This story is part of our partnership with Maryboro Lodge The Fenelon Falls Museum and was written by Glenn Walker.
KAWARTHA LAKES-Gladys Suggitt lived a unique life. Born in Baddow on February 21, 1911, she grew up in a farming community in an era when there were clear gendered norms, Gladys would go on to operate her own farm. She had the unusual experience of doing the work of a man and a woman in a rural community and that alone was no small feat. She was very kind, generous and always the first one to help whenever she recognized that one of her neighbours was in need. Gladys also found the time to record everything that was going on around her. Roses and Thorns is a very authentic account of life in Baddow, based upon the lived experience of Gladys and her neighbours.
Gladys’ parents, Mary and William owned 300 acres of land at the end of a dead-end road, leading south from the Third Concession of Somerville Township. Between 1895 and 1907 with the building of the Trent Valley Canal system, Goose Lake (a small water body located beside the Burnt River, just above its outlet into Cameron Lake) was formed and more than 100 acres of land on this farm was drowned. At the time, the founding of the hamlet was just within living memory. In 1853, Elizabeth and George Eades (Gladys’ great-grandparents) had taken up farms in the Somerville bush. By the time Gladys was born, the community had a Methodist (later United) and Baptist Church, and a schoolhouse (SS#4 Somerville), but no stores or business community. Baddow was relatively close to both Rosedale and Coboconk. Gladys’ family were devout Baptists.
Gladys’ childhood was like many of her neighbours in this rural community, she had precious few toys and grew up knowing how to use her imagination as she and her siblings, Martha, Jennie, George, Charlotte (1898-1911), Joseph, Charles, Gordon, Melville and Gladys made their own fun. They all walked to the one-room school, around the corner on the third concession of Somerville. As Gladys later recounted in Roses and Thorns, the school did not have running water, so two students would head out to fetch a pail of water.
“Far from being a hardship, it was a privilege eagerly sought after, especially when some understanding teacher set a time during the work period for two pupils to be excused long enough to bring the daily pail of water. The trip through the little grove of sugar maples, across the board which formed a bridge over the gurgling, dancing stream, to the little sunken spring under the spreading arms of the big tree, and there to lean down and dip a pail of cold sparkling water, was never considered an irksome task.” In 1945 a 25-foot well was dug so then the students only had to go outside to fetch a pail of drinking water. Running water inside the building was installed after the building became the Community Centre.
At the school, as much as in each farm family’s home, they made do with what they had. Gladys recounted that one winter, the old worn-out stove at the school smoked enough “to keep everyone’s eyes burning,” and the trustees did not heed the teacher’s pleas to replace it:
“A group of children arrived at school one cold winter’s morning, ahead of the teacher, found more smoke than usual and decided it was time to do something about it. Posting some of the smaller children on the road to give a warning when the teacher was near, the older boys went to the woodshed and picked out the ‘smokiest’ stick they could find, put it in the stove and closed all the dampers, and opened the stove door. When warned the teacher was near, they opened the dampers, closed the stove door, opened the windows and the school door, and were unsuccessfully trying to get the smoke out when the teacher arrived. After twenty minutes of trying to clear the room, the children were sent home for the day, and the trustees were notified that they simply had to do something about that stove. It was with a feeling of satisfaction the pupils returned the next day to admire the new stove!”
As a child, Gladys recalled that the community had two notable trees, growing side by side—a “lofty elm” and a “stately sugar maple.” For many years, “each spring some enterprising boy would tap that maple, and boys and girls alike drank of its sweetness…. Underneath the maple’s shady branches, many a school lesson was taught on a sultry summer day. Children there learned the practical lesson that to misbehave was to be deprived of the special privilege of an outdoor lesson.”
It is quite likely that no one had an inkling that Gladys would one day become an author. As a primary school student, she recalled receiving a ‘C’ in grammar, and also had the misfortune to have her education cut short. At the time, few students had the privilege of completing secondary schooling, let alone university, but as Gladys was going into Grade 7 she was informed it would be her last year in school. Her older brother George’s wife, Nellie had tuberculosis and was ill for a very long period of time. Nellie was not able to care for her son Clifford, who moved in with his grandparents, William and Mary. Gladys was needed to help with the endless labours that went into the households getting by.
Since she only could attend school for one more year, she asked her teacher if she could try to complete both Grades 7 and 8. The teacher agreed to allow her to try, and told her; “If you don’t pass you’ll be the better for trying.” Gladys accepted the challenge and her education ended at the age of 12, as an Honours graduate of Baddow’s One-Room School.
As this pre-teen set out on her adult working life, Gladys knew she always had to be conscientious, just to make ends meet. “‘Waste not; want not,’ was a philosophy strictly adhered to, and children were taught early the important truth—‘Look after the pennies and the dollars will look after themselves.’ Nothing was wasted, each piece of paper was carefully kept for future use, and even small pieces of string were kept, as very little of it was available in the average home. Needles were limited and the supply was carefully guarded; girls sometimes sneaked needles out of the house to practice sewing. This same thrift was adhered to in all departments of pioneer life, especially in the saving and planting of seeds. The vegetable garden was of such vital importance in the life of the people, that this trait became almost an obsession; if anyone had a few extra seeds or plants they were never thrown away, but were given to a neighbour.” This careful outlook on life stuck with Gladys to the end of her days.
Gladys was eighteen years old, when a world away on Wall Street the New York Stock Exchange collapsed, ushering in the Great Depression. Being a farm family, the Suggitts lived off the fruits of their own labour, and they were better off than some urban families who could not find employment, but nevertheless, there were precious few luxuries. George had a farm of his own, and it was expected, that Melville would inherit William and Mary’s farm. But Melville fell in love with Rae Hellyer, and when the couple was married, rather than moving to his parents’ community, they stayed near her home in Kenilworth. Gladys was left with her parents on the family farm.
Farming families like the Suggitts would pray for good health. Their ability to work was essential to their livelihood. Her parents would not be among the fortunate few to enjoy good health to a ripe old age. The winter of 1943/44 was an especially difficult year. Mary had hepatitis, in November and was very ill most of the winter. Throughout this season, William suffered a series of strokes and had a severe stroke on Christmas Day. After that he could not do anything for himself and 24-hour a day care had to be available, so the family had to find a way to adjust. When William was first sick he held an auction sale and sold everything except two cows, a horse, a buggy and a cutter (the best cow sold for $40). He rented out the farm, but not the house to Hugh and Jennie (Suggitt—Gladys’ sister) Graham, while Gladys did her best to look after the home and raise turkeys. As Hugh was busy operating a dairy (later the Fenelon Dairy), over the winter, Gladys looked after his cows which were housed in her barn. Yet, as her parents’ health declined, Gladys was left doing ever more of the work around the farm.
Gladys talked to her father and explained that since she had stayed home and worked on the farm, she hoped to be able to go on living there. She felt that because she was the one doing the work, she might as well own the farm. Though it was customary for daughters to marry and move to their husband’s farm, William agreed to leave the farm to Gladys, but he would not announce his intention to do so until his will was read. Gladys inherited the family farm but had to find the money to pay off her siblings.
As Gladys set out on farming on her own, she worked in the context of a community that knew it could only get by through working together. When the Suggitts needed to process their turkeys, their neighbours were right there to help. At one memorable bee in 1943, the community plucked 85 turkeys—and because Mary was ill, they even brought dinner. Like most of her neighbours, Gladys could not afford to buy the machinery she needed to work the farm. So she made an arrangement to work together with her second cousin Fred and (his son) Maurice Watson on shares. Gladys bought a used Massy Harris tractor—it was among the very first in the community. No one in Baddow could afford a new tractor! The Watsons converted their horse-drawn machinery for tractor operation so they worked together. Gladys would cut and rake the hay, while Fred and Maurice would put it in the barn. She would also do custom work for other farmers to help earn a little extra income.
The tractor cost $1056—a large expense in those days. Gladys had $23, Fred chipped in $33, and Jim Fell lent Gladys the other $1000. Gladys would often say, there was just $5 per year to live on. Gladys worked hard and raised a cow that she planned to sell to pay for the tractor. But just as it was ready to go to market, it bloated and died. But Jim was forgiving and was willing to wait however long it took for Gladys to come up with the money. Between paying for the farm and the equipment she needed, Gladys would spend much of her adult life trying to pay off her debts. In 1953, she would trade the tractor in for a used Massey 30, and in 1955, she traded it in to acquire a new International 300.
Gladys loved to work outside, and when the neighbours came to visit, she would customarily be in farm working clothes—which was unusual for a woman. She took a particular interest in dairy cattle (her sister and brother-in-law owned the Fenelon Dairy). When she took over the farm, she had just two cows that she milked by hand. Around 1954, her brother Melville helped her put in a milking machine. She would use a cream separator to divide the produce, as the cream was sold and the milk was fed back to the calves, pigs and cats. She also produced eggs for sale.
As much as Gladys loved working with the animals, they appreciated her too. “I was over visiting when Ken was married,” Reta recalls. “Maurice was doing the chores so Gladys could attend the wedding and I went to the barn to help. Maurice said I could feed the calves so I tried. The calves were across the field eating grass and I was standing at the barn fence calling and rattling the milk pails. The calves kept eating the grass. Maurice came out to show me how it was done and he called and rattled the pails and the calves kept eating grass. Gladys arrived back to check on things while we were trying to decide what to do, called once and the calves came running.”
“In winter, the road was not plowed,” Kathy recounts. “So she would leave her car up at Maurice Watson’s farm. She would harness the horse, hitch up the sleigh, load up 30 dozen eggs and all her cream cans, and then transfer everything when she got to Maurice’s. Unhitching the horse, she would drive to Fenelon Falls, sell her milk at Murray Smith’s creamery, then the eggs next door at the egg grading station on the Island, do her shopping, and then head for home. At Maurice’s, she would have to harness the horse and hitch up the sleigh once again so she could finally return home… One spring it was six weeks of mud before she could drive down the road.”
Gladys was the only farmer at Baddow who kept her dairy cows in the era of milk quotas. In the 1960s, as everyone else shipped their cows, she made the investments that were needed to stay in the dairy business. “She figured it was a way she could make some money to help pay off her debts,” Kathy explains. She installed a big steel vat to store the milk so the milk marketing board would come to pick it up—though her sister was at the Fenelon Dairy, all milk had to go through the government agency. But once the milk quota was introduced, the marketing board would only pay for the allotted amount.
There was an expectation that the leftover milk would be dumped or fed to livestock, but having been raised on ‘Waste Not; Want Not’ Gladys could not bear to dump milk. “She always saved enough for the house, typically from the same cow. Kathy remembers that she could tell if Gladys brought in milk from a different cow.” While the calves got skim milk, there was always a little bit of whole milk for the house. Raw milk could be taken from the milk tank, and many of her neighbours would come, and put money into a jar, taking what they needed for their home. “When someone came for milk, they would have a good chat,” a time for neighbours to have a break from their daily toils and catch up on each other’s lives.
As much as Gladys enjoyed farm work, she also loved to bake. The recipes that she recorded Roses and Thorns for bread, entrees and desserts, reflect her own experiences, and those of neighbourhood women. Wonderful baked goods were one of the pleasures that practically every family could afford—something that they could make with what they had on hand. The recipes were often rich—they had their own cream and butter in abundance. It was also something that the community could share.
But even for Gladys, it was hard to keep on top of everything that went into managing a farm and a house at the same time. She tried to hire help for the farm. She asked her brother to interview two candidates for a hired man. As a result, she had a hired man who knew nothing about farming – after three days and three marriage proposals, she fired him. Over the next many months, Gladys realized that if she had to do the outside work, then she needed help inside the house. At about that time, she noticed an advertisement in the newspaper from a woman in Toronto looking for domestic work.
Lola Potter lived in Toronto and was looking to escape an unfortunate marriage. In those days, divorce was not an option, couples would just separate, and she had planned to live with her father. But he was injured at work and soon died, so she put an advertisement in the paper looking for work for the summer. Gladys answered the advertisement because she needed help, and soon Lola was on her way to Baddow to take over Gladys’ domestic work, bringing with her Bob, age 11 and Myrlene, age 9. “I assumed that when she found out she was pregnant again, she decided to leave Toronto,” Kathy explains.
Shortly after Lola arrived, Lola’s relatives learned that she was pregnant, “Aunt Bertie and Uncle Doc (Lola’s brother and sister) came to ask if Gladys wanted them to take Lola home to Toronto,” Reta explains. “Gladys said no, she wanted Lola to stay.” It came as a surprise to everybody, that Lola had twins, Ken and Kathy Potter at the Ross Memorial Hospital. Though Lola had come looking for a job for 4 months, she would stay for 40 years, as she and Gladys became the best of friends.
At the time that Ken and Kathy were born, a few of Gladys’ cows had previously had brucellosis, “so Ken and I were Carnation babies. Ken was a sickly baby, and they had us on Infantol. I don’t know what it all cost, but Gladys wanted to make sure that we were well looked after… They had no washing machine, so she often took the soiled diapers down to Jen Graham’s to clean. With Lola, she had the family she always wanted.”
As Gladys been taken out of school to work at the age of twelve, eleven-year-old Bob Potter was just at the age when he could start to be a lot of help around the farm. Right away, Bob was milking cows and helping out as best he could. Ken attended one day of Grade 10, then he too would work full time on the farm. Gladys, Lola and family worked well together, and they were all a lot better off helping each other out. Ken and Bob, would both inherit a farm from Gladys. Once the boys were big enough to look after the cows, Gladys would concentrate on the poultry.
Though Lola typically looked after the domestic work, Gladys continued to help out around the farm and in the house. She especially made a point of continuing to bake something whenever something was happening at Baddow Baptist Church. When the church closed to regular services the active members were: Gladys, Hugh and Jennie Graham (Gladys’ sister), and Jennie Cundill. Jennie Cundill played the organ and the minister was split with Immanuel Baptist Church, where he would preach in the morning, before the afternoon service in Baddow. For anniversaries services, each Baddow Church would go to attend the other. They would have a social event in the evening, and Lola often made a big spice cake. Gladys was remembered for her Puffed Rice Balls or Chocolate Goodies. The congregations would join together to play games like crokinole, on the old, dark Victorian Board, complete with a ring of nails around the centre—but definitely not cards!
To the end of her life, Gladys was a devout Baptist, and really was the person holding Baddow Baptist Church together. To Gladys religion was the most important part of life. As a young adult, she was very active in Young People’s, performing in skits and debating competitions region-wide. Gladys and Lola lived with Mary, who in her later years had a relatively solitary life in the living room. Mary often did not join the others for dinner unless extended family were there, but Gladys always made up a plate of food to take with a cup of hot water. Lola had a deck of cards, “so Kathy and Ken would sit in her room with the door closed and play,” Kathy recalls. “Gladys would play a few cards later in life but her mom could not see that!” Needless to say, when their friends and relatives came over, they would chat or play games like crokinole together, but there would definitely not be any dancing!
Gladys was one who truly did keep the Sabbath holy. Work was not done on Sunday unless it was absolutely necessary, like milking and feeding the cows. It was a day to sleep, read (farm magazines, local newspapers, and other practical publications) and visit. Gladys would often “go lie down after church,” Kathy says. “I would go and play with paper cutouts…. I did not know anyone in Baddow who drank when I was a kid,” Kathy says. “Somerville was a dry township.” There was no drinking or smoking in the home. The family often hoped that someone would make the journey down the dead-end road to visit them on Sunday. The gatherings customarily took place around the kitchen table.
Gladys and Lola did what they could to give the children a wonderful Christmas. Going to church was always an important part of the celebration. “We would go out in the woods and cut a tree,” Ken remarks, “that was in the kitchen.” At school, the kids would make some decorations, “but some of them were also boughten,” Kathy continues. “We always had our turkey for Christmas and a goose for New Year’s. Carrot pudding with sauce would be a Christmas dessert. Mom (Lola) would be up all night making cookies.” The presents were often scarce until Myrlene got her job down in the city. The local boys made a big skating rink at Cliff Suggitt’s to play hockey, anyone else was lucky to get a chance to skate on it.
Gladys took a deep interest in helping Lola raise her children—they were the family she didn’t have. Their teacher, Mary Halliday, had taught Gladys for one year. Mrs. Halliday went on to have a lengthy career after having a family, transferring to Burnt River after the Baddow school closed. Ken befriended Gladys’ nephew, Wayne Suggitt, and the two of them were lively students who kept Mrs Halliday on her toes. One day they showed up after eating leeks, which give off a very strong offensive odour just to get a rise out of her and “she said if you do that again you will be sent home,” Ken remembers. “We did it again the next day, but she didn’t follow through and send us home.” Kathy could only remember one student who received the strap, “and I can’t remember what for.”
In 1958, the Lakeview Women’s Institute sponsored an essay contest for the students of S.S. #4 Somerville and S.S. # 11 Verulam, on the history of their school. It was not a topic that the students could go to the library to learn about, they would have to learn from their families and neighbours. Gladys helped Kathy do the research for this Grade 6 project, and later wrote that she had “no intention of it becoming more than a hobby.” But whenever she had a little free time, after the farm chores were done, she would be up in her room working on the history, late into the night.
Of course, having been raised not to waste any paper, most of Roses & Thorns was compiled on the back of papers that came in with something else printed on the opposite side, written in small letters so there was a lot of information on each page. “She used any type of paper,” Kathy recalls. For school, Kathy wrote the original essay on the history of the school, and another on the history of their farm, which were just the sort of material that the Women’s Institutes throughout the district were compiling into Tweedsmuir Histories. As the years went on, Gladys talked to many seniors in the community, and went through all the old documents, like newspapers, that she could get her hands on. Her friend Janet Ellis edited the text and neighbour Edith Watson transcribed the “scrawly” hand-written manuscript on a typewriter. Edward White saw to it that it got published.
Roses and Thorns was published in 1972 and Gladys committed to donating half of the net proceeds to the Cystic Fibrosis Association, as her nephew, Clifford and his wife, Jean, had four children born with the disease, it was the least that she could do to help. Gladys always did everything she could to help her neighbours and relatives in need. Gladys was pleasantly surprised by the book’s success. It ended up being printed three times and is still much appreciated by local historians.
Jack and Mary Halliday kept sheep, and Gladys often made the trip over to her farm just north of Rosedale to buy the fleece. She would make a comforter or quilt for each of her adopted grandchildren. Just like her mother made quilts and/or quilt tops for all of her grandchildren. Just like her mother used to sit in the dark knitting, Gladys spent many evenings busy sewing to provide for her family. The Potters really looked forward to the trips to town. After selling her cream and eggs, she would often stop at Bernie Bell’s bakery and buy six loaves of bread wrapped in wax paper. “It was very convenient to buy a loaf of bread for 5 cents,” Kathy remarks. “The odd time she might buy a treat of Chelsea buns. Everything from Bell’s bakery was so good.” The kids felt spoiled as she brought them a treat like a chocolate bar or Mackintosh’s Toffee.
Myrlene Potter moved to Toronto, where she began working as an elevator operator. In those days, elevators had two doors. An outer solid door on each floor and an inner accordion-type open weave door. After closing the two doors, the operator would pull a lever to start the elevator’s ascent, and stop it in time to reach the appropriate floor. Myrlene would come back to visit with groceries from the city, including treats that were not available locally, like Laura Secord chocolates, “we had the idea that if you lived in the city you were rich,” her little sister Kathy observes. Later Myrlene and her partner would purchase property and start farming. Bob and Ken Potter worked together with Gladys to build and improve the farm and inherited the property upon her death. Kathy Potter married a farmer.
Gladys loved to take her family out for a walk in the woods. When the Mayflowers came out each spring, she eagerly went out to pick a bouquet to take to church. “She knew when the lady slippers were out and where they would grow,” Kathy recalls. Ken remembers that she would venture out looking at them, even if it meant getting poison ivy…. One of the last things that I did with her was to go to the back of Clifford’s so we could pick some lady slippers for her.” After a lengthy battle with cancer, Gladys died unexpectedly on June 28, 1987 at age 76 and was buried at Baddow Baptist Church.
To the end, Gladys loved spending time with her family, and she loved farming. She was working on a new book, that she was going to call The Romance of Farming, which would have told much more about Gladys’ and her neighbours’ experiences making a living at Baddow. As it was, the account she did leave behind was a special contribution to her community. Reta explains, “she knew the history because she lived most of it.” As Gladys was out there, milking cows, cultivating the land, baking bread, and caring for her friends and family, she had the experience of living the life of a man and a woman.
A Gathering with Gladys Suggitt:
Back: Jen Stevens, Stan Graham, Helen McIntosh, Mrs. Gynn, Lee Begg, Miss Roper, Irma Gynn, Catherine Townley, ?, Mrs White, Della Stewart, ?, Mrs. Gerrard, Miss Roper, Jno Graham?
Front: Gladys Suggitt, Jack Cameron, Mrs. RJ. Junkin, Arnie Junkin, Pearl Cameron.
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