Monday, March 25, 2013

"Sanctuary Line" by Jane Urquhart

"Oh those ancestors, with their long shadows and their long stories."  This sentence from Jane Urquhart's novel "Sanctuary Line" is a fitting refrain for the maternal side of our family tree, a line populated with proud figures and coloured with dramatic narrative.  Urquhart's story of the Butler family, set in the fruit belt of Southwestern Ontario, is chock-full of characters, imagery and events that seem so familiar they might be excerpts from my own ancestral saga.

"Sanctuary Line" charts the wave of Irish immigrants who took up land grants in Upper Canada along the north shore of Lake Erie in the early 1800s.  Many had already landed and farmed on the American side of the lake, but moved across the water to Canada as Loyalists.  The area surrounding Chatham, Ontario was blessed with fertile soil and a moderate climate that allowed the early settlers to plant orchards and cultivate fields of tomatoes, strawberries and tobacco. Over the years, fruit farmers prospered and passed their land, substantial houses and a gentile rural lifestyle on to their descendants.

Urquhart's story unfolds in the words of a present day entomologist Liz Crane who is studying the migration of Monarch butterflies at Sanctuary Research Centre. Living in the family farmhouse in Essex County, surrounded by memories and mementos of the "great-greats", Liz reflects on childhood summers spent with her cousin Mandy.  She mourns a triple loss - Mandy's death in military conflict in Afghanistan, the accidental death of a teenage boy who had been her first love and the demise of the Butler apple orchard.  The plot begins to blossom with the introduction of Liz's charismatic uncle, Stanley Butler.

" My uncle was a dynamic man, an experimenter, a risk-taker, always pulling the new into a traditional world, wanting to be the first to grow an exotic crop, use innovative equipment, employ the science of chemical farming, build new structures.... He who came of age in this county when the second growth of trees was entering its lush maturity, and the pastures, fields, flocks, and herds were fed and cared for, and the children educated and inoculated, might have spent his days watching everything he admired grow old and irrelevant around him had his vibrancy not caused him to lean toward change."


James Charles (J.C.) McGuigan
My own great-great uncle, James Charles McGuigan (1871-1940) was a similar type with a similar inheritance - an established farm in Cedar Springs, Ontario near the shore of Lake Erie. He devoted his life to improving yield and expanding the McGuigan agricultural empire.   A profile posted on the Chatham-Kent Heritage website describes some of his projects.

"He tried out new varieties of plums, cherries, apples and grapes; and peaches that were, according to family tradition, brought back from Kentucky by his uncle.  
Mr. McGuigan bought 300 acres of cattails and marshland when the Burke drainage scheme opened the Erieau marshes to agricultural production.  Seventy-five Harwich Township acres acquired in the early 1920s were planted with apples to supply the British market, under the Stirling brand name."

 In Urquhart's book, the Butlers have developed varieties of fruit that bear the family name and are a source of great pride, even after the heirloom trees have been ripped out and replaced with McIntosh.

"Varieties of apples were identified  by the Old World locations they'd come from or, now and then, the New World spots where they were first grown:  St. Lawrence, Northern Spy, Hubbardston Nonesuch, King of Tompkins County, or the famous Butler Light, named for the lighthouse-keeping side of our own family."
Ontario peaches

During the 1930s, great-great Uncle J.C. developed the McGuigan peach, a variety that was patented and became a favourite for canning.  Like the Butler clan, my own family (mother, grand-mother and great-grandmother) loved to recount the story of this achievement, usually while slicing fruit to fill a pie or add to a batch of jam. Other sources of pride that fleshed out McGuigan tales included a matched team of Belgian horses awarded ribbons at the Royal Winter Fair and the construction of a handsome fieldstone Arts and Crafts style house in Cedar Springs. The house, now a Harwich Twp. Designated Heritage Property, is still in the McGuigan family.

Fieldstones are an enduring family marker in "Sanctuary Line" as well.

"The first harvest every year is boulders," was the news they passed down to us, their lazy descendants.  My uncle repeated this statement often, though there was little enough ploughing in his life.  In the end, he told us, many of the fieldstones had gone into the building of this capacious farmhouse that has stood in its place, firm and strong, since the middle of the prosperous nineteenth century when it was built."

The solid Butler house is a durable symbol that contrasts rows of bunkhouses where the crew of migratory Mexican labourers stayed during the harvest season.  Though central to the plot, the workers are always in the background, occupying a space physically and psychologically removed from the action and intrigue of the Butler family. Temporary hired hands were as transitory as the Monarch butterflies that Liz studies.

"Always in the orchards and fields, clothed in various shades of cotton like a multicoloured crop, their movements were as dependable and overlooked as the dance of vegetation under the touch of an indifferent wind.  What had they been thinking?  What secret pleasures or sorrows did they keep close to their hearts as they bent down to the ground or reached up to the branch, over and over, filling the waiting baskets? They did all this through the long summer days, while we ran, or swam or read, or hung our doll clothes out to dry."

Japanese workers on the McGuigan farm, 1943
(Virgil McGuigan, back right)
- photo from Nikkei Museum, Yamaura collection

The next generation orchardist, Virgil Gladstone (V.G.) McGuigan - eldest son of J.C.- headed the farm during World War II years.   In 1943, when harvest time arrived and labour was scarce, he hired a crew of Japanese workers who, under a Canadian government relocation plan, were moved to Ontario from B.C. internment camps.   The 1,000 acre experimental farm became a testing ground for chemical weed killers.  Workers picked, sorted and packed fruit and vegetables and sprayed herbicides on the fields.  Crops included apples, peaches, cherries, plums, strawberries, onions, corn, carrots, tomatoes and tobacco.  The Japanese workers remained on the McGuigan farm for six years before returning to B.C.  They were never welcomed into the community or encouraged to stay;  in 1944 Chatham-Kent municipal council passed a ruling that prohibited Japanese labourers from settling in the area.

David Yamaura driving a tractor on the McGuigan farm, 1944
-photo from Nikkei Museum, Yamaura collection
During the course of researching our pedigree, I stumbled upon a crack in the firm foundation of the Mcguigan great-greats' background.  My great-great grandfather Charles Lockhead McGuigan (1838-1907, father of J.C.) was adopted by William Robert McGuigan around 1840.  He was the child of Molly Miller, a Scottish immigrant who married William and gave birth to his five sons and two daughters. Charles' lineage, assumed to be from a long-lost Lockhead, has never been traced or fully explained, though census records indicate that he was born in Ontario about 1838 and that his birth father was Scottish, not Irish.  The adoption meant that Molly's son Charles was raised as a proud McGuigan, a grafted branch of the tree that grew, thrived and eventually inherited the home farm.  The family rift  -present today, even after so many generations, so many harvests - developed among his half-siblings who considered the McGuigan land their birthright.  The shadows and stories continue to lengthen.

The Butler family has its own dark undercurrent that threatens the stability of their legacy. I won't give away the details of the crisis - suffice it to say that Uncle Stanley's transgression leads to a tragic incident with long-lasting consequences.  Liz sums up the family's demise in a way that allows room for the unexplained.

"When I was in graduate school and was first told about the tagging of the monarchs, I considered the whole notion of fixing adhesive to something as fragile as a butterfly's wing to be barbarous.  But now I myself am a tagger, a labeller, one who is driven to track down the last mysterious fact until there is no mystery left.  Yet I cannot explain how something as real and as settled as my uncle's world - which was also our world - could shatter in one night.  And while I might partly understand why he vanished, it is not possible for me to determine where he has gone."

Urquhart's novel "Sanctuary Line" is full of longing, not just for the revival of a glorious past, but for clarity, understanding and acceptance of the present.  By the end of the last chapter, I can almost taste those ripe, juicy McGuigan peaches.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Octagon House

Heritage Week in Sackville NB  heralded the official opening of the Octagon House, a historic building recently re-located to Queen's Road.  The small, eight-sided house was built in 1855 by mariner and shipbuilder, Captain George Anderson.  It is a classic example of a non-conformist trend that developed in North American domestic architecture during the Victorian era.

Octagon House
 Octagonal architecture was actively promoted by social reformer Orson Squire Fowler, author of the book "The Octagon House: A Home for All"  first published in 1848.    Fowler popularized the idea that anyone could be a creative amateur architect using the octagon shape to maximize space and keep construction costs low.  The octagonal building plan does have distinct advantages over a square or rectangular one - it encloses 20% of additional floor space within the same perimeter, avoids the dead zones created by hallways and right angle corners, is easier to heat and cool, and affords a 360 degree view of surrounding land.  The polygonal exterior shape allows air to flow smoothly around the structure without battering, a definite plus in coastal areas where storms are frequent and gale force winds brutal.

Fowler's assertion that the octagonal house had health benefits for its occupants was based on claims of superior ventilation and heating systems and an abundance of natural light. He often assumed the tone of an evangelical preacher in his writing as he extolled the merits of the octagon.

"Please reader, reflect on the importance as a means of health and luxury, especially to the cold-blooded persons, of warm floors and feet in winter..."

Central cupola illuminates the interior
Shapes and contours were vitally important to Fowler, who was a practitioner of phrenology, the analysis of character based on the topography of the cranium.  This pseudo-science involved examining the head of a subject and charting the hills and valleys of the skull to indicate strengths and weaknesses.  Fowler was an itinerant phrenologist by trade, a huckster who traveled from town to town performing readings for 25 cents a head.

It is interesting to note that Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) had a personal reading done but was not a satisfied customer according to the essay he wrote about the experience.  He was, however, an enthusiastic fan of octagonal architecture.  Many chapters of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" were written in an octagonal writing shed built in 1874 in Elmira, N.Y.   The unique design seemed to lend inspiration to Twain's creative pursuits.

"It is the loveliest study you ever saw...octagonal with a peaked roof, each face filled with a spacious window...perched in complete isolation on the top of an elevation that commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant blue hills.  It is a cozy nest and just room in it for a sofa, table, and three or four chairs, and when the storms sweep down the remote valley and the lightning flashes behind the hills beyond and the rain beats upon the roof over my head - imagine the luxury of it."                - Mark Twain in a letter to William Dean Howells, 1874



Mark Twain's writing studio

Fowler's avid promotion of the octagon resulted in some 4,000 North American homes being constructed with eight-sided plans between 1848 and 1865. It seems to me that the concept of the octagon house may have grown from Asian roots,as it conforms to the Bagua energy map used by Feng Shui masters.  (I have no evidence for this theory, but perhaps Fowler was familiar with octagonal Buddhist temples and the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment.)


As we sat in the upper floor meeting room of the Captain Anderson house waiting for visiting dignitaries to unveil a commemorative plaque, Robert recalled his own octagonal building project, a cottage he designed and built in West Cove, Alberta.  (This was before my time, during his first marriage.)  He knew nothing about Fowler, or the principles of Feng Shui, but wanted a stylish cottage that was different from the other ones on the lake.  His plan included a roof with cupola, a central fireplace, a wrap-around porch and large windows on all sides - in other words, a decidedly Fowleresque holiday house.  The cottage exuded good karma and its open living room became a favourite place for neighbours to congregate.

Octagonal cottage, West Cove, AB

"Space and light and order.  Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep."                                                                                  - Le Corbusier