Marianne - Author and Historian

Stories by Marianne Van Osch


The Bird Window


In later years Simon would say that one of his earliest memories was of chickadees. Chickadees and his mother’s bird feeder. In late spring of the year Simon turned three, she built the feeder from a small table they had found in the share shed. She sawed the legs shorter, nailed posts on each corner, and added pieces of metal for a roof.

Simon’s mother would say, “When you have a bird feeder you will always have friends who come to visit.”

Simon and his mother put sunflower seeds in the feeder for some birds, and sprinkled cracked corn on the ground for juncos and other birds that liked to walk about under the spruce tree.

Many kinds of birds came and went to the feeder and the lawn nearby, and to scratch about in the flowerbed, tilling the soil with their feet in their search for insects and worms.

But it was the chickadees that would flitter along behind Simon to the feeder, chirping thank you Simon, thank you Simon. He was sure of that. It was a much different chirp than their usual songs and calls. And they would hop close to his hand in the feeder.

Through the years, Simon and his mother collected things that are important to those who love birds. They both had binoculars, hers were old and pebbly-skinned, his, smaller and smooth, a present for his sixth birthday to replace his toy binoculars.

For his ninth birthday this past June, his parents had given him his own Sibley’s bird book and a canvas shoulder bag. The bag was much like the one he had often seen a bird watcher wearing at the marsh in town, when he and his mother had walked there. He put his binoculars, the bird book, a notebook and a pencil into the bag.

But all through that strange summer, when everything was weird, “surreal” his mom had said, all through the ash-thick smoke and confusion and a new word, “evacuation” that sent them all over the place, Simon never had the chance to carry the important bag or to make lists and notes in the notebook.

What about our birds, Simon worried, over and over as he found himself and his family in unfamiliar places far from home. Could they get away from a fire; how fast could they fly; where would they go; would they all be gone? It was a quiet anxiety that Simon kept to himself.

When the rain finally washed the air clean in September, he and his mother watched the feeder for visitors. It did seem to them that there were less birds now, except for the ever-cheery chickadees and some small groups of travellers passing through.

Christmas came and went, and on the last day of the holidays Simon was lying on his bed, thinking about nothing in particular. He studied the thin, finger-like branches of the birch tree outside his window at the foot of his bed.

Suddenly a bird appeared on a branch. Oh wow! Simon thought. A redpoll! He grabbed the canvas bag, took out the notebook and wrote the date and “redpoll, birch tree”. He thought he’d tell his mother right away.

Then he had an idea. And what an idea it was! He went to a table by the window and picked up his sketchbook and paint box.

The next morning, at six-thirty, Simon’s father came into his room to wake him for school. The bedroom window let in a soft light with a pinkish warmth to it. Simon’s father looked toward the window.

“What on earth?”

He sat down on one of Simon’s legs.

There, in the tree outside Simon’s window, were six birds, perched on branches and, in the background, one was flying, wings outspread, toward the tree.

Simon sat up. He backed up on the bed until he was sitting against the headboard. He looked toward the window and moved a bit to the right. He smiled.

“Come here Dad,” he said. “Sit exactly where I am.”

Simon moved over and his dad sat where Simon had been. When he looked at the window he could see that each bird was on a separate branch, it’s feet painted so that it appeared to be holding onto the branch. The birds were of different sizes and colours. Each bird was in a certain position, as if it had just landed on the branch and was looking about.

There was a junco, a redpoll, a pine siskin, an evening grosbeak, an upside down nuthatch on the trunk and of course a chickadee, looking in at the window.

The window birds were beautiful! Simon’s father was speechless.

Simon and his father studied the birds.

“Well Dad,” Simon said. “I just wanted to be sure that the birds would always be here.” ~ The Bird Window by Marianne Van Osch


The Real Cowboy

There are urban cowboys, movie cowboys and drugstore cowboys. Then there are real cowboys. Whenever Jay Houseman is mentioned, “Now there was a real cowboy!” is what anyone who knew him is sure to say.

Jeremiah Jay Houseman and his family, his father Harvey, his mother Clemmie and older brother Lorne, arrived in 100 Mile House on May 9, 1918. It had been a long trip from Oregon to the Cariboo.

Jay was only four years old at the time but he remembered a stretch of road that was buried in drifting sand. The Houseman outfit, which included a heavy wagon, a democrat driven by his mother and sixteen horses, became hopelessly bogged down in the sand. Jay recalled that “a big roan team” came along and pulled them out.

Farther along on the journey, the horses became snarled up in a cat’s cradle of lines.

“This big black mare was walking in front of the wagon,” he explained. “She was too slow and got tangled up in the leaders. The horses tore the rigging all to pieces before Pa got her out of there. Then she got back in with the wheelers and got straddling the wagon tongue!”

The Houseman outfit arrived in Ashcroft and from there, made its way to 83 Mile House, which was run by Jack Dubois. Several teams of horses were needed to pull the big wagon up the 83 Mile hill.

“The mud was so deep, the wagon just dragged through it like a sled,” Jay remembered.

The family settled on heavily timbered property on what is now Houseman Road.

“Ed Goodridge lived there and he showed my dad what was available. We stayed in a tent while my dad built a log house. When the sides were up he put split logs called puncheons on the roof and dirt on top.”

Harvey Houseman bought milk cows and grew grain on the farm. Jay told about getting hay for the cattle.

“In those days, if you found a swamp meadow you’d just go out with your mower and cut a swathe around it and it was yours.”

One summer, the two small brothers found themselves working like men.

“My dad was badly hurt in an accident,” Jay said. “We had most of the grain in but there was still hay to put up. Lorne and I were just toddlers. We were trying to hay by ourselves, but it was just too much for us. We’d be so tired, we’d sit down to rest and fall asleep. We were dozing one day and we woke up to see a big cloud of dust coming...ten wagons, people from all over! Well, our hay was up in no time!”

Jay attended school for a few years but work was always more important.

“They kicked me out in grade three because I had a mustache,” he like to say. “Actually, by the time I rode the eight miles to Forest Grove, sometimes at forty to fifty below, it took me from the time I got there until I started home to thaw out so I never learned much.”

At the age of eleven, Jay was hired by Lester McNeil during the winter to drive a six-horse freight wagon loaded with bales of hay from his ranch at Canim Lake to Exeter train station. Jay was so small that he needed help to harness the wheel team but he could harness the leaders.

“This side of Gateway, down in the hole there, you can see an old trail. We had a camp there we called Hotel Antone. Just a tarp over a pole. It’d be forty below. We’d spend the night and go on to Exeter and unload. On the way home we’d take our leaders off and they’d trail behind.”

That year Jay got involved in a horse race.

“I went over to Bates Road to see Oliver and Freddie Bates. Well, I had a fast mare and they had a fast mare so away we went. I was winning, went around a bend and my horse slipped on ice and down she went. Rolled on my leg and broke it.

My toe was twisted right around. I got back on her and rode home. Mother was a big, skookum woman. She held me down on the floor and Pa straightened my leg. He wrapped it in canvas and a soft wet rawhide on top of that and laced it. It was eleven months before I put foot to ground. It was fine, just a little crooked.”

Then there were dental problems.

“There was no dentist of course. Your teeth would get rotten and oh, they’d ache! Pa would get a piece of hay wire and put a sharp bend in the end. He’d heat it in the stove red-hot, then jam it into the hole in the tooth. The only thing you’d feel was when he left the wire in too long. It would kill the nerve and the tooth’d fall out. Same if you got a real bad cut, you just took a hot iron and seared it. You’d either do it or you’d be dead.”

When Jay was thirteen he fell through a lake as he was returning from a trap line. He described what happened.

“I had snowshoes and a pack on. I got my jackknife out of my pocket and cut handholds in the ice and gradually pulled myself out. I beat her for home. Then at home I was trying to get a fire going so I didn’t have time to soak my fingers in snow like I should’ve. My fingers turned black. My nails fell off. My toes, they tapped the floor like wood!”

That year he worked a ninety-mile trap line in the Timothy Mountain area with George Bothwick. He was supposed to work in exchange for lessons from Bothwick’s partner’s wife, a teacher. He would say later that he was gone most of the winter so the woman taught him nothing. Jay was a pragmatic fellow and noted that not getting paid for the winter’s work was the way it was meant to be.

Many men in the Cariboo hacked ties on contracts for the Great Pacific Eastern railway to earn some much-needed cash. Jay was very young when he started hacking ties.

“I can’t remember but I was darn young,” he said. “The ties were cut in the bush, skidded out to a landing, peeled and hauled to the station at Exeter in 100 Mile. I left home when I was fourteen and about that time, I got my own contract with the PGE. I hacked and hauled thousand of ties over the years, a lot out of the old Richards place in Forest Grove. They had to be summer cut. Got $175 for five hundred ties.”

Later Jay worked wherever he could.

“I cowboyed in the Chilcotin, rode for Chilko Ranch, the 100 Mile Ranch, the 105 and the Gang. I contracted hay for lots of ranches, put it up loose.”

As cattle ranches grew and spread across the Cariboo some ranchers began to complain about having to share range land with the hundreds of wild horses that roamed the country west of 100 Mile House.

“Some cow ranchers would squawk about the horses so the government put a bounty on them, $2 for a pair of ears. Hundreds of horses were slaughtered and the ears clipped.”

One time around 1949, Jay needed money badly. He rounded up a few horses. He planned to ship them to Vancouver to Dr. Ballard who had started a new business, buying horses to make canned dog food. Ballard said that he would pay only three-quarters of a cent per pound. Jay was furious. He traded the horses instead of dealing with Ballard.

“I broke some and sold them for $5. I never shipped a one. I’d trade two or three for a buggy or mower or something like a saddle, chaps, once for a jackknife.”

“There was this wild stud called Cariboo Red. Everyone in the country run that stud. Tommy Archie finally corralled him. Tommy was trying to put up the bars when that stud came right over the bars, kicked Tommy in the head and knocked an eye clean out.

“Cariboo Red was last seen running with three lasso ropes around his neck. So I decided to catch him. I went up to Holden Meadows. I found him and got him started. It was winter and hard going. I turned him, brought him back close to Holden. I switched horses and tracked him all night in the snow with a flashlight. He was trying to get to Dog Creek and down to the Fraser where there was no snow.

“He finally got wound up in some trees. I threw a hackamore on him, half-broke him to lead, and got him back to the corral. I tied him head and foot. Went I went out in the morning he was bashing his head on the corral. His head was that wide and he’d knocked his eyes out. I just walked to the house, got my rifle and shot him.”

Jay was stunned by what had happened. He got on his horse and rode away without looking back.

In 1934 when Jay was nineteen he married Molly West. They homesteaded in a cabin one mile above Sucker Lake north of 108 Mile house, “way out in the rhubarb”, Jay would say. On his wedding day he owned a saddle horse, two cows, a work horse and thirty-five cents.

The couple put up hay, worked at logging camps, freighted out of Heffley Creek and eventually bought some milk cows so they could ship cream on the PGE, as many homesteaders did. Much of the cream was spoiled when the cows ate too many wild onions. Jay trapped, shot squirrels and worked on road crews to pay their property taxes. Two girls, Doreen and Ramona, were born. The little girls worked as their father had from the time they were toddlers, helping on the farm and picking apples in Kamloops with Jay and Molly. When the girls were as young as eight and nine, they would go with their father on jobs away from home and cook for him and whoever was working with him, usually Art Collins. Later on two sons, Dwight and Bill were born.

In 1948 Jay was seriously hurt in a logging accident.

“I broke the same leg again. I was horse logging and rolled a log on it. It snapped like a rifle. I hobbled around and finished loading. Art told me to go home but I said I just sprained it.

“When I got home I called old Doc Avery in Williams Lake and he said he was too busy to see me. So the next morning I hobbled out to the car and headed for Kamloops with the wife and the girls.

“The roads were all rough. Our Model A Ford had end springs. The center bolt broke, the leaves worked out, and started hitting the wheels. I got into 70 Mile and no one was there. I drove down the road a ways. But that was it. Between me and the wife and kids we jacked the car up. I slid underneath, dragging my broken leg, and pounded those leaves into place. I was laying on my back with my feet sticking out, tightening the bolts.

“Near us, Dawson and Wade Construction was working on the road with scrapers and cats. Now Doreen had never seen scrapers before. She was watching them and walked right over the top of that broken leg. I pretty near came out through the top of the car!

“In Kamloops the doctor x-rayed it and said, ‘ You know there’s something I can’t understand. Your leg is broke clean off and right below it there’s another break, just the same, that’s all healed.’ He said a doctor couldn’t have done a better job than my dad did. Guys like my dad were good at setting arms, legs, what have you.”

In the 1930’s guiding for big game was becoming another way to earn money. Jay started a guiding business with Everett Greenlee around 1937 in the Cariboo Mountains area. He described how he became embroiled in a serious controversy regarding hunting regulations.

“There were one hundred and forty-seven guides in this area at the time,” he said. “When they opened up the cow moose season, we all fought it hammer and tong. Their reason was that there wasn’t enough feed for the cows. Well, I took three government biologists out and they agreed that there was lots of feed for the hundreds of moose around here. They promised there’d be no open season and they opened it three days later.

“The first time I went out I counted ten dead calves because those hunters didn’t know the difference. When moose moved into this area about ’24 they multiplied fast. Soon you could ride among them like a herd of cattle. Now we’ve got less and less. You don’t kill off your breeding stock. If you kill a cow, you kill a calf.”

When asked about caribou in earlier days Jay replied,

“When I was a kid there were lots of caribou. When they opened the Timothy Mountain area, they took one hundred and seventy-four bulls that I know of out of there and nobody did a darn thing! They were stripping the country by over killing!”

Whenever possible Jay dug for gold on the placer claims he held. He also did a lot of bronco busting, for himself and other people, and at rodeos.

“Jack Dubois at 83 Mile was an outstanding roper and rodeo rider,” Jay said.

“He taught me how to rodeo ride when I was about fourteen. Dubois said, ‘You have to know what your horse is going to do before he does it. You’re going to ride blindfolded!’ So that’s what I did. And if you reached for the saddle horn old Jack’d cut you over the hands so quick you’d think the saddle horn was hot.”

When Jay was around fourteen, he and his brother were spotted at a rodeo by a movie agent. Tall, handsome cowboys were often offered roles in a western film. But Lorne wouldn’t go to the States and Jay’s folks were reluctant to let him venture there on his own.

Jay’s many years of cowboying and ranching left him a battered man with a gimpy leg. His daughter-in-law, Sheryl Houseman, notes that Jay was still busting broncos well into his seventies.

“I don’t think I have more than two bones in my body that haven’t been broken,” he’d tell us. “My shoulder, my arms, my fingers, legs, elbow. But well, I always say anything you can’t do on horseback’s not worth doing!”

Jay continued to work with horses until he passed away in 1991, a real cowboy to the end. ~ The Real Cowboy by Marianne Van Osch


On Saving a Tree

This morning the hill at the top of the road, up by the old pioneer cemetery, seemed to loom over the rest of the road below. A steep knoll half way up the hill blocked any view of the white pickets of the cemetery gates, where the road ends. Tall evergreens with skirtloads of snow edged the road in a sparkling wall in the bright sun.

The climb to the top of the hill is a hard one, best done in stages. But once at the top, there is an immediate reward for having made the trek, a gorgeous view of the Canim Lake mountains in the distance. Then comes the ultimate reward, stamping back down the hill with a smug feeling of having gotten enough exercise for the day.

Today the sky was Cariboo blue with a frosty haze here and there. Deer tracks and little black dog tracks burst into small circles in the snow on the road. Ah, it was good to be out and about.

At the top of the knoll the road smoothes out into a gentle upward grade until it reaches the cemetery gates. Here a thin fir bent over the road, its small tip touching the dog tracks as if the tree was sniffing where the dog had been. The tree’s slender spine was bow-shaped under a load of heavy snow. I explained to the fir what I might be able to do to ease its painful situation.

My walking stick has a small crook at the top. This fit neatly under the tree’s delicate tip. A soft shake, a shower of snow into the hood of my coat, which I had forgotten to put up, and the tree began to straighten it’s back, as stiffly and slowly as an old man rising from a too-low chair. More shaking, more plops on my head, no problem, no hair shape to worry about, and the tree stretched its back a little further, inch by inch, until it was about a meter above my head.

Then I thought, well. If I throw my walking stick at the branches that were out of reach and still piled with snow, I’d be able to dislodge the clumps further up and speed up this process. Away went the stick. It flicked off a small clump of snow and continued to soar on high into the snowbank. It sank out of sight. It was supposed to have hit the tree and dropped back down.

I thought, well this will be easy. I’ll kneel on the side of the snowbank which was about four feet high and looked to be firmly-sculpted, with a lovely smooth crest at the top. From there, I’ll simply lean over as far as possible and reach into the snow, into that indentation where the stick had disappeared.

I knelt down on the side of the snowbank, my knees plummeted into soft, mushy snow and I shot head first into the bank as if someone had planted a good one on my rear portion.

The snowbank collapsed around me. And there was the stick, straight ahead, just out of reach. All I had to do was crawl in a bit further. Getting out would be a cinch. I’d probably left a pretty good trail behind me. So I’d back straight out.

I grabbed the stick and thought, I’ll use it to push myself up. I put a bit of weight on it, it snapped and I shot forward deeper into the bank. I wiped some snow off my face, struggled to my knees, put myself in reverse and backed up as gracefully as an amphibious troop carrier out onto the road, dragging the broken stick with me. The tree bent over me with a concerned look.

I just couldn’t leave without one last attempt to relieve some of the tree’s burden a bit more. If only I could knock off even one more clump of snow.

I wound up and fired the broken stick at the overhanging branches. Like a boomerang it fired itself right back at me and rapped me smartly on the top of the head. I turned my back on that ungrateful tree and headed down the hill, snow-covered, battered and wet.

Halfway down the knoll, I met the grader plowing its way up the hill. I turned to watch.

Sure enough, with the gentlest of nudges from the grader, all of the remaining snow slid off the fir’s back and the tree straightened up like a ballet dancer rising gracefully from a deep pliè. It trembled daintily and nodded softly in gratitude toward the kind grader operator. ~ On Saving a Tree by Marianne Van Osch


One Day in 1862 on the Cariboo Wagon Road

Darkness was closing in when Ben saw a tiny speck of light ahead. A cold rain had been pelting him and the horse since the morning, when they left Ashcroft to head north on the Cariboo Wagon Road.

Ben’s father had sent him down to Ashcroft on the BX stagecoach to pick up supplies and a new horse to bring back to his livery stable at 47 Mile, or Clinton, as it had recently been named, in honour of some military hero.

Well, after all, his father had said, Ben was fourteen and the new sign over the livery said, “J. Fuller and Son” and it was time Ben had some responsibilities.

Thunder rumbled behind the hills and lightning lit up the main roadhouse at Hat Creek Ranch as Ben and the horse rode into the enormous log barn. An old wrangler roused himself from a cot set up in the barn’s tack room. He helped Ben settle in the horse, and then shared a pot of stew and sludge-thick coffee with the boy. Rain pounded on the shakes on the roof of the barn as Ben fell asleep on his blanket in the loft.

As dawn spread a thin pink line on the horizon, Ben led the horse out of the barn into a splendid morning, fresh and cool and filled with the songs of birds in the cottonwoods and bushes that lined the road. He could hear the bright “kit, kit, kitterdot” of a tiny kingbird close by.

The horse stepped through a few deep puddles but most of the road was drying quickly, as things do after a rain in the Cariboo. Its hooves clicked on small loose stones.

The road followed the base of low hills that sharpened into bluffs stained a bright orange-red, where prospectors had washed away the topsoil in their search for gold.

After a short ride along the valley floor, the road climbed up a steep grade by a fast-moving creek that veered away to the right. Ben remembered that this odd, treacherous stretch of road was known as Maiden Creek Hill.

When he had been on his way south to Ashcroft yesterday morning, when the BX coach had reached the hill, everyone had to get out and walk ahead of the coach as it crawled up the steep, almost-vertical grade. Men had scrambled to put rocks behind the coach wheels as it was pulled foot by foot up the switchbacks by the struggling horses.

This time it was just Ben and the horse and they were coming down that steep grade. Ben let the horse pick a slow, side to side path. A small cloud of dust and skittering stones followed the horse’s feet.

At the bottom of the hill willows and poplars spread a green roof. How cool and peaceful it felt. Ben tied the horse beside the creek below the road, where there was a patch of grass. He sat with his back against a tree in the warm sun.

“It’s really nice here,” Ben thought. Birds flitted above his head. He recognized the song of a yellow warbler, a merry “see, see, see”. Another warbler joined in.

Suddenly Ben realized that he was hearing another sound, a strange sort of thudding. Scrape. Thud. He recognized the creak of heavy packs. The thudding and scraping grew louder. Men shouted. Ben jumped to his feet.

An amazing sight appeared at the top of the hill above him. A man was holding a rope tied to a long snout turned upwards at the front of a huge, furry head. The mass of fur ran right down the animal’s chest. As it moved slowly forward Ben could see that it had short strong forelegs ending in wide, splayed-out feet. Two thick bumps rose from its back and its rear end was as narrow as a horse’s.

The man led the animal slowly down the hill. Two more of the strange creatures came over the crest of the hill.

Camels! These were camels! Ben had heard about them but this was the first time he had seen them.

Men at the livery stable had talked about how this teamster named Frank Laumeister had bought twenty-three of the two-humped camels to carry freight on the Cariboo Wagon Road. The Victoria paper told how the camels, called Bactrian camels, came from Arizona to Victoria and then rode on a paddlewheel steamboat up the Fraser River.

Word was that it was a foolish idea and would never work. His dad said the camels were ships of the desert, for heaven’s sakes! They were soft-footed and used to a warm climate. Besides, if they met horses on the road the horses went berserk at the unfamiliar smell and shape of the camels.

Suddenly Ben’s horse caught the camels’ scent. He reared up, wild-eyed, slashing his hooves in panic. Ben could do nothing but stare, open-mouthed as the odd procession passed by on the road above them. The men leading the camels never looked their way. Later, he saw where they had turned off to the left on a side trail.

In the last part of the evening, when nothing is left of sunlight but a few bright trees high on the mountain sides, Ben and the horse came down the hill into Clinton. Lamps burned in parlors here and there, The sound of the metal triangle by the roadhouse door being rung by the cook announced that dinner was being served. Ben heard the soft notes of a piano being played somewhere nearby.

His father was leading a team of freight horses into the livery. Other teams waited, shuffling tired feet in the dust of the street.

Ben and the horse turned into the stable, under the sign that said he was now a partner in an important business. Yep, he was a man now and had a story to tell, just like the other fellows. ~ One Day in 1862 on the Cariboo Wagon Road by Marianne Van Osch


A Cabin Boy and a Big Ditch

Along the northern shore of Lake Erie there once was a world as intriguing to the children who lived there, as full of adventure as any Middle Earth kingdom.

Within a narrow strip of land along the lake lie several different types of terrain. On the north edge of the strip, small fields of old farmland and woodlots that are remnants of Carolinian forests slope toward a low, wet area that ends in sand dunes. The dunes form a barrier between the wetlands and the lake.

Point Abino Road passes through the mix of fields, bush and marsh. South of Michener Road, beginning at the Page homestead, the road slants down into the wetlands. That gentle descent is barely discernible, but to us, it was The Hill. And from there on it was our territory, a swampy stretch of the great unknown. Tall trees spread leafy crowns over water that covered their roots for much of the year.

In the spring the swamp was an incredible sight. Marsh marigolds covered the water. They were so brilliant, so gold that they actually shone in the sunlight that sifted through the branches above.

Our house, like the others in the assortment of buildings that were once a summer colony, was perched on truckloads of sand that had been leveled off. It had been a two-room cabin used as a change house for swimming parties from Buffalo. It grew and improved slowly with the years, through Insul-Brick on the outside to shingle siding. The interior walls were Tentest (we called it), a soft wallboard that resembled pressed sawdust.

My earliest memory is of someone handing me to my brother Larry in a rowboat. We had to leave the house during a flood. After that more sand was brought in and a better foundation built. I remember Larry and I raking the sand clear of twigs and other debris when we were expecting company. An early version of lawn care.

The yards around the eight or so homes and the cottages of a handful of summer people were generally just a bit larger than the structures themselves. Their lawns were always soggy so grass grew soft and thick. A deep ditch ran along the road in front of our house and provided endless entertainment. There were plenty of kids to fall in the ditch and to work on rafts that wouldn’t float. We skated on the ditch and among the trees across the road.

In the spring, our attention centred on the fringes of the swamp, tadpoles, frogs and such. In the summer, when it dried up enough let us in for a short distance, Tarzan and trails took over. All of this happened despite the abundance of snakes of many kinds, a story in themselves.


Along the northern edge of the swamp a large drainage ditch had been dug, long before our time. The ditch was ten to fifteen feet wide and at least four feet deep in the early spring, after the winter runoff in our heavy snowfall part of Ontario. The current was strong at that time. The bottom was a thick, rubber boot-grabbing slick of black mud. Whatever the reason for its existence, it was simply The Big Ditch to all of us kids, as important and as wild as any river we had ever heard of. Everyone had crazy adventures there, especially the boys. They thought they were invincible so some of their stories could have had disastrous endings. There must have been a ditch god watching over their daredevil antics.

Deep in the trees and impenetrable swamp behind our little settlement, the ditch turned in a right angle away from the fields and headed on through the swamp to its outflow on Lake Erie where the Abino Hills Road begins.

As well as draining farmland, another reason the ditch may have been dug was in an attempt to drain water from the land in back of the summer homes along Point Abino Road. Many of them were large estates. One had a full-sized racetrack down below the main buildings. It was a true wetland area. My Aunt Florence Foreman used to tell of gathering cranberries in a bog back there, scooping them up in a wicker tray.

To get to the Big Ditch, we followed a gravel road next to our house, Wildwood Road, for a short distance. The road became two ruts, overgrown with tall weeds, edged by tangled bushes and unpredictable hummocks. It ended at the ditch.

Now when we reached the ditch the tall grass was flattened along the bank. This spot had kids written all over it. To the left a well-used path hung on the edge of the bank, several feet above the water. The Big Boys had machetes, well, they had long knives that they called machetes. They hacked and splintered away at spindly growth along the path.

We liked to run at top speed along the bank. At one point, there was no path. A narrow side stream had eaten away the bank. Well, that was exciting. You had to hang onto anything you could grab and swing over this chasm of two or three feet.

Further along the path opened into a small clearing, with a bench overlooking the water. Once in a long while there would be a most interesting-looking person sitting there on his perch on a fallen tree. He was very thin, with neatly trimmed white hair and a full moustache. He always wore long underwear, year round, and suspenders to hold up his pants. A pipe with a curve was close at hand. His eyes smiled and we felt comfortable. We knew he was glad to see us.

This was Jack St. Clair and he was as fascinating as an old man could be. Sometimes he would tell us how he had run away from home at the age of ten to work as a cabin boy on a sailing ship. Rounding the Horn and storms that blew them into faraway seas. Shipwrecks and islands and bales of tea in far eastern ports. His stories may have been short and rather offhand but we had read The Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island. It was all real to us.

Jack used a stick for balance when he walked. I remember following him along a shaggy path that led from the Big Ditch to his house. And once when we walked by his weed-covered garden patch, he showed us something still growing there. At one time the garden must have flourished, nourished by the richness of the soil.

The house was four doors from us along Point Abino Road. It was set well back from the road by a long driveway raised above low, wet land. The house was gable-roofed. The shingled walls shone a warm dark brown in the sun that always seems to shine in childhood memories.

It was dark inside and cluttered. A bed was built into one wall. Now the great thing about this bed was that it was carved with figures and ships and palm trees and words that you could barely make out in the shadows.

Jack was a woodcarver. He built models of ships he had sailed on, large models, with the most amazing attention to details. Miniature pulleys, so tiny and yet they worked. Cabins, portholes, hatches, lifeboats. The wood was finished in a varnish that gave each piece a smooth, burnished tone. The ships’ sails were perfect, a well-worn beige and cream colour. We bent over the ships and studied everything as only children can, with imagination and wonder.

A table piled with sketches and books and carving tools, dusty with wood shavings, stood by the door. There were shelves, perhaps a china cabinet. On one shelf were several pieces of the finest, most transparent bone china I’ve ever seen, cups and saucers and plates. I remember an Oriental pattern, orange with gold. Jack let us hold a piece to feel how thin it was. We never heard of a wife or family, except for one time when I overheard a reference to a niece when my mother and father were talking.

Jack’s kitchen was of no interest to us although I do remember him making tea for us once. Sometimes he would have a few candies to share, hard fruit drops that someone had brought him.

Jack had other souvenirs from his travels but they were generally just part of the background to us. However, there was a certain souvenir that Jack seemed to feel was really important. I saw it only once and that was more than enough.

On a dresser in his bedroom was a wooden box.

“Take a look,” he said. “I’ve had that since I was a lad.”

There in the box among a few buttons and coins was a blackened, wrinkled little hand covered with patches of hair.

“Go ahead, pick it up. It’s a monkey’s paw.”

I couldn’t touch it.

My dad, Ed Buck, kept an eye on Old Jack, as he was called. He liked to stop by and check up on him. In 1953 a fire damaged Jack’s home. A neighbour took him in. My dad and other neighbours restored the house, putting on a new roof and chimneys. I remember my dad telling about laying a new floor, a bright linoleum that delighted Jack after he returned home on his ninety-eighth birthday.

A group photo taken in 1953 records the event. The men in the background had worked on the house: John Hutchings, Jay Adams, Alfred (Tuffy) Jackson and on the right, my father Ed Buck. The man in the front on the left is Peter Andrews, a reporter for a Buffalo newspaper. The other people are Americans who had taken an interest in Jack.

Jack St. Clair

Eventually Jack needed help to get by. My mom, Theresa, would send one of us over in the morning with a container of oatmeal, kept warm in a towel. After supper, my dad would take a plate of food to him. I imagine other neighbours did the same.

Mom decided that I should go over and tidy up Jack’s house. Maybe I should do that once in a while on a Saturday morning, she said. I was probably twelve at the time. So I did. There wasn’t much I could do with the clutter of the house. Old Jack wouldn’t have liked me to move things around anyway.

One time my friend Phyllis Cooper came along. I remember wanting to make him a cup of tea and there was none that I could find. Jack was sitting at the table in his longjohns. He spoke a little to us but seemed lost in his thoughts. I gathered up a small pile of laundry and we left him, still at the table.

Within a few years, Jack and my father both passed away. Jack was over a hundred years old. Eventually Tony Misetich bought Jack’s home. He and his wife Millie were gardeners for several summer families. Together they turned the property into a lovely place of neat lawns and gardens.

All that I have left of Jack is two photos and a pair of carved pulleys. The pulleys are about two inches long. They appear to be walnut and are bigger than the ones he carved for his model ships. The pulleys turn on wooden pegs. These may have been made when he was older and was always carving something at his table.

Tackle Block

I did have a beautiful rowboat, about three inches long, that was perfect in every detail. Regrettably, it was probably lost in a move. As for Jack’s splendid sailing ships, they may have been sold or given to people. It would be interesting to find out where they sailed off to.

Jack St. Clair

I took the photos of Jack with my first camera. One shows him sitting on a tree at the Big Ditch. In the other photo, he is standing by a clump of flowers that he admired. I remember their lovely, strong scent.

And those are my memories of a unique old man, his stories of a life full of adventures that spurred our imaginations, a swamp that is now almost gone, and a Big Ditch that may or may not be exactly the way it seemed. ~ A Cabin Boy and a Big Ditch by Marianne Van Osch

© 2011 Site design by