Barrie bids goodbye to the last of the Rowe girls

Dora Rowe Hook was buried on Wednesday. She died last Saturday, hours after playing bridge with her friends at Woods Park. Her sister, Lucretia Rowe, died December 17, 2003 ( Ernestine, the baby Rowe girl, died early at age 62, December 11, 1976.

This is their story…

Good-bye, My Love

Dr. Little cradled tiny Ernestine Rowe and placed her in the willing arms of her mother. The third daughter in five years, this little baby was to be the joy in Edythe Rowe’s life. Alf Little looked over to papa, Sylvester, and took in his wan face, a look of fatigue not just from awaiting news of the birth of his newest daughter. Something was wrong.

“Why not drop by and see me next week,” Alf said to the young father, suggesting he come to his office on Maple Avenue after his stint at the Foundry which was located at the corner of Bayfield and Ross streets one evening. Secretly, Dr. Little feared the worst.

Six months later, as Sylvester Rowe lay in the family bed, baby Ernestine was in her bassinet next door and toddler Dora and her “big” sister Lucretia stretched up to look at their papa. The Anglican rector who had christened Ernestine, and Nurse Gray stood by, along with Edythe and her two older daughters. Hours later Sylvester was dead.

“I remember kissing father goodbye. Someone lifted Dora up so she could kiss him, too.” While Lucretia understood something severe was happening, the fullness of this family disaster couldn’t possibly be known. “I remember all the soft talking, the seriousness of faces, but I didn’t really understand what was happening.”

“After papa died, my grandmother Coles came to take us to the farm. Aunt Connie was there, and grandfather was lying in bed with scarlet fever. I remember standing at the window, looking out at the road to Shanty Bay and up the street towards our house on Blake Street. Then I turned to grandfather and said, ‘I guess you’ll have to be our father now.’ ”

Sylvester Rowe was laid out in a coffin built by Charlie Smith, the town undertaker, in the family parlour at 203 Blake Street, a tiny cottage bought by victory bonds when Edythe’s brother Ernest Coles was killed in 1915. A tremendous gift for this growing family, this final gift from young Ernest to his sister, the house became a refuge for the Rowe girls–Lucretia, Dora and baby Ernestine and their young mother, widowed after six years of marriage. It was decided virtually immediately to adopt out the middle daughter, Dora. Lucretia as the oldest (at five) would be a bigger help to her mother, and baby Ernestine was not yet weaned.

But nobody reckoned on the determination of Edythe Rowe. She and her daughters would stay together. Nobody would be adopted anywhere.

At 28, Edythe Coles Rowe had her hands full. It was winter, 1916–the first world war was having a tremendous impact on Canada, particularly on Barrie. Without a wage earner in an era when families and neighbours took care of each other’s practical and social needs, Edythe had little time to officially mourn the diabetes which took her husband’s life. She had three little girls to care for and nothing in the way of professional education. Earning money and paying bills became her chief activity. A persisting ear-ache represented a medical bill. A school book represented precious coins paid out. Edythe kept her family together with an iron will, and yet her daughter remembers her mother crying only once.

The young family couldn’t possibly know the disaster yet ahead of them, but day-to-day living was challenge enough.

Edythe Cole Rowe’s long black skirts bustled around her ankles as she assumed the daunting task of earning money. Her ability at the piano and organ took her to First Baptist Church, at the corner of Worsley and Clapperton streets. Three times a week she walked from her Blake Street home to the church to conduct choir practice, to prepare her music and to play for Sunday services, one in the morning and another at night. Her stipend for this work was $3 a week. On Sundays, while she lead the music at the Baptist Church, her own young daughters attended services at Trinity Anglican, services that occurred both morning and evening. And rather than walk the distance back to their Blake Street cottage, Lucretia, Dora and Erma would spend the afternoon with their Great Grandmother Hubbert and great aunt at 13 Kempenfelt Dr, visiting with them before returning for Sunday School again at 2:30 pm. Often Margaret Sinclair would have them for lunch at her home across from the Baptist Church to save the walk and give the young family time together.

On weekdays, Edythe gave piano lessons to music students in Allandale. With Erma in the stroller, Dora standing on the bar at the back and Lucretia walking along side, the trips to Allandale meant bumping along Bradford Street to the homes of the Jay’s, the Hagan’s, the Hadden’s and the Ellis’s. The same entourage made its way periodically to Barrie Union Cemetery to visit Sylvester’s grave. Lucretia remembers these walks without murmur of objection, though she expresses gratitude for a frequent horse and buggy ride home.

Edythe used her fanciwork skills to embroider bridge sets for the ladies of leisure in her community. She was reknown for her skill with crochet and tatting hooks and used it to practical advantage. Matronly, white-haired Fanny Craig hired her to crochet lace by the yard for which she was paid 15 cents a yard. The lace was wound onto a spool and sold to customers at Fanny Craigs dry goods shop on Collier and Bayfield streets. “Mother’s crochet needle would be weaving its magic far into the night, the oil lamp burning at her side.”

“Scritch! Scritch! Scritch! I’d hear the sound of her hoe when it was still black outside. Mother would be hoeing vegetables in our garden out back. The garden yielded our year’s food supply,” remembers Lucretia. “Our root cellar was cool and held pickled beans, carrots, root crops, jams, preserves, tomatoes. I can still see the shelves of canned fruit, corn, beans, chili sauce and pickles. We’d float eggs in a waterglass to preserve them for winter baking. We bought a powdery substance called Silicate of Sodium at Crosslands Drug store, adding it to the 5 gallon crock of water. The white, slimy substance preserved the eggs for all winter; we’d use them for baking,” remembers Lucretia.

Raspberry canes bordered the garden and the Rowe girls helped out with tasks suitable to their ages. “I preferred to wax floors and polish taps and silver,” remembers Lucretia. On Monday washdays, all the children were involved as Mrs. Rowe’s home-made soft laundry soap was added to the boiling pot and clothes were scrubbed and hung with regularity.

“Lucky for us, my grandfather’s farm was close by. It was a big dairy and beef farm and there was lots of work, so we were there with Aunt Connie and grandmother, doing chores, sterilizing the milk bottles and pouring the unpasteurized milk in by hand to go out on the milk wagon at 6 am. When the milk wagon and horse returned, we’d wash and sterilize the bottles again.”

George Coles’ farm was one of the town’s main beef operations. As well as raising beef cattle, the farm also boasted a successful dairy operation and the usual array of chickens, pigs, and crops. The sloping land which rose from Shanty Bay Road up from the lake and past Blake Street was a challenge to cultivate and George Coles counted on his entire brood of children to help out. While the slope of the land presented a farming challenge, the proximity to the lake was a welcome boon for watering cattle. Lucretia and Dora and later little Ernestine (Erma, as her sisters called her) were expected to drive the cattle down past the iron bridge to drink from Lake Simcoe and back home again. Today, at the turn of the century, members of the Barrie Yacht Club enjoy the same shoreline below a similar bridge.

The George Coles farm was a wonder in the post-war days. Surrounding the homestead were incredible gardens and the scent of mock orange, lilacs, peonies, bleeding hearts and bright red geranium beds gave a setting for banks of sweet peas which towered over the fence bordering Shanty Bay Road. Dutchman’s Pipe vine provided shade and privacy on the front porch and yet lured the eye to its sheer beauty.

Behind the house were a workshed, an ice house, a smoke house for curing beef, and a root cellar which Lucretia remembers with awe. “Barrels of apples picked from the orchard, potatoes grown in the fields, cases of peas and corn and salmon. And six weeks prior to Christmas there would be a large wooden bucket containing a forty-pound roast beef being spiced for readiness for supper on Christmas Day, as well as a huge turkey and a goose, resting on a platter and carved at the head of the table by the Breadwinner.”

The Coles meat stall was a mainstay at the Barrie market and offered not only excellent beef, but rolls of butter, baskets of eggs and rounds of cheese. When Sarah Hubbert married George Coles in 1883, she brought a number of culinary talents to the marriage which ended up benefitting all her customers at the Barrie market.

On Saturdays, while George and Sarah Coles and any number of their children, Ernest, Edythe, George, Constance, Elliott, Horace, and Mildred would be working at the Coles Beef Stall while the three Rowe granddaughters would be rolling down mounds of hay nearby, or watching the boys chase after the ice wagon as it pulled into market to provide refrigeration for each stall.

While their grandparents were the mainstay of help to this little family, many, many kindnesses were handed out. A hamper of vegetables was left periodically at the door of 203 Blake Street, given by the Justice family. A load of wood would arrive anonymously at the home and church members would bring their saws to cut into shorter logs. Thereafter, Dora and Lucretia would split a prescribed number of blocks each day.

“Grandfather made sure we had a ready supply of meat and cheese and mother made our clothes and insisted on our table manners.”

“She had a marvellous attitude, my mother. She said often, ‘if you can’t change your situation, then adjust to it.’ I only ever heard her say once, ‘I’m going out to chop my head off!’ ”