The merry month of May
by Mel Robertson
THE MONTH OF MAY, which has been described by many writers as "merry", was named after an ancient deity Maia whose claim to fame was that she was thought "to bring increase" (of what?). Maia was one of the daughters of the Greek God Atlas who, when he was not supporting the world on his shoulders, improved his muscle-tone by fathering seven daughters who eventually became the constellation known as "The Seven Sisters".
Maia was the brightest of these stars and around her name a number of customs developed. Among these was the annual crowning of a "May Queen" and the "plaiting" of "May Poles" with ribbons of many colours. Other Maia remembrances included the naming of the trailing arbutus as the " May Flower" and the inclusion of the Hawthorne tree in the ancient childhood song of "Here we come gathering nuts and May". May became the favourite name for girls born in May and "Mayflower" was the name of the vessel that brought the pilgrims to North America. Local pioneers had the conviction that a nauseating growth called a "May Apple" was the natural cure for many complaints. Later, when Communists tried to take over the world, they designated May 1 st as their " Holy Day" and demonstrated their love of peace with gigantic military parades in every capital they controlled. In modern times, the word " Mayday" has become the internationally-known distress call for aircraft in difficulty.
It is difficult to compare May activities of the past with those of the present for, as far as I know, few Canadians dance around May Poles and it is highly doubtful if any follow the ancient fertility custom of having sex between the furrows of a newly-plowed field. So let us forget the customs of the past and see how local people reacted to "the merry month" in recent years. These reactions were both good and not
so good. Let us begin with the good ones.
Probably one of the biggest May activities for many years around the turn of the century was the preparation for the annual all-school Road Race. This was a one-mile road race for a silver shield. Each public school in the area was entitled to enter two runners. Qualifications were strictly governed by a committee of prominent area men who required sworn statements as to school attendance, area residence, etc. Any attempt to introduce "ringers" received public scorn. Schools involved included Burford Public School, Harley, Cathcart, New Durham, Northfield, Salem, Tansley, Block School, Valley School, South School, Fairfield, Woodbury, Hatchley, etc. The race was usually run as part of the 24th of May celebrations and, for weeks before, the local paper was full of fatuous boasting. Entry was limited to boys, but women assisted with most preparations. South School, which still exists as a dwelling on the 9th Concession, was the usual winner and eventually gained permanent possession of the silver shield. Interest in this race died out after the 1st World War but, for at least 40 years, it was a major Maytime event in this area.
Another 24th of May event that graced (or disgraced) Burford was the annual "shirt-tail parade" that took place at sunup for many years around the turn of the century. In this, various groups of young men vied with each other to see who could set off the biggest explosion just as the sun rose. This usually took place at the east end of King Street and, according to reports, some of the blasts were earth-shocking. This woke everyone and, when enough men and boys had assembled (no women), the Burford Brass Band would lead a parade to the west end of the street. This, according to the papers, was a pretty rowdy affair with men leaping from bed and joining the parade in their night-shirts or long drawers. The local paper always condemned this parade but, nonetheless, it was held. The rest of the day was followed in a
more modest manner with a field-day at the Fair Grounds and fireworks at night.
However, for the many who wanted an out-of-town 24th of May, there was usually a railroad excursion to Niagara Falls, Grimsby Beach or Port Dover. Such excursions increased in size as the summer season proceeded with 1,200 to 1,500 Burford people taking part, plus large contingents from Harley, New Durham, Mt. Vernon and other places along the RR line. All this constituted the "merry" part of the month.
The less "merry" part of May 1886 onward was the continuation of Harley hostility that had been generated by the infamous "Wandering Cattle" by-law of April 1886 which I mentioned in my last article. However, the May confrontation was not generated by cattle, but by the failure of Council to hire a constable to enforce the recently-passed Scott Act that prohibited the sale of liquor in hotels. Once again, Harley broke into two belligerent factions with the "pro" faction supporting total prohibition on moral grounds and the "anti" group maintaining that Council could not afford to pay a constable and that the enforcement of the Scott Act would drive people away from local businesses. However, to enhance their moral position, the " pro" group organized an " Indignation Meeting" in the local church with speakers brought from distant places. This meeting drew so much attention that the "Times" editor devoted the entire front page of the paper to statements from Councillors and " irate citizens", with the councilors trying to sit on the fence and the " irate citizens" firing insults in all directions. There was no clear winner in the battle, but the Scott Act remained in effect.
However, Harley citizens seemed to realize that "Indignation Meetings" were an effective means of protest and similar gatherings were held on other subjects. One source of "indignation" was that Burford boys were taking Sunday jaunts on railway handcars. In this the "indignant" protesters demanded that the boys be charged with "desecration of the Sabbath" and not just plain mischief. (Maybe a simple padlock on the tool shed would have warned off celestial condemnation.)
Another big May event of earlier times was the auction sale on May 15, 1915, of the contents of the Burford Hotel and its livery stable. This sale was brought about by the enactment of the Scott Act that closed hotel bars and caused local hotel business to go elsewhere. Not much was said about the contents of the hotel, but the livery stable contents drew considerable attention. This included five horses, one cow and 50 chickens, plus 19 buggies, wagons and sleighs, several Surrey carriages and a number of" dandy little items" called " speeding sleighs"," speeding buggies" and "speeding carts" (presumably for the sporting set). There was also a large inventory of robes, storm aprons, sleigh bells and fancy sets of harness. This hotel sale was another indication of the growing interest in motor transportation which meant that travelers could now get to city hotels and enjoy the facilities that most small country hotels could not provide.
Indeed, it is interesting to note in the same "Advance" that advertised the hotel sale an advertisement by Charlie Dutcher that his Burford garage was selling Ford "Runabouts complete with electric head lights" for $500. The advertising of" electric head lights" was a real "come on", for most automobiles of the time had oil-fired lights both front and rear. My father bought his first Ford touring car from Charlie Dutcher. It had oil lamps front and rear and on the dash, but Charlie replaced them with electric lights in order to make the sale.
Editorial comment in earlier times seemed to reflect the "merry" part of May. One example of this was in the issue of May 15, 1915, when the editor noted that the minister at Burford Methodist church had become annoyed when his congregation persisted in turning from him whenever a late-arrival came in the back door.
This prompted him to say, "Mrs.....just arrived and she is wearing the same coat she wore last year."
Another indication of the local editor's May merriment appeared in the "Advance" of May 22, 1915, when he noted with humour the large number of chickens that were roaming Burford streets. His suggested remedy for this plague was for people to grab as many as possible and "pop them in the pot." Unfortunately, he did not have any solution for the large number of " loose" cows that frequented every vacant lot and most boulevards.
Before closing this article on the "merry month of May" , it might be interesting to note two different ways the month turned " young men's fancies" to thoughts of love. In ancient times, young men who could write penned silly verses to young ladies, but since many of these young ladies could not read or write, they had to ask the embarrassed parish priest to read and explain the verses to them. Locally, young men of this area did not express their " thoughts of love" with sloppy verses, but rather by discouraging rival suitors in the most practical (and disgraceful) manner. This was done with a well-placed "furious kick" during a football match. These ardour-destroying acts were mentioned frequently in area reporters' columns to the local paper. Such kicks would not be newsworthy in 1997 but, 100 years ago, they apparently were thought to have some comic value to everyone but the recipient. Opportunities for " furious kicks" were frequent for, in those days, every local community had a football team and matches were played every week. Not only was there considerable community pride but also, in some places, young men insisted that they had sole courting rights" to their area young ladies and would deal with invading " suitors" with considerable ferocity when they met them on the football field.
A more peaceful remembrance of May can be found in the flowers that were watered by the "April showers" , " the flowers that bloom in the spring tra-la-la", and the many other references to the floral beauty of the month. Locally, it marked a time in the lives of many pre-school children as the time when local "aunts" dusted off their _" capacious hand-bags" , loaded them with gum-drops, etc., and began to act as the unpaid babysitters who took children on hikes up the 7th Concession where various types of wild-flowers could be found. Most of the 7th concession west of Burford was uninhabited and, on the north side of the road, there were several nice dry places where children could play and gather flowers. Trilliums, dog-toothed violets, hypaticas and other exotic spring flowers were there in abundance and the "aunts", who were well-versed in "nature study", kept their little hikers informed as to the nature of the flowers and the colours, calls and activities of birds and little animals they might encounter.
In 1997, of course, such "unstructured" activity would be regarded with Freudian scorn and suspicion, but as one of dozens of Burford children who took part in " aunt" sponsored activities, I can say that they were always conducted with the utmost kindness and decorum. Indeed, these " aunts" provided the only break from constant toil that young mothers of the tune could experience.
One of these "aunts" is buried on the front row of the Burford Congregational cemetery and it is interesting to note during the year that little bunches of flowers will be put on her grave. Since she has no living relatives, one can only surmise that they are put there by someone who, as Lewis Carroll wrote in "Alice In Wonderland", still " keeps the remembrance of a happy summer's day." .
And so over the years, the month of May has brought many " increases" . They may not have been as exotic and erotic as the "increases" attributed to its namesake Maia, but have been the annual increase in warmth, light and growth-things unnoticed in this day of electronic wonder but nonetheless essential to life and the environment.