Today, for your Daily Dose of History: a chance to imagine what life was like for the early settlers of the Creston Valley – especially the women. What would your life be like, in Creston, in 1912? Any family stories to share? join the conversation in the comments!
I have spent a lot of time lately researching local women, for a variety of presentations and displays. I’m now at the point where I make special note of any photograph, newspaper reference, or long-timer story that gives some interesting detail about a local lady.
One such photograph that caught my attention shows a young woman atop a ladder, picking apples. She is beautifully dressed, in the flounced-and-frilled style of the late Edwardian period. Her only concessions to her hard physical work are her rolled-up sleeves and a dark apron over her white gown. She’s smiling directly at the camera – she seems, above all, happy with where she is and what she’s doing.
She strikes me as someone I’d like to know more about.
A note on the back of the photo identifies her as Mrs. Collis – Winifred Mary Collis, to be specific, married to Arthur Collis who had a fruit ranch in Alice Siding. A quick search for her obituary reveals that she died, at the age of 86, in a terrible accident. That tragedy seems to have overshadowed everything else about her; the obituary merely states that she was born in England, came to Creston, and had a large family. But the smiling woman in the photograph must have had a much greater story to tell.
For one thing, I think she must have been a woman of considerable courage and determination. She and her husband came to Creston from England in August 1912, with four-and-a-half-year-old twin children, and carved their ranch out of the wilderness. That, in itself, would have been a daunting task.
In England, Arthur was a music professor and organist; Winifred had done some teaching. When immigration officials asked if they had ever worked as a farmer or farm labourer, both said no. Upon their arrival in Canada, they specifically gave their destination as Creston, which suggests they had a particular reason for coming here. Perhaps they had friends or family members here; perhaps they had seen one of the many advertisements for Creston that were published in England. Either way, they must have been well aware that Creston was a farming community before they arrived – and yet, despite their lack of farming experience, they came here to farm.
At least they didn’t buy their property sight-unseen, as so many others did. Arthur and Winifred visited Creston in May 1912. They bought their property, then returned to England, gathered up the children, and set sail again for Canada, arriving in Creston in mid- to late-August that same year.
While we’re speaking of Winifred’s courage, I think it worth noting that they arrived in Canada the first time on April 13, 1912. Two days later, the world was rocked by the news of the Titanic. That sinking would have shaken anyone’s confidence in the safety of trans-Atlantic travel, and certainly in the White Star company which owned the Titanic. But, less than two months later, the Collis’ boarded another ship of the White Star line, Laurentic, to return to England, then crossed the Atlantic on her again to take up their new venture in Creston.
I find myself wondering what could prompt Arthur and Winifred to make such a dramatic change. It almost certainly wasn’t poverty in England and the hope for something better in a new country. On their first voyage, they travelled first class, and the Creston Review’s announcement of their purchase of the Alice Siding property suggests they paid rather a higher price than average for it. Perhaps they sought a small, quiet community in contrast to their village of Pinner which, by 1912, had become a suburb of London and whose population had doubled in the previous decade. If, like many early settlers, they wished for a farm of their own, this would have been much more achievable in Creston than Pinner, where farmland was being rapidly sold off to meet the demand for housing for the growing number of commuters who worked in London, and London residents who wanted a house in the country.
Whatever their motivation, they threw themselves into the ranching life, and appear to have succeeded quite well. By 1920, they had six-and-a-half acres planted to apple orchard with a few cherries, plums, and pears mixed in, and were raising good-sized crops of strawberries and black currants between the rows of well-tended trees.
And what would Mrs. Collis have been doing on the ranch? We know from the three photographs we have of her that she didn’t shy away from farm work. She probably helped clear the land; one of the photos shows her driving a horse and plough; she helped harvest the fruit; and possibly pruned and fertilised and watered the fruit trees, too.
A map of the ranch, dated 1916, shows a kitchen garden; here, Winifred would have raised vegetables for her family. There was an extensive lawn, and she would have tended it and any flowerbeds. We know she worked with the ranch’s horses, and undoubtedly spent time grooming and feeding them in the stable behind the house. There was a small packing shed attached to the barns, where Winifred would have packed the fruit into boxes and crates for shipping to market.
This is in addition to her roles as wife, mother, and housekeeper. She would have taken care of the house, and cooked for her family and any farmhands they may have hired. Any produce from the garden, or fruit from the orchards, that couldn’t be sold or eaten immediately, was canned for use over the winter. She’d have made, mended, and washed clothes; knitted socks and mittens; ironed and starched sheets and tablecloths. She did all this while raising four children: the two eldest, Jeffery and Marion, who had accompanied her from England, and George and Dorothy, born in 1916 and 1917 respectively.
Certainly, hers would not have been an easy life. But, if we can judge from her photographs, she loved every minute of it.