One sunny afternoon, back in June, my husband and I took a car trip from our home near Hudson, Quebec to Richmond, in the Eastern Townships.
Nothing new: we drive to Richmond at least once a year to pay our respects to my husband’s dearly departed laid to rest in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian cemetery up on the hill, the place with the view pictured on the old orange Canadian two dollar bill.
This year, though, we tried something different.
We attempted to follow the same route my husband’s great aunt Edith took EXACTLY 100 years before, which she enthusiastically described in an June, 1911 letter to her father.
"As you will see by the address, I am in Montreal. I came in with Dr. and Mrs. Skinner (next door neighbours) in the motor Friday. Left home at 10 am and got to Waterloo at 12.30. Had dinner. Saw all we could of the town and left at 2pm for Montreal. Got here at quarter past six. Without one break down. It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed every minute of it.
I will name the places we passed through so you will know the country we passed through. Melbourne, Flodden, Racine, Sawyerville, Warden, Waterloo, Granby, Abbotsford, St Caesar, Rougemont, Marieville, Chambly, Longueil, St. Lambert, Pointe St Charles.
Don't you think I was a very fortunate girl to have such a trip?..PS I just loved driving on the smooth roads in the city."
So I plotted the route out on Google Maps and my husband programmed the same route into his trusty GPS, and off we went, in our comfy Malibu and comfier modern stretchy clothing. But still, this was going to be a HISTORY lesson. I was determined.
I think it’s been decades since I took the Victoria (Jubilee) Bridge and I found it kind of scary, noisy and rickety-looking and all rusted to boot. But to get onto that venerable span (inaugurated in 1860 by the future King Edward VII who lent his name to the era that birthed the motorcar) we had to pass through remnants of industrial Montreal near the Lachine Canal and for that I was grateful. It got me into a Laurier Era mindset.
But within a few minutes the GPS landed us in bustling, box-store-pocked St. Hubert (right in front of, UGH, a HOOTERS).
So, after a short, heated ‘argument’ over how to proceed, we decided to forget the GPS and follow the silver church spires. Because they would be in the towns, right? The strategy worked, for a time. For instance, we saw a slew of charming waterfront heritage homes in old Chambly.
You know the song, “You take the high road and I’ll take the low road?” Well, after Chambly we had trouble telling which is which. So we just drove East on any road that wasn’t a superhighway.
Downer! Not much of a history lesson at all! The most interesting part of the drive was near the end, where we drove by FLODDEN (a field?) where my husband’s people, the Isle of Lewis Nicholsons, settled after landing in Quebec in 1851.
And where we passed a sign for Kingsbury, where my husband’s other people, the Isle of Lewis McLeod’s, settled in 1848.
Even in 1911, these farming villages weren’t exactly bustling metropoli. They were losing all their young citizens to the towns, which, in turn, were losing many of their youth to the Big City or the West.
That’s why I have so many letters from the 1910 era – and due to the favourable date, the automobile figures largely in all these letters. You see, 1910 is when many middle class men, especially in the towns, decided they couldn’t live without a motorcar.
In an April 1909 letter, Margaret Macleod Nicholson, my husband’s great grandmother, remarks that her neighbour on the other side is going to buy a car.
“Mr. Montgomery is going to buy an auto. Nothing will satisfy now. He is going to sell his horse. Mrs. Montgomery does not want to buy one. Too bad he is so foolish, don’t you think?
How strange, how restless men are. I suppose at one time he would think, if he only had a house in Richmond and could live comfortable, he would be happy (SIC).
Poor man, putting himself and everyone else in danger. I would have lots of money before I would want an auto.”
But soon Margaret learns that neighbours who have autos, or motors, or motorcars, are very useful, especially to take her down to the mail in rainy weather.
Margaret misses her husband and 3 grown children, who are all far away working and she longs for daily news of them.
Later in the summer of 1910, Margaret loses her vehicular virginity. Edith refers to it in a letter. “I can just see you sitting in state waiting for your first ever car ride!” No mention of who is taking her but it might very well be good family friend Mr. Wales.
The Richmond County Historical Society, in their book The Tread of Pioneers claims that Mr. Wales, the town tycoon, was the first to own an automobile in the era, obviously sometime before 1909.
But by 1911, the Delineator Magazine was slyly proclaiming “There are only two social classes these days, people who own an auto and people who do not.”
A linen duster coat, the magazine said, was now an essential piece of female apparel. An advertisement in the Richmond Times of 1911 reveals that the Wales general store sold motor suiting for coats and skirts in helio and navy stripe.
Car rides were a definite form of entertainment in the late Laurier era, for all the Nicholson women – and for most of the upper-middle class. In 1910, Technical World Magazine declared the automobile “Our Billion Dollar Toy.”
Theatre owners blamed the auto for declining attendance.
The speed limit in Quebec, in the country, was 14 miles an hour, so I can imagine how much fun Edith had in the back seat of, say, a Daimler, flying up and down the picturesque green hills of Quebec’s Eastern Townships, holding onto her big BIG hat. Despite her tight corset. Despite the bumpy roads. Weeeee.
And imagine is all I can do, really, because I’ve discovered, you can’t go back. Blame it on spandex and independent front suspension.
Dorothy Nixon is a Vaudreuil-Dorion writer. Her latest word is Threshold Girl, www.tighsolas.ca/page10.pdf.pdf