Lanark County Kid: Growing up on the Third Line in the ’60s and ’70s

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Article written by:   Desmond Devoy,  Reporter   –       ‘EMC’ ,       

”The Perth Courier’ ,    Aug 04, 2012 

Looking down on Laurier Avenue from her downtown Ottawa condo, it’s still easier, and quicker, than you may think for Arlene Stafford-Wilson to get back to the Third Line in Tay Valley Township.

“One of the ways I connect with it is by writing about it,” said Stafford-Wilson about her new book, Lanark County Kid: My Travels Up and Down the Third Line which took about a year to write.

The collection of memories was inspired by a cookbook based on her mother’s recipes.

“We wanted to preserve our mother’s baking. She’d been entering her recipes for years at the Perth fair,” said Stafford-Wilson. “People were asking me and saying ‘When are you going to put out the next one?’” she said.

Her brother was also an inspiration for writing about an era that may not have been that long ago, but may seem like another galaxy to younger readers.

“My oldest brother, he craves local history and I try to buy him a local history book for his birthday,” said Stafford-Wilson. “But there were slim pickings for where we were.”

Even after the book was published, a recent visit to Balderson reminded her just how much things have changed from the not-too-distant past.

“They didn’t even have curd any more,” she said of her trip to the Balderson cheese facility. “That was the main reason I used to come with my dad… but it’s not the way it was.”

And while cheese is a nice snack, Stafford-Wilson’s father also knew a learning opportunity when he saw it.

“Our dad used to be able to get us in there for a tour,” she recalled, and she would delight in seeing the curd curdling and bubbling “in several different vats.”

“They used to dump the whey out on the pavement,” she added of her trips to the old factory. “I just couldn’t believe the change in the factory. It’s not even a factory any more.”

Her love of writing came early, around the age of 10, when she also took up an interest in genealogy, when she would overhear stories of her family history.
“I would write stories and poetry,” she said. 

In the intervening years she married her two passions by completing a 400-page tome on the history of the Stafford clan going back to their roots in Ireland, though this was intended for internal family consumption only.

Growing up, she would often eavesdrop on the conversations the adults were having, never realizing at the time that it would become fodder for a book she was to write when she was older.

“I love to hear the old farmers tell their tales,” she said. “They’d stop and talk about the prices,” and the weather. Especially the weather.

“That’s all they’d talk about,” she said. “Your whole family life depended on that, whether it would be dry or not in the summer… wanting it to rain or not wanting it not to rain.”

The book has also proved to be a boon for her son, to help him discover more about his family’s history.

“A couple of the discussions we’ve had is how conservative-minded people were back then,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of people from other places.”

Technology has changed so much since the 1960s and 70s, that it is affecting human relationships.

“These kids are so plugged in,” she said. “I don’t know what they would do if they couldn’t answer the phone.”

And when she was a teenager, odd though it may seem to today’s youth, when the phone rang, she would not rush to pick it up.

“You would never assume that the phone was available,” she said.

In her day, there were 28 families on the one party line, and each family had its own series of short and long rings so they knew for whom the phone tolled.

If you needed the phone, picked it up, and heard a conversation in progress, you simply put down the phone, then, “you’d go back and check an hour later” to see if the line was free.

“I don’t see the kids writing poems or stories any more. It’s texting and trivia,” said Stafford-Wilson. “We’re losing the art of storytelling.”

Growing up, she remembers that the children would clean up after dinner, then the family would gather around for a card game or two, followed by father telling some stories of the “notorious” Stumble Inn, where fiddle and harmonica music would fill the air into the night, where there was plenty of whiskey and the men would try to outdo each other with ghost stories. 

“We probably got more out of that than sitting in front of the television or texting,” said Stafford-Wilson.

It also wasn’t unusual to sing or play musical instruments for the enjoyment of your whole family.

“It was more of a thing you did out of joy, than for being on American Idol,” she said. “(Now) you can’t even get people to have dinner together.”

As a child she had to be home by dark, which was great in the summertime, but could mean as early as 3:45 p.m. in the winter.

“We had no helmets or knee pads,” she said of her outdoor activities which might seem like they were dangerous and unsupervised to today’s helicopter parents. “We played on the train tracks, jumped into Christie Lake. Our parents didn’t know where we were all day.”

But that was not so much of a problem when you knew everyone on your road.

“It’s very overprotected these days,” she said. “The parents are paranoid to protect their child. My son (now 26) has grown up in downtown Ottawa so he has a very different view of life. He wouldn’t know anyone walking down the sidewalk.”

Growing up, it was odd if you didn’t know someone you passed by on the street.

“Everybody was honking or waving at you,” she said, because everyone knew you from church or school or the neighbourhood.

If suppertime came around and you were at a friend’s house, Ms. Munro or Ms. Jordan would welcome you to stay for dinner – and, being on the farm, the food was always good.

“There were a lot of sweets eaten, but there were a lot of calories burned up,” recalled Stafford-Wilson.

While her son was growing up, she lamented that she could not even celebrate Halloween like she had done as a child in Lanark County, having to check for razors or pins in her son’s sugary haul.

In her day, she remembers homemade fudge or popcorn balls being handed out at houses, as well as caramel apples.

“If that’s Ms. Radford’s house, you know we will get fudge,” she said of the Halloween circuit she and her friends would take from Dewitt’s Corners to Glen Tay. “It’s sad that he (my son) could never have a Halloween like that.”

Anyone expecting a roman a clef version of Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place (1956) or Margaret Laurence’s ode to the fictional Madawaska, Manitoba, The Stone Angel (1964) will be disappointed. Picture, instead, an even more sedate version of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912).

“It’s nice to read a book with no sex and no swearing in it,” said Stafford-Wilson.

Even if she had used a cuss word or two, even from beyond the grave, she knows her mother would not approve.

“My mother used to have a cuss box,” with the going rate of a dime for each expletive.

“A dime, that really cut into your quarter,” allowance, she said. “We swore very quietly or carefully. Everything is so sensationalized now.” 

The book is now available from Mill Street Books in Almonte.

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