr. Kirkby the miller and another man were repairing the dam and being amiable people, were always ready to show us what they had done, or what they had found.
Morning "hikes" were not completely impromptu for both our mothers were interested in the things of Nature. Thus we made little trips of discovery to where interesting plants, flowers like the fringed gentian, fish, other things, might be observed. Ten o'clock snacks were carried in linen napkins for little picnics in some shady spot. On most occasions Norm Wilson's son Bruce accompanied us.
Afternoons at camp could be interesting, or trying, depending on the circumstances for when Burford people heard that we were "camping at the flats" they felt it was their bounden duty to visit us. So at about two most afternoons, motor cars would be seen approaching our tent. There they would discharge women in aflernoon dresses (no shorts, halters or casual clothesjlsome even brought fancy parasols. With them would be children we did not know, in equally restrictive clothes. These people came to be entertained and no thought was given to the fact that our mothers were expected to prepare "tea" in the hot sun and serve it (with cups and saucers). On most occasions the visitors brought cookies but usually we had to supply food from our meagre stocks. The visitors would spend a couple of hours fanning themselves under the ironwood tree while their children "paddled" in the creek. Our mothers never complained but I imagine that in the back of their minds, they had the horrible thought that these people would suddenly and belatedly, want to stay for supper.
In the evenings there was always a "Campfire" with stories and songs around it. Wood that had been gathered during the morning "hike" was piled in front of the tent and when it was set alight provided a cozy spot. Here out minds were taken up with imaginary happenings inspired by the stories our mothers told. It was a magic moment, for both our mothers were adept at making up interesting stories. Now, for a moment lions and elephants lurked at the edge of the firelight and great whales cruised the creek. "Bobby Blake", "The Boy Allies" and "The Campfire Girls" watched us from the shadows and overhead "Tom Swift" floated in his pneumatic rocket ready to take us to the moon. The gentle sounds of frogs and crickets became the voices of "The Jungle Book" creating that "shivery" feeling children enjoyed before the head-shrinkers said it was bad for us. No one became psychotic about this for we knew that our mothers were capable of warding off anything with a quiet word of dismissal.
Sometimes the afternoon visitors came back in the evening and would expect a full-blown round of entertainment in keeping with what they imagined a "Campfire" should be. This destroyed the spontaneity of the evening for they always expected our mothers to roast marshmallows or boil corn for them. The lions, elephants and great whales of our imagination fled to the bushes when this happened.
The afternoon and evening visitors were not nasty people but merely inconsiderate people. They felt that it would be a great treat for their summer visitors to bring them down to our camp. Burford homes in the 1920s summers were always full of visitors from "the City" (usually the States). Most of these people failed to realize that most village homes did not possess the labour-saving devices found in the city. Women brought trunks full of clothes and did not think twice about the extra laundry work that was put on their hostess by changing their blouses or "Waists" several times a day. Nor did they worry about the hot work involved in the constant preparation of picnics that they demanded at a time when refrigeration and convenience foods were lacking.
However amid all the lack of consideration several instances of great kindness still remain in my mind. On one occasion the farmer who owned the land where the Township gravel pit stands waded through the creek to invite us to watch him "Haying" and to give us rides on the hay wagon and horses. On another occasion the woman who lived opposite Wilsons on the 6th Concession, 'walked almost a mile back to our camp in order to ask us to her house for cookies. Then every evening norm Wilson would ride back to give us little trips on his horsa. These things may seem trivial in the supersonic, electronic, 1990s but they were acts of kindness that were remembered by children in the 1920s.
And so a memorable summer passed amid campfires, hikes, meals of fish caught by Mr. Everett, horse-back rides and the. smell of flowers and new-mown hay. Before we knew it we were back at school at a time when we were too young to write about our summer. I supposethat our mothers heaved sighs of relief but, as I recall, they always remembered the camping holiday with pleasure. Would mothers do the same things today? I dare say they would although with the advent of convenience camping equipment the invention of ways to keep children happy and well-fed would be
remain constant of course but facilities such as portable TV, Walkmen, Nintendo, heavy metal and "soaps" have replaced the simple pleasures of a Nature Hike. Are things better now than they were then? No, they are just different. Children of the 1920s did not expect flush-toilets in the wilderness because they did not have them at home, nor did they miss radios for the same reason. So what did we have that made a camping trip of long ago so memorable? The answer is that we had mothers who were imaginative and inventive, who, despite heavy labour, managed to keep us happy. It is a remembrance of love and kindness that remains.